By Arturo R. García
I Speak For Myself is a collection about connections: the spiritual to the secular. The public self to the private. One community to another. The point is perhaps made most clearly by Nousheen Yousuf-Sadiq in her essay, “Half and Half”:
After all, I am made up of two parts: my Muslim and American identities. My Muslim identity defined half of my personality, character and individuality, while the other half has been determined by my experience growing up as an American. The balance of the two makes me who I am: an American woman who has discovered her hijab is the greatest beauty secret of all.
Though the contributors’ professions and locations are diverse, some commonalities emerge in the stories shared here: curiosity, confusion (usually some variant of the question, “Oh, you’re really from America?”), and the spectre of Islamophobia that flared up in earnest after the Sept. 11 attacks: “We felt our very identity as Americans was being subjected to scrutiny, challenge, and contestation,” writes Washington Post contributor Hadia Mubarak.
In her essay “Roots,” Muslimah Media Watch editor and Racialicious team member Fatemeh Fakhraie opens up with a raw account of the emotions she faces as she watches her parents age, and the prospect of “repaying the ultimate debt” in taking care of them as they get older:
Baba doesn’t take care of himself, his father had a heart attack at this age, he doesn’t exercise. Downwinders Syndrome could give Ma another type of cancer, what if she breaks something …
Who will take me to Iran? Who will take me to see my grandparents’ graves?
How can anyone really know me if they don’t know I have the same laugh and the same short temper as my Baba? How can anyone understand exactly why sounding like my mother freaks me out if they’ve never met her?
God, sweet God.
Fatemeh’s question – How can anyone really know me if …? – is echoed across the collection, as each of the contributors talk about the connections they make that help them weather the challenges they face: The renewed commitment to their faith, and the emergence of allies, both from within the Muslim-American community and from outside, sometimes unexpected places. Zainab Alwan is publicly defended by a teacher; Ayah H. Ibrahim describes a partnership between her Muslim student group and her college’s Hillel chapter; and Maryam Habib Khan’s experience seeing people she met in Afghanistan reconcile her identities as a Muslim woman who works as a supervisor in the US Army Corps of Engineers.
“Connections,” in fact, is the title of Samaa R. Abdurraqib’s contribution, where she talks about how her circle of Muslim friends helped open up her experience with her faith:
We talked about spirituality rather than behavior; we talked about the beauty of being a Muslim woman rather than the restrictions; we talked about the benefits of being in America and practicing Islam rather than the hardships. Islam became more than just simple and meaningless obedience to me. I learned Islam was about nurturing a strong connection with God, and that strong connection is what spawned my obedience.
The strengthening of the various ties described in these stories creates its’ own connection, between the women sharing their experiences and the reader, Muslim or not. As a learning tool, not just about a particular religion but about faith, strength, love and the value of community, I Speak For Myself succeeds, loud and clear.
If you’re in the Washington D.C. area and want to meet some of the contributors to I Speak For Myself tonight, here’s some info for you:
Where: Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St, Washington, DC
When: Monday, May 16, 6:30 p.m. EST
Who: Nafees Syed, Elham Khatami, Ayah Ibrahim, and Rima Kharuf