Interview With a Muslim Immigrant: A Story of Strife, Challenge, and Beauty
Preparing for the Interview
It was with some trepidation that I pulled into the parking lot of the Bradbury Elderly Center. I did not know the woman I would be interviewing personally and was somewhat nervous to be thrown into the interview. The concept of preserving our history was important, but I had never been that inquisitive with my own grandparents. I felt like I was betraying them, somehow,
As part of ensuring her character survives through this interview, I kept her swearing intact. This was a part of her character that cannot be removed. Sophia was a spit fire, a hard woman, and this was another element to her nature. Also, a great deal of this interview was spent in uneasy silence—with me scared of her or not understanding what she meant. I added my mental thoughts in italics within the interview to reflect this.
Throughout the interview, I used a tape recorder and took occasional notes. Sophia was fine with this, her only request was that we didn’t look at each other during the interview. I thought this odd since she was such a fire cracker with her humor and rampant swearing, until one of the nurses informed me of her condition. She had a tumor growing in her cheek and it made people uncomfortable to look at—she was just thinking of me.
I also learned later that she never felt any pain, but refused treatment as she wanted to live out the rest of her days in freedom. Even though she was in an elderly care center, to her, the hospital was a bit too much like prison for her. The doctors didn’t know how much time she had left, but the nurses told me I could come in and interview her anytime—because they wanted her to never feel alone, and she loved visitors, despite her condition.
Background on Sophia
Sophia is 82 years old. She immigrated with her family from a country called Suriname when she was 17, nearly seventy years ago. I had to inquire about the location of Suriname, to which she made fun of me mercilessly, before informing me that the country is in Northern South America, near Brazil. I also learned, almost immediately, and because of the hijab (I had to inquire about her clothes, to which she informed me that all women wear the hijab, only she doesn’t wear the veil indoors) that Sophia was Muslim.
Sophia remembers well her time in Suriname, as the country was often undergoing a war and she was never allowed outside because of her father’s laborers who he did not trust around his daughters. Her family was fairly wealthy, wealthy enough to have two servants, that she called slaves, and a governess to take care of the seven children, and Sophia and her governess would often sit at the window and day dream about what life in a free country would be like.
As Sophia grew into her teens, her governess discovered that she had a knack for cooking and taught Sophia everything that she knew. When Sophia came to America, the first thing she did was to get a job as a hostess at a restaurant and, within two years, had worked her way up to head chef. If it was one thing that Sophia knew—it was food, and I could see immediately why my uncle would have recommended her.
Analysis: I walked into a semi-lit room full of religious paintings, sculptures, and strange Jewish-looking items I had never seen before. The nurse was right behind me, calling out to Sophia. I saw her over in the far corner of the room, her back turned to us. I could see that she nodded to the nurse’s call, but she did not turn around. I was introduced to Sophia and moved forward to shake her hand, but she wouldn’t turn around and look at me. The nurse whispered not to ask her to, and to just speak to her like a normal conversation. I nodded, unsure why Sophia would refuse to look at someone, especially, if as my uncle had said, she liked getting visitors. But I let the nurse introduce us and my reason for visiting Sophia, and after a bit of small talk we started our first interview.
Me: I do have some questions for you—but I don’t need to ask them now. I’m looking to get your story.
Sophia: Ha! Oh, dear. I hope you have a long time, dear one (laughs)
Me: (laughing) I do actually!
Sophia: Well Hell. (coughs) Sorry I swear sometimes. Shit. See? Ha! (laughs)
Me: (laughing again, though I’m now uneasy) It’s okay, I want you to feel comfortable.
Sophia: This would be easier if you told me what you want to know. Please.
Analysis: Immediately the laughter was gone from her voice. It was at this moment that I realized how direct Sophia was. Without being able to look at her, I could still sense her hawk-like gaze. This woman did not brook insolence or wastefulness. Even though she liked visitors, or so my uncle and the nurses told me, the hard edge to her voice told me that she didn’t want me to waste her time with storytelling.
