Afghan Air Force 2nd Lt. Niloofar Rhmani made history May 14, 2013 when she became the first female in over 30 years to successfully complete undergraduate pilot training and earn the status of pilot. She will continue her service as she joins the Kabul Air Wing as a Cessna 208 pilot.
Ehab Sadeek, an Egyptian Muslim American decided to give 100-percent of the profits from his retail bagel business to the One Fund Boston, will keep it up until the last victim of the Boston Marathon bombing (that occurred April 15, 2013) is out of the hospital.
Twenty-year-old Iqbal El Assaad made history by becoming the youngest doctor in the region when she graduated from the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
Hammad Aslam was set to start medical school in Augusta in the fall of 2009 when a car accident almost took his life. But paralysis from the chest down only delayed his plans by one year. Hammad has overcome many obstacles and is now pursuing his doctorate at the Medical College of Georgia.
MH: You overcame a pretty serious life-changing event in your life. Can you tell us more about it and how you overcame it?
I was in a car accident with my family in May of 2009. Our SUV hydroplaned off the road and hit a tree. The tree fell on top of my corner of the vehicle, crushing me under the roof and glass. Thankfully, no one else was seriously hurt. My dad fractured a bone in his forearm and had a small neck injury. My mom had a minor injury to her ribs. My younger sister broke her leg and my youngest sister was untouched. My older brother was away at the time.
I am just blessed to be alive. I received a traumatic brain injury with a skull fracture and bleeding in my brain, nerve damage in my right arm, and a complete spinal cord injury. I spent a few weeks in an unconscious and semi-conscious state. I do not recall anything from this time period and I do not even remember getting into an accident.
I came consciously aware of things a few weeks later. At the time, I was in the traumatic brain injury unit of the Shepherd Center because my brain injury was so severe that the doctors all predicted that I would be permanently inflicted with mental deficits on top of my physical handicaps. I spent a few weeks in that unit before I was transferred to the spinal cord injury unit. I spent three months as an inpatient at the Shepherd Center and continued to come there for therapy for several months after I was discharged and living at home.
MH: How have friends and family helped you overcome some of the challenge you’ve faced?
I had and still have a very strong support system consisting of my family and friends. They have always supported any and all goals I have had. They have been there in my darkest of times, when I have been let down, when I have fallen and when I have failed. Thanks to my family and friends, it has been much easier adjusting to this new life and new circumstances. I was never really allowed to consider myself different from anyone else and I was never really given the time for any self-pity.
My parents and friends never let me feel that I was any different. I knew that I was placed in that situation for a reason. In fact, I was thankful to be the one lying in the hospital bed and not any of my family members or friends.
MH: Did faith play a role in overcoming your challenges, if so, how?
It’s very easy to blame and be angry at God or other people when we are in disadvantageous circumstances. It would have been way too easy to ask, “Why me? Why was I chosen for this?” Instead, I have been thankful. No one else who was in vehicle at the time was seriously injured like me. None of my friends have been injured like this. Thank God. I would never want to see any of them in this situation. I believe there is a reason for everything and that we are given only as much as we can handle. Therefore, I am thankful that I have been put in this situation and not anyone else. I know that this is all part of a plan that none us can foresee and that in the end, things will be alright.
MH: What inspired you to pursue medical school?
I have always wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. After my accident, though, I knew I wanted this even more. It became even more apparent to me that my true calling was in the relief of the suffering of others. I have suffered a lot and I do not want anyone else to suffer like I have or suffer in their own circumstances, whatever those may be. Medical school was also a big challenge. I knew that people doubted me with many things so I wanted to prove to them—and to myself—that I could do it.
MH: What challenges did you face and have you faced on your road to medical school?
The first challenges in medical school included just adapting to living completely alone. I was stubborn and I somehow convinced my family to allow me to move away to a different city and live by myself, without any roommates or helpers. This was only a year after my accident and I was still adapting to my disabilities. Doing everything in a wheelchair for the first time took longer than I expected.
On top of adapting myself both physically and mentally to these new circumstances, I also found myself struggling in medical school. I was quite timid and had a significant inferiority complex. I felt like everyone was smarter than me. I was afraid to speak up during our discussions. I also found myself studying harder I ever had before and harder than anyone else in my class, but I was barely getting by. This was extremely frustrating and I was very upset about this. But I adapted. I knew I could do this, one way or another, so I adjusted by study habits to study both smarter and harder than ever before.
MH: You certainly have remained active in the Atlanta Muslim community. Tell us more about your work and what motivates you to serve others?
The first year after my accident before I started medical school, I knew I had to do something productive. I knew that it would be selfish of me to try and work hard only for the benefit of myself. So, I decided to immerse myself in different volunteer activities, especially since I wasn’t doing much at home. I knew that doing things in the service of others would in turn benefit me more than anyone else, in both the short and long term.
