Intersectional Activism Reframing solidarity within the Muslim community Q&A with Wajahat Ali In conversation with playwright and political activist about Muslims in creative media
Photo Travelogue Dive into the beauty of the Rainbow Nation
AL BAYAN VOLUME 7 | SPRING 2017
Speaking our Truths to Power Contents: TRAVEL South Africa, Pakistan, Morocco 6 PERSPECTIVES Katrina 12 years later, Navigating a Black and Muslim identity, Wajahat Ali on creating narratives 13 FEATURES Islamic environmental justice, LGBTQ Muslim communities 23 SPOTLIGHT A local bakery owner finds strength in God 27 REVIEWS The Night Of, Things We Love 30
Sarah Oberholtzer speaks out as an ally at the #NoMuslimBan Walkout at Northwestern University to stand with Muslims and immigrants from countries targeted by President Donald Trumpâ€™s executive order. // Photo by Naib Mian
Front and back cover photos by Naib Mian. Thank you to the Muslim-cultural Students Association and Peace Project for supporting Al Bayan Magazine.
Al Bayan | 2 | Spring
EDITORS-IN CHIEF Medha Imam Naib Mian MANAGING EDITOR Amal Ahmed
PHOTO DIRECTOR Zahra Haider WRITERS Nida Bajwa Ahlaam Delange Sarah Khan Zoya Khan Sumaia Masoom Hassan Sayed Umber Waheed Kareem Youssef
Al Bayan | 3 | Spring
Resisting in solidarity
& Al Bayan | 4 | Spring
Photo by Naib Mian
We find ourselves at a crossroads, one that forces us to reckon with our place in America as Muslims, as minorities, activists and citizens. These are the questions that we woke up to on the morning of November 9, 2016. There are no easy answers, but these are not questions unfamiliar to us, as Muslims, as communities that have always been told that they don’t quite fit in. It is in this context that we have carved out our own space: a space to not only resist but to celebrate our joys and confront our problems, a space to embrace our complexity. Most importantly, this is a space to deconstruct a universal, essentialized identity simultaneously placed upon us and accepted within our own mainstream circles. Al Bayan has always been an effort to reclaim a narrative, to explore an identity, to express a voice. It’s not enough to simply resist, to react to the external forces that seek to define us and our place in society. We create, we challenge, and we acknowledge and embrace the mosaic of life experiences that exist within our community. This magazine is dedicated to those whose identities render them invisible, to those who confront the preconceived notions of the very communities they straddle and seek to embrace, to those who fight to exist within multiple spaces despite the several oppressions they face. Be they Black-Muslims, LGBT-Muslims or any of the diverse communities bound by a common faith, this one is for those hyphenated Muslims. As we fight for all Muslims in increasingly hostile situations we face here and abroad, we must also fight for those among us, and around us, who are exceptionally vulnerable. The challenge is doing so whether it’s our rights on the line or another’s. That is how we strive to express this faith of justice. We hope this issue challenges what you think you know about yourself and the community in which you live. We hope this magazine inspires you to hold your head up high and to embrace what makes you different: what makes you exceptional.
The not-so silent minority Muslim Americans aren’t just in the news. We make the news. By Amal Ahmed
“ I didn’t run for Congress to talk about my religion all the time. I ran for
Congress to try to increase the minimum wage, strengthen the right to bargain collectively, to do something about climate change, to help students afford college. That’s why I ran.
-Keith Ellison (D-MN, 5th District) First Muslim-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and deputy chair of the Democratic National Convention
“ My election win offers a counter-narrative to the bigotry in the world. This is a land of immigrants, and most come here for opportunity, a second chance. It’s our time to fight for the America we know we can have. ” -Ilhan OMAr, Minnesota House of Representatives First Somali-American Muslim legislator elected in the nation.
Sources: Minnpost.com; People.com, Dallas Morning News, Women’s Media Center. By Amal Ahmed
“ Our Islam in America is the Islam of Muhammad Ali. It’s a humanitarian Islam. It’s an Islam that inspires us to touch people and become great community servants. That’s who we want to represent us. ” -Imam Omar Suleiman
Dallas-based Imam leading Muslim-Americans in protests and rallies
“ We will stand proud in support of women’s reproductive rights, immigrant
rights, climate justice, and in support of full and equal rights for African Americans, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA communities. We will send a strong and powerful message that the way we choose to fight injustice is not with injustice —it is together, in unity, standing side by side.
-Linda Sarsour Palestinian-American activist and co-chair of the National Women’s March
Al Bayan | 5 | Spring
SOUTH AFRICA Photos by Zahra Haider and Naib Mian
Here’s to a country that is both optimistic about its potential and critical about its present and past. Here’s to a nation that is jarred by its painful history but strives to be better and accept people of all colors. Here’s to South Africa where brothers and sisters on the streets hope to really see and acknowledge one another as they utter the rich Zulu greeting of Sawubona. In the Rainbow nation, I felt transported into a future where unfathomable possibilities became a sudden reality. I witnessed Black, South Asian and Muslim women leading all types of media. Touring through newsrooms, I was genuinely taken aback seeing Muslim women in executive positions at top news agencies such as Ferial Haffajee as the editor of City Press or Khadija Patel as the managing editor at The Daily Vox as well as a handful of Black and Indian women anchoring at eNews Channel Africa. The people of this nation hold certain truths to be evident, and one shared truth is the power of Black Consciousness. The power to deconstruct “the lie that Black is an aberration from the normal which is white,” the power to acquire a “new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life,” as Steve Biko once said at a Black theology seminar in Pietermaritzburg. All my life, I have been taught, told and required to adhere to white standards of society. I have been told to be someone I was not, to erase my culture and background, shamed if I brought bits of it to the forefront of any conversation. But what I truly understood in South Africa is that none of that should be seen as commonplace. There is no reason I should have to break my braids open so I look less South Asian. There is no reason I should be afraid of wearing my hijab or shalwar kameez at the local grocery store after jummah because people might stare and gape at the oddity. There is no reason I should be apologetic about my culture or religion. In the struggle to free people from the chains of racial segregation and white minority rule, black and brown bodies stood together side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Indian women adorned themselves with their favorite saris as they marched alongside their brothers and sisters of the African National Congress. Men like Ahmed Kathrada protested the apartheid system and was jailed alongside Madiba, his close friend Nelson Mandela. As allies, they understood that the right to be themselves needed to be secured and guaranteed collectively. The right to remember their ancestors, languages and cultures needed to be valued. As people of color struggle in the United States, it’s hard to fathom how people like us can be fully accepted by the rest. From the history of the nation of South Africa, I have learned that justice is not given to those who ask for it. Justice is given to those who fight for it.
Photo by Zahra Haider
Reflection by Medha Imam
Al Bayan | 7 | Winter
1. Students of University of Witswatersrand protest rape culture on their campus following the lack of accnountability for a list of alleged rapists, including other students, faculty and staff. // Photo by Zahra Haider 2. Cascading down hills, the colorful streets of Bo Kaap are home to the Cape Malay culture in Cape Town, a center for Muslim life in the city. // Photo by Naib MianÂ 3. A gateway leads to a drinking fountain in the center of Nizamiye Mosque. // Photo by Zahra Haider 4. Exterior view of Nizamiye Mosque, situated in a Turkish cultural square featuring restaurants, bookstores, and grocery stores. // Photo by Zahra Haider
Al Bayan | 8 | Spring
5 5. An overhead view of the mosque’s elaborate handwork beneath its archways. // Photo by Zahra Haider 6. The interior of Nizamiye’s main dome resembles its father, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. // Photo by Zahra Haider 7. A young woman stands, looking out from a large window on the women’s level of the Mosque. // Photo by Zahra Haider 8. Two Muslim women worship at Nizamiye mosque, conducting Dhuhr prayers. // Photo by Zahra Haider
8 Al Bayan | 9 | Spring
Photo by Naib Mian
Images of a distant land Rediscovering and reclaiming history and heritage from the homeland By Hassan Sayed
opened my eyes, a gray haze of dreams still clouding my thoughts. Trying to register where I was, I listened to the distant mumbling of a Turkish voice over the intercom before finally hearing, â€œLadies and gentleman, we have arrived in Islamabad.â€? Exiting the plane down a long flight of stairs towards an overcrowded bus, the familiar smells of gas and smog evoked nostalgic memories as if they were longlost friends. Moments later, I reminded my uncle that we were driving on the wrong side of the road as we zoomed north along the Motorway. After far too many years, the foothills of the Himalayas rose up in the distance to reveal the city of Islamabad, blanketed by a thick cloud of dust and pollution. As a small child, my family travelled to Pakistan quite frequently. Yet the pricier airfare, hotter summers, and time-consuming pressures of school and work made my trip this past winter the first in almost half a decade. Such is the dilemma of many a diaspora community, yearning to return to their ancestral homeland to relive and reestablish a sense of groundedness in their culture. But beyond seeing family and eating
well, staying in Pakistan allowed me to revisit my own identity in a personal, physical way that calling family members on the phone could not replicate. Whether exploring my Pashtun and Punjab ancestry or glimpsing the ancient structures of Taxila and Rohtas, the visit represented an expedition to explore the intricate history behind the rich nation that defines my heritage. The country came alive in the streets as I retraced the steps my parents walked in their youth. On a humid Wednesday morning, I set foot upon broken pavement, a weathered, red archway looming before me. The noise of cows, rickshaws and vans packing the streets behind me slowly faded, giving way to sweeping green lawns dotted with colossal, gnarled trees and delicatelytrimmed hedges. Hidden within these old walls was the Maqbara of Jahangir, fourth emperor of the Mughals, and my first taste of the magnificent Lahore. Although my father had spent his university days in this millennia-old city, the location was always just an idea to me, fictional stories in a Kipling novel or paintings on a wall. I recall poring over countless books when I was younger, gazing upon the glossy images of