Me: (I actually gulped here). Sure. (rifling through my notes). Can you tell me why your family immigrated to Los Angeles?
Sophia: God almighty! That is a crazy story! (laughs)
Me: Ummm, are you Muslim?
Analysis: I had to ask. She was wearing unusual clothing and I saw religious paraphernalia on her walls. If I had to guess, Jewish or Muslim. But the woman was swearing like a sailor, so I was thrown. And she had a hard edge to her voice that made me uncomfortable enough to ask.
Sophia. (quiet for a while).
Me: (almost ready to walk out—or apologize)
Sophia: (coughs). Fine, yes. I’m a Muslim.
Me: I’m sorry I asked.
Sophia: Not many do, you know.
Me: I’m sorry, again. I didn’t mean to be blunt—
Sophia: It’s fine! Let’s move on shall we?
Analysis: There was a tension between us now. I felt as though I had ruined things with her and that the rest of the hour and the additional interviews would be the most uncomfortable of my life. But, that too, was part of Sophia’s nature. As I was to learn, she made people uncomfortable on purpose—I don’t think she ever really took offence to anything. And, I think she swore for the same reasons. While I could see by her garments and the religious items in her room that she must be devout, she seemed to separate herself from her religion when with people—to get a rise out of them, I am sure.
Me: (fumbling again) Sure, okay. Can I ask where you used to live before your family came to Los Angeles?
Analysis: I had a long pause here, not sure she had spoken English to me. It is, of course, my ignorance in countries, but I did not know that Suriname was one.
Sophia: What’s your problem with Suriname?
Me: (I felt panic welling up inside me) Ummm.
Sophia: God! Christ almighty! That’s funny. (laughs) You don’t know where Suriname is, do you? (laughs hard for a time)
Me: No, I’m sorry.
Sophia: If you apologize to me one more fucking time, I’ll kill you, okay? And I’m not joking—I’ll stop your fucking heart, okay? Don’t apologize for ignorance.
Me: (the words ‘I’m sorry’ ready to come out again—she scared me a little) Okay.
Sophia: Okay then. (quiet a while) Suriname is near Brazil, in Northern South America. Do you know where that is?
Me: (sighing in relief) Yes.
Sophia: Not so dumb, then? Ha! (laughing hard)
Me: (laughing) No, guess not. But ummmm, can you tell me a bit about it?
Sophia: (quiet again) No.
Sophia: You know what? You aren’t going to get far in life if you stop at no.
Sophia: (cutting me off) Stop! Stop! Stop! You say ‘I’m sorry’ again and it’ll be your ass!
Analysis: Wow was Sophia hard on me. I was near tears at this point because, really she was scary. She laughed one minute and screamed at me the next. I know I tended to apologize with her a bit much—but I couldn’t help it. Sophia had a way of making people feel insignificant and fearful. There were points were I had to stop myself from shaking, she was so forceful, almost malicious. I still wasn’t sure why my uncle would have thought I’d do well with her. Also, at this point the nurses came in and asked me to come out and speak with them. Said she was shouting too much and they were worried about her health.
Then the truth came out. Why she wouldn’t look at me—because of the huge growth on her left cheek, that she was refusing treatment for her tumor, and that she had already outlived the doctor’s death announcement by six years. I was startled they would tell me this, but the nurse seemed to understand something else about Sophia—that she needed someone to talk to. When I asked the nurse why she was so mean to me, the nurse laughed aloud, informing me that it was Sophia’s way of initiation. She had many high schoolers coming in and, if they made it through the first meeting, she would let down her attitude and let them into her life. The nurse said that so far, only one student had ever come back—but that student was killed in a car accident about a year ago.
Since then, Sophia had grown even tougher on the people who came to see her. At this point, the nurse informed me that visitor hours were over, but if I wanted to, I could come back tomorrow—if I wasn’t too put off by her. She seemed skeptical that I would ever return, knowing the Sophia’s success rate with others.
