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Muslim Identity on U-M Campus: Ayah Issa

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, Ayah Issa reflects on her identity.

You were once owned by another, but you learned that their ownership was unfair and broke free.

In 1776, you became your own ruler and slowly you grew from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Since then, you’ve owned, killed, birthed, and raised a nation. Since then, you’ve birthed and raised me. In 1997, a part of you opened to me and gave me a home. Deep in your mitten, at the southeast side of your palm, I grew with your love.

But your love is conditional.

Home was a red brick house with an old wooden porch that faced a fountain. With its chipped paint and dirty rain water, the fountain was not a place we were allowed to play, but that never stopped our dizzying runs along the tilted, circular inside of the fountain. My grandfather, Hajj, built this house for his sons and daughters to live with their families all together. In the back, your raised ground serves as a picnic spot in the summer and a sledding course in the winter. Eventually, you gave us more of yourself and Baba and his brothers built us a playground with four swings, two monkeybars, one slide, one tire swing, and a playhouse.

Blissful with your love, home remained my place with you. I broke my arm against your gravel jumping off a porch table. I learned to play basketball with the hoop welded to your cement sidewalk. I got stung by a bee that lived under your porch stairs and made friends with a stray cat that strolled your streets looking for food in trash cans or stealing it away from unaware children. Every year, I celebrated my birthday with you on June 17th and celebrated your birthday with everyone on July 4th.

Your navy sky is painted with colors. Artificial stars shine over natural stars, red and blue streaks compete for space, and smoke blurs the dim sight of the crescent moon. Yard chairs scrape your skin and spilled drinks leak between your cracks. It’s your birthday, oh how you’ve grown, 228 years and counting. I’m sitting with my older sister watching colors in the sky and listening to each boom boom boom as you’re filled with more smoke and colors.

Neighbors join us and cars park along your streets to admire your colorful present. They know your history and hope for your future. You know that your birthday brings people together not because of the casualties of independence, but because the pretty colors and cheery parade. People come together when happy because they do not have to worry about you or others.

Today I would like to visit your park along the river… Mama is overseas visiting her Mama, and Baba is at work checking people’s eyes. That leaves me and my siblings at my uncle’s house. My cousins sit outside and talk amongst themselves like usual. I’m one of the youngest there and so no one includes me. I want to go to the park, but no one agrees. “We don’t go out today,” my cousin’s wife says.

“Why not?” At nine years old, I’m annoyed with her for ruining my day.

“It’s not a safe day to go out.” she looks at me as if that was all she needed to say for me to stop asking.

“Why?” I ask as any elementary kid would… why.

“Today is no good.” And that’s all she says.

Participants on stage during Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity. Photo by Adam Nadel.
on stage during beyond sacred

Today my cousin’s wife fears you. She fears you because of the hijab she’s chosen to wear for her faith. She fears you, and I do not know why. Today is any day for me, but not for you.

Five years before that day on September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four of your planes. They pierced through your skin four times… 767, 767, 757, 757. Two planes crashing into the twin towers, the third into the pentagon, and the fourth taken back by passengers and staff and into a field of grass. No passengers or staff survived the four plane crashes. I did not know this. September 11th was not a date that stuck out to me. At four years old, I did not remember that day in preschool, and I still do not know when someone finally told me why September 11th was a special day of mourning and love for you. I learned something new that day. I learned my status did not meet the conditions of your love. I learned you love me, but not always.

As I grow with you, I begin to memorize your features. Even with just a glimpse to a part of you, I see your entirety. Every winter, your winter wonderland blocks cars, turns the white snow grey and sloshy, and make the cold almost unbearable, but still snowmen are built, sleds go down hills, and angels are imprinted into you. And every summer, your sunny days grow humid, your sun turns skin red, and the heat is just as unbearable as the cold, but still sandcastles are built, floats go down waterslides, and bare feet run across you.

As I grew, I felt as you had felt. Unfortunately, you feel the pain more than you feel the pleasure. When you are happy, you do not seek the source of your happiness; instead, you remain unaware in your joy. When you are hurt, you seek the source of your pain… Someone must be blamed for hurting you so severely. Someone.

                                                    September 11, 2001

                             Iraqi War


Brussels                                                             Boston




Al Qaeda

                                                                     San Bernardino


I grew up not knowing my decision in fifth grade to wear the hijab would push you away. I grew up not knowing Falasteen was not your friend. I grew up not knowing that terrorist was synonymous to Muslim. I guess you teach me a little each day, and yet I still thought about how you’ve raised me to be exceptional. How you love me because I am yours. I will be grown one day and with that I hope to show you love is not conditional.


So as I sit here on your front porch, facing the fountain with the chipped away paint, and I think, I know you. The fountain blurs and the focus is on the water cascading down onto the chipped surface. Each water drop learns the fountain’s surface as it slides down the curved interior and into a pool of millions of water drops. Overwhelmed with drops, the fountain feels many and not one. To know many, the fountain loses the site of one drop. To know one, the drop gains the site of one fountain. This is us… I know one and you know many. Eventually, the water drops will flow through the system and out through the peak of the fountain, only to cascade again onto its surface. Each time, the fountain will get only glimpse of the water drops, while the water drops experience the same complete knowing of the one fountain with the chipped away paint.

This is an abridged version of Ayah’s original piece. Read the full story.

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