In May, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on new beginnings and changes.
It's 1996. I'm standing outside the door of the layout room. I'm not yet a writer. I'm here for a position at the newspaper. I want to be a journalist like my father and travel the world. I want to breathe life into its platitudes, know its torment, and ascertain its truths. I've got big dreams. It's high school, after all.
The door opens to reveal budding reporters buried under their words. Heads bent over sprawled pages, pencils scattered across tables. The hum carries through the opening and stirs that renascent need to belong. As I step forward and inhale, my reflection catches me.
A wisp of a girl, with a head veiled in black, stares back at me. I tug at my hijab. Islamophobia isn't trending yet. Neither is hijab. The oddity straddles the line between curious and exotic. Despite it, my friends dub me as a pioneer of sorts. I've chosen to wear my headcover in a time when few know what a Muslim is.
Doubt settles between my brows as I cage my dream. I shrink back from my reflection. The door swings closed. I walk away.
Twenty years pass.
I'm a mother with a career on pause. Muslims are a rage these days. The extrinsic peculiarity of the now familiar headscarf carries ominous undertones. Women in hijab today debate the merits of fear and visibility in the hyper-paranoia stifling the nation. But in their midst rises a woman who pierces the mold with the point of her steel blade.
Thirty-year-old sabre-fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, poised for the next summer Olympics, is the Anka emerging from the cinders of my desiccated youth.
Striking in her hijab as she creates her own right-of-way among her detractors, Ibtihaj defies every construct in and out of the sports world. Her identity isn't her obstacle. It's what shapes her ambition and propels her forward without any suspension of belief. She's dauntless and zealous and who I should've been, had I embraced my reflection and my dream.
Ibtihaj is everything I'm not -- down to her hijab. A spiritual meltdown claims culpability for the removal of mine just as I hit 30. Self-doubt and ennui can be deviant bedfellows. Paradoxically, it's ambition that peers through the bars, still awaiting reprieve.
Fencing's seductive allure, for me, has remained mostly confined in film. In a speech, Ibtihaj quips she's Zorro's hijabi equivalent. Standing en garde, sabre in hand, ready for attack, she's so much more. Her deft footwork and lightning arm thrusts are reminiscent of another athlete with a similar name.
She defies a standard oft-reserved for men. Hers is no chandelier-swinging swordplay. Even with a mask barring all expression, it's far more captivating. Now that she has my attention.
What separates Ibtihaj from others in the welcome upswing of discernibly Muslim figures during these shadowy times is that she's made it. This isn't a case of butterflies and net. She's the physical quintessence of a dream that isn't deferred.
"The first woman in hijab to represent the U.S. in the Olympics" is a formidable title, so worthy of dominating social media feeds. It's how she first appears on my radar, inducing a range of dissonant emotions. Pride, envy, awe and a subtle chagrin. "If only" is a rankling phrase.
I google Ibtihaj relentlessly for two days. She makes Ellen DeGeneres laugh and playfully duels Andy Zenor. Everyone cheers. President Obama and I aren't the only ones rooting for her. She openly challenges an SXSW festival employee who demands the removal of her hijab, then extracts an official apology for the transgression. Mainstream and indie networks cover her rise. Time magazine enlists her as a pioneer. Her charisma impales the screen. She's both guarded and transparent in her responses. She's so difficult to dislike. And she's a mighty opponent on the piste.
In a world of insta-celebrity where the fruit is often the labor, a woman like Ibtihaj becomes a potent reminder of the value of labor itself -- without compromise. "There are voices in this world [that] are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities," she says. " Do not believe them... You're right where you belong...."
Am I? I've wondered across time, wistfully waiting for my chance behind uncertainty and remorse.
As I watch Ibtihaj in her white lamé, breeches and mask, I realize her choice of sport relative to her (Islamic) dress code didn't give her a free pass either. When she doffs the mask, she's unmistakably a black female Muslim athlete in a sport historically dominated by white men. And yet, she hasn't let it derail her dream.
I consider my own pursuits of late, albeit in the absence of my hijab. Dreams don't wrinkle with time, I realize. A part of mine has found its place among words, though not as I once imagined. Perhaps my time isn't done after all, and I haven't lost anything I can't still retrieve. Perhaps the stories that need to tell themselves will find me once I walk past ambivalence to open that door.
Ibtihaj's journey proves that the world is only as material as its attachments. Fencing offers her the perfect cover in the way writing allows me mine. Her hijab is visible once she unmasks. Mine's masked in everything I write. Try as we might, neither can escape the identity that bleeds between us. Ibtihaj's refusal to compromise her belief, identity or passion confirms what I've always fortuitously known. There is no compromise. Not when you're a contender. The trick is to find what fits all of you and then give chase.
Rather than compromise my faith, I chose to turn away from my dream. But I didn't have to choose. Witnessing the rise of someone like Ibtihaj tells me that my hijab never hindered me at all. I hindered myself. And should I choose to reclaim that lost part of me, neither it nor I will stand in the way of my pursuits again.
And with that, I circle back 20 years, unlock the cage, release my ambition, and let my dream fly.
Nasha Khan is a freelance writer with a graduate writing degree from the University of Southern California. She has studied under noted writers at the University of Cambridge. Her work was recently featured in The Tempest and Blue Minaret.