details in the ornate carvings on the ceilings of the Wazir Khan mosque and sketches of elephants in front of Lahore Fort. No longer were these sites words on a page or pixels rendered upon a screen. The calls of azan thundered through the acoustically-pristine chambers of the Badshahi Masjid. I ventured beneath the ground to study the geometric designs lining the newly-uncovered Shahi Hammam steam baths. An old wind rustled my hair as I mounted a rumbling rickshaw in the thick of noon traffic to travel from the Minar-e-Pakistan to the Walled City. From the centuries-old ramparts of Lahore Fort to the ever-changing scent of spices wafting from street shops, Lahore had overnight transformed from a simple image of a distant land into a living, heaving metropolis. Months prior to my arrival in Lahore, I had trudged through the Urdu and Farsi poetry of the renowned poet and scholar Allama Iqbal. Pakistanis across the world hold Iqbal and his poetry in the highest regard, a symbol of philosophy and religiosity who pioneered the very idea of the nation of Pakistan. Few are customarily allowed to enter Iqbalâ€™s closely-guarded tomb in Lahore, but after our tour guide
pulled a few strings, we gained entry into this national mausoleum. And there, beneath the ornate red brick and white marble, lay the body of Iqbal, creator of that beautiful Urdu and Persian poetry whose words provided spiritual sustenance and immense pride for countless Pakistanis. Offering my prayers in the small chamber, I recalled one line of his poetry: “Fabric of earth and wind and wave! Who is the secret, you or I, brought into light? Or who the dark world of what hides yet, you or I?” As my mind drifted through space and time, I began to realize that the immortal words of the great poet were rooted in the life of a mortal man who had walked the same land through which I was travelling. No longer was Iqbal just beautiful script written on the leaves of my grandfather’s books. Beyond the physical, Pakistan allowed me to express my linguistic and cultural identity. Arriving at my mother’s home in Islamabad, I immediately noticed a change in my interactions with others. Everyone around me was speaking my mother-tongue, Pashto, and my mind and speech quickly adapted to this sudden change. Back in the states, the only semblance of my Pashtun identity is found when wearing a patoo, a traditional Pashtun shawl, and pakol, a woolen hat worn in Pakistan’s colder months. Beyond daily phone conversations with my mother, I’ve never had a proper outlet to express my Pashtun side, even with other members of the Pakistani diaspora. The few 16,000 Pashto speakers in the US are largely concentrated in California, New York, and Virginia, far from the Afghani or Pakistani communities I engage with in Cleveland and Chicago. Spending just one day with extended family allowed me to interact with others in ways I had never before, from calling my cousins to eat (“Rasha, tikkala okhra”), to being ridiculed for my long hair (“Vikhtu prey ka”), to sauntering up to my uncle, firmly grabbing him by the shoulder and asking “Nor alaquh?” (What’s up dude?). I was in an environment where others would perfectly understand a slew of idioms and phrases, while translating those same words into English, Urdu, or Farsi would make little sense. Speaking Pashto brightened the tone of my voice and quickened the pace of my speech, in the process revealing a bolder, more carefree version of myself than when I speak Urdu or English. Like hiking up the Margalla Hills or exploring the underground crypt of Noor Jahan, discovering my linguistic identity provided a linguistic journey to couple the physical one. “Tsi ki dum shi ah-oovoo shi”: what needed to happen happened. Back in Lahore, I found myself ascending the minarets of the Wazir Khan Masjid. The city stretched endlessly into the distance,
bustling crowds pushing their way through teeming bazaars, donkeys falling under the weight of their owners’ wares, and hawks soaring through the skies, circling around the bright, crescent-starred Pakistani flags. This was not some orientalist’s fantastical interpretation of an exotic land but a collection of histories, peoples and dialects forming the fabric of a nation. Over the
past centuries, this nation had become a vessel filled with a vast trove of culture, from the intricate edifices of the Mughals to the glistening valleys of Gilgit, from the pulsing rhythms of the Sufi Qawwals to the fluttering tongues of the Pashtuns. And at the same time, here was the nation in which I found my own history, my own language, my own identity.
A pool reflects the walls of the Wazir Khan mosque. Built by the Mughals in 1634, the mosque is nestled in between bazaars and residences in the Walled Old City of Lahore. // Photo by Hassan Sayed
at the daily lowering of the flag ceremony at the indian and paksitani border in punjab, familes gather to enjoy the festivities and the pleasant winter evenings. // Photo by Naib Mian
pedestrians pack lahore’s food street into the night, enjoying the city’s iconic restaurants and local food. // Photo by Naib Mian
Al Bayan | 11 | Spring
A Tale of Two Countries Reflections on travelling to Morocco after a semester in Paris By Zahra Haider
photos by Zahra Haider
he Kingdom of Morocco lies on North Africa’s western-most edge, straddling the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Its complex history is an amalgamation of influences ranging from European to Berber. If you don’t speak Arabic, try French. If that doesn’t work, maybe some Spanish could do the trick. Lines between cultures blur in this mosaic society. While abroad in the fall, I had the privilege of visiting Marrakesh, named by Berbers over a thousand years ago: “Land of God.” But today, with a trendy music scene and endless, colorful bazaars, tourists have coined a new name: “hippy mecca.” The city is dotted with souks and mosques, spectacular in both number and design. Stalls and shopfronts line narrow, curving alleyways, offering items ranging from sculpted shish kebab sticks to handmade fragrance bars. Tiled minarets loom over the city’s mosques, elegant complexes and expansive passageways laced with intricate handiwork in muted, pastel tones. Despite the city’s serene atmosphere, the culture of catcalling, ogling and stalking was a constant during our time there. Sexist dynamics had become so normalized that it was nearly impossible to go anywhere alone as a woman at night. It was devastating to see this blatant inequality and subjection in a country of fellow believers. I had experienced similar misogyny in France, while I was living in Paris before my trip to Morocco. It was a society that had made it clear time and again over those four months that it didn’t want me, a hijabi woman. It wasn’t new to me, given that I had grown up in Texas. Yet there’s something especially discomforting about the fact that France’s laws uphold Muslim oppression and patriarchal norms in a blatant and unapologetic way. Yet, when I first arrived in Morocco, my tense shoulders loosened and an involuntary sigh of relief escaped my lips. I couldn’t even speak the language or recognize anyone around me, but I felt I could breathe again. It’s that familiar warmth that spreads through you when you enter an Islamic space. It’s like the very air around you is offering its salaams.
The Lost c o m muni ty Photo courtesy of Sarah Khan
a closer look at the aftermath of hurricane katrina 12 years later By Sarah Khan
Saru! Andar aao! It’s Maghrib time!” Mama shouted down the narrow street. I only made out some muffled shrills, enough to understand that it was time to tread back home. As I looked over to my friends throwing rocks at an old man’s backyard chicken coop, I was content knowing this activity would reconvene the next day. Chalmette, Louisiana, 10 miles east of the vibrant city of New Orleans, catered to a diverse population. Nestled along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, this small town boasted a community of Cajun culture, Southern hospitality, and humid, warm weather year round. There was not much to do in Chalmette for the tourist. But for my 9 year old self, the town was a vast land hidden in the deep south filled with mysteries to solve and people to discover. My parents immigrated to New Orleans from India in 1995 after hearing about a small but growing Desi Muslim population in Chalmette. Mama immediately enrolled herself in the University of New Orleans, and Dad started working multiple jobs, from a gas station cashier to an accountant, in order to support the family and most importantly, his wife’s educational dreams. By 2005, Mama graduated with both a Master’s and
Doctorate degree in Education, and Dad financed his own Shell gas station and a couple of apartments. Their schedules fit almost seamlessly. Dad would come home around 11 p.m. from the station, and by that time we were ready to be cleaned up and tucked in. Mama retreated to her room to start her readings and papers for the week. Dad’s arrival at home didn’t mean a break from the kids. Rather it was another whole hurdle my mom was embarking on for the night with the future and prosperity of her family embedded in her mind. August 23, 2005 shocked my family, my community and the country. Category 5 Hurricane Katrina came and conquered the southern metropolitan area of New Orleans. The city’s ninth ward and Chalmette, part of the St. Bernard Parish, were hit the hardest. The hurricane’s effects magnified 100-fold as the levees
Al Bayan | 13 | Spring
holding the water from Lake Pontchartrain came crashing down. The entire region was wiped away. Waters of up to 18 feet engulfed the small roads. The doors of our neighborhood were covered with vague spray painted symbols. Numbers indicating body counts were gruesomely written by the National Guard going door to door. Stories of these families and the walls they inhabited were lost as their dire circumstances were transformed into an impersonal number. All my life, I prayed to God to keep my family safe and healthy. Never did we think we would pray for shelter and refuge in a country like the United States. Never did we think our home would be broadcasted to the rest of the nation as a news story. Never did we think that this country would not protect and aid its own. After a mandatory evacuation was ordered by the government, the Muslim community of around 40 families scattered into groups and stayed at mosques in Baton Rouge or Mississippi or at friends’ houses in Houston for several months until the towns were somewhat livable. Witnessing the local grocery store, school buildings and other various landmarks I grew up around drowned in murky swamp waters on TV was a reality I couldn’t process. I could not comprehend that a natural disaster of all things would literally rip the roofs and beams of our quaint house. Mama’s tears kept rolling down her somber face. The life she had built from scratch with her husband after leaving India was gone. In the weeks after, we all clearly witnessed the Bush administration and white America ignore the plight of the low-income, primarily black residents of south side NOLA. There was no outcry. There was no national mourning. At the age of ten, I was exposed to the brutal reality of racism and classism in this nation. Why did the elite not care that there were people hungry and sick waiting on the top of their roofs for days? Why did the Superdome lack so many basic amenities for the thousands it housed? Why did no one care that my family and thousands of others had to start their lives all over again from scratch? The American dream is just that, a dream. Or an alternate reality: one in which racism doesn’t play a role in how a community like ours recovered from Katrina. Without the racism and classism that immigrant families like mine and black families like the majority of the victims of Katrina know too intimately, maybe the State Department would have listened to the civil engineers and architects who predicted that the city would flood. Maybe the government would have maintained the standard protocols of the levee system, and maybe the life that my parents built wouldn’t have been washed away. In this alternate reality, maybe the US government wouldn’t have contracted private companies to rebuild NOLA on the backs of the impoverished. In this color-blind fantasy, maybe the people of Chalmette and St. Bernard Parish wouldn’t still be scattered around the country more than a decade after the hurricane hit. Katrina was the first time in my adolescence when I realized that there was a rank of importance in humanity. I realized that America wouldn’t care about Muslim immigrants living in fear in America after 9/11 when they didn’t seem to care about the black and the poor population who have been in this country for centuries. The