Understanding now how Sophia was and why she made me feel insignificant with her cruel words, I made up my mind that I would keep coming back—just like the other student did. Despite her vindictive sense of humor, there was something about her that made me want to learn more.
Analysis: I went back to the elderly care center with even more trepidation than on my first visit. I didn’t feel as if I had really gotten any information out of Sophia—other than some insight into her character, which, I had to admit, intrigued me. This time, though, I had my questions in hand. I didn’t want to upset her by not being prepared. We shared a few minutes of small talk while the nurse tidied up the room, and indeed, Sophia was nicer to me this time, though I felt that she was resigned, somehow, and maybe even a little saddened by my second visit.
Me: I would like to ask you about Suriname. I looked it up online and did some research on your country.
Sophia: Fancy research, eh?
Me: Sure, I guess.
Sophia: (sighs) I’m sure your research didn’t tell you about what it was like to be there.
Me: Not really. You don’t have to tell me that part though. (she remained quiet, I thought she seemed sad, even) ummm, I read that Suriname has great food.
Sophia: Ha! Yes it does!
Me: Were you a cook, then?
Sophia: Yes! Yes I was! (laughing) I was a great cook, actually.
Sophia: Okay, dear one. I’ll tell you.
Me: You will?
Sophia: Make sure that little box thingy of yours is on—I will not repeat myself.
Me: (scrambling to turn on my recorder and get my pen) Ready.
Sophia: Okay if I start with my family?
Me: (not sure what she meant) Sure.
Sophia: Fine, that’s fine then. Umm. My family was wealthy—we weren’t royalty or politicians, but my family owned a cocoa plantation—it had been in the family for over fifty years when we immigrated to America. And we had slaves—two of them. And workers, twenty five, I think. And I had a governess. Seven children in my family, but I was the oldest. Her name was Carmen and I loved her like my own mother, who I did not often spend time with. I didn’t spend time with much of my family, actually. My four brothers and two other sisters were young, my brothers following my father around on the plantation and my sisters being shy and preferring my mother’s company to mine. We were a formal family. My mother was ‘ma’am’ and my father was ‘sir.’ My governess was ‘lady,’ but I called her by name sometimes, she felt like a friend to me (a loud beep, then a grinding sound) …what the fuck?
Me: Sorry! My tape…it…
Sophia: Shit. Get that thing fixed, please. And what did I say about apologizing?
Me: (quiet, afraid to say a word and ruin our moment, frantically flipping the tape over, knowing I should have spent the $9 bucks more to get a digital, but I didn’t want to worry about batteries on those things, having heard that they burned out faster than the tape-versions)
Sophia: (sighs) Ready?
Me: Yes, please continue. You were talking about Carmen, being like a friend…
Sophia: (cuts me off) I’m not senile! Dammit! I know what I was talking about. (sniffs)
Me: (quiet—wanting to apologize, but wanting less to be chastised again)
Sophia: That’s better. (laughs) See I taught you something, just now.
Me: (laughing, relieved) You did. Thank you.
Sophia: That was sincere.
Me: (startled) Yes, I was being sincere.
Sophia: So I said.
Me: (quiet, unsure where this was going)
Sophia: Not many are, these days, you know.
Me: I noticed that myself.
Sophia: Did you say that stupid thing was ready yet?
Me: Yes, please continue.
Sophia: Fine. Where was I?
Me: (quiet, afraid to answer)
Sophia: Good. You learn quick! I know dammed well where I was.
Me: (quiet, waiting for her to continue)
Sophia: Carmen was wonderful to me, you understand?
Me: (frantic again, but getting frustrated) Well, obviously I don’t know exactly, but I have had family of my own. Loved ones.
Sophia: Ah, a little attitude emerges. I like that. Don’t lie to me—ever! Okay?
Me: Okay. I promise.
Sophia: That was sincere.
