Explaining undercurrents of bigotry at Texas Muslim Capitol Day

Every two years when Texas legislature is in session, CAIR Texas organizes Texas Muslim Capitol Day. Muslims primarily from Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston travel to Austin to meet with their state representatives and push for legislation in a co-ordinated matter.

This years legislation:

I. Support The Dream Act
II. Support Safe Texans (legislation that would require body cameras on cops)
III. Push back against “Anti-Foreign Law” bill that is meant to target Muslims for Sharia Law (and would affect other religious minorities). Sharia Law is a set of rules that dictates what Muslims can eat, how they get married, how inheritance is set up, etc. Remember the original puritans came here for freedom of religion, so this legislation is unAmerican & unconstitutional.
IV. Support a piece of legislation that says the government cannot interpret religious texts.

Anyways, this is all important stuff for Texas Muslims to be at the table for. The folks behind CAIR Texas obviously worked hard to coordinate the meetings, media, speakers, and 600 participants. The speakers came from across Texas, varied in faith and age level, and were passionate speakers that spoke positively in front of a large crowd of young kids.

With that established, there were a few things I noticed that were, what I call, “undercurrents of bigotry”.

1. A small but intense group of protestors showed up to spew vitriol. I would find out later that one of them actually went up to the podium and interrupted the speakers list to say “Mohammad will not take over Texas”. Most of the chants from this crowd were xenophobic, such as “Muslims go home/We don’t want you here”.

Remember that Islam has been in America almost as long as Christianity. The first Muslims came here through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Looking at the young kids from Iman Academy, many of them are black. Black Muslims are active leaders in Muslim organizations and participants in the mosques of Texas. To think that Muslims came here from the recent wave of Middle Eastern/North Africa immigration is a form of anti-blackness; it is to deny black history as American history.

2. One of the protestors was a white man carrying an Israeli flag. One of the Muslim participants was a South Asian man wearing a shirt that said “Free Palestine”. Representative Molly White told the media that she is placing an Israeli flag on her desk and asking all Muslim constituents to pledge allegiance to America.

Why is Israel and Palestine, a political issue where indigenous people are being driven off their land and systemically cleansed, coming up at Texas Muslim Capitol Day? Because many people still use the word “conflict” to describe the Israeli-Palestinian “thing” that is going on in “The Middle East”.

Reducing Israel’s occupation of Palestine to a “Jews v Muslims” game, where “Muslims” are the “others” is a dirty narrative, but it’s not an accident. In order to occupy a Palestine, Zionist settlers had to believe they had divine right to marginalize the Palestinians. We’ve heard this story before, in American history, when American settlers thought they had “manifest destiny”. Anyways, this necessitated the intertwining of Zionism with the Jewish identity. Judaism is not Zionism, but Zionism needs Judaism to justify the violence inflicted on Palestinian civilians (This brand-merger, if you will, was made popular after the Holocaust, when Europe decided it would be a good idea to push the Jews out of the continent instead of dealing with its own anti-semitism problem). Palestinians did not experience an equivalent “Muslimizing”. The Palestinians are a religiously diverse people who are indigenous to historic Palestine. You don’t have to create a divine-right ideology to justify the land you are already living on, but you do need to create such a theory to take over someone else’s land and marginalize its people.

If you still need convincing: notice how the Israeli flag has a religious symbol on it while the Palestinian flag does not.

So what is going on here? Why do Muslims around the world mobilize for Palestine if this is a “Zionist state occupying Palestinians” situation?

1. Because it’s a legitimate cause to support
2. The occupation has been going on for decades
3. And also because…the way Israel and Palestine has been framed by the mainstream media is to suggest it’s a Muslims v Jews conflict. It’s been used to fuel Islamophobia, which is what brought protestors out to TMCD

Because Muslims have been othered in America, they are asked to explain Palestine or put in a position to defend Palestinians. Muslims who are not Palestinians (and most Muslims in America are not Palestinian…And a significant portion of Palestinians are Christian..Think about this..) are asked to defend or explain or are grouped in with Palestinians.

This is called homogenization.

This leads Muslims around the world to feel a deep emotional connection to Palestine, to the point where they sometimes feel that they own the cause or can speak on behalf of Palestinians in resolving the “conflict” over there yonder in “The Middle East”. (Read the #MLI conversation going on right now about this very phenomenon. It’s called faithwashing).

Other conflicts affecting Muslims like: Boko Haram terrorizing locals, Syria’s Assad killing at least 200,000 people, ISIS killing and terrorizing Muslims, the violence in South Sudan, the violence against Rohingya in Burma, do not have this kind of hyper-awareness amongst Muslims around the globe. Again, this is due in large part to the length of time Israel has been occupying Palestine, and the screwed up Jews v Muslims mainstream Western interpretation of the occupation.

