August 26, 2010
Text and photo by Jen Cowart
AN AMERICAN FAMILY: Nancy Kattan stands with two of her four children, Zayne and Nora, at their family's home where in Cranston.
In many ways, the Kattan family of Cranston is no different from their neighbors. They have four children, three of whom attend Cranston Public Schools, and one who recently graduated from Cranston West. They have a swimming pool, they play sports, and they’re active in the community.
The Kattans are also a Muslim American family.
Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the world’s view of Muslims has changed greatly. It has made things difficult for many of the more than 2.5 million Muslim Americans estimated to be living across the country today.
Here in Cranston, however, Nancy Kattan and her husband Khaled are just trying to live their normal lives and raise their children.
Kattan, who was born and raised Catholic, met Khaled through mutual friends more than 20 years ago, when she was in her early 20s. She had a decision on her hands: to convert or not to convert to her future husband’s Muslim faith.
“It was about a two-year process, where I learned about his faith and tried to make sure that this was what was best for me and for God,” said Kattan, describing that time of personal reflection.
Ultimately, she decided that it was the right choice for her and she converted.
When she was 25, she and Khaled married.
“I am very blessed,” said Kattan. “My father had already passed away, but I know he would have been supportive of my decision, and the rest of my family was very understanding.”
Today, the family is in the midst of the month-long observance of Ramadan. Fasting from sunup to sundown is part of the holiday observance, and the Kattans get up in the middle of the night, before the sun, to eat a large meal. They take a mid-morning nap, and then go the rest of the day before eating or drinking again.
Observance of the Ramadan tradition begins during adolescence, so Kattan’s youngest child, 9-year-old Nora, does not need to follow the fasting rites as strictly as the older children and the adults.
The Kattan family enjoys the neighborhood in which they live and run a family convenience store business. Despite the challenges those in her faith have faced, Kattan says she feels as if the family is viewed more as a staple in the neighborhood than any kind of a threat.
“Everyone here knows us and I feel pretty comfortable around here,” Kattan says. “If I stay within the Cranston, Johnston and Providence metropolitan areas, I feel okay.”
It’s venturing beyond those lines where things can sometimes get a little bit tricky, says Kattan.
Kattan wears her Muslim head covering, called a hijab, daily, including when she is out in public; a practice that sometimes draws stares and rude comments.
“Funny looks are a daily occurrence for me, but not as many people will actually say anything,” Kattan said.
Oftentimes, when they do, Kattan will answer right back, drawing on her Italian sarcasm to give it right back to them. Most often though, she tries to ignore them and remain positive.
“I try to gravitate towards the positive people. If I paid attention to all the negative, I don’t know how I’d survive out there,” she said.
There have been a few bumps in the road for the Kattan children attending school in Cranston, but overall they have not had many problems. Education is a priority in their family, as Kattan has a degree in theater and a master’s degree in social work.
More often than not, if there are activities that her children are uncomfortable with at school, Kattan asks that an alternate activity be allowed instead.
“When one of my sons was in fifth grade, he was uncomfortable with making the gingerbread houses that the rest of the class was making. In our religion, food is sacred and we are blessed to have it. We try very hard not to waste it,” Kattan said.
Her son went up to his teacher and said that he did not feel comfortable wasting food on the project, and could he do something else instead.
“The teacher was so impressed and so happy that he felt comfortable coming to her, that she called me to tell me,” she said.
Sadly, it’s often the comments from other students that are most upsetting for the Kattan kids. Both Nora and Zayne have both encountered peers who have been less than friendly to them at school.
“There was a kid in my class who said something to me like, ‘Your family bombs buildings and kills other people,’” said Nora. “I told the teacher and she made him apologize to me, but I don’t think that was enough.”
Nora was also sad during this school year when she heard younger students picking on her kindergarten cousin about being Muslim.
“I don’t know how kids in the first grade know how to say such bad things about other people,” Nora said. “Where do they hear that stuff?”
As Nora approaches adolescence, she is excited about the prospect of wearing the hijab. She’ll begin transitioning soon, so that her friends and family will get used to seeing her with her head covered.
I’m going to start with a bandana for a year or two, so that they get used to seeing me, and then I’ll add the other piece,” said Nora.
Kattan is happy to see that her children are sure of themselves and their religion.
“They have a presence about them,” she said. “What about those kids who are shy or introverted? They’re the ones that are going to be targeted.”
Zayne does not hide the fact that he is Muslim when he is at school, but he knows of students in his school who do, for fear of being targeted.
Kattan admits to being frustrated at times with the targeting of Muslims in general.
“Five percent of the world make it tough for the rest of us to live,” Kattan said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to stand strong against the negativity and keep my children grounded.”
She also notes that television is one of the worst offenders.
“I’m trying to raise four children here in America,” she said. “And you turn on the TV and you hear senators talking about banning mosques everywhere – not just in New York City at Ground Zero – that’s scary.”
With all of the debate in the media recently surrounding the proposed Park 51 community center and mosque, Kattan has heard comments that frighten her, including a recent comment that true Muslim men beat their wives every day.
Kattan can attest that these ideas couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I don’t know why people feel that it’s okay to portray Muslims as barbarous. If you portray someone as less than you and as evil beings, then it’s okay to do things that are less than nice,” she said.
True religious Muslims, Kattan said, are peaceful people.
“In the Koran it says that if you’ve killed one innocent life, then you’ve killed all of humanity. So imagine anyone taking that kind of power into their hands. I’ve never ever, ever heard any Muslim say that was okay,” she said. “To blame a billion people for what one group of people did, who just happened to be Muslims with a political agenda rather than a religious one, is just wrong.”
In Kattan’s lifetime, both here and in her husband’s homeland of Syria where her family lived for seven months, she’s developed a philosophy of life that connects all cultures.
“People are people all over the world. They all want the same thing. Parents are the same everywhere. They want a good education for their kids, enough food, and shelter. When those needs are being met, most people are calm,” she said. “Unfortunately, not a lot of people are having their needs met and I think that fuels a lot of the problems in this world.”
For her family, though, life is good.
“I love Cranston. This is my home,” said Kattan. “I consider myself an American who happens to be a Muslim.”