When it was time to return to school after a long Chicago summer, my mom would have the same ritual: she’d have my brother and me walk underneath a small, old Koran as she wished us safety in our day. That same pretty book would come out and rest on the Persian New Year sofreh. Often, we’d hear my parents say “khoda.” We heard them recite the beginning of the fatiha when we closed the car door and got ready to drive for the first time. But I didn’t learn about religion growing up.
Our culture carries religious elements, but like so many immigrants who left Iran during the time of the revolution, my parents were not exceptional to their distaste for religion and how it can be warped. Instead of religion, they taught me morality and consequence, and none of it was backed up with stories from a holy book. Fear and love that motivated them gave Soheyl and me enough to balance our moral compass. But as I get older, I feel pressure to have my faith more defined.
I’ve always felt something greater than us is out there. I believe in God, and after Layla was born, I remember telling Kal that if anyone wants to believe in such beauty, he or she can see it in the birth of a child; it’s utterly fantastical. Believing in God doesn’t fix an insecurity I have, though: my connection to religion is dubious and murky, like walking up close to a rippling lake, sunlit and energetic, and finding mud and sediment in the water at the shoreline. It invites you with beauty and then leaves you wondering if you should put your feet in.
I’ve had no religious classes, and my attempts at reading the Koran leave me both intrigued and confused. I feel it would have been easier to believe in the stories if I had learned them as a child. I’m too skeptical, too literal now. I’ve taught literature for 10 years and live in the world of figurative. I see how words give soul to material things, and yet reducing religious stories down to the didactic still isn’t enough for me; the details just don’t penetrate–not palpable through my thickened walls.
On the other hand in our family, Kal grew up in a household with religion, but not really a religious household. He wants at least the bare minimum for the kids—for them to believe in God and regard themselves as Muslim. He grew up knowing what to do after someone died, the mourning period and the washing ritual. His mom who once wore bold designer sunglasses and had long dark hair that grazed her waist since Kal can remember eventually covered in deference after his dad passed away, and since she has since completed the pilgrimage and devoted her life to charity. He lived in a predominately Muslim country for half his life. Even though he attended private Catholic schools, he came home to a Muslim family.
Kids complicate your beliefs though. They don’t let you just be in your mind about them.
We’ve had to figure out a good way to marry my background with his. A year ago, through a connection with an awesome non-profit cultural center, we found out about a grass-roots deen, religion, program run by a few good-natured women. The class felt like it was a natural response to a question I didn’t know how to answer: how do I expose my children to religion when I find myself squirming talking about “absolutes.” Like us, a range of parents–intellectuals, professors, and doctors, all of whom have probably had their own version of skepticism, some possibly aligned in, “let’s try to do this and see how this goes so we don’t regret it later”–drop off their kids and hope for the best.
Sometimes after class, it’s interesting to hear my kids ask questions like, “Mommy, did you know there is only one God?” It makes me so happy that they’re learning and that they’ll have a place to seek if their souls are troubled and a place where they can share their gratitude. But when they ask, “Mommy, did you know God made Adam?,” I squirm again, thrust into a conversation riddled with insecurity.
I didn’t enter into a mosque for the first time until I was in my 20s for my relative’s wedding. I had to Google customs and rules so that I wouldn’t mess up and make a fool of myself. Also, I wanted to own up to something I should have known more about. I’ve worn the hair, the eyes, the skin tone, the empathy, and the culture of someone who should already know this stuff, but I didn’t. And I still don’t, not in the way people expect that I would, especially in the South. I don’t want my kids to have a similar ambiguous foundation–to say you’re one thing but not really know what that thing is.
On Christmas Day, we had Chinese Christmas with my Jewish friend at Waffle House with giddy kids and warm syrup; when the His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama visited Georgia Tech, my Buddhist friend and I lined up in a mile-long line to hear him speak; when a young Imam spoke to students at my high school about Islam, I sat in the student desks and raise my hands alongside them; when my sikh friend talks about taking her Christian-Sikh kids to temple, I’m intrigued by her story and how she balances it. The beauty of deference, good thoughts, goodwill, patience, and understanding is what I find relatable. I want my kids to be inclusive and confident alongside all these positive pillars.
Every night after I read my kids the fatiha before bedtime, the only verse I truly know, I kiss their foreheads and add without exception, “May you always have an open heart and an open mind.” This is my balance and my belief; to be good is also to be open, always open. I just want my kids to be good, educated human beings. Alongside that, I need them to have inquisitive minds who make up their own opinions. I hope to make some elements easier for them as they go on their own journey, and surely their journey will help me as I go through mine.