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August 5, 2016

Muslim Identity on U-M Campus: Ann Soliman


On February 18, Ping Chong+Company brings the interview-based theater work Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity to Ann Arbor.

This interview-based theater production, part of Chong’s 25-year series entitled Undesirable Elements, explores the diverse experiences of young Muslim New Yorkers who came of age in post-9/11 New York City at a time of increasing Islamophobia. Participants come from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and include young men and women who reflect a range of Muslim identities: those who converted to Islam, those who were raised Muslim but have since left the faith, those who identify as “secular” or “culturally” Muslim, and those who are observant on a daily basis. Beyond Sacred illuminates the daily lives of Muslim Americans in an effort to work toward greater communication and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

In this series of posts and interviews curated by Annick Odom, we explore Muslim identity on U-M campus.

In this essay, Ann Soliman reflects on her identity.

ann-solimanMy name is Ann Soliman. I was born in the United States to my Egyptian parents. I was the second of two kids, born after my parents had decided to stay in the U.S. for a while, so they decided to give me an American name—a stark contrast to my older brother, Ahmad. Our parents raised us in Houston, Texas, then Ann Arbor, Michigan, and aside from summer trips to visit my family in Egypt, I was never strongly a part of a “Muslim community” until I started college.

I dealt with the typical aspects of culture shock that many first-year students experience—sharing the bathroom with a couple dozen girls, compromising with a roommate over use of a 12’x19’ room, and feeling incredibly small as one of five hundred students in my chemistry class. Meanwhile, I relied on the support of friends from the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Through late-night mafia games in cramped apartments that could always swell to accommodate another person and regular religious talks from knowledgeable, compassionate scholars, I felt myself grow in ways that I hadn’t expected. The friends I made through the MSA continued to support me throughout my time in undergrad, even as I got involved in classes and activities that demanded most of my time. As a medical student, I am grateful that my support network has only swelled to include members of the Muslim Medical Students Association (MMSA).

It seems paradoxical to me that my Muslim identity has brought so much love and support into my life, when the very presence of Muslims in the U.S. is now a controversial topic. Despite the significant role that the MSA played in my growth during undergrad, I hesitated to include it in my applications for medical school, concerned that someone with a negative perception of Muslims would take away my opportunity before I had a chance to get my foot in the door.

My parents always taught me that the way to show people what Muslims are really like is to treat every person with kindness—indeed, my grade school teachers would talk about my smile at parent-teacher conferences, and many years later, this is still a point of pride for me. Some days, I wonder if this “one person at a time” approach is enough. But I remember the one person, my medical school classmate, who gave me a hug and started planning a “Love Lunch” for Muslim students one week this year when the anti-Muslim rhetoric was particularly fresh and stinging. I remember the one person, a peer in my college English class, who said that after reading some of my writing, she looked up different meanings of the hijab online for half an hour. And I remember the one person, my elementary school best friend, who sent me a message to say that knowing me as kids allowed her to have more understanding and respect for Muslims as an adult. And I know that, in many ways, one person can be enough.

See Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity in Ann Arbor on February 18, 2017.