“You graduated from Harvard. You have made us very happy, son.”
Reverberating across the Atlantic, these few words made me stop halfway through Eliot Bridge to compose myself. That afternoon of June 26th 2017, I looked down at the Charles River and sobbed for the better part of an hour. My father was calling from my homeland Morocco. It was the first time we talked in about a year.
In 2011, I seized upon a once-in-a-generation moment to assert an identity that had been brewing in me for more than a decade. Notwithstanding its chaotic implications on the Middle East, the Arab Spring was first and foremost an opportunity for millions of youth to air their grievances without shame. Angry, cocky and Western-educated, I jumped on my keyboard to join a growing movement of young mavericks. Through snarky op-eds and Tweets, we professionalized our activism. But mine was a special kind of grievance. The personal kind. I was mad at my Islamic upbringing and the limits it put on my humanity and horizons. In turn, I was mad at my parents. When I came out as an atheist to my conservative country, I was confident in the liberating and empowering impact it would have on my life. I moved to the United States and lived the American dream, courtesy of the First Amendment.
Deep inside, I did not want to acknowledge another major consequence of my rebellion. It irredeemably broke the heart of my religious parents. They kept wondering what they had done wrong raising me. But then again, I was on a mission. Millions of Arab non-believers were counting on the likes of me to inform the world about their plight. Through a twisted process of self-delusion, I convinced myself that my own closure with my background would have to wait. And so it did, for six years.
Religion was a fundamental way for my Moroccan Muslim family to bond. Be it the Iftar Ramadan dinners or the Eid feasts with friends, my childhood memories are filled with happy encounters centered around faith. As a child, I looked up to my confident, successful and charismatic father. He would take my hand and walk me to prayer in the neighborhood mosque. I followed him wholeheartedly, for I longed to be a good son. I still cringe at what the Imams in the mosque would preach about women, Jews, gays and alcohol. Yet it did not matter back then. If dad took me there, then surely it was right.
Needless to say, that intergenerational deference was bound to become fragile. Fighting to ensure a brighter future for their son, my parents enrolled me in Morocco’s most progressive schools. There, my classmates and I were groomed to excel in math, science, French and English. Such was the certain path to socio-economic advancement in a developing country. However, few of our parents really expected the “side effects” of such an education. Our worldviews were being reformed for good. We were exposed to critical thinking, social sciences, philosophy and the Enlightenment. For many of us, the gap between our newly acquired worldviews and the expectations of our communities was irreconcilable.
The difference with me was that I could not let it go. “Why was I raised that way?” I thought. It did not matter that most parents are nothing but the result of their own religious environment. Nor did it matter that in Middle Eastern countries, legal and societal constraints are enforced by oppressive regimes to ensure behavioral conformity. For the longest time, none of that mattered to me. I had earned my new identity the hard way, and being deferent to my parents presented me with the horrifying prospect of losing it. To this day, I still have not looked them in the eye and explained my atheism to them. They know about it because they can google what I write. They have made their peace with it because they know they cannot change who their son is. I have come too far.
Then there’s the worst part: the guilt that comes with knowing one owes a lot to their parents. My parents and I may not agree on much, but it was thanks to their sacrifices that I was equipped to rid myself of religious dogma. Speaking to the growing number of Ex-Muslims around me, I quickly realized that mine was just a mild case of estrangement. Verbal and physical abuse, death threats and financial blackmail are all too common among Muslim families whose daughters or sons choose to leave the faith. It does not help that in today’s tense debates on Islamophobia and multiculturalism, conversations about the latter’s plight are instantly shut down.
When he called me that sunny June afternoon, my father – a longtime runner – said he was looking forward to jogging with me by the shores of our hometown. I joked that I might beat him this time, since I picked up running myself. He replied that it would make complete sense.
He was right. It is my turn now, and I shall do it my way.