In 2011, twenty two-year-old Mirzya Syed, a Pakistani-American student at Barnard College in New York City (NYC), was attending a class on novels written about the immigrant experience — precisely about problems faced by people of East Asian, African and Latin American descent. What struck her at the time was that there was no mention of any Muslim country or people — except for a terrorist character in a book called Flight by Sherman Alexie.
Around the same time, Syed heard on the news that the New York Police Department had been spying on the Muslim community in NYC, including Columbia University’s Muslim Students Association. “It made me sad more than anything else,” she recalls. “I felt that we needed something for the Muslim voice.”
Syed took her concern to Haris Durrani, a nineteen-year-old engineering student at Columbia, who brought the university’s Muslim Students Association onboard. Seven months of meetings, emails and Skype conversations later, Columbia University held the first-ever Muslim writers symposium of its 258-year history. They called it ‘The Muslim Protagonist’.
On November 11, a series of panel discussions, videos and writing workshops were conducted with Muslim scholars, playwrights and novelists at the helm. Among Muslim writers from a varied cultural landscape, writers of Pakistani descent, including Kamran Pasha, Mohsin Hamid and Daniyal Mueenuddin, addressed the audience of 300 participants in person and through video conferencing.
Instead of lamenting the lack of Muslims in modern literature, panelists urged attendees to pick up their pens and start writing. “No one story will be a perfect representation of the Muslim community,” said writer and award-winning film director Musa Syeed. “We need many stories, and we need them now.”
Panelists promoted literature and art as a way for Muslims in the US to project their voices. Co-authors of more than two-dozen works of fiction, Nikoo Kafi and Jim McGoldrick, shared how they penetrate hard-to-reach audiences through popular culture novels, sold on the shelves of retailers such as Costco and Walmart. Their books are intentionally kitsch — stories of lovers ala Mills and Boons — but with characters named Omid and Habib and set in Muslim countries like Iraq and Iran.
“With our stories, we can reach into those deep hidden areas of this country to people who don’t know a Muslim beyond what the media feeds them and present Muslims as the heroes and heroines,” said Kafi. “We reach out to the Americans who have never known a real Muslim. Our readers are the people who watch Fox News.”
Novelist Mohsin Hamid, who was in Lahore, made an appearance via a pre-recorded video to discuss his two books Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both of which juggle contrasting notions of Muslim identity. He addressed the current media climate for Pakistan and noted the breakthrough nature of telling stories with Pakistani protagonists. “In the international media, Pakistan is a horror film franchise,” he said “It’s the loose nukes and the threat of the Taliban. You don’t see stories outside of that Pakistan.”
Playwright and essayist Wajahat Ali used humour to illustrate the condition of the Pakistani-American Muslim. As some of the world’s most hated citizens, Pakistanis now have more in common with Iranians than chest hair and a love of Mercedes, he quipped. “It is imperative in a globalised world, where cartoons and crappy YouTube documentaries can be exploited by extremists on both sides of the Atlantic, for Muslims to emerge as protagonists and share rich stories that authentically portray who we are. We are neither avatars of perfection, nor catalysts of Armageddon. We are people with warts and faults, who eat meatloaf and biryani.”
Author of the play The Domestic Crusaders, Ali’s most recent book, All American: 45 Men on Being Muslim, relates the personal accounts of 45 Muslim-American men on how their religion affects their daily lives.
Hollywood screenwriter, director and novelist Kamran Pasha shared the difficulties of working in the American television industry as a Muslim. The Karachi-born novelist co-produced and wrote an Emmy-winning show called “Sleeper Cell,” which is about a Muslim FBI agent on a mission to uncover a terrorist plot in the US. The show has come under criticism for some negative portrayals of Muslims. At the event, Pasha defended his work, citing that the alternative was worse: no Muslim voice in Hollywood at all. His two books Mother of the Believers and Shadow of the Swords also employ Muslims as protagonists.
“Muslims have seen themselves as victims of history. We need to see ourselves as the force of history,” he said.
And this point was reiterated by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, radio personality, blogger and author of the acclaimed book Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. “We can show the world that progress and innovation are part of our narrative. We improve ourselves and do things consistently better. That is the essence of being Muslim.”
Punjab-based writer Daniyal Mueenudin appeared on video and spoke of the possibility for Muslims to write stories without mentioning anything political. Mueenudin addressed the lack of “bombs and beards” in his works, saying that his job as a storyteller isn’t necessarily to answer questions posed by the media. Instead, his collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders explores themes such as women’s empowerment and social inequality.
Although the symposium was a weekend event, the spirit of ‘The Muslim Protagonist’ lives on. Syed and Durrani have now teamed up to create a new student group at Columbia University called the Muslim Writers Workshop. The new organisation will continue using literature as an agent of social change for Muslims by hosting more seminars with academics and authors. The pair also hopes to publish a magazine, which will use the written word to project the Muslim voice on their campuses and beyond.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 16th, 2012.