The Archetype of the Wayward Muslim Boy

Growing up in a South Asian Muslim community as a girl, I’ve witnessed some of the most cringy and boorish displays of masculinity. The expectations placed on men by their families and cultures are overtly different than the expectations for women. Simply put, it is a fact universally known by young women in the South Asian culture that boys get away with troublesome behavior much easier than a girl can or ever will– moreover, the expectation for a man’s success is much lower than that for a women’s. Is he going to school? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he eating the food his mother prepares him? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he doing the bare minimum any decent human being would do, like saying thank you and greeting visitors? Wow, shabash, beta! Meanwhile, girls much work much harder to prove to our families and communities that we are serious about getting an education and being young professionals in America, and are often told over and over again that we are so lucky to have the opportunities that our male counterparts take for granted. I grew up knowing that I would have to work harder and fight longer to gain the respect that the men in my community already had. This archetype of the hard-working, idealized young woman and the dundering, wayward young man is constantly propagated in Muslim media, and though it is realistic, I honestly can’t help but feel annoyed and constrained by it.

Take The Big Sick for example, the famous rom-com by comedian Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani that took its ranks among Muslim-American media in 2017. The story follows Kumail, who has been perpetually lying to his parents about studying for the LSAT and does stand-up comedy professionally, when he meets Emily, falls in love, and persists at lying to both his girlfriend and his family about his dedication to either. Kumail is clearly torn between two worlds– the world of his “American” life (Emily, stand-up, his passions, etc)– and the world of his family and culture (complete with arranged marriage and expectations to be a lawyer). The movie acts as a clear sympathy-builder for Kumail in the sense that we pity his poor and constrained life circumstances– it seems like the one thing standing between him and all his dreams is his family, culture, religion, traditional expectations, etc. And I’m not saying that these aren’t very real problems faced by men in South Asian American communities– they are. But somehow, this movie subtly degrades two really important facts in favor of winning a “white” audience: 1) the value of culture, tradition, and family, and 2) the compounded problems of women in these communities.

There is one particular scene that I’m still so annoyed by: when Kumail is meeting potential brides by his family, one of the girls asks him if he would like to meet up again. He refuses honorably, saying, “I don’t deserve you.” If this is the case, then why don’t men in these communities work harder and do better rather than seize their privilege by the reins and go to town? And why don’t we, as responsible art makers and consumers, attempt to challenge these notions?

The archetype of the wayward Muslim boy is not only present in The Big Sick, but so much of Muslim media that is put out today. It’s the case in Fatima Farheen Mirza’s bestselling novel A Place For Us, where the male protagonist runs away from home and renounces his religion (to be fair, though, I love this book with all my heart– it’s a very mature grasp on the culture and people). It’s the case in Osamah Sami’s Australian-Iranian rom-com Ali’s Wedding, where a young man lies to his whole community about getting accepted into medical school. There’s a blatantly ignorant son in Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders to contrast his socially aware younger sister. The archetype is real and constantly a tool used by Muslim writers because it reflects some truth in Western Muslim cultures.

I know this is a niche worry in a small subset of American culture, but it’s really important nonetheless– we have to have characters that not only represent the wrongs of a particular society, but also characters that show us that we can do something right. I want to see men that care about their background. I want to see men that are socially aware of the faults and beauties of their culture. I want to see Muslim men and women and all people working together to make their communities places of success and joy in corners of the world that are not their own. I don’t want to constantly see the poor, dundering young Muslim man who feels so torn by his two worlds that he is pitifully forced to lie and hide who he is, while his sisters, who usually have much more grotesque expectations placed on them, slink in the shadows of their traditions. There have been great advancements in the literary field in making diverse art– now we need to curate and be mindful of how the archetypes affect American and American-Muslim people alike.

A Travesty Against Intellect

“Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.”

–Thomas Nagel


Perhaps this quote does not lend itself to the interpretation that I will now transpose upon it, but it is the invocation upon which these musings are built, so I will include it nonetheless. Being in college as and English and Philosophy major is such a strange thing. It is freeing and exhilarating to be immersed in subjects which I was told, or at least systematically conditioned to believe, were useless. But somehow studying them more has not made them more “useful” to me. I do not think they would even be “useful” if I were to go on and become the world’s greatest contemporary philosopher or the next bestselling author or the most sought-out keynote speaker. The thing with these subjects is that they are by their very nature inconclusive and therefore hold no real “usefulness”. Useful things have an end goal, they have a purpose which can be perfectly traced like the mechanical parts in an IKEA instruction manual. But english and philosophy will only allow you to bask in the glorious and magnificent enquiry of human existence. That is practically useless.

They both seem to be two wildly selfish disciplines. They aim to satisfy insatiable and snowballing curiosity. To want to understand the world for yourself holds no innate goodness unless you intend to act upon that knowledge. There is no moral worth in knowledge unless it is applied. And so philosophy and english, for me, as Nagel said, are both the “childhood of my intellect”. They are my selfish vices to inconclusive understandings and problems I will always flirt with but never love.

