I'm a Muslim-American Immigrant, & I Choose Openness

By Thamine Nayeem, IES Abroad Rabat | Fall 2015 and Senior at the University of Richmond

Identity is a notion I have wrestled with for a long time now. At a young age, I remember the struggle of choosing between assimilating to an American culture, preserving my Bengali roots, while also exploring my Islamic faith: Was I supposed to choose individualism over collectivism? Shirts and jeans over salwar kameez? Or even rice over pasta? So it’s not a surprise that I was a seriously confused teenager. Eventually, though, choosing just one somehow felt like I was losing, so I kept wandering.

This process of identity formation was something I was internally experiencing, but it wasn’t until college that I knew how to consciously articulate my experiences in words. I met friends who would stay up until two in the morning with me, deconstructing what it meant to be “normal” in America and who got to decide what that meant. I began taking Sociology classes that later allowed me to learn the terminology and theoretical frameworks that would help me better explain my abstract ponderings. I read Rousseau, Plato and Freud, trying to weave together uncertain answers: The self is an innate entity? The self is constructed through socialization? The self is a combination of the two?

The paradoxes of identity kept growing when I traveled to Rabat, Morocco in my junior year through IES Abroad. After a lifetime of feeling like a minority, I thought, in Morocco, I would at last know what it felt like to be a part of the majority. And truly, for the first time, I was able to walk down a street without the feeling of a million eyes following me. I didn’t have to live every day feeling hyperaware of how different I am just because I was brown or chose to wear a cloth around my head. And I can’t express how freeing that felt.

But it wasn’t that simple—identity never is—because I found myself also realizing I was more American than I had thought. Ironically, on a journey where I thought I would grow closer to Islam—which without a doubt I did—I somehow also found myself growing even closer to my American identity and, at the same time, exploring new facets of identity I had never considered before.

I felt like I was standing at a juncture in the labyrinth that is the medina—a juncture of many different worlds. The more I explored the feel of its walls, the aroma of its spices, and the sounds of its people, the closer I got to making sense of its confounding layout, while never entirely knowing all of it as it shifted from red to blue, day to night. It would always remain to be too complex, too fluid to capture or condense into understanding. And so, after a semester abroad, I came back to the U.S.—still wandering.

As most artists do, I turned to creation to process and share my explorations of identity. Because I had been documenting my experience abroad through video blogs, I had enough footage to make a short film for the IES Abroad Film Festival about the relationship between travel and identity. With the anti-Muslim and immigrant rhetoric that was pervasive in the U.S., I hoped that my decision to be open to the complexities that come with my different Muslim, American and immigrant identities would allow the U.S. to also embrace its differences.

Of course, it would be great if both America and I could one day come to a place of balance and stability. And there have undoubtedly been days where I have found myself at peace. The world, however, is rife in change, and these moments of stability can be very fleeting. So it’s also necessary to accept the reality of complexity and to be open to the growth it has to offer.

With the love and support I have received for my short film, I am more confident than ever in film’s ability to testify to this reality. I feel that I can walk into Trump’s America undefeated because I have art. So for the past couple of months, I have been developing my videography skills with the intention of producing a documentary after graduating and continuing this difficult but necessary conversation about choosing openness.

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