My grandmother who lived in Turkey passed away last September. It is always sad to lose a loved one, but the sadness doubles when the loved one lives continents away and the possibility of seeing them for the one last time does not exist. I was unable to attend my grandmother’s funeral nor hug my parents to share our sorrow, which is a familiar narrative for most immigrant families. That day, after a phone call from Dad, I left my workplace in tears and the first thing came to my mind was to visit the mosque in Auburn.
Of course, there is nothing unusual about wanting to be at a place of worship when mourning, yet those who knew me well enough thought that it was a strange action by someone who had declared herself an atheist two decades ago. I am a cultural Muslim and it took me many years of heated debates and a frustrating search for an identity to come to this conclusion.
It is the culture and the community that keeps me grounded and true to who I am.
I wasn’t raised in a religious family. In fact, the name of God was never mentioned by my parents when I was growing up. At the time, Turkey was a steaming political cauldron with secularists and the conservatives clashing daily. People had to side with one or the other. My grandparents were secular Muslims who prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadan. Eid was the time when the whole family got together and most of my happiest childhood memories revolve around these times.
I was 14 years old when we arrived Australia. My parents enrolled me in an all-girls school in Western Sydney and there was a small population of Muslim students. Soon after starting school, I declared myself an atheist and disassociated myself from practising religion. Some of my Muslim friends were respectful towards my decision while others seemed angry and disappointed. This created a lot of anxiety and isolation for me, but it did not change how I felt about religion.
The hostile behaviour exhibited towards the Muslims after September 11 was a turning point for me in many ways.
The hostile behaviour exhibited towards the Muslims after September 11 was a turning point for me in many ways. One afternoon, I was walking home from school when a passing car slowed down. The driver rolled down his window and started yelling profanities at one of the girls walking in front of me. She was wearing a headscarf. While I admired the way she stood up for herself, I felt heartbroken since I knew the feeling. Not long before that incident, an old woman in the local supermarket had yelled at Mum and I for speaking in Turkish. She had told us to ‘f--k off or learn to speak English’ and I had to translate it for Mum as we hurried to get away from her. This woman was a local and I got panic attacks every time I ran into her in Strathfield Plaza. Now the same attitude was being directed towards the Muslim Australians as the whole community was being targeted by the media. I was torn between my atheist identity and attachment to my Muslim past. I searched for role models and came across with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-Dutch ex-Muslim activist, whose dehumanisation of Muslims left me shocked and disgusted.
A few years ago, a friend asked me if I would be interested in joining the ‘Muslims against homophobia’ float in Sydney's Mardi Gras parade and I said ‘yes’ without even giving it a thought. That day, I marched behind the banner, wearing our handmade rainbow shalwars and fez. As we marched along Oxford Street, I heard people ululating and playing drums in the crowd. When I turned around, I saw a group of young Middle Eastern boys and girls proudly flaunting the rainbow flags and cheering for us. I wanted to run towards them and give a big hug. After the event, I received a lot of criticism. Muslim friends reminded me that I was an atheist. Ex-Muslims asked me what I thought of gay people being thrown from buildings by ISIS. And for the atheists, ‘wasn’t I a non-believer anyway? Why was I associating myself with a religion?’.
As human beings, we are complex creatures with multiple identities and these identities don’t come packaged separately from one another.
As human beings, we are complex creatures with multiple identities and these identities don’t come packaged separately from one another. My Indian friend Manjiri once told me that she is an atheist and a cultural Hindu because she didn’t know how else to exist in this world. "Just because we gave up God, it does not mean that we have to give up on cultural aspects of our religious backgrounds," she said. Her words really struck a chord with me.
Today, I am still an atheist but after many years of battling depression and a quest for identity, I arrived at the conclusion that it is the culture and the community that keeps me grounded and true to who I am. Sufi philosopher Jalaladdin Rumi’s words “Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon/How much it can fill your room depends on its windows" guided me through my darkest hours. Recently when I was asked if I were Muslim, I just said ‘yes’ without having to explain myself. This year I celebrated Eid again and hopefully someday my kids will too.
When I told Mum over the phone about my trip to the Auburn mosque after grandmother’s passing, she wasn’t surprised at all. "Of course, you went there," she said. "You wanted to be close to your roots and there is nothing wrong with that."
So true, where else could I go instead?
Deniz Agraz is a freelance writer.