Analysis: This exchange was eye-opening to me. Sophia picked up on things that were unconscious to me. Replying that I understood something without understanding that “exact” something was not part of my culture. In my world, people reply that they understand to keep the conversation going, to re-assure the other participant. But, Sophia took this subconscious act to a whole new level. I would have to carefully monitor my words with her. Already, I had, not reminding her where we were when there were pauses or the tape died. And, her big thing: not apologizing to her. Again, that was ingrained in me as part of my social norms—and with her, it seemed to be warranted often, as she was so commanding, refusing to accept things that others would overlook. I wondered if she was this way because of Suriname. I felt that California could be the cause of her hardened nature, but maybe it too, made her more conscious of these subconscious human instincts in conversation. In fact, as I came to know her better, I was sure of it.
Sophia: mmmmm. I loved Carmen. When we came to America, you have to understand that she couldn’t come with us. (Sophia rocked in her chair a bit, while I sat in silence.) I’m sure she was killed in the riots, but I never knew.
Me: (Since Sophia remained quiet after this, I decided I had to ask). What riots?
Sophia: On the plantation. My family was one of many that was targeted for not paying worker’s proper wages—but my father did! He did! He did!
Analysis: The nurse came in at this moment and asked me to come out and see her, seems I had started Sophia shouting again. I didn’t mean to, but I saw that there was a story lurking beneath Sophia’s mannerisms. After Sophia had her lunch, I was allowed back in to finish our visit.
Sophia: You want the real story?
Sophia: That tape thingy on?
Me: (I was ready this time) Yes.
Sophia: You sure? I don’t want to waste any time here.
Me: I’m sure. Please tell me your story, Sophia.
Sophia: That was sincere.
Me: (smiling to myself) Yes.
Sophia: (taking a moment to settle herself in her chair, always facing the wall). The riots were terrible. At first, we had only heard of the deaths, then our neighbors were killed. My mother and father knew that we had to leave, probably leave Suriname, because they feared for our lives. Then, the riots came to our home. My youngest sister was murdered! Fucking murdered! The bastards laid her out on the lawn! (sob) She was four. (quiet a while). We don’t know how she got outside, how they found her. It was scary. There were many dark days for us. Then we left Suriname. It was night. The governess and slaves were asleep—my family didn’t trust them anymore. We traveled many months, visiting family in Brazil. Then mother heard something about America, that a ship was leaving. My family spent their fortune to get us on that ship. My other sister died while on board—too young, too fragile! Mother never got over her grief and died a few months later. Father never got over his daughter’s deaths either and vanished one night, we never heard of him again. It was just me and my four younger brothers. I was the oldest, at seventeen and knew I had to provide us an income. Somehow we found shelter in Los Angeles and I enrolled them into school. Later, all four joined the Army and fought in the war. Two were chefs, like me, and the others were infantry men. I never saw any of my brothers again, after they joined. But we’ve written letters. (quiet a while). They’re all dead now. Just me.
Me: (not sure what to say, but decided to go with her chef tidbit) You were a chef?
Sophia: (laughs) That’s the story you want to know, huh? Ha! (quiet) okay then. (quiet a long time) Can you come back tomorrow, dear? I’m getting tired.
Analysis: Sophia’s story was intense. Her voice was harsh and thick when she told of her sister’s deaths, losing her mother and father. She was on the verge of exploding, I could sense it. I didn’t want to upset her, so when I heard she was a chef, I knew that was my opening. Little did I know, Sophia’s greatest story was yet to come.
Sophia: That thingy on? Can I talk yet?
Me: Good to go, I’m ready.
Sophia: So you want to know about me being a chef?
Me: Yes, please.
Sophia: Again, sincere.
Analysis: This part of our conversation always threw me, Sophia’s focusing on whether or not I was sincere to hear what she had to say. But I had come to see that it was important to her, the most important part of her relationship or conversation with anyone—especially since she could never look them in the eye to be sure, because of her condition. Sophia needed authenticity in her conversations, or she felt like she was wasting her time—or worse, that her time was being wasted by someone.