MH: What advice would you give to others facing the same challenges you’ve faced on pursuing their dreams and goals in life?
First off, I wish and pray that no one faces the same challenges I have faced. That being said, many people face their own challenges in their pursuit for accomplishing the tasks that they plan or of which they dream. As I stated earlier, it is too easy to blame our circumstances on God or on other people. It is too easy to simply accept our circumstances as “just the way God wants them to be”. Instead, I feel like people should not look at different situations as something from God and that must simply be accepted, but these situations should be looked upon as challenges. It is these challenges and the way we react to them—or fail to react to them—that define us.
MH: What advice would you give to those seeking to pursue medical school?
I hear all the time about people who have plans to go to medical school. To these people, I propose that they do some self reflection and contemplate upon why they want to purse this profession. Are they doing this because their parents have been telling them their whole lives that this is a good idea? Are they doing this because they feel like it’s a noble profession? Are they doing this for the job security?
I knew that this was my calling and I knew the disabilities that I had been given would only help me and help others in the long run. Therefore, I was willing to work harder than anyone else I knew.
I suggest others really “get their hands dirty” in terms of learning about this profession. Learn about the ups and downs. Learn about life. Perhaps more importantly, learn about death. I have faced my own mortality and it has given me a completely new perspective on life. It was only after I had almost everything taken away from me that I was able to think clearly.
You can follow Hammad here on his blog: http://mindofhammad.blogspot.com/
Sakeena Abdulraheem is one of the founding members of the Falling Walls Initative. She holds an BA in Spanish and International Studies from Meredith College, and an MA in Islamic Studies from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences. She is currently completing her MA in counseling psychology with a concentration in trauma and crisis intervention. She has extensive experience working as a teacher, mentor, and consultant. Sakeena currently counsels victims of domestic violence as an interning therapist at the House of Ruth MD.
MH: Tell us more about your academic path that led you to pursue counseling.
My background was actually not in counseling. In undergrad I double majored in Spanish and International studies. By my senior year in college I was fluent in Spanish and I knew I wanted to make a positive impact on a global level but I was still exploring career options at that point. By the end of my senior year in 2002 I was hired by the defense department was waiting for my security clearance to go through and so I began substitute teaching and got involved in education before I eventually made my move to the Washington, DC area from the Raleigh-Durham, NC area. After working for two years in government I decided that it was time to explore other fields with my skillet where I could see the impact of my contributions more immediately and directly. I had gotten my MA in social studies with a concentration in Islamic Studies from The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences and I began entertaining the idea of becoming a teacher. I worked for about 4 years in the educational system working with elementary school aged youth that had aspergers, autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. I saw the various ways in which emotional well being, and mental disorders not only had an impact on the environment of the classroom, teachers struggled through curriculum working with children with complex behavioral problems that quite frankly they were not trained to deal with in an educational setting. As a result, I immediately began applying to counseling graduate school programs because I saw mental health being the way in which I would be able to contribute towards and give back overall to the community.
MH: Tell us more about what got you interested in counseling and specifically in domestic violence?
While I was teaching full time in before and after school programs I started my graduate program part time in counseling psychology. At the beginning of the program I was planning to concentrate and specialize in children and adolescents because of my work history of seeing mental illness in elementary school age children. However, it was my study abroad trip at the beginning of my graduate program to Kigali, Rwanda, to study and learn about programs and non-profits working towards addressing trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the context of genocide that influenced my decision to change my specialization. During my trip I had the opportunity to meet survivors that were working as educators and heads of non-profit organizations and professors in the department of psychology that spoke first hand of their personal experiences during the genocide in 1994. I was also exposed to the cases of gender-based violence that were used as weapons against the tribe that was being killed at that time. Rape, sexual assault, various parts of the female anatomy were being cut off during the genocide in an effort to terrorize and instill fear in the population and specifically the female population. After the genocide many women were dealing with various psychological problems that would go untreated and many had to undergo abortions because they were victims of rape during the genocide. Looking at all of these factors, I realized that I wanted to continue learning about Post traumatic Disorder under various context and I also realized that is was this particular type of population that I wanted to work with and that this was the area of counseling that I wanted to continue to pursue. After returning from the trip I immediately changed my concentration from children and adolescents to trauma and crisis intervention. Trauma and crisis intervention is inclusive of various population and victims of domestic violence are a part of this population. I began interning as a therapists since last year for a non-profit organization, The House of Ruth MD that works specifically with domestic violence victims at their counseling center.
MH: Tell us more about the Falling Walls Initiative. What was the idea behind it? What do you plan to do?
