As I was scrolling the news one August day, my attention was drawn to an article recounting the story of a woman wearing a niqab who was ejected from a bus in the Netherlands, a country that enacted a partial ban on the full veil. The prohibition mitigates security fears in places where concealed identity is consequential to the safety of others. Angela Kempeners rode the bus in her normal niqab thrice before this incident; three times, the drivers allowed her to get on the bus. But the fourth time, the driver didn’t. She compares this incident to being “a black person in the USA.” Whether one agrees with that assessment or not, her experience of discrimination nonetheless falls in comparison to what I had to endure in the country holding her faith’s holiest city, Saudi Arabia.
My family are Eastern Orthodox Christians from Syria. My father graduated from medical school in the early 1990s only to find himself unemployed in a nepotistic regime. With a bleak future in Syria, he left for nearby Saudi Arabia, a place he knew little about but a country many thought of as rich in opportunities for Arabic-speaking doctors. My mother gave birth to me there in 1998. My parents soon faced an unexpected dilemma. My mother opted to give me a western name, such as Peter or Michael. But my father feared the repercussions a Christian name would provoke in Saudi society. So they agreed on an Islamic Arab name, Rashid, that didn’t betray my religious identity. They used the same subterfuge when they named my younger sisters. It didn’t help. I spent the first fourteen years of my life there as a complete outcast, despite my acceptable name.
My sisters and I spent most of our childhood in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Our family’s social network consisted of other Orthodox Christians from our natal Syrian village. This was the tight-knit, secretive group we celebrated Christmas with—if you can call our furtive gatherings a celebration—and who we relied on when Saudi society oppressed us.
As second-class aliens, my family lived in an apartment building owned by my father’s employer, a large hospital. Our neighbors held positions as doctors or administrative officers. In that very apartment complex I had my first experience with the strict religious exclusion so integral to Islamic Saudi society. At the age of six, I was resting in our apartment just as my father was completing his shift at the hospital. Out of sheer boredom I sought out another child to play with. I immediately thought of the two older boys living above us since we had spent some time together in the past. I excitedly knocked on their door, and one of the kids opened it quickly. I asked him if he’d like to spend time together. He refused to open the door all the way and instead hissed through the crack, “I can’t; you’re a kafir.” This was the first time I had heard such bigoted slander. I was clueless as to its meaning or deeper connotation. I raced back home, perplexed and embarrassed. I asked my mother what a kafir was. Her eyes narrowed and her face turned red as she explained our lowly status as undesirables among Saudi Muslims. Sadly, that vignette replayed itself on a never-ending loop throughout my childhood. Every time I met new kids in our building—home turf being the only safe place for a child to go in Saudi Arabia—they would abruptly stop talking shortly thereafter. My sister’s friends constantly disparaged her Christian identity. One precocious girl told her that God would immediately send her to hell after she died because of her faith.
At each grade in every Saudi school, two weekly periods were assigned for a class called Shareia, a word derived from its close relative, Sharia. Shareia involved the teachings of the Koran as well as the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Christians were not allowed to opt out. After a series of arguments with my teachers, my father was able to convince the school principal to allow us to go to the playground when that class was in session. But, on blistering hot days, it was still preferable to stay inside and expose myself to the religious brainwashing and anti-Christian attacks rather than the 130-degree heat.
During those sessions, the instructor would read from scripture that referred to Jews and Christians as “People of the Book.” In the West, we are taught that this is a phrase that denotes mutual respect. But whenever the instructor would utter that phrase, my classmates would turn my direction and sneer. Just in case I hadn’t gotten the message from my disdainful cohort, the teacher would describe the nightmarish environment of hell in which the “People of the Book” perish. He would regale us with apocryphal stories of worthy Muslims who converted a Jew or Christian to Islam. These recitations contained implicit orders for my classmates to attempt to “save” me.
During lunch break in third grade, a friend took our teacher’s advice and started his persuasion campaign by asking, “Do you want to go to heaven?” My parents had been warning me about efforts of this sort before I received that question—a precaution Christian parents must take when raising their children in Saudi Arabia—so I was well-prepared to peacefully dodge it. Unfortunately, they didn’t teach me the technicalities of conversion itself.
For someone to become a Muslim, he needs to verbalize the Shahada: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In fifth grade, another classmate of mine came up to me and said, “Can you just say the following phrase?” referring to Shahada. I didn’t know the significance of the statement, so I decided to say it aloud to fulfill what I assumed was a silly playground request. After I finished, I heard other kids cheering as that classmate pronounced, “You’ve become a Muslim!” I remember being scared and asking my mother when I arrived home what the whole experience meant and if I’d become a Muslim even though I didn’t want to. She reassured me, “It doesn’t matter. Faith can be only changed by the heart.”
My mother, like all women in Saudi society, suffered more than her fair share of Islamic oppression. She moved to Riyadh in her late 20s and has been dealing with depression ever since. Even today, when she talks about her experience there, her eyes fill with irritation and fury for the indignities she suffered, both as a Christian and as a woman. While her siblings were scattered across Europe, she had to deal with the most repulsive card of fate that was handed to her family: Spending 14 years in a country that despised her on several counts: as a Syrian, a Christian, a mother of kafirs, and as a woman.