levees broke because no one in the country thought to ensure the safety of the poor, the black and the immigrants of south New Orleans. In the grand scheme of things, those lives, in fact, did not matter. I went back to Chalmette on Katrina’s 11th anniversary. Some parts of Chalmette were rebuilt. But most was still vacant land. The air smelled of abandonment and destruction. There was no liveliness. There were no kids running down the block under the hot sun. Not many people came back to Chalmette. Most of the Muslim community re-settled in Kenner, 15 miles west of Chalmette. After meeting with some family friends I came to understand the suffering many had to go through, finding places to stay in overcrowded refugee homes. Those who did not have home insurance or FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) lost every cent they earned into paying monthly mortgages on their homes. For a population whose average income was $25,000, the hurricane meant an abandonment of any hope of success for the future. The deals and packages offered to the victims of Katrina ultimately trapped those without insurance into a cycle of poverty in a town desperately lacking businesses, investments, real estate, and any sort of social and financial capital. South New Orleans is not a foreign land. It is part of this country. Its people are citizens of this nation. The land is American soil, and yet visiting this American town was heartbreaking because it has been forgotten by the rest of the country. My childhood was swept up with the floods, the memories washed away. Tears rolled down my face as glimpses of what was once my neighborhood took me back to humid park adventures and twilight birthday parties. I drove up to my old house where 10 years of my family’s life were spent, working hard and reaping the small joys of a prosperous life in America. As immigrants, we had developed a strong and sentimental bond with the other Muslim families in Chalmette, one that is still celebrated and remembered today. Today, the powerful in America, the people who now occupy the seats and offices of those who ignored my family in our time of need, proclaim that my Muslim family does not belong in America. That my religion somehow makes it so that I do not deserve the rewards and benefits of living in this so-called free land. But this isn’t the first time that America has looked the other way. My family was already broken by the ignorance of mainstream, middle class America, the voyeurism of those who read about us in the papers, heard about us on cable networks and did nothing. My community has already seen what privilege means: that our fellow citizens choose who to protect and who to serve through the guise of “fair” and “just” legislation. We suffered an American disaster, and not one person in this country has the right to say we are outsiders. Do not forget about the 1,557 lives lost from Katrina. Do not forget about the families still praying to be able to pay off debts. Do not forget about the 1,000 Muslim Americans who were a part of this American tragedy. This country is my home and my parents’ home just as much as it is the home of those who have never been through what we have. We have suffered, we have worked hard, we have been ignored and vilified. We have a place in this history.
“Do not forget about the 1,000 Muslim Americans who were a part of this American tragedy.”
Al Bayan | 14 | Spring
Crossroads By Ahlaam Delange
erhaps it started as a fleeting thought in my father’s head. “I want a daughter, an outspoken one,” he thought. He and my mother created an intersection in the roads of life. My mother birthed a Black, Muslim and female child— it’s not surprising she was exhausted. I felt different from a young age, and it seemed cool. I enjoyed explaining my crossroads; sometimes I imagined how well I’d be able to connect with larger groups of people when I got older. I can remember my excitement. It’s all extremely ironic now. Once my muse, intersectionality enabled discrimination to permeate my life. It started the first time I entered a community that encompassed more people than my ethnic enclave. The Muslims at my mosque were Arab and spoke Arabic—barriers to my understanding, barriers to my existence. I attended a completely different khutbah for non-Arabic speakers. I sat quietly when the larger congregation came in—I couldn’t communicate beyond greetings. The community provided no space beyond my Muslim identity, and I began chopping various parts of myself to exist in different spaces. I assumed many different identities, cutting corners to assimilate into the places and conversations that surrounded me. Islam is colorful in America. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 3.3 million Muslims living in the country. 23 percent of those Muslims identify as Black— the largest group of Muslims in America. We make up a good amount of the population, but regardless of Islam’s dictation against discrimination, cultural influence is strong in Muslim communities—and anti-Blackness is found everywhere in the world. I achieved Blackness only through official documentation. The small number of Black students at my school did not consider me Black because of my South African parents. Whiteness and Christianity kept their grip on my Texas public school. Many of the kids went to church together and did other Christian activities. At lunch, a student threatened to burn down another Muslim student’s home, and a group of boys
A small bird perched on a tree I ask the world, why me? could I be more than a bird. Okay, now I am blue. could I be more than a blue bird. My wings are square. could I be more than a blue bird with square wings. A tree on the crossroads I sit. could I just be? —toolu
taunted me when Osama Bin Laden died. The amount of racism and microaggressions I experienced for being Black also became innumerable at some point. White parents would watch me do my hair for band performances in awe, and I never dated boys because white boys did not date Black girls. Anti-Blackness affected my ability to exist in mainstream society. It also affected my ability to exist in a Muslim community beyond the safety of my ethnic enclave. It hindered my development in a prominently anti-black, anti-Muslim American society. It’s extremely hard to find space and solace for my being. It did not start with the inauguration of Agent Orange. It started from a young age, even before that. It started with the enslavement and belittling of the Black body by white men. That mentality trickled down into every aspect of life on earth afterwards. Being Black erases my Muslim identity and womanhood. Constantly, I choose between being Black or Muslim in public spaces. If I choose both, I am erased entirely by Arab Muslim society or American society. Muslim communities need to understand that Islam does not allow for discrimination,
Al Bayan | 15 | Spring
and more than anything, my Black identity should be protected in the space of Muslim people. Allah commands Muslims to “be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness for Allah, even though it be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives— whether he be rich or poor, Allah has a better right over them both.” I cannot speak for a greater Protestant, white American society that is built on the bodies of Black individuals, many of whom were Muslims. The constant manipulation of Black bodies throughout history creates anti-Blackness in communities across the world—the Muslim community is no exception. The lack of solidarity with Black Muslims in American Muslim society can only further attribute to the lack of concern for Black individuals. Centuries of history collide with my existence and affect my being and will continue to do so the rest of my life. I can only push for greater awareness of anti-Blackness in Muslim communities and hope for consolidation for my efforts. Until then, I create space for myself, space to exist in my entirety. My name is Ahlaam Delange, and I am a Black, Muslim woman. Illustration by Amal Ahmed
on the tip of my tongue Losing a language and finding its meaning twenty years later By Amal Ahmed
he days when I could speak Bangla fluently are long gone, but that part of my life is stored away on a VCR tape on a dusty shelf somewhere in my parents’ house. Those memories are safe-guarded in the stories that my grandparents tell me, wistfully, of the little girl with long, curly hair who spoke to them in their native language over the phone and face-to-face every once in awhile, when we were together in Dhaka or Dallas. My Bangla is broken and painfully slow now, erased and replaced with fluent, impeccable, accentless English. My great-great-great grandparents, at the dawn of British colonialism in India many centuries ago, were reluctant to learn English. It was an uncultured language, rough and unfamiliar to their ears and on their tongues which spoke Urdu, Bangla, Persian and even Arabic. But you know how this story ends. The British got their empire, and for a while, the sun never set over it. Centuries later, my father boarded a plane bound for New Jersey. He was fluent in English, although it carried a gentle lilt, a reminder of the land where he had grown up. Nonetheless, over the course of a decade, he would have his masters degree, a
house with a two-car garage and two kids. That’s how I ended up in a Kindergarten classroom in the suburbs north of Dallas. Somewhere in this classroom, perhaps in the circle where I sat cross-legged for story time or the tables where I counted and sorted colored pieces of macaroni, I lost my Bangla like I lost countless hair ties and friendship bracelets. I was afraid that my r’s would roll too much and that I’d mix up my verb tenses. I didn’t want my friends to hear the rough edges of Bangla in my voice. So I started to imitate my teacher’s thick Texas drawl. She sounded like Dr. Phil, and for a couple of months, my mother tells me, so did I. I stopped speaking Bangla at home. In my parents’ and grandparents’ recollections, I refused to speak the language back to them. Eventually, English became our lingua franca, and the sole medium of not just my dialogue, but the thoughts and emotions that grew in the recesses of my mind. Gradually, Bangla faded and atrophied, becoming an unused muscle flexed only when my parents needed to pass judgement on strangers in public or scold me for disobedience. Few people that I’ve met in America know off the top of their heads where Bangladesh is, or that it has existed, in some
Al Bayan | 16 | Spring