Now juxtapose this homogenization of Muslims forced into the narrative of Israel & Palestine with the reality today: I met Nigerian, White, Egyptian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Black, and Indonesian American Muslims just in my limited interaction with others.

Bottom line: Oppression isn’t linear. The intersection between anti-black racism and Islam manifests when people don’t recognize Islam as an American religion. The intersection of oppression against Muslims and the oppression of the Palestinians shows up with Rep White placing the Israeli flag on her desk and asking Muslim Americans to
confirm they are domestic.


War Time Makes Everyone in Peace Time look like a Hypocrite

A collection of micro stories alternatively titled “Do Syrians make you uncomfortable?” (will be periodically updated).

1. In the days following the Aug. 21st Sarin Gas attacks when 1,400 people were gassed to death, my ethics professor argued that America bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a line at the intersection of war and humanism that humanity would not allow itself to cross again. He said this to me in his office, when I came in to talk about Syria, after his class when students were angry “WHY DOES AMERICA HAVE TO POLICE THE WORLD?”

2. A phone conversation: “Hey I met another Syrian girl today!…Syrian or Syrian American I don’t know but she was born in Damascus I think…yeah she’s young, on her way to becoming a doctor…yeah she was cool, really smart and really bright….she just got married too and we talked about her religious convictions….yeah of course I thought of you Shiyam when I met her so I asked her about what was going on in Syria……Hmm well she didn’t say much just said that she doesn’t do politics….Hm….yeah…I guess it is strange that a person dedicated to a healthcare who has ties to a country where 1 million people are injured is a passive spectator..”

3. When Iranian Americans are moved into rage over Palestine but are walking blissfully through this world as Iran occupies Syria.

4. When Zionists use Syria as an excuse to feign concern over people dodging bombs as their government bombs the sh*t out of Palestinian hospitals, schools, and children on the beach.

5. When I walk into the Palestine Solidarity Committee, and their most active member is a Syrian American young boy who is so passionate about Palestine it brings people to tears but when I ask what is going on about Syria, it’s as if I’m an 18 wheeler in front of a herd of deer.

6. When my Damascene neighbor launches a new religious study group and invites us young, impressionable banat to join. “Great Aunty! Can I sell these scarves to donate to Syria Relief and Development?” A side-eye before she says “Ha everything is for Syria these days”, turning her back.

7. When I share news of massacres and everyone around me yawns. Not white enough, not American enough, not anti-imperial enough, not local enough, not ___________ enough.

Pistachios, Walnuts, Cashews, & Pecans

i feel nuts
pistachios ground atop the halawat
a fine fluffy grain, green
pistachios were once for parties
now pistachios are always praying

i feel nuts
walnuts mashed, stuffed inside
baklawa, uniform in a tray
a dizzying array
to really see, for the first time, this diamond army

i feel nuts
cashews spike the rice
browned, buttery, bastards
cashews are not nuts, they are seeds
shaped like the tears they cry

i feel nuts
pecans sprout from the earth around me
supreme southern seascape of pecans
i learned to read from pecans
i know your stories, pecans, let me tell you mine

i feel nuts
because i am nuts
i am all these nuts
there is no other way to be.

On photographic consent in war zones.

What I am about to describe happens all the time. Or rather, doesn’t happen at all: getting consent for a photo from a refugee or in a war zone. There are three stories where this has come up in my life, so I’ll explain in narrative form.

I was aware of the concept of consent before I went to Syria. In March of 2013, I joined the Syrian American Council on a relief trip to Qah refugee Camp, Jarjanaz & Kafranbel in Idlib, and Aleppo City. I went to Syria with the intention of making connections and working as a freelance journalist (if all these non-Syrian people were freelancing to tell the story of my people, why shouldn’t I step forward?). In hindsight, I really went out of a desperate attempt to get closer to Syria while trying to be useful; I also went in the hopes of sorting out my own confused emotions.

There should be something disturbing about the idea of being able to walk into and out of a war zone while other people are trapped between borders. But this doesn’t register with the crowds of war-tourists going towards Syria, or the random freelance journalists who flock to the borders hoping to get a few great shots. The former go for a life adventure out of morbid curiosity, the latter out of a delusion that their random photo will benefit the subject. Both suffer from privilege blindness.

I say “suffer” because there are tangible ways to help people in war zones that sometimes require traveling to the region, and privilege blindness obscures this. Usually this boils down to leveraging resources and media connections to push Syrian voices forward and to keep Syrian bodies nourished. Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, writes about weapons flowing into Syria by watching Youtube videos in the UK. Because of his research, he’s been able to discredit Assadist narratives. Digital Activism is a real thing, but doesn’t seem to be fully recognized by most people.