Sophia: (laughs) Carmen taught me. The year that I had my first moon flow, she let me help her in the kitchen—and I loved it. Eventually, I helped her with all the family meals—though my mother never knew or she would have punished me, that’s what slaves are for. (quiet a while). Our food is like your American food, taking from many different cultures. You understand?
Sophia: Sincere. Good. We cooked with all types of meat, rice, seafood, and vegetables. The staple in nearly every meal…is beans. All kinds. I used to make vatapa most. You know it?
Me: No. I don’t know about a lot of meals, though.
Sophia: I see. Vatapa is made with shrimp, but I’ve used other meats—like chicken or tuna, to vary. When I came to America and took my first job as a hostess at a restaurant, I told them how to make vatapa. Everyone should try it sometime. You will, won’t you?
Me: Sure, I like to try new foods.
Sophia: That was sincere. Thank you.
Me: Sure. So, how did you get to become a chef?
Sophia: (laughs) Well, after the vatapa, they started to think of me as more than just a hostess. Soon, they asked me if I would be a line cook, then a sous chef, then two years later I was the head chef in that restaurant. I made many of Suriname’s dishes, slowly adding them to the menu. (quiet a while)
Me: Can you tell me about a few of the dishes you added?
Sophia: Hard to believe you want to know, but I hear you are sincere.
Me: I am.
Sophia: Can you come back tomorrow? I’m tired.
Analysis: This interview was short, and I was just getting a story out of her. But I could tell she was tired and didn’t want to press her. The more time I spent with her, the quicker I noticed that she tired easily. This last conversation had been twenty minutes, at most, with the silences and small talk before the interview. But, as I left her this time, I felt a sadness in her. And I didn’t think that sadness had anything to do with our conversation, this time at least.
I went out to speak with the nurse and she told me that Sophia was tired often lately, but urged me to come back as I had promised. I assured her that I would and left for the evening. I got online that night to look up a few Suriname recipes, so that when we talked I could be sincere with her—that felt important to me, to understand, truly, what she was telling me. I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Analysis: I came back to this interview, again, with some trepidation, I sensed a change in Sophia and didn’t know the source of her sadness. I sought to start this interview off with a happy subject.
Me: You said last time that you made head chef in two years, even adding your own dishes to the restaurant’s menu. I think that’s amazing.
Sophia: Ah, sincere today again, are we?
Me: Yes. Sophia, with you I am always sincere. I hope you know that.
Sophia: (laughs, hard) I’m glad. You see, I did teach you something!
Me: (laughing too) You did, yes.
Sophia: If you can’t be sincere, you have nothing.
Sophia: Nothing! You understand? You have to be honest. Say what you mean. If not…(quiet a time) you might as well not exist. Not exist!
Analysis: I was struck by this profound comment. I knew there was something about her wanting me to be sincere, and now it had come out. I was surprised, but determined, more than ever, to live up to her expectations of me. After that, the nurse came in with Sophia’s medication. It took some more small talk, but I eventually got us back to my previous line of questioning: her accomplishment as head chef.
Sophia: But it was a long road to get there, you have to understand! I may have made head chef within two years, but they were the hardest of my life—taking care of my brothers, making sure they got an education and were fed, was almost impossible. I know they robbed the local markets. The one’s with ethnic food, to remind them of home, they told me. I was sad for them. The cops caught them a few times, told me that I had to provide or I would lose them. I was trying as hard as I could. Later I went back to those markets and paid them for what was stolen. They were cruel to me, thinking me the thief that stole. Even as head chef, life was hard. The hours were hard. Four am to nine or ten pm most nights. I had to order the food for the menu and prepare for the day. It was hard. Never time to see my brothers. And by this time, they were unruly, getting to be men, ready to leave me. The oldest was seventeen, first to join the Army.
Me: How long did you work as head chef?