But Mr. Nagel, you are wrong about one thing– if we want to “grow up”, we cannot altogether rid ourselves of the childhoods of our philosophy. We must live both as adults and as children, as vice and virtue, in order to be complete. To be either only adult or only child is a travesty against intellect.

The Poem That’s Getting Me Through Midterms

In the heat of midterm season, I’m thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art. As I procrastinate and study and go to events and feel the pulse of life racing madly everyday, I think about how I can’t get yesterday back, or the day before that, or today will pass and so will tomorrow. The passage of time feels like a kind of destruction, a loss, a sacrifice that I must helplessly participate in. And Bishop’s poem encapsulates this anxiety so eloquently and ironically in a poem; she writes:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

It sneaks up on you, and it seems very profound in the beginning– initially, I thought the poem what about the burdens of materialism, or the issues with attaching yourself to human or tangible things (“door keys”, your “mother’s watch”, “three loved houses”). However, the poem progressively becomes more obsessive, spiraling into a chaotic frenzy of losing everything, of owning and loving and finding meaning in nothing:

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

To me, it becomes something of an existentialist plea for meaning– this author is saying, to some degree, whether she knows it or not, Nothing matters. And everything is fine, because nothing matters. And finally, she drops the huge bomb at us in the end, the absolute sarcastic remark that seems to be hiding a deep inner turmoil:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

But this last paragraph reveals her true feelings. Bishop cares about what happens.

The poet can’t really fully will herself to believe that nothing matters because if she did, she wouldn’t be feeling anything– but she does feel something. It doesn’t matter that she uses a “joking voice, a gesture” she loves, or that she painfully admonishes herself to “(Write it!)”– screw that! She cares about what happens, and even if everything in her life is lost, if everything and everyone that she loves is destroyed, she is silently, quietly counteracting that by creating this poem— something she can control. I cannot help but feel like there is particular double weight to the word “art” here– something that helps her lose and destroy, perhaps, but more importantly, helps her create.

In the midst of academic frenzy and the crazy on-goings of everyday life, I’m sometimes forced to forfeit and run on autopilot– wake up, do the stuff, scrabble to bed to get my seven hours, and repeat. But I care about what happens, I put love and passion into the work that I do, and that’s what matters.

This poem is a shout into the void, as all poems are, but beautiful– a declaration that I was here. I existed. And I matter. And perhaps that’s something we need to remember this time of year.

 

(Read Bishop’s incredible poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art)

I Have The Right To Be Mediocre

I should have the right to be average, or great, or sub-par. I should have the right to have an infinite amount of stories told about me, an eternal range of nuanced, kaleidoscopic representations of my life and my identity. I should have the right to not be limited to one narrative.

But perhaps these rights only exist in an ideal world where people of color– especially those who are artists of color– don’t have to labor twice as hard to get our stories told.

In an op-ed written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, he posits the idea that we live in a culture of “narrative scarcity” in which “we feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories and fight against the stories that distort or erase us.”  In a culture of narrative scarcity, every story told about or featuring people of color or other marginalized groups will automatically define those people. In a culture of narrative scarcity, people like me– immigrant, Muslim, Indian, hijabi– or people with similarly unrecognized or misconceived identities, simply cannot afford to tell bad stories. Our stories have to be good, captivating, enthralling, so our privileged counterparts can see us as human. Otherwise, we become the quirky black sidekick who occasionally blurts out, “DAMN!”, or the strange Indian foreigner who can’t pick up any social cues, or the Latina maid working late into the night, or the Native American woman depicted as being “exotically beautiful”. We become stock characters pulled out of some dusty corner of the white writer’s shelf to satisfy their diversity quota.

Few artists of color achieve widespread recognition in America– like Oprah, or Hasan Minhaj, or the up-and-coming Lana Condor to name a few– and most are just lay citizens trying to get by. In either case, though, people of color have to work twice as hard to achieve what any privileged person takes for granted: visibility in media, an assumption of ownership over the national culture, and the idea that they aren’t defined by a single narrative. Not only do artists of color and other marginalized people need to fight to be seen and heard, we have to create a place from scratch for ourselves in a narrative framework that for centuries hasn’t included us except as sidekicks, villains, inferiors, or foreigners in the margins of a larger, whiter, more christian narrative. We have to fight, all the time, and if we make a mistake, or write a bad story, or film a bad movie, we take on the risk that our nation views us as that single monolithic mistake.

We need to come to a point where artists of color don’t have to work as hard to have the same visibility as more privileged artists. We have to come to a point where a bad story about an Asian American is just a bad story about an Asian American, and won’t define all Asian Americans. As Nguyen eloquently writes, “The real test of narrative plenitude is when we have the luxury of making mediocre movies. And after having made mediocre movies, we would be rewarded with the opportunity to make even more mediocre movies, just as Hollywood continues to make enormous numbers of mediocre movies about white people, and specifically white men.”