The first two days I spent in Reyhanli with a group of men, going door to door to meet refugees. I asked every family if I could take their photo. They all said no, but allowed me to take a picture of their setting or sometimes, their kids. Why would they let a strange woman with a DSLR take their photo during one of the worst times of their lives? Because she speaks English and says she’s a journalist?

I shared the photos with my friends. One photographer pal told me: you gotta try and get people in your photos.

As the trip went on, a few more westerners (Syrian American) told me I was extreme in asking every person for permission before taking a photo. So I loosened up a bit. Some people I asked for permission, and others I “jumped in the moment”.

There were three photos in particular that I did not ask permission for:

  1. As a family arrived at Qah refugee camp, newly displaced. Their tiny van was so tightly packed that the people and their belongings very nearly sprung out as soon as it stopped.
  2. A young toddler inside a tent, with her father (?) laboring with a shovel in the background
  3. A relief worker and a local woman in Aleppo, while he was telling her that she would not get a food basket.

I thought the shots were artistically good, that they would be usable to tell a story back in America. Then slowly, I realized what had really happened each time.

  1. As I crouched to get this shot, a girl from the van came up and put her hand out and said “stop, don’t take our picture”. I ignored her as I composed the shot. She is there in the photo, looking at me with a mad expression.
  2. Behind the serene toddler is her angry father, looking at me through the lens, probably wondering why I would stick my camera into their new home.
  3. This is such a painful moment, and the sharp, pained, confused look she gave me should have been enough to make me put down my camera and give her some privacy.

That’s the thing about war: privacy is a privilege for those who have walls and food. Just because, for example, I was out in the open air as a family was becoming displaced does not mean I had a right to document what was likely one of the most painful days of their lives. Syrians are also rightly concerned about their own safety and many (if not most) prefer not to have their photos taken.

I stopped taking photos for a long time, and focused on raising awareness in Texas for Syria. I started paying close attention to war photos coming out of Syria. Were the subjects dignified? How would I feel if my uncle’s photo was used in that way? Did that child give consent?

This isn’t just to be picky. Photos are how we see ourselves. The Syrians should see themselves as strong and dignified people during this very difficult time. Yielding consent is a form of agency.

I found that Syrian photographers took very different photos than Non-Syrian photographers. Syrian photographers took photos of landscapes, rallies, demonstrations, and dignified portraits of people. Non Syrian photographers would not likely not prize these “tame” photos. The latter took action shots of war, photos of people in their worst emotional state. Non Syrian photographers want to see pain; Syrian photographers want to provide a throne. (I am aware that Syrians use photography to document the death toll and crimes against humanity, however here I mean photographer as one who uses the camera for expression or someone who is a freelance journalist with a “style”).

Fast forward to last fall, and I’m speaking at a liberal arts college in California as an ambassador for Watan NGO. The director Mouna has always made a vocal point to use dignified photos of children in her powerpoint. “Make sure the kids look nice! They must look nice…Shiyam that’s not a nice photo, the girl has a little smudge on her cheek! Use a nice one!”

After presenting on Watan’s projects using Mouna’s powerpoint, a group from the audience came up to me. The three of them were professors, if I remember correctly. One gentleman told me he noticed a discrepancy in my description of Qah as an unsanitary place and the photos from the children’s school. “The kids look clean but you said the camp is unhygienic. Why don’t you use different, more moving photos?” He gave the UN’s photo of a Syrian girl used in Melissa Flemming’s TED Talk as an example.

“Did she ask consent?” I asked him.

He started to protest my question, but then thought about it. Probably not. Think about the difference between a group photo of your child in a school vs. a portrait of your child frowning in a refugee camp.

The last story I have to share is about the boyfriend of my best friend. He happens to be an Alexia Foundation winner, an Eddie Adam’s workshop alum, a TEDx Speaker & published author on photography as a medium for advocacy. He’s well known for two topics, and probably doesn’t realize he’s never worked outside his own identity.

During the attack on Kobane, he took a spontaneous short trip to the Syrian border. I was alarmed: it’s very dangerous at the border, not only for journalists but for the residents too. I asked him, taking care to be non-aggressive, what his goal or project was for the trip. He couldn’t answer my question and went to sleep. The next day, he uploads a photos of refugees on instagram with the hashtag #syrianrefugees.

Anyways, he winds up blocking me on Facebook after I comment “Did you ask for permission before taking this photo?”


EDIT: Wow, lots of good feedback! I want to acknowledge this is post is a first draft. I wrote it as I would have told my friends, had we lived in the same city still. I recognize there are some holes in this piece. In the future, I’ll re-write it, and include photo examples for each point.

What our “Worst Failure” and “Best Success” have in common.