form, separately from India since 1947. In casual conversations at the Barnes & Noble where I worked while in high school, at coffee shops and at libraries, I became an expert cartographer. “Here’s India,” I’d say, drawing a long, oval shape in the air with my fingers. “This is Bangladesh.” I’d point to the right of the oval. “This is where my parents are from.” I was always careful to make that distinction. This is where my parents are from. Not me. I was from Plano, down the road from the mall, the coffee shop, the classroom where this impromptu geography lesson was taking place. I was from the red brick house framed by two giant evergreens. The house with the old blue-green minivan parked out front and the oil stain below it, so permanently a part of our neighborhood that you can still see it from Google Maps’ satellite images. That was my home. But when strangers ask me where I am from, sometimes they’ll repeat the question with a different emphasis until they know where to place my otherness. It is an experience that almost every secondgeneration American has had. It reminds us, constantly, that there is something about us that is different. Speaking accent-less English has been my defense mechanism to
the endless interrogation of my otherness. I wear my Muslim-ness on my longsleeves and boldly-patterned hijabs. It was a choice I made almost seven years ago, and so I have learned to accommodate the questions, the comments, the stares. Perhaps I learned to resent the questions about my origins and my roots because I had not invited them. My voice, my accent and my speech hold no markers of otherness, but I could not hide the brown hues of my skin. I look, as most people might say, Indian. South-Asian. Once, someone guessed Mexican. I don’t look like I’m from Texas. I look like I am from Bangladesh: brown skin, dark eyes, and dark hair slipping out of my hijab. I’ve wanted my voice to be heard louder than the brownness of my skin. But my voice isn’t loud enough to change the way we define what it means to be a Texan or an American. This was a lesson I learned in my Kindergarten classroom. While I was counting and sorting pieces of macaroni, I knew that I was not so different from the kids sitting next to me with blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin that turned bright red in the August sun. But I also knew that some of the kids who looked like me, the
kids who didn’t sunburn after half an hour outside, had to take special classes to help them with their English. I was secretly glad that I didn’t have to take those classes with them. I did not realize that Bangla was the first of many pieces of myself I would cast off in my attempt to build a multitude of new, hybrid identities: Asian-American, MuslimAmerican, second-generation American. But rarely, if ever, Bangladeshi-American. It was too specific. It required too much explanation. And besides, who would miss that extra hyphen, that extra adjective? Certainly not my friends, my teachers or the strangers who knew nothing of Bangladesh except, if they were paying attention, that their t-shirts and jeans were made there. I let go of Bangla, and then I doused my clothes in Febreze whenever my mother cooked food with turmeric and cumin, curry leaves and onions. I didn’t want the scent of her spicy chicken curries and daal clinging to me, wafting through the hallways of the school where my friends ate peanut butter sandwiches on soft white bread. I straightened my hair on picture day so that my hair would fall softly around my face like the sleek blond and brunette haircuts that I envied. In those photos, I
Al Bayan | 17 | Spring
momentarily tamed the frizzy, incorrigible locks of hair that have plagued generations of women in my family. I smoothed over the differences that marked me as Bengali so that I could become a more generic type of hyphenated American. The first time I felt regret at losing my parents’ language was in Doha. Fluent English is the adopted language of privilege in this city, but outside of the expensive malls and the multi-million dollar college campuses, a different kind of English is spoken. It has been grafted onto the the guttural consonants of Arabic, the rolling r’s of Urdu, Tamil and Bangla and the truncated syllables of Swahili. In this city, built and maintained by immigrants, there is a fluidity of language and a persistence of accents and cadences from elsewhere. In a country where there is no hope—or false promise— of assimilation, no one gives up the pieces of home that they have brought with them. above left: A street vendor sells flags a few days before Victory day. Right: From the grounds of the mughal era lalbagh fort, a view of dhaka rises in the background. // Photos by Maddie Ewbank
The tea gardens in northern bangladesh stay lush and green into winter. // photo by maddie ewbank
One day while wandering the souq, looking for dates to bring home as presents, I met a shopkeeper who was from Bangladesh. He was fluent in Bangla, Urdu, English and Arabic. He had lived in Doha for the last twenty-something years of his life. He had been selling dates in Doha for almost as long as I had been alive. He said he could tell I was Bengali the second he saw me walk into his shop. I nodded and smiled, afraid to open my mouth. He narrowed his eyes, like he was trying to place me on a map. “Did you grow up here?” he asked me in Bangla. I shook my head. “Uh….” I stuttered. “Ami American,” I said. I’m American. I winced as I said it, hating the sound of the harsh vowels colliding into harsher consonants. “Amar Ma ar Baba…” I trailed off with a sheepish smile, finishing the sentence in English: “they grew up in Dhaka.” He smiled back at me as he handed me the bag of dates he had just rung up. “Ok, come back again,” he said to me in English. And in that moment, I wished that I could have carried on the conversation in his native tongue. In my native tongue. A word popped into my head. “Dhonobad.” Thank you. He smiled again as I left the store, and this time it reached his eyes. This would happen to me, over and over again in Doha. I looked Bengali (or Pakistani or Indian), and so I was a friendly face, familiar even in my anonymity to the shopkeepers and security guards, waiters and taxi drivers I met every day. I would watch the disappointment, the amusement and confusion slide over their faces when they realized I did not speak a lick of
Al Bayan | 18 | Spring
Bangla or Urdu. I could feel, profoundly, the space in my mind and on my tongue where something was missing. I wish I knew how to find it. A few months later, I was in Bangladesh. This was my fifth or sixth time visiting, but the first time I had made the trip alone. In my grandparents’ home, in the living room adorned with old black and white photos of long-gone relatives I would never know, I saw a glimpse of the life I might have had. In the teeming, bustling streets of old Dhaka, in the quiet, green solitude of the tea gardens four hours north, I shed my hyphens. In Bangladesh, I look Bengali, so for all intents and purposes, I am Bengali. I belong here in some visceral and inexplicable way, even though I am a foreigner by all measures. Sometimes, when I’d go out with my cousins or in the few instances where I was by myself, I’d force my mind to think in Bangla. I’d practice the unfamiliar rhythm and arrangement of consonants and vowels. I heard the words around me and I knew what they meant, but I could never think fast enough to make them my own. I sounded like a toddler as I struggled with the weight of familiar but unspoken words. For me, this was progress. It was a small step in a direction that I had spent twenty years avoiding. But this is not a story with a neat ending, wrapped in a shiny bow. I did not “find myself” after travelling to a far away and half-remembered homeland. I did not finally put to rest the question of what it means to straddle two countries, two cultures and two homes. I came back to the United States, back to my redbrick home in the suburbs, more confused and muddled than ever before. When I returned, I was hyper-aware of the gazes of the people around me who were taking in my otherness and trying to pin it on a map. Reflexively, instinctively, I fell back into my old habits and molded my accent, my voice and my very self to the people around me, as if to prove to them that I was back where I belonged. I have built these habits, these safety nets, over the course of two decades. I can’t dismantle them overnight. But now, at least, when I fall into my old patterns, I catch myself. I did not find myself in Bangladesh or in Doha, but the veneer of assimilation that I have hid behind for most of my life has worn thin. It has lost its shiny, glossy finish. I am learning, for the first time in twenty years, to appreciate the cracks and imperfections.
if your activism isn’t intersectional
you’re probably doing it wrong. By Sumaia Masoom
few flurries were already falling from the sky on February 1 when organizers moved to transition the rally from the speeches to the actual march. For the most part, the crowd of a few hundred had stayed to show its solidarity with the No Muslim Ban Walkout, an event that several student groups had rushed to help put together over the preceding 48 hours in response to President Trump’s executive order issued over the weekend that heavily restricted immigration from seven target Muslim countries including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. The sudden order came with very little clarity and widespread panic; the only thing that was for certain was that Muslims and their allies absolutely had to resist. As the protests erupted over the weekend at airports across the country, including at Chicago’s O’Hare International, students from Northwestern’s Immigrant Justice Project, Muslim Cultural Students Association, Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance, MEChA de Northwestern, Students for Justice in Palestine, Black Lives Matter NU, Alianza, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, and the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights joined forces to show solidarity with those affected and put together a protest on campus of their own. Even with the rapid turnaround, the turnout was for the most part heartening— students from all demographics were present, be they white, East Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Arab, Latinx or Native American. But one group was noticeably smaller in number and absent from the cosponsors list: the South Asian community. And if we look at our recent campus history, it’s worth wondering if even the Muslims who were South Asian would’ve shown up at all, either. Upperclassmen will recall the NUDivest and the subsequent Unshackle NU movements that called for divestment from corporations profiting off of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and mass incarceration respectively. The two
movements were driven by a broad coalition of students from marginalized groups across all parts of campus as well as their allies. And yet, with a few exceptions, South Asian students sat on the sidelines until the days the resolutions were presented in front of the Associated Student Government Senate. While other student activists sacrificed their academic and mental well being, we South Asians patiently waited until the Snapchattable post-victory celebrations came around. It’s not just laziness, though. Addressing the colorism and anti-Blackness that has prevented us from taking part in many a social justice movement is a solid start. We may not explicitly consider ourselves racist, but think about it: we constantly otherize our Black Muslim brothers and sisters, despite the fact that a Gallup Poll from 2009 found that Black Muslims make up the largest population of Muslim Americans.
