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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"A Brooklyn Not Like Yours" by Samiha Hoque - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist


A Brooklyn Not Like Yours

By Samiha Hoque


I was born and raised in Brooklyn. But Brooklyn has never really seen me. I was sheltered from pretty much everything growing up—I couldn’t go to parks, malls, most other neighborhoods—any place you could potentially get lost, kidnapped, or whatever other crimes they talked about on FOX News because that’s what my mom watched every day at 10 p.m. My parents,although immigrants, were not like most others. I had opportunities to become a part of this city that I called home but instead was always a tourist in my own birthplace and that meant all my firsts were jumbled up; I went to Dhaka before I went to a deli,I went to Brooklyn College before I went to a mall (the one by Jay Street Metrotech—Inever went there when it was called Jay Street Borough Hall), I rode a horse before I knew what a beef lo mien tasted like, and I went to Cairo before I went to an Irish-American diner (although this one makes sense because I’m not comfortableinplaces that serve alcohol). I can tell you now that the 23 years I’ve lived in Brooklyn, is a life in Brooklyn not like yours.

I grew up on Churchand McDonald Ave, near the border of Kensington and Borough Park, andI used to wave at firefighters from the sidewalks like I was taught to in elementary school. A lot of my family’s shopping for clothes and shoes was done westward at Bergament, Payless, or Fabco, which meant going into 13th Ave—Orthodox Jewish territory—and certain supermarket goods only found to the south,which meantgoing to Coney Island Ave—Pakistani territory. Even withthe stares from both those avenues, from one minority group to the other, these were the parts of Brooklyn that were used to seeing a Bengali Muslim in religious practice. In 13th Ave, the Jewish women also wore flowing skirts and long sleeves, and their men trench coats and hats like my family; in Coney Island Ave, the Pakistani women also wore headscarves, and their men beards like my family; the Jewshad dietary specialty kosher stores like how the Pakistanis had dietary specialty halal stores.Attending Brooklyn College, I was seen and accepted by individuals from all over Brooklyn—a Pakistani-Italian from Sheepshead Bay, a Chinese from Bensonhurst, a Syrian from Bay Ridge, and a Jew from Midwood—and I naïvely thought their acceptance meantall of Brooklyn had seen and accepted me.What I didn’t realize was thatthe Brooklyn here or there was not the same Brooklyn that existed everywhere else.

I know thisbecause at age 21, when I walked down 15th Street Prospect Park with my twin and an older brother, the three of us in religious Muslim garb,I was surprised that every person on the beautifully paved brick sidewalk, every bystander at the digital B68 bus stop, and every customer seated at the outdoor Dunkin Donuts area, looked at us like we’d dropped out of the sky. Someone even invoked Jesus, touching her shoulder from left to right, at the sight of us. I know this because during my senior year of college, when I went to Jacob Riis Park,the casual sunlight and pristine sand swirling below my sneakers should’ve been enough to warn me that thisextensionfrom Brooklyn was a path untrodden. That the wind-slapped fabrics of my hijab and ankle-length dress weregoing to maketheir debutthe way they did at 15thStreet.Because a lively family sitting on the benches went funeral-silent as I neared and walked past them, so something at the sight of me, that I went to Jacob Riis twice more within that year to be more of a familiar face to that beach.If only I’d been out more, let every street and alley and ethnicity know what it was like to look at me, maybe these parts of Brooklyn wouldn’t have thought it intimidating to see a Muslim order Boston Kreme donuts or go shell-hunting at the beach on a summer’s day.

That said, some parts of Brooklyn have seen me.Three years prior to Jacob Riis, in my freshman year of college, I went to Coney Island for the first time. I wore a floral purple and blue skirt, a pair of golden sandals, and a black hijab. I squinted in all my pictures because the sun was so bright and it took a week to get all the sand out of my shoes. I’d gotten an odd look or two here and there when I noticed a woman nearby, wearing a waterproof tunic, leggings, and headwear—something otherwise infamously known as a burkini. She smiled at me and I knew that this piece of Brooklyn, this crowded, not-so-clean stretch of sandy Brooklyn, had already seen me. Because of her, I wasn’t anything exotic or unbelievable; I was just an ordinary beach-goer who didn’t expose her hair or skin to the sun-drenched air. And that was okay.

While I’ve lived a life in Brooklyn not like yours, don’t get me wrong:I could just as easily melt with the churning pot if I wanted to. I could lay bare the parts of me to Brooklyn that everyone else does, and I could immerse myself in the places of Brooklyn that everyone else does, if I wanted to. For the longest time, I’ve only been seen by the fragments of Brooklyn that had already accepted similar religious and cultural enclaves as the one I practiced. And I could change that, if I wanted to. But there is a degree of strangeness to the way I’ve lived that makes even the multi-colored eyes of Brooklyn widen, and witnessing that is not quite as bad as you think. The truth is that Brooklyn hasnever seen me enough to get used to me.My roots don’t go as deep as it does forsome in Brooklyn and my branches aren’t as far-reaching as it does for some from Brooklyn. And that’s okay. No matter how different the experience, this Brooklyn that is mine,is just as muchyours, too.

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