Falling Walls is an initiative that was inspired by a research project led by one of the founding members Darakshan Raja. The study looked at crime victimization in the American Muslim Community. This study in particular highlights that denial is a major problem in the American Muslim community when it comes to addressing abuse, domestic violence, and victimization overall. One of the main goals of the Falling Walls Initiative is to break barriers such as denial with the Muslim community by educating based off of experience from direct services, applied research, and through the dissemination of research. The second goal is to bring awareness through various forms of social media.
MH: Do you feel there’s a stigma in the Muslim American community in regards to seeking counseling and/or help when someone is in need?
Yes. I believe there is a HUGE stigma for individuals that seek counseling or treatment whether it is from a social worker, counselor, therapist, psychologist, or a psychiatrist. A lot of this has to do with the lack of knowledge about mental health in general in the Muslim community. If you ask some individuals what takes place during a counseling session many individuals in the Muslim community may give you a blank stare, some statement full of misinformation, or say that they do not know. When the truth is counseling is for everyone, whether they are experiencing grief, need someone to talk to as they make a major transition in life, their family is currently experience a crisis, an individual is suffering from a mental disorder, or a couple would just like to work on ways they can improve their relationship. As you can see I gave multiple examples of why some individuals decide to go for counseling which is a clear indication that counseling is something that everyone can benefit from, including the therapists themselves, and is very much a part of personal growth.
MH: What role does culture and tradition, if at all, play in preventing individuals from seeking counseling or help when they’re going through troubling times?
Culture has a tremendous impact in terms of looking at the way shame is used to maintain the cultural norms of the group and discourage individual member from stepping out of that norm in order to avoid bringing shame upon the family.
MH: A lot of Muslims in America and the world are suffering silently and are faced with a lot of psychological, emotional and even physical abuse. What can the Muslim community do to prevent abuse in our communities?
The Muslim community can start by actively supporting organizations that are already established and currently in the processed of being established whether it is through volunteering, sharing resources, sharing information, networking, and connecting others so that we can work more collaboratively to bring an end to these issues. Supporting the local domestic violence shelters, Muslim, non-Muslim whether it be economically, sharing informations, or sharing resources. I also think that men are in a very good position to address the issue of domestic violence in their own way. Men speaking out to address the overall problem of the culture of violence and the various ways in which violence against women is accepted and expressed. Educating men more on the issues of violence against women and the dynamics of the way in which unhealthy patterns of relationships and learn behavior play a role in abuse of women and all victims.
MH: Are more Muslim Americans becoming comfortable with the concept of counseling?
I believe that as more programs and platforms like Fallings Walls and other established organizations are supported that are regular initiatives, addressing the issues of denial and shame, it will make it clear that counseling is just another area of one’s health that we all have room to work on and improve. When a person learns poor eating habits over the course of their childhood they go to a dietician. When someone learns maladaptive behaviors and unhealthy ways of interacting with their spouse from family and childhood experiences they go to a Marriage and Family Therapist.
MH: A lot of Muslim say that Islam is not compatible with Islam and that private family matters should remain within the family. Is counseling compatible with Islam?
Counseling is an Islamic tradition. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a great source of knowledge and people frequently came to him for consultation for a variety of matters whether it was for major life decisions, mediation in settling marital and family disputes, etc. Also counseling is a form of bringing about the process of emotional, psychological, and in many cases spiritual healing, helping others in a way that brings healing for any community is a purification for the soul and a form of ibadah.
MH: In recent times we’ve seen growing pressure and demand on imams to counsel individuals in their community. In your opinion, should imams be trained to counsel? What are the pros and cons?
I believe Imams are already conducting a form of pastoral counseling which is different from the counseling that an individual will receive from a mental health practitioner who is trained in how to conduct psychotherapy, diagnosis, assessment, therapeutic approaches, etc. I think that imams should definitely be trained on how to identify when the issue and complexity of what may be happening with an individual is beyond the skills that they have as pastoral counselors. Imams can gain this training through basic skills workshops that help them to become more thoroughly aware of issues related to marriage counseling, domestic violence, and how to appropriately protect the rights of the woman and not put her in danger in cases of domestic violence.
MH: Is pastoral counseling a growing field? Is there a demand for Muslim counselors in the Muslim American community?
I believe that Muslims can benefit from the various forms of counseling that are already available whether the counselor is Muslim or non-Muslim. A key component that families should look for when searching for a great counselor are similar when searching for a doctor or dentist they like; do they make you feel comfortable, are they culturally competent and aware of the significance culture may or may not play in your life; do you find their adopted therapeutic approach helpful; how many years of experience do they have in the field; do they speak your language or multiple language; what is their expertise; do they have experience working with the population of the group you are a part of?….etc…
MH: In your opinion, how can Muslims learn more about how to create peaceful environments at home and learn about relationship-building, conflict resolution, communication and parenting?
Looking up local Muslim and non-Muslim counseling resources in their prospective areas and shopping around to find the best practitioner that they feel comfortable with, understands their concerns, and that they find helpful.
