First Place Winner of the Privilege & Identity Abroad Narrative Writing Contest. See the announcement for all of our winners here.
It was rush hour in Washington, D.C., and I was in a hurry when woman approached me on the subway platform. At first glance, she appeared young. But the gray pushing through her dyed-blonde hair betrayed her age. She asked me for directions. I told her the train I was going to take was the one she wanted, and when it arrived we sat together. I told her I was from Egypt, and in the U.S. to study. She said her name was Rose, she was an Iranian-American from Los Angeles bringing some paperwork to the embassy. Then what had been small talk took a different turn.
“You’re trying to make it in the most competitive part of the country,” Rose told me. She looked pointedly at my hijab. “You want to blend in, not create more attention,” she said. “I can tell you this because I’m Muslim too. No non-Muslim would have the guts to say it. But here it is: if I were you I would lose the headscarf— for your own safety.”
I had moved to Washington in September 2016 to photograph the final months of the American elections. Elections are an obsession for me. I’ve been able to vote only once in my life, in Cairo, and the man I voted for lasted barely one year as president before being ousted in a bloody coup. But I got the elections bug. My curiosity was such that I built my final project as a journalism graduate student here around them, photographing volunteers in four separate campaigns. Neither my American accent, acquired through years of watching American movies as a kid in an all-Arabic-speaking household, nor my Boston University sweatshirts, hid the fact that I am an outsider. To many of those I encountered, something about me was very non-American. As a hijabi, I stood out, and nowhere did I feel it as acutely as in Washington.
Rose, another outsider, explained that she would pull on a bulky black cardigan over her all-black outfit and wrap a scarf over her head, just before going into the embassy. Not before. Only then. “God does not want us to get hurt,” she said. I believed her. She sounded very logical. I listened. I told her about my family. She told me about hers, mentioning briefly, even off-handedly, a daughter who also used to wear a headscarf. As her stop approached, we said goodbye. She stood up and walked to the subway door.
Rose turned for a last word. “Promise me you will think about it. For your own safety.”
She came back to me and took my hand.
“I don’t want you to get hurt in something you have nothing to do with, just like she did.”
The words caught at me. Rose leaned close enough that I could see the tears in her eyes as she told me that she lost her daughter in a hate crime. She left before I could know more. She left me with many questions that I could not immediately answer. None of them were about her daughter. They were all about me.
Marwa Morgan is an Egyptian award-winning multimedia journalist. She has worked for several Egyptian publications including the Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Egypt Today and Business Today. Her freelance work was published in NPR, the Guardian, Amnesty.com, Al-Akhbar English among other websites. She also holds a Masters of Science in Journalism from Boston University, a Bachelor’s of Science in Pharmacy from Cairo University, and a Graduate Diploma from Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences. She now lives in New York City.