Al Bayan | 19 | Spring
Other non-Black Muslims are no better: Although the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s Annual Muslim Poll found that 72% of Muslims between the ages of 18 and 29 are likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, a whopping 67% of Black Muslims surveyed for the same poll said that they have personally experienced race-based discrimination within their faith community. Very recent history backs up these statistics, too. About a year ago, we watched in horror as three Black Muslims were shot and killed execution style in Indiana. For a week, we mourned, we held vigils—and then we returned to our daily lives. We can all remember the names of Deah, Yusor, and Razan—but how many of us can remember Mohamedtaha, Adam, and Muhannad? Even in our everyday lives, every “fair and lovely” joke we’ve made, every n-word we drop when singing along to our favorite
lyrics, every white-washing Snapchat filter we use, perpetuates our racist trope. Culture is easy to blame, yes—but as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her book We Should All Be Feminists, “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” With so many microaggressions ingrained in the culture we’ve created, it’s frankly amazing that Black student groups still consistently show up for us repeatedly. A large part of it is also complacency. Particularly in this political climate, it’s time for South Asians as a community to step it up and recognize that our privilege as one of America’s “model minorities” doesn’t protect us from racism as a whole. For starters, the model minority complex is a myth at its very core—many of us at Northwestern may be the children of doctors, professors and business professionals, but the reality is that Asians are not a monolith. In reality, we’re not even close to being as “successful” as we’d like to think. South Asians are the first to boast about how many of us are doctors or engineers, but according to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, one in three Asian Americans actually doesn’t speak English, and a 2016 study by the Migration Policy Institute found that a whopping 12% of all undocumented Americans are Asian. For all of our professional success, we continue to fail the most vulnerable parts of our community. Regardless of our degrees, for Muslim and non-Muslim South Asian Americans alike, brushing off the reality that we are all grouped under the umbrella of Islamophobia and its effects is not just willful ignorance, but dangerous willful ignorance at that. Islamophobia will never equal anti-Blackness, but that doesn’t mean we can get complacent either. We are not, and never will be, white. As we look to the coming months and years, we should also look back on the rich history of activism in South Asian culture as well, but with an honest lens. We hail Gandhi as the father of nonviolent revolution, but we forget his rampant antiBlackness. Even among our peers, we must be more self-critical. While self-proclaimed activist Ziad Ahmed’s response of repeating the phrase “#BlackLivesMatter” to a Stanford admissions essay prompt “What matters to you and why?” was nice in theory, applauding ourselves for doing the
bare minimum is almost more dangerous than doing nothing at all. Context and positionality are also two fundamental truths we must acknowledge to make real progress—we cannot just pat ourselves on the back every time a teenager who writes #BlackLivesMatter on an essay gets into a school which his resume and privileged background already primed him to get into. So who can we turn to? Groups like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and Breakthrough, founded by Mallika Dalth are good places to start. Both focus on eradicating xenophobia and violence against women and girls respectively through an intersectional social justice framework. Online, spaces like Maria Qamar’s @hatecopy Instagram account, which satirizes Western desi life, are also a good way of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. Brown University has also put together an entire blog called “Asian American Activism: The Continuing Struggle,” which not only highlights a multitude of Asian American activists throughout American history, but also serves as a database for Asian American
Al Bayan | 20 | Spring
organizations currently engaging in activism across the country, as well as a resource center for issues Asian Americans may run into in their organizing efforts. These resources include but are not limited to a racial justice toolkit, documents explaining more about colorism, and informational materials on how to combat anti-Blackness in the AAPI community, including a shared Google Doc that is updated with new sources daily. But the most simple and most effective way to get involved is just to transform caring into action. South Asian organizers mentioned at the No Muslim Ban Walkout that the whole idea had stemmed from people simply asking if they were okay after the executive order was issued. They felt tied to the issue personally as Muslims themselves but also as close friend of students more directly affected by the order, so they took initiative. In this case, empathy overcame apathy because of an active choice. If South Asians want to have a future in this country, we must be intersectional in our solidarity and continue to be deliberate in this choice.
Q&A Q: What do you think your play, The Domestic Crusaders, says now in our current political context, and what do you think audiences can get from it? That play was very much informed by who I was, the young man I was in 2001, 2002 and 2003. That was the era of 9/11, George W. Bush, the neocons, the Patriot Act, a war in Iraq. We thought at that time, that was the most extreme version of a heavyhanded Republican government we’d ever seen in our lives. Now, fast forward sixteen years, and George W. Bush would not be elected or even become the presidential nominee of the Republican party because he’d be seen as too pro-Muslim-y. And so the play was informed by the politics of that day, but I deliberately didn’t want to make it into a time capsule piece that you read three years from now and it would be dated. It was anchored in an authentic, universal family drama, a universal tale told through a very culturally specific lens, of people who are often ignored or marginalized. Immigrants, Pakistani immigrants. Ironically, the play that I started sixteen years ago has had more resonance in the past five years than it had in the first ten years. And I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a diss. In a way, it provides an entryway into a narrative of the American experience that is still marginalized, still forgotten, still used and abused to score political points and promote a poisonous agenda. I realized when I wrote the play, there are so few mainstream narratives that celebrate and promote authentic Muslim American stories. It also has an opportunity to educate and edify, and give people an experience of fellow Americans who just happen to eat biryani and worship Allah and have multi-hyphenated names. I hate using this word because we’re all human beings, but narratives and storytelling can humanize a very demonized community.
Q: Do you think that having more Muslims in creative, mediarelated or non traditional fields can lead to tangible, political changes? Yes, a thousand times yes. 60 point, bold, Times New Roman font, underlined and italicized, yes. The majority of Muslim Americans are one of four occupations. Number one, the greatest makan and station of any man, right below angels: doctor. Number two, not as good as doctor, but you might still get into heaven if you’re a corporate engineer. Three, dubious businessman who somehow makes a lot of money. When you ask him what he does, he says ‘Import, export.’ And he still has a big suburban house and a Lexus. Fourth is taxi-driver or Uber. That leaves 10 to 15 percent for journalists, politicians, activists, attorneys, writers, police officers, psychiatrists and everything else.
with playwright, lawyer and Twitter comedian Wajahat Ali By Amal Ahmed
That means if you aren’t telling your stories, your story will always be told to you by others. That’s what’s happening. Our story has always been told to us by others. All we do is drink chai and complain. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor or engineer or businessman. Alhamdulillah, they’ve had tremendous success. If you can do it, do it well, go for it. But there’s no rule that you can’t be a doctor and a writer. Or an engineer and an activist. A lawyer and a father and a good husband and a philanthropist. We are very privileged people, despite what is happening. I don’t want anyone to forget how privileged and lucky we are. Instead of saying, “Oh, we had a Rumi, we had an Ibn Rushd, we had a Rabia Basri, we had Allama Iqbal,” my challenge to us is, where’s the Rumi of Chicago? Where’s the Ibn Rushd of Fremont, California? Where’s the Rabia al-Basri of Virginia? How come we’re claiming victimhood and not encouraging the brilliant talent right under our noses? In suburban homes and the cities, there are fantastic poets and writers and journalists and storytellers. These are the people who can tell not only the American-Muslim story but the American story. Stories that are by us for everyone. This is a moment, an opportunity, and every generation has its challenges, has its crisis. The real question is, how do we respond? I say we respond by throwing down, picking up the pen and writing our own narratives.
Q: What gives you the motivation to keep speaking out and keep working towards a more positive future? What advice would you give to Muslim Americans who are getting involved in bigger issues for the first time? That’s a good question. Look, I’m 36 years old, and I’ve got a bit of mileage on me. I’ve got gray hair. And what motivates me, what’s given me a second wind at life and passion for storytelling and writing is my children. For me, I look at the beautiful faces of
my kids, two years old and six months old, and I want to make sure that I do as much as I can so that when I get older, they say, “Abu, we respect that you tried. That you didn’t leave us with a world where climate change has forced us to eat Soylent Green, and we had to move to the Midwest—no offense to the Midwest—because the coasts have become overrun with water. And black people and brown people are shot openly in the streets in the police state and now we have a dictatorship with state-controlled media. And we’re trying to survive World War Three, and we’re waiting for the Mahdi. You did your best to throw down in the ring. You faltered. Your generation messed up. You’re lame, but you know what, you tried.” You can throw down in the ring in front of the Firown and his people, with your staff made of truth, and justice and hummus and zafran and raita and some hadith and the American Constitution. And when you throw down, you throw it down hard with some humble swagger and inshallah your staff will swallow up the lies and the hate and the bigotry and injustice. And there will be people behind you, of different ethnicities and religions and genders and they will say, ‘Look at that American, that Muslim, not only did he fight for justice and truth for his own people, he also stood up in some small way for other marginalized communities, and that’s the American way and the Islamic way.” That’s why I do this with my very limited talents and limited time on earth. I want, when I meet Allah, because I do believe in God, I want Allah subhanahu wa tallah to say, “You effed up, you’re a loser, you probably will most likely go to hellfire, but you know what? I gave you tremendous privileges. At least you acknowledged it, and you tried to do something positive and good. So I’m gonna give you a pass, mother effer”—I don’t know if Allah calls Muslims mother effers, but—“I’m gonna give you a pass, you goofy, awkward brown dude with biryani and lentil stains on your shirt.” Maybe I’ll get into jannah, and maybe my kids and your generation will realize that every generation is tasked with a challenge. Allah (SWT) promises it in Surah Muhammad: “We will try you and test you.” Allah (SWT) has promised those hardships, but he also has promised us he will not give us a burden we cannot bear. I was the 9/11 generation, you guys are the Donald Trump generation. This is the death
Al Bayan | 22 | Spring
march of white supremacy, here and across the Atlantic, that will challenge your right to exist and to breathe and to be. As well as your fellow Americans who happen to be black and brown and immigrants and women and gay. Inject some spirituality and humanity in there. We are people of goodwill. Transform people with good conduct and good responses. You can heal hearts. Not everyone out there is your enemy. There are a lot of people who are misled, but not everyone is your enemy. Don’t be angry, don’t be bitter, don’t be afraid. Have hope, resist, have faith, and respond in the best of ways. And if you do, you’ll be following your better angels and the best conduct of the Prophet Muhammad (S).
Some of the Sunnis don’t mix with the Shias. There’s the African American quarter and the Arab quarter. I wish they’d interact more, but there’s still lingering bad blood. The Indians and Pakistanis share recipes and food but have somehow created a Line of Control near the latrines. However, all of us feel bad for The Miscellaneous. They’re a ragtag bunch of nonMuslims who look Muslim-y and were accidentally thrown in with the rest of us saps. By my last count there’s at least 17 Iranian Jews, 98 Arab Christians, 42 Sikhs and Colin Kaepernick. Excerpt from Ali’s “Americans Will Always Rather Feel Safe, Than Be Free,” Published in McSweeney’s 49
Q: How do we draw the line between having to explain things to this mainstream, white audience, and engaging in constructive movements that go beyond explaining what it’s like to be a person of color? That’s a very legitimate concern. It’s like, how much do you want to be a walking Wikipedia entry or Cliff Notes for Dummies? When can you finally just drop that exhausting task and simply be yourself and not worry whether or not your narratives and stories are digestible or understandable to a “mainstream” audience? What’s the balance between being a perpetual educator and simply existing and being? Not giving a shit whether people understand you and telling people, ‘Hey, you have Wikipedia. You can go Google what hijab is, and the adhan is, and I can keep moving forward with my narrative.’ You have this self-imposed, unconscious desire to appear mainstream. Is your existence palatable and friendly or will you rock the boat? Don’t be too angry, don’t be too passionate, don’t mention hadith or the Prophet--people won’t understand. So we self-censor and self-police ourselves based on what the mainstream wants. And we don’t give ourselves and our narratives a chance to breathe. So I challenge that. With The Domestic Crusaders, I deliberately put Urdu in there, and I put Arabic in there. I tried to make it accessible, but at the same time, you know what, in America, if I walk around in Manhattan, I can hear twelve languages I don’t understand. You have to work in America, so it’s ok to make people work. And people want to work. They want to learn. I challenge your generation to mix in the masala, the biryani, the hadith, the Jay-Z and Kanye, and Macklemore—I don’t know if I dated myself, are they cool anymore? Put in some Drake, mix it all together and make a tasty American nihari. If the story is interesting, I guarantee you, from my old man experience, people will line up.