MH: What resources are available for people going through traumatic events in their lives?
There are various resources available for individuals experiencing a traumatic event which include hotlines, suicide hotlines, online counselors, crisis counselors, domestic violence counselors, therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and practitioners trained in conducting psychological first aid, etc. such as the following:
MH: What resources are there to learn more about Islam and counseling?
Peaceful Families Project, Muslimaat Al Nisaa, Project Sakinah are among some of the stronger programs that have been discussing the misinterpretation of the verses from the Quran and the way in which the religion is misinterpreted and used as a form of spiritual abuse. They also have great resources listed on their website as well.
MH: What advice would you give to someone seeking to pursue your career path?
Research and explore the various areas of psychology and really investigate and visit various programs that you feel are tailored to meet the needs of your professional goals and interest. This type of profession is not made for everyone so visiting various programs and getting work experience before starting graduate school will also contribute in helping you to make your decision.
MH:How can we learn more about your work and support your work?
You can learn more about the work we do by going to our blog:
(www.fallingwallsinitiative.wordpress.com) and staying tuned for the launching of our website that we hope to have completed and launched by April.
Sakeena Abdulraheem is one of the Founding Members of Falling Walls Initiative. Falling Walls Initiative was founded by Darakshan Raja, Maha Hilal, and Mawish Raza.
“Falling Walls was born out of a research project led by one of the founders on the state of responses to crime victimization in the American Muslim community. As one of the first research studies in the field, the study found that the number one challenge identified within the American Muslim community on addressing abuse and victimization was denial from within the community. With rates of abuse in the Muslim community of one in two persons, a team of skilled professionals from fields such as criminal justice, psychology, counseling, human rights, journalism and media, initiated Falling Walls with the express purpose of breaking the barriers to addressing victimization within the Muslim community. Our work is based on direct services, applied research and the dissemination of research and practice through social media.”
Sakeena holds an BA in Spanish and International Studies from Meredith College, and an MA in Islamic Studies from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences. She is currently completing her MA in counseling psychology with a concentration in trauma and crisis intervention. She has extensive experience working as a teacher, mentor, and consultant. Sakeena currently counsels victims of domestic violence as an interning therapist at the House of Ruth MD. She also consults as an online counselor for OnIslam English. Her expertise and interests include cultural competency, post traumatic stress disorder, working with bicultural and multicultural families in transition, refugees, and orphans, survivors of violent crimes, women’s issues, gender based violence, sexual, and domestic violence. Sakeena has an assertive and directive therapeutic approach and believes in addressing conditions in a holistic manner. Sakeena is currently a founding member of Falling Walls.
Khadijah Abdullah founded Reaching All HIV+ Muslims In America (RAHMA) in 2012 while serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Horton’s Kids in Washington, DC. During her service she worked with families in Ward 8 and helped empower them through building partnerships with local organizations. With this she was able to offer families parenting classes, workforce development classes, case management, legal aid and other services. She also set up biweekly HIV testing on site and coordinated HIV education workshops.
Khadijah became very passionate about HIV/AIDS during her senior year of college. At this time, she was working in a hospital and learned that a friend who was a patient had HIV. He was only 19 years old. After this experience, Khadijah started advocating and educating on her college campus. She realized that there were no programs on campus that targeted HIV. Khadijah reached out to various student organizations and the local community to organize the first AIDS Awareness Week on campus. Due to her efforts, Khadijah was recognized by the State of Connecticut for her involvement in Community Service and by her University as well. Khadijah continued on to volunteer at AIDS Project New Haven and organized a team to walk in AIDS Walk New Haven.
After graduating in 2009, Khadijah relocated to Washington, DC and interned at the National Minority AIDS Council. After her internship, she began volunteering in the community. She received the President Obama award for Volunteerism. Khadijah later began work at Islamic Relief USA. During this time, she realized her passion was not sitting behind a desk, but being directly out there in the community serving others.
Khadijah holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from Southern Connecticut State University and has dedicated her life to ensuring the well being of others. She resides in the DC area with her family.
Photo Credit: Tamara Abdul Hadi (www.tamarabdulhadi.com)
Yassin Alsalman, better known by his stage name The Narcicyst (or Narcy), is an Iraqi-Canadian journalist and Hip Hop MC.
MH: Tell us about how you got into rapping? What inspired you? How’d it start?
It really all started with a Wu-tang Tape. That eventually became an obsession with Hip-Hop culture and its ability to mix and match independent experiences into one ‘brand’ or movement. My life has been a jumbled traveller experience, so I went from there and started just documenting the culture. Back in the 256K modem days, I would go online and download images and create folders of my favorite artists with their lyrics, album covers, just anything I could find. Eventually I started recording in my room flipping segments of instrumentals I would find online and looping them. I would record to that on a two-tape Sony stereo with my boys. Writing took over for years. I moved back to Canada in 2000, hit the studio with my brothers-from-another-mother SandhiLL and started recording. The rest, as they say, is mystory.
