Sarah Fathima Mohammed

How Are You?

“Tu kaisi ho?” a stranger asks me in Hindi. She wants to know how I was doing. I could answer, “fine,” but the truth is more complicated.

The truth is: tired. I am tired but not physically. Tired of going to India Cash and Carry with my brown friends and seeing the rows of tightly packed skin products, all promising a whiter complexion. Tired of watching my friends try out the products and ask for my feedback: “Is my skin any closer to porcelain yet?” I wish they could appreciate themselves for who they are and embrace their creamy, chocolate-colored skin that glitters like bronze in the sunlight. I wish they would stop comparing themselves to something they will never be and find beauty in their brownness. I wish they could take a patriotic pride in their immigrant family members who worked hard to achieve the American dream. But I know that what I wish is unrealistic: the skin-care advertisements prove that much. Even in India, lighter skin is viewed as more beautiful. Even at our local Whole Foods, the brown cashier had her face heavily powdered in sheer white, as if ashamed to be brown. Her legs were covered by the cashing table but, as I passed by, I caught a glimpse of them: long and brown–-gorgeous. I wished at that moment I had told her they were beautiful, that brown skin was beautiful. The truth is, despite what I wish, brown girls will keep wishing that they could be something else, keep wishing that they can ‘fit in’ with their Caucasian peers. 

“Tu kaisi ho?” another stranger asks. The truth is still complicated.

The truth is: frustrated. I am frustrated that someone can look at me, see the color of my skin and assume things about who I am before ever hearing a word come out of my mouth. Last week, I went to the salon for a haircut, and the hairdresser asked me if my parents had taught me coding yet. It took me a second to process her question. She had not even asked my name, but she had assumed my parents must be coders by looking at the color of my skin. She could have asked if my parents knew how to code, but she did not and instead made an assumption. At that moment, I hated that anyone could make assumptions about me based on my skin color and stereotypes about my race, however innocuous those assumptions might be. Later that evening, I went to an American restaurant with my family, and the server greeted us with a friendly “namaste,” the word uncomfortably dressed in her American accent. My six-year-old sister looked at her in confusion; we do not speak Hindi, and she had no idea why the server would utter this mysterious word. The server’s attempt at inclusion made my sister feel left out. I stiffened—how could she just assume that we speak a certain language based on the color of our skin and reduce the thousands of Indian languages to this one stereotypical word? My father, used to such comments, offered a dry smile and replied, “Hello. I’ll have the steak, medium rare.” My parents have always been subject to racial profiling, and I will always be subject to racial profiling and, when I have children, they will always be subject to racial profiling. 

“Tu kaisi ho?” a stranger asks. Still complicated.

The truth is: sad. I am sad that most of my peers still ask me if I can teach them a few words in “Indian.” Sad that when I go out for lunch with my Caucasian friends, they still call the Sri Lankan restaurant “that Indian place” because “it’s basically the same thing right?” Sad that people can be so ignorant about Indian cultures and still think that they know everything after reading a measly New York Times article about Pakistanis. Sad that this probably won’t change in my future.

“Tu kaisi ho?” a stranger asks.

 “Good,” I mumble automatically. 

Brown GirlSurvival
She girdles a hand-woven khadar scarf
Brown skin shimmering through endless fires
Fighting as a crouching tiger
Only to face wage cuts, hijab bans but
Her worn hands clutch the warmth of prayer beads
Timeless beauty and strength still inside her
Through the white noise that whispers surrender
As she embodies the last embers in darkness
She rides through borders sees buried crimes
Her brown virtue is eternal
representing wisdom from the fallen in her homeland
echoing brown can survive and will survive
waiting for her to turn to rise wild power within
no blood, no sweat or tears will stall her path
hear her grandmother’s tales of submission
with her khadar scarf flapping without the backbone
to vanish in and out of vision just to survive
her grit feeds, her faith breathes, her will survives
her crouching tiger will never fade
she will impel the survival of her culture

 Proud to be an American

Your sweet tones ring in my ears but
I can’t hear your voice
I want to feel your hands, strong and brown
across the sinews of my spine,

But all I feel is sturdy, languid rhythm,
your palms kneading chapati dough

You tell me to be obedient,
like yourself, like the other women in the house,
Make the meals for the family.
Don’t fight back.
Cover yourself in a burka.
Cook, clean, take care of the children.
Stay home.
You pass down the psalms of your generation with grace,
your soft words so easy for me to soak up like melted honey.

I want to nod I want
to see your eyes worn with age
crinkle up at the edges, happy because I would
be the good Muslim girl I know you want
but I live in America: the land of the free.