Faith, justice and going green
Photo by Naib Mian
Muslim-Americans speak on how Islam inspires their environmentalism By Nida Bajwa
li Rashad converted to Islam 37 years ago. For 30 years, he’s worked as a contractor in Chicago. Now, he manages a program called Green ReEntry, a project by the InnerCity Muslim Action Network (IMAN) that provides formerly incarcerated men with transitional housing and training in the field of green construction. For Rashad, the term green doesn’t just mean environmentally sustainable. “Green is a color of prosperity and good will in Islam,” he says. Rashad’s job is to teach program participants how to construct homes following certain environmental guidelines. The men install solar panels, environmentally friendly furnaces and organic insulation in the new homes. The program emphasizes reducing waste by reusing the remnants of existing homes to build new ones. At the core of IMAN’s environmentally conscious efforts is an understanding that Muslims have a spiritual obligation to live a “green” life, in all the color’s connotations. Rashad and the cohort at Green ReEntry understand this. Mujahid Hamilton is a former graduate of the program, and he says it’s made him more mindful. “I used to get into the shower and just keep the water on...now I get wet, soap up, rinse off, and I only keep it on when I need to,” says Hamilton. About the formerly incarcerated men who come into the program, he says they may not necessarily come in knowing much about environmentalism, but they learn how to make small adjustments in their lives. The Green ReEntry program derives its spirit of Islamic environmentalism from the faith’s core teachings. Dr. Md Saidul Islam, a Canadian sociologist, coined the term “the Islamic Ecological Paradigm (IEP) to discuss Muslims’ responsibility to the environment. By analyzing the Quran and Hadith, he uncovers an Islamic tradition of environmentalism dating back to medieval history. It’s a history that prioritizes the protection of the ozone layer, the preservation of water, and the fair treatment of animals, and it’s substantiated by Quranic verses. “And We made the sky a protected ceiling, but they, from its signs, are turning away”(21:32). “And We have sent down blessed rain from the sky and made grow thereby gardens and grain from the harvest” (50:9). “And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered” (6:38). From these verses, we can gather a number of things. For one, we can understand our obligation to protect the ozone layer from releases of toxic compounds. We can also infer that water is intended as a public
good not to be commoditized, sold for profit, or kept from the poor. Certainly, it’s not to be poisoned, as we are seeing in black and brown communities in Flint, Michigan, and Native American communities across the country. Lastly, we are forced to reckon with the idea that humans are not necessarily superior to other beings. If animals belong to communities just like ours, we have some modern institutions to reconsider: zoos, slaughterhouses and animal testing, for example. Ultimately, our obligation to the environment as humans, according to the Quran, comes down to the term “khalifa.” Khalifa has multiple meanings including deputy, guardian, and ‘friend of Earth.’ Essentially, however, it implies that to be human is to promise to take on the responsibility to care for the planet and for other beings on it. Beyond religious ideals, Muslims have a historical and political relationship to the environment. Around the world, Muslims have faced the brunt of colonialist and imperialist regimes that have destroyed their environments, foods, and ways of life. These regimes have prioritized profit over people by commodifying water and limiting its availability, and destroying lands used to cultivate fruits and vegetables. As climate change further destabilizes the world, it is once again Muslim communities who will be at the forefront of its consequences. “There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and a lot of them are in latitudes that will be primarily affected by climate change,” says Asma Mahdi, the executive director of Green Muslims. “Climate change is not just sea level rise. It’s not just extreme weather events. It’s also the movement of bodies across borders, and we’re seeing that with the current refugee crisis.” Green Muslims is an organization that seeks to promote environmental awareness amongst Muslim communities. Mahdi sees Islam and environmentalism as two deeply linked ideas. Climate scientists and writers argue that the Syrian refugee crisis was significantly exacerbated by climate change. According to an article in the American Meteorological Society Journal, Syria suffered its worst drought in more than 900 years. Water became scarce, and food prices surged, helping spur the civil war. Although Mahdi acknowledges that it’s difficult to think about being an environmental advocate when you are “fighting just to exist in the state,” she strongly believes the environment is the core issue at the center of most others. In many ways, it’s the lowest common denominator of most human struggle. “I think the American [Muslim] dream for a very long time specifically has been: you come to the U.S, you buy a big house, you buy a fancy car, and that shows that you made it. So, living minimally, not having such a huge carbon footprint…those haven’t necessarily been seen as means of success. I think our generation is starting to change that,” Mahdi explains.
Intersecting Straddling the divide between two marginalized identities, queer Muslims struggle to find community and acceptance in mainstream spaces By Naib Mian
Overlooked June 11, 2016: A man had shot several people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. As people reeled again at the thought of another mass shooting, many Muslims turned to the first thought we have far too often: please tell me he doesn’t have a Muslim name. He did. And as the “experts” appeared once more on nightly television, a key voice was once more silenced: queer Muslims, straddling identities often perceived as at odds with each other. Anti-Muslim racist discourse often relies on labelling Islam as anti-women and anti-gender- or sexual-minorities in an effort to pit these communities against each other. Disregarded is the fact that those who paint these broad generalizations of Muslims are the same ones who limit Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights in the United States. From the margins of history, developing religious interpretations and the experiences of LGBT Muslims, a different narrative emerges. Although some think that discourse around homosexuality in Islam is a modern concept, it has an extensive place within Islamic history —the subject of much literature and artistic expression. Homosexuality was largely not criminalized in Muslim societies until the adaptation of European colonial laws which established harsh punishments for same-sex acts. But amidst the vitriol of today’s Islamophobia, many American Muslims find it difficult to engage critically with these issues in their communities. Paired with assumptions about the rigid nature of the religion, this has facilitated the erasure of queer Muslims and raised obstacles for them to come out. “Muslims need to do a lot of work to make sure LGBT Muslims are involved,” says Urooj Arshad, the associate director of International Youth Health and Rights at Advocates for Youth. Even on college campuses, where there has been increasing solidarity work between Muslims and LGBT communities, they often demarcate between Muslim and LGBT as two distinct communities, not leaving room for overlap. “What can happen in solidarity work, sometimes they can forget LGBT Muslims,” says Arshad, who herself became aware of
her intersecting identities when coming out. Caught between white queer spaces and “mainstream” Islamic spaces, she didn’t feel comfortable in either. “It’s important that (LGBT Muslims) are at the center of these conversations. We already have relationships between Muslims and queer people, but often the work erases our experiences by not including us.” Hanan Malas, a Chicago local who identifies as bisexual, says she has struggled with the mainstream community in its efforts to express support for the LGBT community while not wanting to acknowledge the overlap. Especially following the Orlando shootings, she said, many queer Muslims wanted the larger community to understand they were doing more harm than good and pushing their own away from the faith. “There are various types of Muslims in the world, different sects, different races, all living different lives,” she says. “You don’t get to pick and choose who’s a Muslim and who’s not. This superior than thou thinking divides us as an Ummah and has been one of the many root causes of toxicity in our community.” This discomfort with the mainstream has been a common problem for many in the LGBT community. In 2011, Arshad was accepted to the 4th cohort of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute Fellowship, becoming the first openly queer Muslim to attend. “It was important for me to be there because even people who disagree still had to see me as a person.” But she didn’t always feel so comfortable engaging in this way. “Ten years ago I had no desire to interact with the mainstream Muslim community,” she says. “I’m not getting any support, it’s mostly talking to them about educating and informing people. This is the community that needs to acknowledge how traumatized LGBT Muslims are.” “There is private support, but it’s often not very visible.” Arshad says that has changed post-Orlando, and these conversations are starting to happen more often. “The religious community is the hardest to engage, but I have had non-LGBT Muslims reach out asking how they can help. Those conversations need to keep happening.” While she’s seeing that involvement
increasing at the national scale, there is a need for opening up local spaces as well, especially what Arshad calls “third spaces,” like halaqas and campus Muslim Students Associations. But in addition, she stresses community spaces for LGBT Muslims like retreats where they can explore their own diversity. “You see that there are other people here like you. You feel like you’re not a freak, you have something in common with them.” One of Arshad’s latest projects has been the establishment of a Muslim Youth Leadership Council that looks into issues for LGBT and immigrant youth and holds media, policy and organizing trainings around the intersections of these areas. Their inaugural group will be formed this year. Beyond community, however, she says creating religious spaces where LGBT Muslims can feel comfortable is important. “A lot of people talk about mosques, but that’s the hardest to change,” Arshad says. “The mosque is the last frontier.” But Masjid al-Rabia is one attempt at such a place of worship. Having opened in December of 2016, the masjid’s organizers have worked to create an inclusive community despite lacking a permanent space and often “roving” between various hosts in the metropolitan Chicagoland area. “There are so many people pushed to the margins of our Muslim communities:‒ LGBTQ people literally being pushed out, women being treated as second class citizens, Muslims belonging to minority sects being treated like apostates, colorism and antiblackness permeating so many spaces,” says Mahdia Lynn, one of the founders of the mosque. “It felt critical that we had a spiritual space for spiritual healing and an opportunity for marginalized Muslims to have access to their faith in a space that was affirming and healing. It became clear that we’d never have a space like that if we didn’t make it ourselves.” On Fridays, anywhere between five and 20 worshippers will attend Masjid al-Rabia’s jummah services. Often times, traditional khutbahs will be replaced with group discussions on spiritual topics. The masjid is a mixed space, and prayer is not split by gender. “We are very intentionally a radically equal and non-hierarchical space,” Lynn says. The mixed prayer accommodates for those with gender-nonconforming identities, who may feel forced into a gendered section that they don’t fully identity with. “Our commitment to learn from one another, and
Masjid al-Rabia maintains a collection of books, open for anyone to borrow. // Photo courtesy of Masjid alRabia
our commitment to equality and justice for all Muslims, I think is what sets us apart,” Lynn explains. Despite the prevailing practice of gender segregation in mosques today, based largely on the hadith Sahih Muslim 440 stating: “The best rows for men are the first rows as opposed to the last ones, and the best rows for women are the last ones as opposed to the first ones,” feminist Muslim scholars have sparked debate over the absolute nature of the practice. They cite the historical record of at least one woman companion of the Prophet (S) leading prayer for both men and women, and the permissibility of such in two of the major schools of Islamic thought throughout the first four centuries of the Islamic calendar. Men and women also worship side by side during the holy pilgrimage of Hajj. The challenge of creating more inclusive spaces for queer Muslims is a global one. In South Africa, the Inner Circle is another such mixed-space, providing support services for LGBT Muslims and a place of worship. Founded in Cape Town by Muhsin Hendricks, an openly gay imam, in 1996, it was originally titled Al Fitrah Foundation. “Al Fitrah means nature, the natural way Allah created you,” he says. “That’s the message I wanted to impart. That it’s not a choice.” Hendricks says he feels blessed to have grown up with both his homosexual identity and a grounding in Islamic teachings. His grandfather was an imam and his mother a teacher in the local mosque where he spent much of his childhood. “At some point those two were going to come together for me, and that would be the calling for my activism,” he says.