MH: What topics or issues guide inspire your music?
At first, I was very influenced by politics. I would spend hours digging the past and how it has affected the present, then write songs. After 9/11, we really started defending our origins, religion and distancing ourselves from senseless acts of violence and speaking out against the unjust invasions of the early 2000s. As of late, I’ve been digging into my personal past, and taking from day to day experiences in Canada and building narratives that are relatable. We are an international population, that of the Diaspora. I believe that this shapes my new music more than anything; the people I meet at shows and around the world on my travels, that belong nowhere and everywhere at once. The limitless immigrants.
MH: Your music style is unique—what influences the sound of your music? Your cultural background? Your faith? Your life experiences?
I am heavily influenced by classical music, layering different genres and sounds. I can record a sound from the streets and use it in my music. I think definetely the ‘ethos’ behind my music comes from my religion, but it isn’t the main body of influence to my work. Like I said, I am an amalgamation of so many cultural by-products, and so is my music. I get bored easily, so I like my music to be rich and push my own boundaries, as well as those that the public expect of a “hip-hop artist”. It’s all about jumping through boxes. and back out of them.
MH: Are there any artists who inspired you or influence your style of music?
So many……I also consider writers and ‘intellectuals’ artists. They have a way of presenting thoughts that make you want to learn more. That is an art in itself. My influence grows daily, so there isn’t one specific person. The world is the best place to find inspiration.
MH: What role does hip hop or music play in educating listeners about topics and issues not usually spoken about?
I think hip-hop is one of the most versatile artforms and cultures. That is both a gift and a curse. A gift because it can directly transport someone to another experience, another world, another reality. It serves as a document of the juxtapositions you can experience in modern society and its pitfalls/achievements. It’s a curse because it can be a self-destructive form of music as well, which can be blamed on an industry, or the individual. At the end of the day, Human nature, as a practice, is both self-involved, destructive and beautiful and community driven. Hip-Hop has no inhibitions, it is a place where you can be yourself, or be someone else.
MH: What has the response been to your more critical lyrics about political and social issues?
I never worry about peoples reactions. You are always going to have the good and the bad. But what I did notice about being uber-political at all times, is it invites that destructive and divisive energy into your home. We, as Hyphenated-Arab artists, are learning to channel those emotions and experiences to share them as growing experiences, as opposed to defensive stances. I think, once we learn that art, we will thrive internationally. It’s still early but I think we will get there in the next couple of years.
MH: How do you balance your Western identity with your Iraqi identity?
Like a Juggler! I’m split in half, I really don’t think about it anymore! I love it!
MH: Do you feel there’s more of an appreciation for hip hop with meaning and positive messages or is there still a long way to go for artists like yourself to get your message out to more mainstream listeners?
I think there is a balance. I am not a preacher, nor am I a politician, nor am I perfect. I think being self-aware, critical and at the same time funloving, is the best way to approach creativity. That way you grow, the viewer grows. It’s a beautiful transformation.
MH: There are some people who say that hip hop has a negative influence on the youth and encourages the wrong values and lifestyle for the youth and overall is a bad influence on the youth. What are your thoughts?
I say those people have a one track mind. Music in general has the ability to sway people in two directions. It all depends on the people taking it in, and their circumstances. I think we should blame violence on our societal values and how its reflected in our media and arts. TV is the most violent medium on the mind, so I would look at CSI and stuff like that before I would look at music. Violence is perverse, people are attracted to it. It’s hard to blame one genre for it. I also believe that justifies the outside worlds actions against people of ‘ethnic’ origin. It’s a way of demeaning the power of the displaced. Because we are truly free, devoid of the boundaries of the programmed world.
MH: If there were a mainstream artist you’d like to do a collaboration with who would it be with and why?
I don’t really believe in mainstream vs. underground. Success is deemed by your actions and how far you can take it. I would love to collaborated musically with Kanye, lyrically with Kendrick Lamar, Lupe, Sade, Erykah Badu. There are so many, the sky is the limit. I’ve been blessed to have met and hung out with some of my favorite artists, and I would rather share a meal with someone and talk, then to only work with them.
MH: What’s your favorite song you’ve produced and why?
I would say, my favorite song would be something coming up on my next album. The best feeling is finishing a song and saying “wow, where did that come from”. The new stuff is alot different to my old work. I love and hate everything I make. haha!
MH: What advice would you give to individuals who want to pursue a career in hip hop or music like yourself?
Be Yourself. Realise you are not the best, but strive to be the best you can be. Don’t compete with anyone but yourself. Don’t follow trends, set your own standard. And always think about the repercussions of your words. How will you feel about this music ten years from now? Short term solutions can lead to long term problems.
