Muslimish: (Part II) An Egyptian Cowgirl in Montana

(Me, making a wish in a famous Egyptian well, near the Sphinx and Pyramids in 2010)

I was five years old when I learned we were moving to Montana, where my father would take a job as a biochemist at Montana State University.

I was thrilled. My lifelong dream of becoming a cowgirl was happening! For my fifth birthday, I had begged for—and received—a cowgirl outfit. It had a bright red flouncy skirt and vest, with a checkered shirt and matching red cowgirl boots and hat. The best was the belt, complete with a holster with two miniature silver guns on each side. The gunslinger was ready for Montana.

But first, I will pick up where I left off in Muslimish Part I.

After we returned to Egypt in 1957 after the bombing ended and the Egyptian government signed a peace treaty, my mother began a strong campaign to convince my father to move back to the U.S. By then, she had lived in Egypt for the better part of seven years. After spending nearly a year in the U.S. during the war, she couldn’t help but compare the difference in the way in which Egyptian society raises and treats females. My mother was determined: she wanted us to have all the opportunities available to women in the West.

It took almost a year before we were able to leave and our escape was fraught with terror until the plane finally lifted off. The Egyptian government would not allow my sister and me to travel on our U.S. passports (we were considered Egyptian citizens alone, even though we were American citizens as well). At that time, Egyptian citizens could not leave the country without express permission by the government).

We had been able to move from Egypt because Iowa State University at Ames offered my father a postdoc. The most notable part of these years was the abuse I began suffering at my father’s hands. I would not learn this for many years—not until my parents divorced—but my father had doubts that I was his child. While we had been gone in 1956, my mother had had somewhat of an affair with another man—the captain of the ship in fact. Her real mistake was telling my father, who kept a dark and festering hatred for me his entire life.

Only during my parent’s divorce did I learn that my father did not believe I was really his child. This notion was ridiculous even though he held onto it throughout his life. I was born 11 months after we returned to Egypt—and a month premature at that.  As a psychologist, I realize now that he misdirected his anger–perhaps even hatred of his wife for committing such a shameful act–toward me, an innocent child. His treatment of me, compared to my sister was truly abhorrent. I know that today—and know the devastating effects of that abuse haunted me throughout my life.

I was a resilient child—and am a resilient adult and that abuse hurt me badly but it never completely broke me, though it came close a few times. And that abuse couldn’t dampen my excitement at moving to Cowboy Country and becoming an Egyptian cowgirl.

(Yhippee Khai Yhai Yhippee, Yhippie, Khai, Yhai, Yhay. <–That was part of a comedy routine from an early failed comic career). 🙂

The reality of Bozeman, Montana was a disappointment compared my vivid imagination of dusty streets of an old west town, complete with horses hitched up to posts by a general store or a saloon. I expected people to ride in horse buggies and to be riding horses as a primary means of transportation, even though we were driving to Montana. Obviously, I hadn’t honed my critical thinking skills quite yet. My only frame of reference was Roy Rogers and Dale Evans from a popular kids’ television show and western television shows and movies.

My dream of becoming a true cowgirl died as we entered the town of Bozeman, which had paved streets, streetlights (!), and nary a horse post in sight. I took off my cowgirl outfit that night and I don’t believe I ever wore it again. My mother loved the welcome sign as we drove in; she read it to us: ”Welcome to Bozeman, Montana–home of 10,074 (or a similar number) of friendly people and a few sore heads.”

Bozeman did have horses but they were in the country, not in town. And while many people wore cowboy getup, the majority did not. Bozeman’s primarily employer was the University, and as such, the people looked pretty much the same as they did in Ames, Iowa. There, I had been too young to notice such things as discrimination in that ‘white bread’ community though I experienced it once that I remember.

In kindergarten, the spring before we were to move to Montana, I was too afraid of my teacher to ask her to use the bathroom and I wet my pants. I knew she didn’t like my family or me. Kids do notice things like that. She was furious with me for making a mess on her classroom floor and half dragged me down the hall to the bathroom as my short legs couldn’t keep up with her pace. Her voice full of menace: “Why didn’t you tell me you had to go? Oh what’s the use—you cannot teach a kinky-haired nigger anything.”

It was the first time I heard the word. I didn’t know what it meant but intuitively I knew it was unkind and hurtful. That night, I asked my mother what it meant—but didn’t apply it to my experience in school that day (a pattern that continued throughout my childhood)—and she said, “It’s a derogatory term for those with darker skin and should never be used.” She was insistent in instilling in me that the word was one of hatred.

I went to the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I had light skin and blue eyes—we all had blue eyes, though—even my father, whose family, before moving to Cairo, hailed from a small village known for its blue-eyed Egyptians. My mother told me Napoleon’s troops landed there so I may have more than a quarter French in me.  🙂

Yes, I was a bit darker than any of my classmates were and I had weird frizzy hair that none of them had, as well as a name that people could not or pretended not to be able to pronounce but I had no frame of reference for what an Egyptian was—not at that time.

