From the stares, you’d think that they’re seeing a ghost.
Hands stop mid-gesture. Mouths halt halfway through sentences. Eyes widen and trail.
But it is only a Muslim woman.
A perfectly non-deceased and elegant human being dressed in the modesty of a black burqa that gives the impression of gliding, of ghosts and gets people to gape in shopping malls.
I see the staring before I see her. Heads bend together and whisper as she passes, one man peeks out of a doorway and I follow the reactions to their source up ahead.
We are going to the same place. To Boost at Maerua Mall. Her with her young son who wears a long green thawb, a neat black taqiyah and looks every bit the little prince. And also a little like my first Muslim friend Adam.
He and his sister Amirah live across the street from us when we’re kids.
They join my sisters and I in climbing fences and trees, whooping in parks and harassing our parents for enough castaway coins for handfuls of Chappies, lengths of liquorice and shudders of sour balls.
As children our lives are mostly the same.
We’re all required to scurry home before the street lights go on, hidings are imminent given any backchat and minus the jug of water next to their toilet and their weekly dose of “Muslim school,” our two friends navigate childhood in Oranjemund much like everyone else.
Adam and Amirah move away before I ever really notice them fasting for Ramadan.
But years later I remember them in the kind of feast they often invited us to.
A spread of samosas and pies, cakes and sweets set out by my high school friend Shireen whose low energy and cracked lips urged my deprived boarding school self to “eat, eat, eat!” even though her own stomach had shrunk after a month of fasting to honour the first revelation of the Quran.
In Berlin, many years later, I seek comfort in the delicious food that I have come to associate with the religion.
My friend Tanya and I take a walk to Neukölln, a borough famous for its considerable Turkish, Kurdish and Arab communities, but as the ratio of men to women out on the streets increases and the faces seem to look more and more like the men below the terror headlines, my better self cowers below a blanket of conditioning and I ask if we can go somewhere else…
And I am ashamed.
Because I insisted we go there.
In fact, I often make a big, written thing of being tolerant, not perpetuating stereotypes or being a complete moron but, after an hour of walking fearfully around Neukölln and feeling perhaps that my presence- uncovered, eyes set straight ahead– may be offensive or unwelcome, I leave.
But the urge to turn back is immediate.
My race is one of the most demonized, discriminated against and vilified in the world and it doesn’t do to be fearful of every member of a particular religion based on the actions of extremists.
As a black woman, I know this well enough.
I know what it feels like to have my skin and my gender speak before I have even opened my mouth and I know that the feeling is hot, tight, painful and unnecessary.
The same can be said for religion.
For the many Muslim men and women whose religion is being painted in broad, red strokes as radicals stare out from newspapers after killing indiscriminately at airports, sentencing thousands of Muslims to death and sending countless more fleeing over borders, across seas and towards the cold shoulders of the bigoted.
Chibok, Garissa, Paris, Brussels, Orlando and Istanbul’s extremists are Muslims but they do not embody Islam. Much in the way that, contrary to what is emphasized in the media, being black and male doesn’t mean one is violent, criminal and should be shot in a park at age 12.
Hate breeds hate.
Individuals and minority groups do not speak for entire races or religions and vilifying people based on their beliefs or the colour of their skin only causes people to turn inwards and isolate themselves in a world that needs to stand together more than ever.
People speak for themselves and in these times of fear and assumption, we all need to do our bit to temper the raging, the ignorant and the racists who spew the kind of vitriol that makes people feel as though they are at war. That their beliefs, skin and very essence is being attacked and derided and that the only way to survive is to wipe out tolerance and diversity.
The world is colourful.
It exists in the most beautiful shades of religion and skin.
So don’t be me in Neukölln.
Afraid of nothing and the news. Paralyzed by stereotypes, missing meals and the potential of connecting across the idiotic barriers of race, gender and religion.
Be me at Boost at Maerua Mall.
A me that watches a little boy in his black taqiyah trying to slide down the bannister of the Ster-Kinekor stairs, smiles and says what she would to anyone faced with the dangers of life, travel and the choice between good and evil…
“Hallo. Be careful.”