The Muslim Dinner Host

I’d reached out for an interview. What I got was a dinner invitation for the whole family.

“We’re four,” I specified. “My two kids are mini tornadoes. They’re slightly nuts.”

My wife was reluctant. She’s as shy as I am brazen. We didn’t know these people. I argued that it would be rude to refuse. So we packed everyone up and drove across town.

Mohammad Siddiqui, just a guy barbecuing in his garage.

Mohammad Siddiqui, just a guy barbecuing in his garage.

stories of immigrants

In the wake of the mess going on south of the border, I was looking for stories of immigrants. I felt I had to write stories which showed real people, not racist caricatures. These immigrants needed to be either Muslim, from the countries affected by the Trump ban or, ideally, both. Mohammad Siddiqui sort of fit the bill. Like his whole family, he’s Muslim. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother, he wasn’t technically affected by the ban. But because of his name and the colour of his skin, airports and other borders are a consistent pain in the ass.

Little girls playing.

Little girls playing.

When we got to the Siddiqui household, we were greeted by Sana, Mohammad’s wife. The first thing I noticed was her long black hair. It was shockingly visible. I’d been expecting a veil. She is, after all, a member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

I like to tell myself that I’m an open-minded and tolerant person. But being a white Canadian male raised Catholic but no longer practicing, the ignorance of my kind had slyly filled my mind with all the tropes peddled by fear mongering news organisations: Muslims never eat bacon or drink booze; Muslim women always wear veils and they may or may not be enslaved to their husbands; there is a strong likelihood that all Muslims have direct or indirect ties to terrorist gangbangers somewhere in the Middle-East. Besides the bacon and booze thing, none of these racist stereotypes are anywhere near true for the Siddiquis or anyone they know. Sana and Mohammad, it turns out, have been in contact with just as many terrorists as I have. That is to say, none.

Murg Dalcha Kebab or, in other words, Hyderabad style chicken and lentil kebabs. Recipe here.

Murg Dalcha Kebab or, in other words, Hyderabad style chicken and lentil kebabs. Recipe here.

via hyderabad

The house smelled fabulously of spices and frying onions. I had made a point of telling Mohammad that he didn’t need to make his mother’s Indian food. He’d told me on the phone that, much like myself, he enjoyed cooking without any geographical limitations. One night it could be shawarmas, the next a papaya salad or a French onion soup. But tonight was Indian because he’d simply decided that that’s what it would be. I wasn’t about to complain.

Tandoori marinated chicken legs.

Tandoori marinated chicken legs.

In the living room, my daughter, having been born with freakishly innate mothering skills, immediately took to Mohammad and Sana’s daughter. My son, having been born with the mercurial temperament of the Hulk, proceeded to throwing everything he could find on the ground and/or popping it into his mouth. I headed for the kitchen to see if I could help with anything.

I quickly realised that though we’d come for a meal, we were to be served a feast. Mohammad was going all out. Roasted eggplants were frying in garlic. Chicken legs were bathing in a tandoori marinade while the barbecue was heating up. His mother’s Hyderabad style kebabs (see recipe here) were coming together. The smell of rice was wafting up from somewhere and flatbreads were off to the side of the stove, ready for the frying pan.

As he cooked, we talked. I was especially curious to know where Mohammad’s love of cooking came from. “In Saudi Arabia,” he said, referring to his pre-2006 life, “food was very cheap. I would eat out even after dinner. Here, food is more expensive and doesn’t have the same flavour. When I met Sana for the first time, she wanted to feed me frozen meat sent from her Mom. She was doing her master’s degree and so didn’t have time to cook anything but eggs and her mother’s food reheated in the oven. So I started cooking for her. The first time, I made pasta with a homemade sauce. She liked it.”

Tandoori chicken ready for the table.

Tandoori chicken ready for the table.

Just a guy

In addition to being the main cook in his house, Mohammad is like most young, Canadian men I know. I personally witnessed him going upstairs to change a diaper. Sana and Mohammad are equals, not one ruling the roost or pulling more weight than the other. Mohammad stood in his garage grilling chicken legs whilst staring out at the melting snow, doubtless with the same satisfaction as all Canadians feel when the white stuff finally goes away. Once everything was ready and placed on the table, he sat off to the side to feed his daughter while the rest of us ate the delicious meal he’d prepared. Except for my son. He was just throwing everything on the ground. Basmati rice, by the way, is a bad idea when there is no dog under the table to clean up the mess.

In a way, I left Mohammad and Sana’s house feeling vindicated. I was not raised to be racist even though I was raised in a very homo-milk small town. Hating whole populations because of religion, skin colour, country of origin or other superficial trivialities has always been incomprehensible to me. What’s more, I’ve never met an immigrant I didn’t like. With their generous hospitality and Mohammad’s great cooking skills, these new friends were certainly not the exception.

More often than not, it’s worth saying yes to a dinner invitation.