MH: How can we keep up-to-date with your music and support your work?
Follow me at @TheNarcicyst on twitter, look up ‘The Narcicyst’ on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Narcicyst/90624925723) and join my page. Soundcloud me. All that! Follow my crew @WeAreTheMedium on twitter and facebook as well. We have some really really really fun stuff coming up this year! LOVE!
Yusuf Misdaq is a multimedia artist, writer, creative consultant, and is founder of the arts website Nefisa, which also doubles as an independent media label- Nefisa UK.
MH: You’ve got a pretty unique cultural background, can you tell us more about your unique cultural background?
My parents are Afghan, from Afghanistan, and I grew up in a beach town called Brighton in England. It was a nice place, and we were the first Afghan family there.
MH: How does your faith and cultural background influence your work?
Well I’m not unlike lots of Muslims raised mostly in the West in that my faith and even cultural background have been blurred slightly by echoes of displacement, and all of the insecurity that comes with that. You find yourself in a constant state of searching and yearning and trying to find out what is authentic, what feels real and true, in both the cultural and spiritual aspect, and of course this path is one that can be walked parallel with the path of artistic expression. I think taken as a whole, the Muslim community also doesn’t really know who it is at large, and that’s reflected in the disunity we sometimes see creeping in. Everyone is claiming to be the middle way and the voice of reason, but claims are one thing.
MH: What role do you feel art plays in the world? Can it be a tool for education? Social change?
Yes it is, all of those. It can also be a tool for ego and selfishness too. So as artists we have to constantly keep ourselves in check, and be around others who keep us in check. We’ve got to make sure we remember that our goal is no different to that of a taxi driver or a ticket salesman, i.e. to constantly serve other humans.
MH: In recent times, Muslim artists have been primarily defined by calligraphy. What other forms of art do you feel are becoming more appreciated and recognized in the Muslim community?
Any forms of art that are wholesome are quickly accepted by the community. A community is just that, a community. It’s easy to be in the comfort of your own home and make art, but that’s also not very conducive to getting other people to invest their time in your work. I spent far too long isolated and working on my own art when I was living in the UK, simply because I didn’t feel there was a community for me at that time, and I suffered a lot because of that. But the beautiful thing about America is that the traditional community spirit is very much alive here in many ways, and so, if you know someone from your community, and they are given the chance to display their talent, it is usually appreciated and potentially supported too.
MH: In what ways can we educate the Muslim community about its artistic history, increase its artistic innovation and creativity?
Muslims can read more hadith and the quran instead of relying on the conjecture of others, doing so will also lay the foundation for them to be far more educated about art, art history and positive innovations in creative, social spheres (all things which tend to thrive when traditional Islam is being implemented); likewise, when a distorted or muddled Islam becomes the norm, those are usually the first things that get wiped out. Being an Afghan, I have seen this quite starkly in my own country. Regarding music, the most contentious issue, we have to be brave enough to face it fully, to face ourselves honestly, and understand the issues fully, at least to the best of our abilities. The unexamined life isn’t worth living, and if anyone out there has ever found themselves feeling conflicted about whether music is okay or not, they should put down whatever they’re doing and look into it. I did. Al-Ghazzali is probably the most reliable and trustworthy source to read regarding the permissibility of music, so my recommendation would be to use him as your starting point. What he says is both uncompromising, incredibly enlightened and subtle at the same time.
MH: As a Muslim artist you have quite a unique direction—you’ve done writing, film making and art. What out of those three is your favorite and why?
Those mediums are all just different strands of life; life is my favorite :) I’m very grateful to be alive and to have fingers and a voice that I can use for good. There’s nothing unique about making art, pictures, or writing (or rather, there shouldn’t be) – I think the wider ones eyes become to life, both the inner and outer forms of it, the more one is compelled to write and sing about it. It’s brilliant.
MH: How did you learn all of your different modes of artistic expression? Were you self-taught or did you have formal education in film, writing and art?
I have an MA in documentary filmmaking, although I have been writing and making music for far longer. Painting and writing and music have all been learned through great masters that I loved, observing their work, imitating it in some ways, and then just carrying on. I wish I had more time to spend with each of them in my week but life pulls you in so many different directions.I was recently fortunate to stay with two amazing wood-carvers in New Mexico for some weeks, Binyamin van Hattum and Omar Cashmere, both of whom are masters of their craft who contributed significantly to the famous Mosque in Abiquiu (they’re both Muslim too). I was really just blessed to be able to watch them, each in their own workshops, doing what they do for somewhat extended periods of time, and I did my best to pick up some of the very basic fundamentals. So, I have been delving much more into wood sculpting and also clay sculpture in the last year or so, which has been a lifelong ambition and one I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to start at such a young age.