Her second trip to Syria encapsulated her nightmarish existence. Our family lived in an undeveloped southern Saudi village at the time. The nearest airport was located in Jeddah, six hours away by car. I was only a few months old and my mother wanted to introduce me to my extended family in Syria for the first time. We boarded the bus to Jeddah to catch a flight to Damascus. My parents, naïve to the strictures of Saudi society, overlooked the fact Mecca lies between our point of departure and Jeddah. As our bus arrived outside that holiest city of Islam, a group of policemen boarded the bus and rudely demanded every passenger’s Saudi identification. As Christians, we had brown cards, while Muslims had green ones. When the policemen saw my mother’s brown card, they forced her off the bus while yelling that Christians are not allowed in Mecca. We were stranded in the desert for hours until another bus driver reluctantly agreed to pick us up.
Even after my family became less alarmed by the ultra-conservative society, my mother still had to suffer being ostracized by many of our neighbors just because of her Christian faith. When we first moved into the apartment building in Riyadh, she befriended a woman on our floor. But, like the children my sisters and I had to endure at school, that small-minded woman suddenly stopped talking to my mother one day. Her children, who were my siblings’ age, also stopped playing with us. As my mother later found out, the woman had formed a religious committee to classify residents as either “faithful” or “infidels.” Only the former could be included in societal interactions, while the latter must be avoided at all costs. The woman was so punctilious in obeying her own rules that whenever our apartment door was open, she would take a longer route just to avoid any possible contact with us unbelievers.
My mother suffered for her gender as well as her religion. She was prohibited from driving until she was in her 40s, and only after she left Saudi Arabia. To appease the modesty police, she had to wear a long, form-concealing robe, called an abaya, everywhere she went. In Saudi society, a woman’s hair must be covered whenever she’s outside her house.
My mother’s unhappiness and rebellious spirit compelled her once to go to a mall without a hijab. My father and sisters were also present for that minimal act of protest. When we arrived, my sisters went with my father and I went with my mother, who was bareheaded—a sin tantamount to full frontal nudity in Saudi Arabia. I wanted a new toy and demanded that we stop at the first toy shop we see. As we entered the store, we were stopped by a member of the religious police, who are called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or more simply, Al-Hayya. The religious officer, aghast at the sight of my mother’s head, repeatedly barked: “Where is your husband! Cover your hair, woman!” until my father arrived. He then started lecturing my father about the virtues of Islam and how women should not walk on their own and how they should always wear a hijab. He issued my father a ticket for the incident, one that required him to visit the office of the Committee and to sign a pledge not to allow his wife to go out on her own without a hijab again. When my father fulfilled the absurd request the next day, he was given a tape cassette, which he also had to pledge to listen to.
The incident scarred my mother. She was so scared that a year later when my sister got sick, my mother decided not to take her to the hospital out of fear of the religious police.
The absurdities knew no bounds in Saudi Arabia. Even sports jerseys had to be redesigned if they carried any connections to religions other than Islam. Growing up, I loved soccer and lived for the World Cup. In 2006, the Brazilian national team had some of the greatest players in history; I was so absolutely mesmerized by one of them that I asked my father to buy me his jersey. We went to the official Nike store next to our building and looked for the jersey everywhere; we couldn’t find it. My father asked the salesman if they had any. He then led us to a small, hidden aisle where the Brazilian shirt was hanging next to some other ones, including the Spanish club FC Barcelona. The Brazilian shirt was there, but the team’s logo was altered to erase what might’ve looked like a Christian cross. Even with the Spanish club, which has a small cross like the one on the English flag, the jersey was edited to mask the symbol.
To escape from the societal prison that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I chose to attend an urban American university. I sometimes hear other college students complaining how innocuous events are in fact manifestations of American Islamophobia. I read and hear inflammatory, hypocritical nonsense from Muslim activists here such as Linda Sarsour.
Whether they realize it or not, these firebrands live in a society that allows them to express what they think, that doesn’t identify them as outsiders on a national ID, or which kicks them off buses in the middle of nowhere when they pass by a church. American society, unlike Saudi society, does not prohibit them from expressing their faith, whether through wearing hijabs, burqas, or abbayas, or in attending mosques. American society, unlike Saudi society, doesn’t force them to celebrate Ramadan in secret or else be whipped on the streets. American society, unlike Saudi society, is not built on a religious extremism that forces everyone to follow the same faith or place innumerable societal layers between men and women.
Linda Sarsour and her ilk should talk to my mother—if they would deign to speak to a Christian. If Sarsour lived in the area that she so proudly defends, her status as a lowly, untouchable woman would prohibit her from even voicing her political concerns aloud, whether she considered her hijab a power symbol or not. My family’s experience as outcasts in a Muslim theocracy taught me how much worse Saudi Christophobia is compared to the fever dreams of American Islamophobia projected by Muslim activists. As we say back home, “Before pointing your hand, make sure it’s clean.”