I was bombarded by texts and Facebook messages Tuesday regarding the “Who is America?” episode that was about my hometown, Kingman.
For me, it wasn’t the focus group’s response that was surprising – after all, they were put on the spot, confused and as some said “baited” by Sacha Baron Cohen’s proposition to develop a multi-million dollar mosque in Kingman.
What was surprising, disheartening and insulting was the City of Kingman’s tone deaf and cringe-worthy response that blatantly ignored and failed to mention the vibrant Muslim community that has been an integral part of Kingman for over 40 years and comprises of physicians, teachers, professors, nurses, probation officers, religious scholars, artists and business owners. Chances are, if you have gone to a hospital, urgent care, doctor’s office, gym, motel, or gas station in Kingman, then you have interacted with a Muslim Kingmanite.
Unfortunately, the City’s lackluster official response about Latino Heritage Month and plans to honor Martin Luther King Jr. was not only off-base, it lagged half a century behind the curve.
My family has called Kingman home for 40 years, longer than the good mayor herself has lived in Kingman. My Pakistani-American father, Dr. S. Ismail Bokhari, moved to Kingman in 1978 to serve as the only cardiologist in the Tri-state area at the time. Anyone who knows him will vouch that, to this day, he works tirelessly and is dedicated 24/7 to the care of his patients. He also built the local mosque, Masjid- e- Ibrahim, in 1990.
While our mosque isn’t as grand as the Shaykh Zayed mosque that was proposed on the show, it was built in the heart of Kingman with an infinite amount of love and sincerity. Since 1990 it has hosted five prayers daily and has been a place of peace, reflection and meditation. Its doors have been open to anyone who wishes to visit.
I am a Muslim child of Kingman. I attended Tip Top preschool and graduated from Kingman High School. I know, firsthand, just how racist my town can be.
As a 6-year-old child, I was told by the “sister” nun at the private Christian elementary school I briefly attended that, unfortunately, I’d have go to hell since I was Muslim. At the same school, our teacher put a large Crayola box on her desk and pulled out crayons that matched the various brown skin tones in our class. As it turns out, my teacher and fellow white students learned that not all brown people have the same brown color! It was the 80s and training in diversity and inclusion were not yet on the curriculum.
Growing up, I was constantly told to “go back to where you came from!” (Detroit, Michigan? Really?) We were called “Camel Jockey” so often that we became desensitized to it. Folks driving by would scream, “sand nr,” and since my parents were immigrants and didn’t use any racial slurs, I heard “sand digger” and remained confused by the insult. It was only in college that I retroactively understood the slur.
In the beginning of ninth grade, two students would push me, call me “raghead” and shove me into lockers because I chose to cover my hair. I was a 14-year-old girl who couldn’t fight back against two older boys and didn’t know who to talk to about it, so I stayed quiet. Although I never said anything, a classmate, who would later become a good friend, found out what was happening and was furious. He assured me I wouldn’t have to worry about that again. To this day I’m not sure what he did, but those boys never looked my way again. (Thanks, Jeff!)
You see, the ugly racism I experienced in Kingman was trumped by the kindness and goodness of the community. We had wonderful neighbors. During Christmas time and Thanksgiving we would get the best desserts, prepared with halal ingredients in accordance with Muslim dietary protocols so that we could enjoy them. Many of my father’s patients became family. I had incredible teachers and friends who sincerely loved me and my family. We even had a white “Grandma” and “Grandpa” who became our adopted grandparents in Kingman and genuinely loved us like their own grandkids.
In the 1990s, Kingman opened its heart and welcomed Bosnian Muslim refugees who escaped ethnic cleansing and genocide. Families torn apart by war were reunited in Kingman. After 9/11, when the mosque was shot and vandalised, community members and church groups came together in solidarity with the Muslim community. We have united and stood together as a community again and again. There has been ongoing interfaith dialogue and immense goodwill in Kingman.
The city of Kingman is small, but its community has diverse global representation including Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, France, Bosnia and many other areas.
Instead of embracing the cultural diversity, the City of Kingman’s official response seemed to ignore it as though it was harboring a shameful secret. Falling prey to an Islamophobic narrative based on fear is easy, but it isn’t right. Kingman only needs to look inward at its Muslim community members and reflect on the contributions they have made.
Muslims are an integral part of the fabric of Kingman. I am Kingman and Kingman is me. It will always be home.