MH: What type of art do you feel personally helps you best express yourself, your ideas and your thoughts?
Any art that comes from the heart. Art and heart rhyme :)
MH: Tell us more about Nefisa. What is it?
Nefisa-UK, in its current form, is a media label that I originally founded in 2002. It’s a small company that publishes books, novels, poetry, and releases and distributes music as well as other artworks. This year we had our very first American intern, Benneh Massaquoi, who has been a real blessing to have on board, and we’ve been working on a lot of exciting projects together, including the new Kindle e-book releases of my first two novels, which just recently came out.
MH: Do you feel there’s a revival of appreciation for art in the Muslim community?
Not really. People like to talk about it a lot, because talking about art and creativity really helps those in authority positions look open-minded and culturally sophisticated. When you start to see really great quality art coming from Muslims as the norm and not the exception, then you will know that both appreciation, good taste, and support for the arts in the Muslim community will have increased dramatically. As it is, artists of real quality are quite few and far between, and most of them are fighting a battle with the scales tipped heavily against them, both monetarily and, from within their own society, culturally. I mean, just imagine if a taxi driver had to carry around people in the back of his car who kept on leaning forward and telling him that taxi-driving was a haram profession, or hinting subtly that what he did was not a real or respectable job. He would still drive every day, because he had to, but it would get him down after a while and make it tougher to do what he does well. As I said before, the Muslim community hasn’t really come to grips with who it is and what it wants to be, especially here in the West. When it does that, the love will be felt much stronger and everyone will benefit.
MH: Tell us more about your book, Pieces of a Paki, what is it about, what inspired you to write it?
It’s my first novel. It came out in 2007 and everyone who reads it really likes it. Go in with an open mind and you will too. It recently came out as a Kindle e-book, which you can get on Amazon.
MH: You have a new album out this year called IF YOU ASK ME, YES! which came out on February 14th of this year, can you tell us more about this album and what it’s about?
It’s about the power of being and staying positive in the face of a crumbling society. It’s music that I sculpted out of love for people, and a desire to see people happy. I have spent a lot of time working in the media, and I’ve seen first hand how humanity is in a daily tug of war between optimism and pessimism. Between faith and what they would call “reality as it is”. I see things a little differently, and so, along with a lot of musical influence from my time in Malawi, I was blessed to be able to make this album to express my ideas. In it, I am telling everyone that it is going to be all right, that love will win, essentially.
MH: If you could work with any artist in any artistic field who would you want to work with and why?
Ishmael Butler, who is the MC for the group Shabazz Palaces. He’s the greatest artist alive in Hip-Hop today and has been for quite a long time. Yasin bey would also definitely be in the conversation too, I respect them both a whole lot. I’d also love to work for Terrance Malick in any capacity, whenever it is that he makes his next film. I like always being a student.
MH: What advice would you give to aspiring artists who would like to pursue the same career path as yourself?
If your will is strong, prove it. If you have the desire, then prove it. Make something, and bring it to the world, if you want to. It’s not easy, but if you can do it, you’ll smile at the end, and all your ends will start to become beginnings.
MH: How can we keep up with your work and support your work?
MH: Your profession is not a very common one in the Muslim American community, why did you decide to get into art?
Well, I’ve always been naturally inclined towards the arts, and it was only a matter of time that I recognized the best thing I could do for myself was to use my gift in the best way possible — to create more opportunities for reflection, gratitude and beauty.
MH: Where do you find inspiration from for your art work?
Life and all the awesomeness of it. Ever since I can remember, I have been reflective of the human experience, from its chaos and despair to its magnificence and beauty. I’m always searching for insight and understanding and any simple event or moment can lead to the concept for my next painting.
MH: In Islamic history, there used to be a deep appreciation for art and it would have great significance to the degree that it would make a huge impact on the architecture of mosques, government buildings and household items. Today there seems to be a lack of appreciation of art and architecture in the Muslim community. As an architect and artist, how do you feel we can revive that appreciation?
Well, two things — First, I think the depreciation of arts in the Muslim-American community has something to do with the immigrant generation that came before us. Their focus wasn’t to bring about identity and change through arts and culture, but generally speaking, it was one of assimilating into American society, seeking higher education and creating financial opportunities for their families. Leading to my second point, I feel it’s up to our generation to use the privilege of our higher education and the roots that our parents laid down to integrate into society in such a way that we employ the arts to further refine and revive our cultural and religious identity. What does this mean in practical, tangible terms? For starters, it means that we employ and support in every way the talented professional Muslim artists who have been trailblazing the movement of bringing change through the arts for years now, even, and especially, if initially it was to just start beautifying their own personal worlds. If you need proof, just look up some of the great projects and work that some of these Artists have been creating and working on: El Seed and Karim Jab going global with their calligraphy graffiti and light calligraphy; Mustafa Davis and Ridwan Adhami – two of the most prolific photographers and talented brothers I know; Maryam Eskandari, a graduate of the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs her own architecture business – Miim Designs; Tamir Diab, a Lighting Technical Director working in Visual Effects at WETA Digital, Ltd. has worked on two of the highest grossing films in Hollywood; Australian designer Peter Gould and typographer Tarek Atrissi have created award-winning designs with high profile clientele; Mark Gonzalez and Omar Offendum – two of the most remarkable spoken word and hip-hop artists and performers of our generation, and the list goes on. This is just a tiny drop in the ocean of talented Muslim Artists that exist who are dedicating their lives to the revival and recognition of the arts.