America: #MeToo
“Join the women’s march today: we fight for equality”

I want to listen to you, but I want to be free,
not stuck in the dusty cage of definition.

So I choose to live as a sole bird
and I will explore the heavy scent of the sky
embrace the colors of the earth
and fly

While exploring the endless sky your words morph into caresses
those soft touches reminders of my heritage
but not my beliefs

Tell Me I am Not A Terrorist: A Sestina

That night the moonlight poured from the dark sky’s gaze
Waiting our turn in immigration line, we patiently stood with all
Dazed dreaming of free autumn leaves kissing my body
Playing hopscotch on the mist of enchantment
The watery glow of childhood is unshaken until I hear the voice
The officer in crisp blue uniform ruffles the air in torment

Brown at heart, I don’t scar, but my heart beat in torment
The air felt musky, why were Mama and I handpicked? My face flushed white in his gaze
He hissed my Islamic legal name, I heard him, his harsh whispers, his tone of voice
I felt a dagger through my tiny chest as he pulled us aside, calling no one else at all
I heard him say ‘No Fly List’, but his next words wrenched my heart in sorcery and enchantment 
Terrorist List, you are on the Terrorist List, my childhood syphoned from my body

I remember eavesdropping in Mama’s bedroom, ears on her door, stillness in my body
That word, terrorist, those are the Bad People who do Bad Things, I recall in torment
My world came crashing down and my life sucked out of the enchantment
Tears sprang from my eyes like water snakes, slithering across my gaze
My face scorched with fear,am I a bad person? am I a terrorist?bawled my voice
For this was the first time I felt truly scared, alone, no life in me at all
More officers came to pat us down, to scrutinize all

Mama now so weak, she begged him to let us go, protecting me with her trembling body
As the crowd around us gawked tears choked my thoughts and numbed my voice
My eyes were a flooding dam, my soul howled misery and torment
I desperately wanted all this to be a witch’s dream to erase this nauseous gaze
I wanted to wake up and go back to my real world of enchantment

Then my mother whispered to meto kindle my childhood enchantment
Her whispers were mellow and angelic, filled with love for one and all
Of course I am not a bad person, Of course I am not a terrorist, as I slowly perked up my gaze
Someone else with my name, maybe, committed some crime, in a different body
And that name got onto the No Fly List, the cause for all my torment
Her words soothed me like warm soup on a cold day but fear lives still in my voice

My Islamic name subjected my family and me to this voice
Although I am not a terrorist they view my name through an enchantment
I wished they would just keep my name and let me go, to free us from this torment
You are free to flythe officer finally said, five minutes before the plane was to fly with all
The officer smiled but his eyes still glared with suspicion across my body
He told us I was cleared but I never recovered fully from his gaze

Because nothing about me felt fully clear after being drenched with suspicion in his voice 
Me, suspected of terrorism in the child’s world of enchantment
Mirror mirror on the wall, tell me I’m not a terrorist at all — because I am soiled in torment


I am from two hundred years of colonial conquest in the age of discovery
ruling the monsoon dripping brown over Arisi patties,
split husks tender the hunched veins and slouched souls
gracing their silhouettes gazing at the distant bullock carts
stacked in rows with the handwoven crop’s birth,
never enough to store for salvation still
carries bottomless hearts chanting 
‘Vanakkam Meendum Vanga’

I am from skies painted with colors so bright they are unimaginable,
Where vedas whispers complaints to Quran
Yet weaved intrinsically with Maattu chaanam and idlis
Where the whiff of sun dried karuvadu masala brightens all senses, for
defibrillation authorized by Ayurveda clan, fitted neatly in vibrant
sarish and woven khadar kurtis and bindis that glare in the slant of dawn
glorifying the henna tendrils crawling up the skin like an English Ivy

I am from the land of over thousand dialects, of which
I know none to gossip. Where fingers scoop the pile to feed, 
palm trees drop coconuts at will, which is celebrated 
in timeless worship, prayer beads gliding between 
the sun dried and roasted cinnamon fingers, a vision held 
sacred from the smoke of lotus agarbathis incanting
slokas to whirling dervishes of Sufi mystique in the holy sermons

I am from the epic of exile in Ramayana and Mahabharata
The priestly tale of god and goddesses showering literature and
Philosophy from Bhagavad Gita reverberating in verses of yoga
and mediation, which serves as the daily roti sabji through
the smoking Coonor coal trains of the caste system where dalit toil
as rag pickers and Brahmins recounting vipassanas in incarnations, extolling
mantras in heaped brown hands, Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

