Who says someone named “Hussein” can’t be president of the United States? I was. Granted, it was only a school play, and I spell my name “Hussain.” But I thought I did a pretty good job as the commander in chief, even if my wardrobe consisted of an old tweed jacket from Sears.
As a Muslim woman, I’d have an easier time climbing the Himalayas in my bare feet than landing in the Oval Office. I’m aware, post 9/11, why a presidential candidate’s real or perceived ties to the Islamic faith translates to campaign kryptonite. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m cool with the sinister insinuations that all Muslims are suspect and therefore, unfit to lead the country.
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry a few days back listening to radio talk show host Bill Cunningham repeatedly scream Barack Obama’s middle name — my last name — as if he had anti-Muslim Tourette’s. “Hussein,” Cunningham hissed like he was beckoning Satan when shouting the Arabic word for “good,” “handsome” or “beautiful.”
No matter how many times Obama insists he’s a Christian, bigots’ panties get twisted tighter than the turban in that recent photo intended to “slander” the Democratic presidential hopeful. Wake up. A lot of African-American Christians have Muslim names. Obama happens to be one of them.
When I was growing up, “Hussein” was simply code for “foreigner,” despite my birth in a North Side hospital. The stares and smirks started only after the Persian Gulf War. At the beginning of every semester in college, my classmates practically got whiplash, straining to glimpse a Saddam Hussein look-alike only to spot a 5-foot-2 pseudo-hippie wearing Chuck Taylors.
My parents viewed the demonization of our surname as a blessing in disguise. No newspaper would welcome a “Hussain” byline, they decided, coaxing me toward medicine, the only acceptable career for “obedient” children of most South Asian immigrants. (They were glad I proved them wrong.)
Honestly, my last name’s shock value has diminished over the years, a testament, I believe, to our country’s growing diversity. Many Americans understand that common names don’t only come in the form of a “Smith” or a “Johnson.” Perhaps, they have a neighbor, mechanic or teacher named Hussein. Or maybe they’ve seen fashion designer Hussein Chalayan in the pages of Vogue or recall King Hussein, our ally in the Middle East. (MORE)
Rummana Hussain is a general assignment reporter at the Sun-Times.