Sophia: At that restaurant, six years. Then it burned down. Gang activity, though no one ever got convicted. I think one of my brothers was involved, he was arrested again, but I never knew the charges, this time. One was in jail full time by this point. I don’t know why they were such trouble. The other joined the Army, like his older brother. Once I didn’t have to care for my brothers anymore, and the restaurant burned down, I had to find new employment—but I didn’t feel the stress of caring for a family anymore. I was alone. I was twenty three and alone. I was sad often, falling into a depression, I think. But then I found a mosque in Los Angeles where I could worship. The women there took me in as their own. I went every day, to worship, and worked for them, minimum wage—seventy five cents an hour. Ha! (laughs). I found a home there. I was there five years when they found me work at another restaurant, this one much more upscale, but with food that I could cook—South American food, like from Suriname. I worked my way up in this restaurant as well, but did not feel the pressure this time. I had found spiritual guidance, friends who were like me and who, some of them, had immigrated like I had. I worked there as head chef for ten years. I found my husband there. We were married forty years until he died of a heart attack. He was a banker and very stressed, but followed the Muslim ways as did I. We had a happy marriage.
Me: (smiling to myself) Any kids?
Sophia: Three. (quiet a while) Dead now.
Me: I’m sorry. (then I flinched, expecting to be yelled at for apologizing again).
Sophia: I know you are.
Me: You seemed to find happiness at the mosque.
Sophia: I did. I have.
Me: Were any of them from Suriname, like you? You said a few were immigrants.
Sophia: No, that would have been funny! Ha! (laughs) Two women fleeing from Suriname. But I have met others, here in Los Angeles. Most come here, instead of New York because of what happened to the Irish. We came for safety, and could fit in, in Los Angeles. It has a well-known Muslim community and deep culture that can’t be found anywhere else.
Me: (I definitely understood this, but didn’t know what she meant about the Irish. I was going to ask, but she had spoke again)
Sophia: Did I tell you my husband was an immigrant too?
Me: No. From where?
Sophia: Brazil. My neighbor. He came over when he was forty when he came, and I met him and married him that same year. People used to joke that he married me for citizenship. Ha! (laughing hard, a long time—the nurse even came in to check on us to find me frowning, confused).
Me: (not knowing what was so funny) Sophia?
Sophia: Fuck! It’s because I’m not a citizen. That’s why it’s funny. (laughing again).
Me: Oh, sure.
Sophia: After seventy years in this country, I’m still not a citizen.
Me: ummm, okay.
Sophia: Want to know why? That it?
Me: Yeah, sure.
Sophia: (quiet a while) Part of me has always wanted to go back. To Suriname. The plantation is still in my family’s name. I have nothing here, but I have that plantation. If it still exists, that is. The riots and all. The wars, too.
Me: I understand.
Sophia: Yes, I hear you do. (shifting in her chair) My daughters all got their citizenship though. My husband did not. He understood my need to hang on. To have a reason. You understand?
Me: I do.
Sophia: Thank you. (quiet a long time) Dear, I’m tired. Can you come back again?
Analysis: I promised that I would and went out to speak with the nurse, as had become my habit. She asked how it went and if I would come back again, even though the project was over. I told her that I promised Sophia that I would—and I intended to. Sophia was special to me now, I felt that I had to come for her, as long as I could. I felt responsible. I wouldn’t let her down. Sophia had changed me, somehow. You never expect to go into a project and be changed by it—you intend to observe and move on. But that doesn’t happen. I don’t think that it can, or that it should. The purpose of any sort of research is to learn and, perhaps, if you are lucky, grow from your experiences and new knowledge. And I had.
However, it was not long after our last day together that I received a phone call of Sophia’s death. I felt a terrible sadness well up inside me—as if I had lost my own grandmother. In our short time together, we had, undeniably, formed a bond. Reflecting now, I believe that I was meant to hear Sophia’s story, and I am grateful (again the word doesn’t do the feeling justice) that she stayed alive long enough to tell it. I am grateful that I was given this chance.
Hart, Dianne. (1997). Undocumented in L.A.: An Immigrant’s Story. New York: SR Books