MH: Do you feel there is a revival in appreciation of art in the Muslim community?
Absolutely. I remember being at Islamic Conferences and being the only Artist present with a booth or an exhibit ten years ago, but now you go to these events and you have Artists headlining and giving speeches, and booths representing the creative fields all over the bazaar. My clientele population has changed drastically from parents and friends of parents commissioning me for work as a favor, to young professionals hiring me to design their marriage certificates, eid cards, or making custom paintings as gift or to be placed in their own homes, for example. Although our community has a long way to go, I’ve definitely seen a shift in mindset where art is being seen and appreciated less as commodity, and more as a service to society. If this much has changed in ten years, it’s pretty exciting to think of what the next ten years will bring on. I’m optimistic, and it’s a good time to be an Artist (though honestly — any time is a good time to be an Artist).
MH: What types of mediums do you most enjoy working with and why?
I love all mediums of paint — oil, acrylic and watercolor, but my absolute favorite is oil. I’ve found oil paints to require a lot more patience in the process of using them than other mediums, and each color mixes with the other — nothing is independent (at least the way I use colors). Each color informs the next one. I find there’s a lot of discovery and time for reflection instead of a focus on the end product because of this, and the painting gradually comes to reveal itself in the end. In fact, when I approach a painting, I never know what the end product will look like; I try to remain solid in my intention throughout the process and have faith that the painting will reveal itself in the end, inshaAllah.
MH: Your artwork can be described as contemporary. Are there elements within your artwork that draw inspiration from classical art or calligraphy?
Of course, any form of art really stems from an understanding of the traditional arts. I’d describe my work as conceptual, actually, and it stems more from my discipline and appreciation of proportion and structure because of my architectural background, and less from calligraphy, per se. When I first started painting, I drew very representational and literal works of art, and I was interested in being able to render a scene or image exactly as I saw it, and less as I experienced it. Over the years, however, my view of the world inevitably changed, and my experience in the architectural field led me to become more conceptual with my work. In other words, skill, technique and a good foundation in color theory were still vital to making a “good” painting, but a great work of art for me became one which mastered an expression of an idea from start to finish, on every level, instead of accuracy in visual depiction of a subject. If I captured my experience, then I considered my painting successful and complete (as much as one can be).
MH: Some say art is a way to express emotions and feelings. Has your artwork done the same for you? How has your art allowed you to express yourself?
Absolutely, all of my work is very personal to me, and essentially, it is my soul coming through. I learned how to express myself with colors and forms before I did with words, so painting and drawing have really just been a natural extension of my hands and my inner workings. Articulating emotions through words is an entirely different challenge. I think my work has evolved into more abstracted work particularly because of this — expression is so incredibly unique and personal, ambiguous and ever-changing, so all I can really expect is to be able to share it and hope that the viewer will bring his or her own interpretation to it. The goal isn’t for them to match their expression with mine, but to be catalyzed to express their own reaction in their own way.
MH: Some Muslim artists make the distinction between being a Muslim artist vs. an artist that just happens to be Muslim who is inspired by his/her faith. In your opinion is there a difference?
That’s a really great question — there’s really no wrong or right, but my opinion is that there is a difference. I attempt to live my life with the most consciousness that I can, so I try not to do or be anything just by default. While making “Islamic art” or paintings with Arabic calligraphy is not my focus as an Artist, I would most definitely call myself a “Muslim Artist” because my inspiration stems from my spirituality and consciousness of God. Having said that, I also don’t separate my identities of being Muslim, an Artist, or even a woman — they are all inherent to who I am and I don’t feel I’ve ever had to censor or filter myself because of any one of them. Alhamdulillah, my parents raised me in an open and nurturing enough environment, and although I experienced the typical American-Pakistani-Muslim identity conflicts from time to time, I never felt the need to express one identity over the other. I was always encouraged to be close to my heart and express my own ideas of who I was.
MH: What advice would you give to those who would like to pursue your career path?
The advice I would give to others, and myself, would be to create discipline in your life and put in the hard work to find your voice. The work that is truly interesting and has longevity is the work that is honest, and authentic, but none of it will come to surface without hard work and commitment to your art.