A field of weeds or an oasis of flowers? How an incident in Brookshire’s gave Yasmeen Khalifa resolve to show up in Tyler

Photo by Jamie Maldonado.

My name is Yasmeen Khalifa. I’ve lived in the same house at the corner of Rieck and Copeland my entire life. I’m a Tylerite through and through. I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but I’m Muslim.  Today I will be sharing with y’all two stories about my experience in Tyler as a Muslim Egyptian woman.

It was a relatively warm day years ago. I was a freshman or sophomore at Robert E. Lee High School. I don’t remember which exactly. Some of the details are muddled, to be quite honest. I’ve tried to block out the memory, but the worst details remain. I was with my mom, who was then fifty-something years old and I won’t say her exact age, or I’ll know I’ll get that flying flip flop later.

Yasmeen and her mom on an Egypt beach. All subsequent photos courtesy Yasmeen Khalifa

She’s an Egyptian mama with a heart of gold, but she doesn’t take crap from anyone. We were at a neighborhood Brookshire’s off of Broadway buying an assorted fruit platter to deliver to our family friends. Just like every other day, we were wearing our head scarves, which are a part of our religion.

My mom’s best friend had just undergone open heart surgery. She was still in the hospital and we wanted to bring the family sustenance that didn’t come out of a vending machine. We grabbed the platter, headed back over to the checkout, and stood in line. The elderly woman ahead of us was buying what seemed to be a month supply of food. It was going to be a while. As we were waiting, my mom and I began chatting about my day at Lee, where we were going to park when we arrived at Trinity Mother Frances, etc., etc.

“A Tylerite through and through,” Yasmeen and her sisters celebrate high school graduation from Robert E. Lee, 2017.

Halfway through our conversation, I noticed a little boy, no more than five or six years old, squeeze in between my mom and the magazine stand. He assessed the glossy covers, and then one by one pulled several off the racks and turned them over to their backsides. I noticed he only did this with the magazines featuring women in bikinis. I scrunched my eyebrows in confusion, now more aware of the little boy and his mother who stood directly behind us in line.

The young boy returned to his mother and began pestering her loudly asking, “Mom! Should we move lines? Let’s move lines”.

Okay. Now I was on high alert. I thought to myself, “What’s this kid’s deal?” I quickly got an answer.

In an equally loud voice with spikes of irritation, the mother responded, “No, we do NOT have to move lines. We have a right to be here because this is OUR country, and we don’t behead people here in America”.

Yasmeen poses with her mother’s extended family in her aunt’s living room in Cairo.

Oh, no she didn’t. I whipped my head around, anger coursing through my veins, hands shaking, anxiety rising, hands balled into fists. I stared the woman dead in the eyes, my thoughts racing to find the words to defend myself and my mom.

I thought I might throw up or have a panic attack. I wanted to turn away or fire back a retort, or even hit the woman. But then I felt my mom’s cold hand on my own snap me out of my rage. I immediately turned back around, tears welling in my eyes. I did nothing. I was frozen.

Looking back, I probably would have said to the woman, “Ma’am, Islam preaches love, not hate. So all I’m going to say is ‘have a blessed day’. Oh, and please tell your son that women’s bodies are beautiful covered or uncovered.”

“I can help whoever is next,” I hear the cashier say over the sound of my heart beating in my ears.

I bit my lip to focus on anything else as I placed the fruit platter on the conveyor. The cashier looked at my mom’s stone-cold face and my tear- filled eyes and mouthed, “I’m sorry.” Unfortunately, the woman was not finished with her attack.

“You’re going to hell. You’re all going to hell. You disgust me. You’re going to hell, you terrorists,” she spewed.

Yasmeen and friends take a break from the ski lifts during a UT Tyler trip to Colorado.

The cashier finally finished ringing us up. The woman didn’t finish her tirade until the cashier said to my mom and me, “Have a nice day.” Finally, my mom and I speed-walked out of the glass doors, and the second the fresh air hit me, tears streamed down my face.

The ride to the hospital was utterly silent. I didn’t realize it in the moment, but my mom’s hand on mine was a lesson to pick my battles. Sometimes not taking crap from anyone means putting on a stone-cold face, not giving the person the satisfaction of a reaction. Like my dad has always said, “You can’t fix ignorant.”

Fast forward about three years to February 2, 2017. Three days prior, on January 28, a mosque in Victoria, Texas, was set on fire. Prosecutors called it a “simple straightforward case of hate.” Then, the next day on January 29, six people were killed in a terrorist attack at a Quebec mosque. But here in Tyler, over 200 people of all different faiths showed up that night to the local mosque, The East Texas Islamic Society, to show their support for Muslims.

Yasmeen sports a yellow flower, a symbol of friendship, during Out of the Loop’s April, 2019, storytelling event at Liberty Hall.

They brought yellow flowers, a symbol of friendship, and kind notes that filled up an entire table. The event was initiated by a Facebook group called Tyler Supports Their Muslim Neighbors, by Jen Katz and Sheila Thrash. Religious leaders of all different faiths, like Rabbi Neal Katz, came together to show Muslims that they are not alone.

I couldn’t make it that night because I was at home sick. But as I watched the Snapchats my friend sent me, I couldn’t help but cry. This time, they were tears of joy. Growing up here in Tyler, I felt much hate and ignorance targeted towards Muslims.

Like the time a pack of male students stopped me on the sidewalk at Lee and asked me, “if I could bomb any building in the United States, which would it be.” Or the time my mom was called a terrorist at the Tyler Pounds Airport.

However, the instances of hate should not overshadow the acts of love that are demonstrated nearly every day in small and big ways. Like when a teacher stepped in and chased off  that pack of boys for me. Still, sometimes I feel choked by the weeds of racism and Islamophobia.

They can even grow up the walls of a neighborhood Brookshire’s. It is a vine, a weed that does not belong in a town that is heralded for its beautiful lawns, rose gardens and azalea trails.

Yasmeen displays an early issue of UT Tyler’s Patriot Talon spread, showing her work.

Tyler has been my home for 20 years. I have friends here and endless memories. But still, there are moments my short summers spent in Egypt  feel more like home. There, I blend right in. For once, I’m in the majority. No stares at my headscarf. No anxiety about what a trip to the grocery store will entail.

Yasmeen stops along a busy street during Eid al-Adha, a public holiday in Egypt.
On a farm in Egypt, Yasmeen, posing with her cousin, feels right at home.

However, Tyler will always be my home. I’m connected to the city and I will keep fighting to make it more inclusive. Tyler needs people like me to show up. People who resist racism and insist on fighting for every member of this community to feel valued. Fighting to squash the stares, the demeaning tones of voice, and the attitudes of superiority.

So, will Tyler become a field of weeds or an oasis of yellow flowers?

Have a true personal story about life in Tyler and East Texas you’d like to share at the next Out of the Loop storytelling event? Email storytelling director Jane Neal and describe your story in a sentence or two.

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Yasmeen Khalifa, a Loop 2019 summer intern, is a Mass Communication and English student at the University of Texas at Tyler. She is the managing and lifestyle editor of The Patriot, a student-run newspaper investigating issues on- and off-campus, exploring the changing East Texas culture, and giving students a voice. Khalifa recently co-founded a new music series in The Patriot titled “Music in the Pines: Exploring Eclectic East Texas.” The series highlights local musicians, venues, concerts and other events as the music scene in East Texas evolves and thrives. Yasmeen also works as a lab technician in the Mass Communication department. Khalifa is the founding president of the Keep Tyler Beautiful Youth Advisory Committee, a group of students working together to encourage beautification, litter reduction and recycling in Tyler.