K-12 Students, Teachers, Artists Come Together for Special Residency
Last year, we worked with 400+ students and teachers during a residency with Ping Chong + Company. What happened may brighten your day.
UMS hosted Ping Chong + Company for an extended artistic residency during the 2017-18 performance season. This residency involved a diverse population ranging from public events, University groups, and seven high schools from throughout southeast Michigan.
Muslim Voices: Raising a Muslim Child Today
Editor’s Note: 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.
This post is a part of a series of posts and interviews exploring Muslim identity on U-M campus.
Nama Khalil, the author of this essay, is a photographer and PhD candidate in Anthropology at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is currently working on a photo-essay about Muslim American mothers and their children.
We had just finished dinner and gone into the living room. I was sitting on our red leather sofa speaking with my husband’s Muslim colleague while he was making tea in the kitchen. One conversation topic led to the next: from the Olympics, to the new Idris Elba movie, and finally the elections. I found myself blankly staring at my husband as he walked towards us holding a tray with a grey kettle and three empty glasses and said, “It’s a bad time to be Muslim in this country,”
“It always feels that way during election season. Besides it’s not easy being a minority in America,” our guest noted.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to live in a Muslim majority country and have your kids be Muslim than raising your kids here where they aren’t welcome…I mean, how can a place be your home when you are made to feel so uneasy about who you are?” My husband responded calmly while pouring the tea into short Turkish cups.
“Because this is home,” I countered. “Besides, it doesn’t matter where you are, you need a supportive and nourishing Muslim community to be able to raise Muslim kids and it’s a myth to assume that this only exists in the Muslim world…” my voice trailing off as I thought about what he said.
When I was pregnant, my husband and I discussed how we would raise our children Muslim. At that time, it meant nourishing their connection with the divine by teaching them to love praying, fasting, and giving charity. We wanted their names to be part of their Muslim identity, and so we named our daughter Safa, a name from the Quran that means purity, and is also the name of a sacred mountain that is part of Islamic history. For her nursery, I painted a mural of wildlife animals, to surround her with some of God’s creation, and a tree with the ninety-nine names of God shaped as leaves.
For her library, I carefully selected books that showcased the diversity of Muslim culture: Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, A Muslim Book of Colors, Stories from the Quran, books that teach God consciousness: Illyas and Duck search for Allah, A Picnic of Poems: Allah’s Green Garden, and an illustrated book about the Prophet Muhammed. These books are shelved next to American classics by Shel Silverstein and Dr Seuss—books from my childhood. I focused my energy on building her a spiritual sanctuary, a space of childhood innocence, not ready to deal with what awaits her in the real world.
Since the birth of our daughter, conversations between my husband and I shifted to issues like: Why we shouldn’t buy her pink clothes, the minuscule details of how to sleep train, how many toys she should have (if any), and what method is best for introducing solids. We have been adjusting to parenthood, realizing our new roles—me, a feminist mother and the disciplinarian, and he, the doting father who spoils his daughter. Meanwhile, I have been drowning in feelings of loneliness, anxiety, irritation, self-doubt, and guilt. I can’t explain why these emotions consume me, each feeling shifting into the other within seconds, while the pressure to enjoy my time with Safa makes me succumb to them even more. I haven’t had a chance to truly think more about what raising a Muslim child would entail, especially a Muslim child in America.
Thinking about raising Safa as a Muslim in America overwhelms me. This election cycle has brought out the ugliest side of the country, revealing and emboldening those who wish my family and me harm. I worry for my daughter’s sense of belonging, security, and identity; How do I raise my daughter to be confident, empowered, and independent in a society that might not accept her for who she is—a Muslim American? How will I protect her from those who blindly support the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Fox News and pass that along to their children? How do I explain to her that as a Muslim woman of color she must be careful because our bodies are policed and commodified? Will she stand her ground? Or will she reject her religion, culture, and me?
Unfortunately, for Safa to be accepted, welcomed, and truly “American” she needs to be what our politicians call a “good Muslim”— someone who assimilates to the values and customs of the dominant society, and helps our government fight “bad Muslims” by defending our country’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, say nothing about our ongoing drone strikes in Yemen (killing more children than “terrorists”), constantly apologize on behalf of ISIS for those who assume that they represent Islam, as well as turn a blind eye to police brutality against the Black community, and pretend that other minority struggles are not her own.
These actions do not embody what being Muslim is about. Not only does the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy remove God from the equation, it ignores a vital component of Islamic teaching: social justice. The entire narrative of our Prophet revolves around eradicating injustices; he single-handedly changed the status quo and struggled throughout that journey. In attempts to depoliticize Islam and make it only about spirituality, we actually lose sight of our mission in this life. Yet, our political climate and global crisis has left me cynical and too numb to speak up, although it is crucial now, more than ever before, to find the strength to do so. How will Safa model this sunna if I have stopped following it? How do I teach her about active citizenship when I have stopped believing in it?
Our conversation was interrupted by Safa crying. I went into her room and held her tight, nursing her back to sleep while weaving my finger through her short curls and admiring her round face made visible by the glow-in-the-dark stars glued to the ceiling. In moments like these, I am grateful for the blessing of experiencing God’s greatest miracles. I still find myself apprehensive about her future, unable to maintain my unyielding reliance on God. I constantly remind myself that Safa is God’s child as much as she is mine, and that I was chosen to guide her, nourish her, love her, and raise her to be the best person she can be. So I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for physical and emotional strength, so I can be a good mother to her. I prayed for courage and strength, so I can raise her to be unapologetically Muslim. And I prayed for patience and energy, so I can work on making our home more welcoming for Safa.
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.
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
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.