Al Bayan | 25 | Spring
But that was not without challenge. Hendricks married in his early twenties thinking it would “fix” him, but as time went by it became evident that that wasn’t the case. After coming out, he lost several teaching positions in mosques. Although he was saddened, he was confident about his choice. “I felt like it was either, keep living a double life or be authentic.” Hendricks focuses on how to live authentically and summon the courage to live that way. “If an identity is a divine intention, then you have to accept it,” he says. “My work is about helping people to marry those two identities, and to live consciously. They feel closer to Allah, they feel more connected to their spirituality, and they feel that their life is more authentic. That’s my job as an imam.” At the Inner Circle, the mosque space is gender integrated and women often deliver khutbahs or lead prayer. For Hendricks, this is both about equity as well as inclusivity for all gender identities. “People know this is how it’s supposed to be, but the orthodox teachings over the years stand in the way of accepting it.” Hendricks responds to those who advocate gender segregation or argue, “If she bends down, it’ll distract the men,” saying: “Shouldn’t your attention be somewhere else in your prayers? And why do you assume that when a woman stands behind a man, that’s not sensual for her as well? Is it all just about the man’s sexuality?” He also explores the Islamic foundational theorizing on what is understood as homosexuality today. A large part of religious scholarship around homosexuality rests on the story of the people of Lut and
their destruction. The cause for their destruction, however, has been interpreted differently by different scholars; some of whom use it to condemn homosexuality while others highlight the same-sex rape described in the Quranic story that must be understood as distinct from consensual same-sex relationships. “There’s enough information to prove that the whole story of Lut has nothing to do with sexual orientation and gender identity, but something else completely— where the rape of men or the use of sex for power was something completely different from homosexuality in the way that we understand it today,” he says. The Inner Circle serves as a safe space for these kinds of conversations to take place without judgment. Often times, that has meant ensuring personal safety as well. Hendricks says he has seen a lot of emotional abuse. Queer Muslims have been disinherited, outed, forced into marriage or thrown out by their families. The center has seen five cases of suicide in the community and high rates of drug abuse. For these vulnerable individuals, the Inner Circle runs a support services fund. But at a broader level, both Hendricks and Arshad say the loneliness that comes with the identity is a major problem for young queer Muslims. Chicago-based Hanan Malas struggled with her identity from a young age in school, where she was exposed to the idea that being gay was considered sinful, or at best, that “it is not wrong to love, but acting upon it is.” As she came out to some of her close friends, she discovered that some others had experienced the same thing. She’s received a variety of responses.
People she had never met reached out and told her they admired her strength and bravery. But on the other hand she’s faced shunning as well from some in her community. Her family has been accepting for the most part, but she says it can still be very isolating. “The struggle in your faith can be hard; the people who are supposed to be your support are attacking you from all sides, and most of the time we find solace and acceptance outside of the Ummah. Worst of all we have a hard time accepting and loving ourselves as Allah made us.” Queer Muslims face a diversity of reactions from their families, but Arshad recognizes that because of cultural norms in many Muslim communities, it can be very challenging for family members of queer Muslims. “If my mom talks about my queerness, it’s other people thinking she’s failed, so I leave it up to her,” she says. “It’s not easy for her to find those communities; we just don’t discuss sexuality. She’s much more isolated than I am, and I have an appreciation for that.” Hendricks says he’s seen shifts in the discourse around LGBT communities, even amongst some of the most hardline. In 2007, he was featured in the documentary A Jihad for Love, which explored homosexuality in Islam. Before 2007, Hendricks says imams didn’t work with the Inner Circle. In 2003, there were 30 attendees at their annual international retreat. The 2015 retreat attracted 150, including 20 religious leaders. Their personal empowerment programs, community iftars and prayer services have expanded as well,
from exclusively queer people to about half and half, he says. Although there’s been a common belief that Hendricks is promoting homosexuality, he says those who engage with the Inner Circle are realizing that a small percentage has to do with sexuality, and a large part of it has to do with life more broadly. “It’s not possible to promote homosexuality, it’s already there,” he says. “But what do people do with this very strong identity and a very strong Islamic identity? Someone has to help them through.” He says for some the answer is they should be killed, or they should be fasting, or they should be married, and it will fix them. “I’m evidence that that doesn’t work.” Hendricks instead emphasizes that being true to all of the aspects of one’s identity is the ultimate way of expressing one’s Islamic identity. “It’s important that we see our Islamic identity as our primary identity, our values as a Muslim: authenticity, peace, wanting to be pure in your body, mind and soul.” he says. “Your sexual orientation and gender identity are only part of who you are. It’s part of your fitrah, it’s part of your nature, and you have to accept it in order to live as a complete Muslim.” Under this view, Hendricks finds room to focus on his congregants’ intersecting identities. In working with several Muslim feminists, the Inner Circle goes beyond simply addressing LGBT issues to confronting questions around inheritance, bodily and sexual rights, and women’s leadership, working to incorporate all marginalized groups. Hendricks and other queer Muslims like him have found themselves in a unique place, given their LGBT and Muslim identities. Despite the challenges they face from both inside and outside their communities, they contribute to and expand the way Islam is practiced and understood. “The Prophet said, ‘Islam started as a strange thing, and it will return as a strange thing,’” Hendricks says. “So I feel like the people who are considered strange and on the peripheries of Islam—gay people, transgender, women—new ways of seeing Islam are emerging from them.”
Muhsin Hendricks runs the Inner Circle in Cape Town, providing religious and support services for queer Muslims. // Photo by Naib Mian Al Bayan | 26 | Spring
SCRUMPTIOUS by HIRa By Zoya Khan
ira Umer didn’t know how to write a check at 18, but now, at the age of 26, she’s running her own business. As you walk into her newly opened bakery, Scrumptious by Hira, you are greeted with an array of decadent cupcakes, brownies, and chocolate-coated cake pops lining the counter against the soft, pink and green backdrop of the store. After opening on November 19, 2016, Umer said that she has received nothing but love and support from her Lombard community. When asked if she faced any acts of discrimination or racism, she responded, “It has always been a good community. In terms of Islamophobia I haven’t faced any challenges.” She also mentioned everyone is respectful of each other’s religions adding, “We give them [neighbors] gifts on Eid, they give us gifts on Christmas.” Yet, the journey to get here hasn’t been easy for Umer. During her first year
as a college student, Umer’s father was shot in an attempted robbery at his store just outside of Chicago. The event left her father completely paralyzed from the neck down. “It was traumatic, it was life changing, it was out-of the blue,” Umer said. Her family’s life was thrown into disarray, as they were all dependent on their father. Being the middle child of 5, Umer decided to put her studies on hold so she could help in her father’s rehabilitation care. With her father in recovery, there was no one running the store. Realizing that was their primary source of income, Umer’s mother encouraged the children to help out at the father’s store. Seeing that her mother couldn’t manage it all herself, Umer volunteered to help. “My mom has been the backbone of our family,” Umer remarked. “If my mom hadn’t pushed us, I don’t know what would have happened.” Knowing nothing about running a
Al Bayan | 27 | Spring
business, Umer had to learn quickly. She recalled her father’s frustration at her inability to write a check. Umer’s father had always taken care of her needs, so she never had to think about it. “I am a daddy’s girl,” she said sheepishly as she explained that her father even filled up her car’s gas tank. While her father was undergoing treatment, Umer wanted to learn a new talent and challenge her creative side.“I was always into baking, I had a creative side. I never knew what medium I would go with. When customers ask me for cake sketches, I say, “Don’t!’” she said, laughing. Umer decided to take the The Wilton School’s cake decorating classes, which taught her the basics of decorating and creating cakes. Umer’s friends and family quickly took note of her talent and began requesting cakes from her. Her sister ended up creating a Facebook page to showcase Umer’s work. However, she had never considered it a
When you turn to Allah in Good times, that’s when you know you have a relationship with allah. full-time career option, as it had always been a hobby. Coming from a traditional Pakistani family, her parents raised their children in an open environment where “nothing was ever forced.” They were free to make their life choices and follow their passions. But cultural pressures still existed for the children, like getting married. At 21, Umer had an arranged marriage that ended abruptly due to her husband’s drug addiction. Three months into her marriage, Umer found out she was expecting her first child, and that the child’s health was at risk due to the adverse environment she was living in. In that moment she made the difficult decision to leave her husband for the sake of her unborn child. As she sat at her parent’s house, contemplating what to do next, Umer realized that her passion for baking hadn’t gone away. With her child on the way, she knew her two priorities were to support him as well as spend time raising him. “My kid is my motivation,” Umer said of her son, Muhammad. “The day he was born I looked at him in the face and said, “we have to figure this out. It’s just you
and me against this entire world.’” Raising a child posed challenges, and Umer was prepared to take them on. “I want to raise this child, I want to care for this child. But the reality is that you need an income. You need money to survive.” And that’s when it hit her: why not create a business where she could display and sell her baked goods? Countless prayers and duas later, Umer began to research places where she could open a store to display her goods. Fast-forward three years and Scrumptious by Hira opened its doors to the public. Dozens of families from Lombard and neighboring communities came to show their support and excitement on opening day. “When I got the keys to my storefront, I said Alhamdullilah, what did I do to deserve this? This is overwhelming.” But the undertaking also reminded Umer of how much her own family has been there for her in the process of opening her business. She would call her brother every morning just to decompress from the day’s events, from taking care of her son, to the construction of the store, to her family’s needs. It was a tough balance
to manage but with the help of God and her family Umer worked through it. And now Muhammad is her business partner and the reason she works so hard. Always accompanying his mother to consultation meetings, he’s made Umer proud with his desire to get involved. “He already knows how to set a dessert table,” she says. Umer, and her assistant Taha, bake everything in the morning so they don’t have to compromise the freshness in their goods. As customers walk in, they are greeted by Umer, Muhammad, and a row of desserts. Umer feels as if she makes a connection with all of her customers and grows with them, blaming it on her informality with people. But that is Umer’s favorite part of the industry she is in. “For a girl, I will do her bridal shower cake, her wedding cake, her baby shower cake, her kid’s first birthday cake. You see families grow old and it’s so beautiful.” Currently, she is trying to figure out what direction to take with the bakery and is toying with a couple of different ideas. She wants to use her space to support entrepreneurs and small business owners as Umer recalls how crucial it is to have room when trying to launch yourself. Despite countless struggles, Umer has established herself as a strong business owner and taken a position of leadership. Her faith in God has never wavered as she has many things to be thankful for, from her father surviving the attack to her son being born. “When you turn to Allah in good times,” she says, “that’s when you know you have a relationship with Allah.”
