A couple of nights ago, I took my daughter to Chuck-E-Cheese, a tradition of ours when her other mother is out of town. We play skee-ball to win long rows of tickets that we later exchange for plastic toys and stickers. We play — it’s our way of lessening how much we miss the Mom who’s not with us.
This particular evening something besides the blinking lights of games caught my eye, though.
A group of women in hijabs had gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of their children. They chatted and smiled and boxed away the balloons that kept floating into their faces. Laughter came from their table quite frequently.
This isn’t an unusual sight in our area of Denver, Colo. We interact with women in hijabs and men in galabiyyas in restaurants, at museums, in the park, at the grocery story and in my daughter’s school. We are neighbors; we share community.
On that night, though, these women stood out for a single reason: Najibullah Zazi had just been arrested here on federal terrorism charges.
My mind raced: Did those women know him, that man accused of conspiring to set off bombs in New York on the anniversary of 9/11? Could one of those women be his wife? Could one of those children be his child? “Fear! Disgust!” That’s what my brain said to me.
I’m not proud of these thoughts, these automatic connections I made between a group of Muslim women happily celebrating a child’s birthday and an accused terrorist. And yet, my mind made them. It was an implicit response. And it was bigoted.
Judging by the behavior of other Chuck-E-Cheese patrons that night, I wasn’t the only one passing judgment. The place was packed — yet every table around these women remained vacant, two rows deep. No one — not a single soul — sat next to them.
Neither did we. I’m not proud of that, either.
In all honesty, my child didn’t notice any of this. She was fixated on skee-ball — getting that little wooden ball up into the hole worth 100,000 points — and feisty with her mother for serving her a heaping salad alongside a single slice of pizza.
But I noticed it all, my own reactions and the reactions of others. And I know that’s why my daughter and I read My Name Is Bilal as our bedtime story that night. Certainly, it was an effort to soothe my conscience, but it also was a small step toward creating the possibility that my daughter, faced with a similar situation at my age, might have a different response.
Perhaps she, when grown, might ask for a seat, share in their laughter, honor their resilience — and celebrate a child’s birthday.