You Know You’re An Immigrant When…

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 - 4:27 pm

You Know You’re An Immigrant When…

Last weekend, I went home to visit my parents in Florida with one small carry-on suitcase. I came back with the same carry-on and a big, oversized, overweight suitcase.

“Take these,” said my Maman-jan (Mom). “Take these bags of bread. We went to the grocery store and got you some fresh bread. Here, feel it. Squeeze it. See how nice and thick this dough this? They don’t know how to make bread like this up where you live.”

“We got you pomegranates. Twelve of them,” said my Baba-jan (Papa). “Do you want us to peel them for you? It will take you time to peel them. The kids will eat them easier if they are peeled.”

Mom made homemade yogurt. It is made thicker than what you find at the store, something more like Greek yogurt. We eat it by the bowl. So, so good. “Here, take a big container of yogurt.”

“Here is a stack of frozen food. Mom has been in the kitchen all day. She has made you three of your favorite dishes: cutlets, qeymeh, and espaghetti,” said my Baba.

Cutlets are these amazing Persian dishes, ground up meat, potatoes, eggs, spices, lightly breaded and fried.

Qeymeh: Oh my goodness, where to even start? Lentils, stewed meat, onions, cinnamon, dried lemons, saffron, and tomato paste are slowly simmered for hours. So, so good. Served with basmati rice, topped with more saffron.

Espaghetti, that distinctly Persian take on spaghetti. It’s baked spaghetti, steamed slowly. It’s definitely not spaghetti, but ES-paghetti. In the same way that Tex-Mex isn’t quite the same as Mexican food, espaghetti is a distinctly Persian offering.

All three dishes have a secret ingredient: love. Maman’s love, Baba’s love. The love of decades. Spoken and unspoken love.

(Saghar Setareh / Flickr / © All Rights Reserved)

We know this from movies: Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat. The secret ingredient is always love. It’s love that conveys our heart’s unspoken yearning and passion for those for whom words simply don’t suffice.

If you love the people, you feed the people. Jesus fed people. Muhammad fed people. Sikhs feed people. If you love the folk, you feed the folk. My Maman feeds the folk.

This experience of being fed and sent home with food is not unique to me or my family. It is what all of us who are immigrants experience. You go home — you go home much more than others, because you love the fam. If people love you, they feed you. You come home with food. You come home with their love. You take in food, you take in their love. There is a reason that in Persian the modern words for “heart” and “stomach” are one and the same: del.

My mom and dad spent an hour boxing up the food, lovingly, patiently, carefully. Each dish was carefully wrapped in plastic wrap, and frozen overnight to make sure it wouldn’t spill during the flight. Unpacking them was half the fun, remembering my dad’s love in packing the suitcases as much as my mom’s love in cooking the food.

We went to the airport, and there was a kind elderly worker at the curbside Delta stand.

“Can I help you?” he said.

“Sure, I’d be grateful,” I said.

“Where is your final destination?” he asked.

“Raleigh/Durham,” I responded.

“Great, have a safe flight,” he nodded, while checking in my luggage.

“Thank you, sir, you have a good day, too.” I waved and tipped him a few dollars.

Here I was, a 46-year-old man, flanked by my loving parents. They were dressed in their business clothes. I was wearing jeans and T-shirt, because, well, they are old-world, and I am something in between. They go for class and respect, I go for comfort.

(Saghar Setareh / Flickr / © All Rights Reserved)

We checked in the luggage and went inside the airport terminal. Like any good brown Muslim man going through the airport, we were there two hours early to allow for the inevitable “random selection.” It never came, so I had some extra time with my mom and dad to sit in the airport lounge and talk, catch up, take a picture, and say a prayer for a safe flight.

I got home to North Carolina, and my suitcase was there. The Lord works in ways subtle and beautiful, including having your suitcase get there. I brought it home and opened it to put mom’s alchemical food away.

And there it was: a note from Homeland Security. The same note I get each time I check luggage. “Yes, we have opened your luggage and gone through it. Oh, this has nothing to do with your racial background, it is for everyone’s… safety.”

I feel so violated each time. How is it random when it is every time?

I checked in my luggage at the curb, where of course it was not opened in front of me. At what point was it pulled out from the other pieces of luggage? What computer program is it that says: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, this luggage belongs to a Muslim. We have to open it”?

Sometimes I get petty and have fun with them. I put all my dirty clothes on top, including dirty socks and underwear. It’s my little revenge. You want to open my suitcase; there you go, boys. Have fun smelling my dirty underwear. That’s as close to chemical and biological weapons as I’ll ever get.

This time, of course, there was no dirty sock, no dirty underwear. Only Momma’s alchemical cooking.

So this is what it means to be an immigrant in America in 2017. You get sent home with Momma’s alchemical cooking, skillfully boxed by your Baba. And Homeland security randomly selects your luggage to go through and suspects you of being a terrorist.

I wonder if the people who would randomly pull me and those who look like me out of a line-up for “random selection” or go through my luggage have ever had my momma’s cooking?

Have you ever had qeymeh?
Have you had espaghetti?

Would it change how you see me, my mom and dad?

It is not my responsibility to change your heart. That is your own responsibility. But I’m telling you, you’re missing out on some alchemical cooking.

(Omid Safi / © All Rights Reserved)

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    And I, for reasons I cannot discern, always get assigned TSA pre-check. I wonder whether they know I am a little, no-longer-middle-aged white woman with very long gray hair.
    But a decade ago the one time they did pull me out for special scrutiny was the time I happened to be carrying my father’s ashes and they were adamant they needed to open them.
    Likely because I am not black or brown, I prevailed.

  • Lacoo

    What’s your address? 🙂

  • Christine Robb

    I am a 72 year old woman physician, born in the USA of Scandinavian descent. My luggage always gets the little message too. I think it’s because I cannot travel without bringing food home from whatever destination…I’m just glad they don’t eat/drink it!

  • kbe1959

    Beautifully written. I am a middle aged, salt and pepper haired, small woman who got pulled aside last year for a secondary screening of my bag. The offending article turned out to be a set of resin figurines of the holy family, a gift for a godchild. Even as I watched the expression of the agent as he slowly unwrapped the tiny baby Jesus, it was no comfort. It was a humiliating and humbling experience that gave me pause and empathy for those who are routinely “randomly” selected. In these times of terrorism, alchemy and love are many times sucked out of our lives.

  • Judy Montel

    My aunt is sending me, in separate boxes so it doesn’t get too heavy, the pieces to my grandparents Passover dishes which haven’t been used in over 30 or 40 years. The first box was not opened. The second box was opened by TSA who left their note inside. I was wondering whether this was random or not, but I think I found a clue – in the gravy boat there was still a small spot of ancient, congealed gravy. I think that TSA has sensors that respond to organic compounds and automatically will flag anything that contains food or, in my case, that contains something that used to be food.
    Of course, I may be wrong on this. We may both be wrong with our conclusions. I have to say, that this is a delightful essay on its own, even without the part that deals with the motivations and judgements of unknown people working for a large government bureaucracy.

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