I am from the littered beach where plastic knows no boundaries and
factory boys under ten, standing slender, weaving yarns to make a buck
herds of cows, hens and goats in traffic jam, kissing trash for a meal.
Where sand is piled in lorries looking deathly gaunt for export
Leaving scattered shells to blot out the memories of the day with the
daily salat-al-maghrib la ilaha illallaha

I am from the peninsula surrounded by an ocean, bay and sea, a Nirvana of sea life 
dancing in the euphoria of Eden, but not a drop to drink in protruding drought.
sun burn gives a new skin tone, hoping yellow in turmeric will magically cure
still continue to forge ahead under equatorial sun to sow, soak, spread and reap Aarisi
tailing a billion-mouth longing, relatives and friends form in every alley harnessing
their cell phones, that chime a million tone with everyone claiming to know the language of 
unfamiliar verse, but translate app comes in handy for our epiphany

I am from the battlefield of Arjuna, the mythological archer, where pride and procession 
for archery and cricket is rejoiced with the classical strings of Veenai, sitar,
and tanpura in the perfect resonance of kadhakali, which is not just a dance but
an art canvas , strung with past and present to the melody of jana Gana Mana;
where gold and monkeys are revered, through straws of prestige, owning,
the zamindar groves laden in cashews, pistas, cardamoms for selling overseas

I am from the mirage where in holy matrimony between Diwali, Ramadan, Christmas and Hanukkah
Peeling walls with the warm smell of saffron for hand rolled laddoos, tickling
my gastric veins from free range hens marinated in spicy garam masala and silky
dahi in the sumptuous tandoor, culminating in weekly offering of holy prasadham at
the temple of Hanuman and Lakshmi rejoicing in Bollywood Aaja Aaaja shakes to
holi colors, staring into heritage emanating in kajol smeared eyes and wrinkled fingertips,
carrying tropical ebony hair coiled up like the revered Naha under the muslin hijab,
reverberating Allah hu Akbar

I am who I am. 

Refugee Ghazal

Surrounded by wrath, with tears of blood and fright, living in this land,
her withered soul laser focused to light, living in this land

Leaving everyone behind buried in anonymous graves
with brush strokes of blood pumped her grit steel bright, living in this land

She’s sixteen, weeping a thick, dripping river, cradled in white noise
soul shackled in fiery squall on this last night, living in this land

She tagged behind a fishing boat, witnessing the brawl in the sky
scrambled out as refugee with all her might, living in this land

Her grit burns in her belly, echoing freedom to fight the current
after three hundred miles, clothed in tight dust, living in this land

Where illegals die, cops stun with lights, hers is venomous risk
needed to survive or perish in her plight, living in this land.

Wings to America

The minute her battered soul step off the dock,she left behind everything she knows
her family, her heritage her own people she has left everything for 
the promised land:America. She was surrounded by 
wrath, darkness, and fear her whole 
life she was spared 
to face destruction 
caused by men she had trusted deep
considered her own, in gun shots and bombings her 
relatives supported in the name of religion surrounded by loved ones
who supported violence, she watched them slowly destroy themselves in their name 
of religion, soon they rest buried in heap in anonymous graveyards
lacking any markers to grieve over, she notices they 
are always bigger than before, her 
land changed her 
she is only sixteen
the land of hope became the land of 
despair the land of sun became the land of storms for the 
skies were weeping thick, pearly tears while the oceans roared of pain 
over the terror and ruin visited upon mother nature land cruelty like the Nebuchadnezzar
she realized then the atrocities and violence of her people would never end. Breathing 
her grim homeland of death inflated her with molten lava fueling grit 
to escape from the mouth of sharks to free from the
land of war to escape from the call
of terror and torture in
she dreamed America
she longed freedom, to love and live 
free for America sounds free, she took this turn in the 
Boat but the boat set sail the sun and the sky started fighting bursts
of flame squalling fiery erupted like Armageddon wiping the Mt. Tel Meggido battlefield  
Waves started roaring louder and with more fierceness than before, she soothed herself
for she is built with foundations, values and loveso she doesn’t 
need to fear Mother Nature she clasps her hands and 
waits for the warm, balmy sun to return
for the soft sunlight to
when the waves become 
calm, warm and soothing when lights of
wrath in the sky blend into streaks of bold hues painted 
above her she knows she has arrived in the land of the free and now 
in mystery with fierce passion in her promised land to live and be free as the sun with pride

About the author: Sarah Fathima Mohammed is a Muslim-American emerging writer and high schooler from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Canvas Literary Journal, Rattle, Eunoia Review, Girls Right the World, and The Rising Phoenix Review. Her work has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and the Live Poets Society of New Jersey.  When she is not writing, she teaches English to homeless students living in shelters, reads for Polyphony Lit, and enjoys archery.