Previous page: Hira Umer poses with her son at her bakery. // Photo by Hina Yahya Left: Colorful macarons are one of many delightful baked goods sold at the storefronT. // Photo by Naib Mian
Feelings of Diaspora | شتاتيا شعر ً By Kareem Youssef | كرمي يوسف
al-aqsa mosque in jerusalem//photo by naib mian. | صورة ت من ناءب ميان//املسجد االقسى في القدس
A serpentine pair, of scales napalm and blue-white Coldly embraced, spoke in xenophobic tongue, of what laws might Seek to prevent the misshapen colonial flesh-eating husk from bleeding out Whose imminent passing will cease the awfully ironic account Offering phantasmagorical conclusions of an islamicized, anti-Semitic, Palestinian
لعربيا مشرقًا ً احلقيدة العظيمة بأنفسهم ٌ استعمروا أرض عجو ٌز و خلعوا اللغات من لساننا مستشرقًا دمروا سالمتنا ورفعوا فوقها مراية بدون ميزان حتى اآلن ما عندنا حقنا وكرامتنا و لكن نتعرف عن املدان الذين نسوا أن الفوارق و املقاومة جتعل زوجان Time wasted has taught patience to the embers strewn across diverse land Blazed souls burning red green white black yearning to never be fanned Oppressive hands weep under the weight keeping the Zionist mirror aloft The light it reflects attenuates and its reflection begins to fade soft Recognize moths who flock to our flame, in solidarity causing embers to coalesce
يشاهد كلنا إزدياد نار الناس فنورها أنور من ذلك املراية فإنهم وأموالهم في العدم فالذي نفسي بيده سنتقابل أمامهم ستكون معي نار قلبي و بجانبي فراشتي سننتظر و سنرى كما االزاز يصبح إلى الرمل
Al Bayan | 29 | Spring
The Night Of
By Umber Waheed
s credits roll through, I see my reflection in my laptop screen, tearyeyed. I glance outside my window, where a smoky dusk settles into the streets of downtown Evanston. Rushing through eight episodes, my heart has finally settled. It’s minutes after Maghrib on a Saturday evening, and I’m left with a strangely bittersweet longing for a fictional beginning untouched by all that I’d seen, a beginning that no longer existed. “The Night Of” hit me hard. Based on the British television series “Criminal Justice,” HBO’s TV mini-series adaptation “The Night Of” is about MuslimAmerican Nasir “Naz” Khan, (Riz Ahmed) who is accused of the gruesome murder of a mysterious Upper West Side girl. After the night of the murder, the series follows Naz through his time in prison to the proceedings of his trial. Directed by Steven Zaillian, the man behind “Schindler’s List” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the show delivers an expertly-crafted representation of the devastating experience and aftermath of the criminal justice system. While the series offers nonstop suspense, perhaps the most intense moments lie in the first episode. The show opens with a shot of the colorful streets of Jackson Heights, where butcher and clothing shops lie next to cell phone and mitai stops. The shots hide nothing, capturing the bustling cultural life of Naz. Naz himself comes from a clearly South Asian, Muslim area and this directly plays into what we witness next. We see him tutoring college athletes and helping out at his mother’s clothing store. We see how the superficial party invitation of a basketball player gets him giddy for the night to come; fast forward and we see his parents’ hesitate over their roti and daal as they think of him hanging out with non-Muslims. Unlike most mainstream TV shows, “The Night Of” subtly uses the expectations placed on the children of immigrants, first-generation Americans, as a plot point. Interestingly enough, Naz’s Islamic faith is only a minuscule detail. It proves significant when he is dealing with his loved ones and it is unjustifiably
exploited by the prosecution in an attempt to deny him bail. For this, the show and Ahmed can be applauded for subverting the typical choice to hone in on the main character’s Muslim identity as the sole element of their characterization. When Naz’s ride cannot make the party, Naz decides to rebel and take his father’s taxicab out. He finds himself momentarily parked on the side of an intersection, and this is when a moody young woman slides into the car and tells him to take her to the beach. Even though we don’t know what’s to come, the sight of Naz peering in the rearview mirror at the girl dressed in black makes one’s stomach sink. Every scene of the pair together heightens the feeling of dread in your stomach. From the drug-alcohol cocktails that Naz tries for the first time in his life to the various characters Naz and the girl encounter together, to a bloody injury on the girl’s hand from a knife game, we as the viewer can see how the impending case is to be laid out. The biggest suckerpunch comes when Naz groggily wakes up in the girl’s kitchen and begins getting dressed to leave. He sees her lying in bed, stabbed an infinite amount of times, blood smattered over the walls. His fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and he runs. The events that ensue aren’t important to tell because we know that no matter what Naz tries tonight, he will be arrested. The rest of the series follows the perilous experiences Naz, his family and legal counsel deal with in their efforts to prove him innocent. Naz is shuffled between the local police department jail, correctional facilities and New York prisons. His mother is fired from her job, ousted from her friend circle, and depressingly enlightened about her son’s sexual intercourse (although this occurs in quiet, quick shots). His father, who stoically believes in his son’s innocence, comes under heat from the co-owners of his taxicab, who rely on the income as much as he does. Most of all, we see the struggles of small-time lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) who sticks by Naz’s side, staving off bigger lawyers and his serious case of eczema.
Al Bayan | 30 | Spring
The relationship between Naz and John is a terrifically poignant performance by Ahmed and Turturro. John, who typically deals with guilty dealers and prostitutes, manages to catch a glimpse of Naz in jail the night of the murder. A hunch sends him back into the precinct to declare himself as Naz’s lawyer. What follows is John’s unequivocal support for Naz as he investigates what could have happened that night and Naz’s growing respect for John as he absorbs and applies the advice John offers throughout the show. We visually see their connection as well. John’s struggle through his eczema mirrors Naz’s struggles within prison. Whenever we see John’s eczema flare up, we see Naz worsen as a person. By the end of the series, when John is sent to the hospital for an allergy attack and returns almost unrecognizable, one does not recognize the Naz we saw in the opening shots. With his head shaven and tattoos adorning his arms, Naz finally blends into the sea of convicts he is surrounded by, despite his attempts not to. This is cemented when at one point during the trial, Naz is asked point-blank if he had committed the murder. He frustratedly cries out:“I don’t know,” and neither do we. This is how “The Night Of” earned its three 2017 Golden Globe nominations, two for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Television Film and one for Best Miniseries or Television Film. It also helps explain why Riz Ahmed is listed by TIME Magazine as one of The Most Influential People of 2017. It’s not so much about the plot or even Naz’s innocence -the plot was in itself predictable to a certain extent -- as it is about the emotions the show evokes. By the end you’re left yearning for a return to the beginning: before we witness Naz transform into a darkened semblance of who he used to be, before his family is forever shunned by their community, before John undergoes the pursuit of various failed health appointments. Most heart-wrenchingly, as the show closes on Naz perched atop a cement block by the beach, you yearn for a beginning before Naz and the girl idly sat on that same cement block, taking in the glittering Manhattan Bridge the night of.
Refugee Ilhan Omar becomes first SomaliAmerican lawmaker in the U.S.
Protestors gather at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in response to Trump’s immigration order
82-year-old Chandro Tomar is named world’s oldest female sharpshooter
Mahershala Ali becomes first Muslim actor to win an Oscar
THINGS WE LOVE Hasan Minhaj hosts the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
Saudi Arabian women release viral music video fighting oppression
Asahd Khaled serves as an executive producer for father DJ Khaled’s new album Grateful
British-Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed makes TIME’s 100 Most Influential