Growing Up Muslim in College Park
Life in the shadow of 9/11
Sarah Kajani had just started her freshman year of high school when the terrorist-hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers. As if adolescence were not agonizing enough for a Muslim girl in Peachtree City. “Suddenly all eyes were on us, so for a couple of years, my Indian family and I kept the outward signs of our religion—our prayers, our customary dress, henna tattoos—low-key,” she says. “There was this feeling in the air that we all should apologize. My cousin was thrown out of the Dairy Queen.”
In the decade since those attacks, Kajani has wrestled with issues of dual identity usually reserved for the uprooted exile, despite her origins in College Park. “I used to be called an ABCD, slang for American-Born, Confused Desi.” (Desi
is a term referring to the people, culture, and countries of the Indian subcontinent.)
Kajani and four other women with ties to Georgia are among those who have written about their singular growing pains—and triumphs—in I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, an anthology of personal essays by forty women under the age of forty, coedited by CNN producer Maria Ebrahimji and Chicago writer Zahra Suratwala. Contributors include a Georgia Tech student who researched terrorist recruitment in Dubai, and a Harvard-educated Lawrenceville native at work on a novel.
Since these women’s faith was thrown into the national spotlight, they have mused on the vaunted civility of their “city too busy to hate.” For its estimated 75,000 Muslim residents, does Atlanta still merit that sixties-era slogan for practicality-minded manners and multi-culti cosmopolitanism?
“Personally I felt a great sense of solidarity among everyone immediately after those events,” recalls Ebrahimji, who grew up in Toccoa. “Atlanta is a tolerant, diverse city with a lot of Muslims in prominent leadership roles—the CEO of Coca-Cola is Turkish American.”
However, tensions recently have simmered in some quarters, she says, noting the controversy surrounding an Atlanta weight lifter competing in Olympic events while wearing her hijab.
“We all wonder, ‘Why now?’” Ebrahimji says. “Why are people in Murfreesboro [Tennessee], which could be any town in Georgia, so angry about a mosque when Muslims have been practicing in their midst for decades? I think it’s partly because American Muslims of my generation—one of the book’s writers was born on September 11—are coming of age and becoming more public and emboldened in exercising our basic rights as Americans. We were born here; we’re your neighbors! So now other people are pushing back. Those dynamics, faced by African Americans and Jews and others, are normal push-pull tensions in society that, with education, eventually settle down.”
Today Kajani says she faces more benign inquiries—twists on the quintessentially Southern “Who are your people, dear?”—than taunts. “People ask a lot of questions,” she says, “which is good. It’s a sign of Atlanta’s growth that people are curious, that we are in the process of this ongoing dialogue. Is the city too busy to hate? I would say . . . uh, for the most part, yes. It has gotten better over the last ten years.”
Photograph by Neda Abghari