I was confused.

That night at dinner, I looked at my family. My mother looked like my teacher or any of my classmates. She had wavy hair—but not kinky—and her skin was the lightest of us all. My sister was darker than I was and her hair was much kinkier than mine.

Then I looked at my father. He was different. He had much darker skin and very kinky hair.

He was the reason for my teacher’s ire and the peculiar glances from some of my classmates’ parents. I now understood this.

I came to comprehend this more when we moved to the even whiter bread community of Bozeman, Montana. My family confused many people in Montana. Since there were no black people in Bozeman, racism of that type didn’t exist; however, discrimination did and you could see it. The Native American population endured blind hatred and so many indignities at the hands of white people and our government that I knew what it meant for one group to hate another without reason—but we didn’t have many Native Americans in Bozeman because the government banished them to reservations.

We were different but were such an unusual breed of different that they didn’t know how to categorize us—or treat us. People were curious and I never minded that curiosity. I would have been curious as well if a family like ours moved into such a white society. I also didn’t mind the courteous though remarkable distance others kept from us.

I knew some children, likely emboldened by their parents’ discrimination, didn’t like me, or were afraid of my family. Some children’s parents didn’t allow them to play with me. I would go over to a new friend’s house once, sense the hostility, and they would never ask me to visit again. Then there were those birthday parties to which I never received an invitation even though I had thought I was a friend of the birthday girl or boy.

What made me hate myself—and distrust my own humanity—were the children who showed outright hatred directly to my face. One boy taunted me, “Your father is a nigger so that makes you half nigger.” Never one for keeping my mouth shut, I yelled back at him, “I’d rather be half nigger than all stupid like you!” There were many such experiences—no need to go into them all.

I must emphasize that there were and are good people everywhere and Bozeman, Montana in the 1960’s and 1970’s was no exception. My family and I did have good friends and met many good people in Montana. I have a lifelong friend in Montana whose friendship I value as much today as I did when I was a child.

Even with the majority of people who showed kindness and feeling the fewer instances of hatred (which we always notice more); I mostly felt alone and isolated. I don’t know how different my life would have been if my parents had raised us in a more cosmopolitan and diverse society but I believe it is important for all people to have others who truly understand their experiences. As much as some of my friends loved me and were true blue friends, they could never experience what I did. In my ways, I envied the Native Americans. Even though they were a minority group and treated poorly by white Americans in Montana, they had each other to rely upon—to teach them their customs, to grow pride in their heritage.

Growing up without that, I had no real idea of who I was or how to accept myself. Therefore, I denied my heritage, which wasn’t hard because I despised my father for all he did to me and for making me what I was. Each night, I talked to my mother about the monster who came into my room every night. She chalked that up to my vivid imagination but I knew different.

The monster in my bedroom was my father. The Egyptian monster.

Soon, I began lying about my heritage. I looked so different from most that people rarely questioned whatever ethnic background I chose to give. I would tell people I was Italian, Spanish, Greek, and sometimes even Irish because I had heard of the Black Irish, known for their dark hair and vivid blue eyes.

It would be many years before I embraced my Egyptian heritage but when I did, I became proud of my ethnicity. But I wonder what I might have done, having felt so alone and isolated, had I been a young American Middle Eastern male today.

For most of my adult years, I felt no discrimination from others, having lived most of that time in San Francisco. Since 9/11, it has again reared its ugly head—that is, when I tell people I am half Egyptian. It is almost as though I can see the shades come down on people’s eyes. The eyes—that just a moment earlier were bright with happy friendship would change the moment I told them I was half Middle Eastern. That is where society has taken us today. I can honestly say that any hatred or discrimination I felt as a child way back then is nothing compared to the stories I have heard from other Middle Eastern Americans since 9/11.

We cannot change who we are. None of us can. And we cannot change others. The only thing we can change is ourselves and our view of others. I am an eternal optimist and I believe that by telling people I am half Egyptian, even though it is not apparent and I wear no hijab, our conversations will lessen the fear.

Because we all know—most hatred stems from what we fear rather than what we know.

Peace,

Melinda

4 thoughts on “Muslimish: (Part II) An Egyptian Cowgirl in Montana

  1. Very well written. I had no idea others treated you like that growing up in Bozeman!

    1. No one did, including my mother. I was too ashamed and/or embarrassed to tell anyone that happened. It happened most when I was in elementary school and middle school but the junior high and high school years were brutal. My parents felt it too (I later learned from my mother) but she was great at chalking that behavior up to ignorance. As a child, that’s harder to do of course!

      But I always pushed back (which probably didn’t help). God knows I was born with a sarcastic, smart mouth–bullies or no! 🙂

  2. This is an amazing story Melinda. So thoughtful interesting and timely. And of course truly well written. I look forward to your next post.
    Affectionately
    Joann

    1. Thank you so much, Jojo. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it. And coming from a person of your amazing artistic talent, I take it as a real compliment, believe me. xo, M.

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