I have the right to be mediocre. The paradox is that I’m just going to have to work twice as hard to get that opportunity.

(Read the New York Times article by Nguyen here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/opinion/crazy-rich-asians-movie.html)

On Finding Time To Create

Within the first week of moving back to campus, I’ve been spending almost all my time with my friends, going to events, settling into my new dorm, doing work for student orgs, or just getting caught up in the day-to-day functions of sleeping, showering, working out, etc. I had forgotten how all-consuming my life in college is compared to the slow, steady work habits I’d developed over the summer at home. More than anything, I was stunned and frustrated when I realized that, after spending two hours tweaking and perfecting my semester’s Google calendar, I would have very little time for my own personal endeavors: for my writing, reading, and all the creative work I love and need to do.

In years past, I’ve completely relinquished my own creative passions and pursued my schooling with a crazed fervor. During the academic year, nothing mattered to me except class, work, and deadlines. I remember waking up at 2 am in high school to study for AP Chemistry (the class bulldozed me, to say the least) and spent my free time creating lessons plans for the Islamic Studies program I worked at. If I did create or consume, it was just either therapeutic or for a class– not real, substantial work that tested the limits of my imagination. But coming to Michigan has made me realize that though this academic religiousness is certainly well-intentioned, it cannot possibly be an end in itself. I have to take what I’ve learned and do something with it, to create, to live– for various people, this can mean different things, but for me, it means to write.

But there’s a problem. I have no time to write. Between classes and evening e-board meetings and hitting the gym and hanging out with friends and studying, there is very little left in my schedule that I can truly say belongs to me. How do I find time to create in this busy, big, bustling world? I am reading Aristotle, Dickinson, the earliest greatest novels and the works of contemporary geniuses, scouring textbooks and poetry alike– but where do I find myself? Where am I in this cosmic narrative? How do I write myself in?

I’ve been obsessing over this question. How do I write myself in. Surely, I can’t do this year what I’ve always done, which was to sell myself away during the school year and win myself back for creative pursuits in the summer. I can’t expect to be a good writer and write only three out of twelve months in the year. More than anything, I don’t want to mindlessly drift through my life, desperately trying to find my last bit of control and individuality that has been buried beneath my other commitments.

So I looked at my calendar. Then I looked at it again. And again (I’m still looking at it now, in fact). I think I’ll try to sneak an hour or two of work before I leave for class in the morning, and maybe thirty minutes of reading before I go to bed at night. It’s not the perfect plan, but I think that it’s possible.

Passions, I think, are not possessed by rare and ingenious people. People are not born with passion. We create it. We nurture it, like a small child, or a plant, or any other living, breathing thing; it needs care, it needs to be protected, and it needs to be given space and time. We all care about things. But how much? That’s what separates a creator from a consumer. It’s not our talent or our passions that matter. It was never about that. It’s how much we’re willing to fight for them.

And if fighting means making a little bit more time on my Google calendar before and after bed, then so be it. I guess I’m on the battlefield. Bring it on.

When My Religion Censors My Art

There has never been a part of my life in which my religion has not held some central role. It is the governing feature of my existence: It owns a pulpit throne in the very middle of my consciousness, the King of my decisions, the Queen of my temptations and desires, the angel and the devil of all my human actions. With the swiftness of an iron-heavy gavel, it crushes those fleeting impulses of my heart and tells me: No, or sometimes, Yes, or sometimes reminds me, You are human, you are human, you are so, so, so human.

And so when I make art and write my carefully crafted stories, I am censored by this King within my brain, telling that there are some things that I cannot say… some things are ugly to be exposed in literature, some things are blasphemous and immodest. Like when you see rape scenes in movies, or the murders of black men, or the abuse of children– yes, of course, these are realities for many people, but you must tread gently, for you have given these sentiments power. So if the scenes of rape that are not honest enough, you have reduced reality to entertainment rather than elevating to the level of art.

The moment a story is crafted, I believe there is some process of glorification happening. The moment something in captured in words, you have given a level of attention that nothing else has earned, and in that way, you have given it power. And so that King in my brain, that overawing dominant religious force inside of me tells me that I must be careful what I give power to… that there are things not worth saying. There are stories that are too dangerous and too ugly to be glorified in a form of art.

As someone with a particularly Muslim background and upbringing, most of my characters tend to reflect me in that way. And recently I’ve written short story where the main Muslim makes a quite blasphemous decision and it’s been torturing me for while now. The King in my brain has been pulling all sorts of levers and pushing buttons madly to make it all stop, but something inside of me has broken loose, and I have looked at thing that I’ve created, this art that I’ve made and given power to– And there is one conclusion that keeps thrumming in that painfully vigilant heart of mine: I believe that we must not always indulge that King. Sometimes art is not moral– sometimes it is only true. And perhaps the only good thing is not always goodness itself, but the world told in truth, fully and beautifully. That is enough.