Holidays, year after year, can blend together. But this holiday season is unlike any other in my life. That’s because in previous years there was no Donald Trump leaving a lump of coal in my stocking, reminding me just how unwelcome my multifaith family would be in his version of America.
My husband, who emigrated from Iran 12 years ago, is Muslim. In addition to the usual challenges, over time, of assimilating – and the challenges, more recently, of absorbing presidential campaign rhetoric that underscores just how many people won’t accept him – he tends to be particularly self-conscious when he’s invited to a meal where there are no halal, or at least vegetarian, options.
It’s not righteous indignation – far from it – that makes him feel isolated. It’s a sense of displacement compounded by a name Americans frequently can’t pronounce, a lingering accent and childhood memories from an Iran-Iraq war that many here scarcely remember. After living in the United States for more than a decade, meals are still an unwanted reminder that even something as universal as breaking bread can set him apart from everyone else. Christmas has definitely been one of those times.
A few years ago, I knew almost nothing about Islamic dietary laws. I was born in Abilene, Texas, a dusty former cowtown 180 miles west of Dallas. Like a number of Bible-belt communities, local lore has it that Abilene is home to the highest number of churches per capita in the United States. Still, my parents did their best to show us kids more than that, taking us on trips to Austria, Turkey and Kenya, my mom counting pennies to keep us within our limited budget.
After college, I relocated to China. Despite our family trips, I found that my upbringing in Texan Christendom had blinded me. It became patently obvious that neither Christians nor Americans had a monopoly on kindness, happiness or morality. I stopped going to church, wouldn’t date anyone religious and only when pressed would I disclose my Texas roots.
A few years ago, my mom told me she had moved us to Vienna to give her children a broader view of the world. She gave me a look and said – half-wistfully – “I guess it worked.”
My parents rejected my choices. Sometimes, over the years, I would almost dare them to reject me – while secretly fearing they actually might. There was a point in life when, after talking to my mom on the phone, I would be distraught for days after arguing about boyfriends or miniskirts or reproductive rights. I was too harsh! No, wait, I caved! Why didn’t I stand up for what I believe? My changing worldview wound up distancing me from my parents, but eventually we reached a détente.
Then I met someone – neither Christian nor American – who, like me, knew firsthand how living abroad can dramatically change one’s perspective. But he had always stayed close to his family; he knew how to be gentle with them. He understood my relationship with religion, family and home all tied together into painful knots in my heart. And, best of all, he knew how to help me unknot them.
When I told my parents I was in love with a Muslim from Iran, it didn’t spark a family crisis. In fact, our discussions were aided, horrifically, by the Boston Marathon bombing; two days after it occurred, my husband was assaulted in broad daylight. The attack helped my parents see him as part of a vulnerable minority, rather than as someone to greet with apprehension – a process that might otherwise have taken far longer.
When we announced our engagement, my family was supportive, and my mom and I spent hours planning the wedding together. When she made Christmas dinner last year, she included halal and vegetarian options for my new husband, and we were both thankful. Still, though, I felt a sense of fragility.
That was before Paris, before San Bernardino, before notions of religious tests and registries burst upon our national dialogue like a plague. This holiday season, I feel a bit like we’re under siege. Hate crimes against Muslims have spiked. When my husband doesn’t answer the phone, I find myself worried for his safety. I cringe at headlines. There have even been a few moments when I’ve unexpectedly burst into tears.
But this year at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, I watched my mother prepare the holiday food with new eyes. She went to even greater lengths to see that almost everything was halal: Three whole zabihah chickens, with broth she carefully siphoned off into plastic containers for use in gravy and casseroles. Halal ground beef for taco night. Halal hamburger patties cooked in a clean pan on a stove rather than on the grill outside, which was covered in nonhalal meat drippings. Even turkey bacon sprinkled liberally over salads and wrapped in spirals around asparagus clusters. Every dish proclaimed, “We are family.”
I knew how much that would mean to my husband. The effect upon him was immediate. Normally reserved, he talked more, cracked jokes and spent more time with everyone in the family room.
But I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me.
My mom had sought out grocery stores run by people whose English she didn’t always understand, and bought ground beef at lamb-chop prices, as a way of letting us know that she accepts him, and us.
I can see it so clearly that I don’t know why I couldn’t see it before. And because of this seemingly simple gesture, she made me truly feel that no matter whom I marry, no religious disparity and no fearmongering politician can change the love we have as a family. My heart, like my husband’s, is full of gratitude.
Our family bond is stronger than the intolerance around us.
And that love keeps fighting back, in the places I least expect it. On Dec. 8, an alumnus of Abilene Christian University, in my hometown, where my parents once taught, created an online petition calling on alumni of his and other universities to reject Islamophobia and stand in solidarity with Muslims in their local communities. To date, it has more than 2,800 signatures. On Dec. 20, a Christian organization in Abilene hosted an interfaith “candlelight welcome” to “celebrate the arrival of Syrian refugees in Texas,” according to the event’s Facebook page, and to support refugees already in Abilene.
I’ve been around the world, and I’m happy experiencing the true spirit of Christmas right here where I started. I’m less afraid. I know now that it’s possible to counter the tide of hate with an even more capacious love. I learned that from my husband, and my mom, and, yes, my hometown.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. This was written for The Washington Post.