Not many people know that last fall was one of the toughest times for SAC Houston. Following the summer’s “Return to Homs” film screening success, the fall’s work schedule was difficult and frustrating for myself and my team to work around (we’re all volunteers). That was also the time we had our Worst Event Ever: a public film screening at the University of Houston. Fast forward to January 2015, one of our most successful months to date. We just orchestrated our Best Event Ever: A public conversation with George Sabra at Rice University. I gauge success by the strength of communications and media impact, and these two events couldn’t be more different. At our Worst Event Ever, we had 5 people show up and I asked them all to go home (3 times!). At our Best Event Ever, we had a robust and diverse crowd of 170 show up, with three media spots. In contrast to Worst Event, people were in great anticipation for Best Event. But despite these differences, both these stories ended the same way.

At our film screening at UoH, our only new outreach was to one Non-Syrian American family. They and their daughter had heard about the film from her high school (how, I have no idea). The audiovisual in the room wasn’t working, and we started the film 30 mins late. There was maddening audio feedback from a microphone we couldn’t turn off for what felt like the bulk of the film. I was deeply embarrassed, and asked them to go home so as to not waste their time. They stared back at me, and wouldn’t budge. In the end, they donated money to SAC Houston in exchange for Free Syria bracelets. Later my dad told me he and my mom spoke with the family. They were concerned and had no idea that Syrians were struggling on such a scale. They wanted to know how they could help.

Fast forward to January 2015. SAC Houston has had a full month of activity; we launched our “The Road Foward” theme by bringing George Sabra to Houston. SAC Houston presented a recap of all the facets of Syria: the revolution, civil war, armed opposition, civil service groups, etc. before handing the floor over to Mr. Sabra. He spoke in depth about war crimes happening in Syria, then took answers from myself and an audience of 170 people. Univision, a freelance journalist from CNN Arabic, and The Rice Thresher covered the event. For a small volunteer group, our event planning was professional and audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

After our program ended and the last stragglers left the room, I stood there packing up my lap top. A young girl came up to me. “I just wanted to say hi and thank you. I had no idea about anything you said..I’m a high school student taking a Middle Eastern class. I learned so much from this event tonight”, she told me, standing with her arms behind her back in a shy but open demeanor.

We looked at each other for a moment before I thanked her for coming. I recognized the look in her eyes from before; I had seen it the night one family showed up to our film screening last October. Their daughter had that same look when she handed me a $20 donation to SAC Houston in exchange for a Free Syria bracelet.

In that look was compassion and empathy. They connected with Syrians on a human level, and wanted to show support. Whether it’s a crowd of 5 or 170, this is why people show up for Syria, and its a reminder for SAC Houston why we do the work we do, no matter how big or small.

EDIT: To be accurate, our Best Event had a little less than 170 people. From where I was sitting, the audience looking completely full, but the photos show some empty seats.

The shortest blog post I will ever write.

Since Shireen slipped in her “Why do you work for Syria?” question in the middle of our conference call, I’ve been doing a lot of breaking down and building up of my intentions. It’s not enough to be heartbroken about Syria to move someone to work for the Syrian cause. My last post answered the question, “Why does Syria alarm you?”, but not the question that Shireen asked.

I work for Syria because I believe in Syrians. Because I believe in Syrian Americans. Because as a post-9/11 Arab/Muslim American, I should know better than to sit by while other people take control of my narrative.

This is the shortest blog post I will ever write because the answer is very simple.

I’m haunted by the stories I do not know.

Yesterday Shireen asked me, “What drives you to work for Syria?”. We were on a conference call to go over the details for George Sabra and Mirna Barq’s visit next weekend. We were both also exhausted: In January, SAC Houston hosted a government relations training, took Syrian American constituents to meet with their representative’s office, spoke at UH Students for Justice in Palestine’s “Palestinian Culture Night” on the latest human rights report on Yarmouk, and this upcoming weekend we’re hosting SAC National President Mirna Barq for an open town hall with Syrian Americans and George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, for a public conversation at Rice University. We’re a small, dedicated, volunteer group. I’m incredibly proud of how our team has remained dedicated through a waterfall of emails and a blur of conference calls.

She asked me this simple question, and I realized I assumed that everyone who works for Syria works for the same reason. I never asked my team what drives them to push forward. Many more people are heartbroken at what is happening in Syria than there are people organizing for Syria.

We talked about what motivates the both of us, why we believe in Syria and in organizing. And from now on, the first item at every SAC Houston meeting will be a “Why I’m Here” segment.

For myself, I am haunted by the stories I do not know. Ecologists can study the health of a forest by taking a sample of one tree. The stories and images coming out of Syria pushed me into a deep depression — I don’t know exactly how long because I do not like to think about this period. I knew that if this was the sample of stories coming out of Syria, then the whole forest, so to speak, must be the same if not worse.

I work to honor my family. I work to honor my friends and Syrian activists who have lost much and fought hard and keep fighting. But I am also largely driven by the stories I do not know, and will probably never know.