Defying Stereotypes, Young Muslim Writers Find Community Onstage

There’s the stereotype of the angry Muslim and the scary Muslim, but these young performers and poets are defying those tropes and defining themselves.

10.12.14 9:45 AM ET

"Is Heaven some kind of club?" Uneeb Khan asked in his poem about his quest for answers following the death of his non-Muslim friend. "Are all Muslims in the club chillin’ by the VIP? Will I have to put Chad on the guest list to visit me?" 

It was a Friday night and Khan was performing before a young crowd of about 120 mostly Muslim Americans in lower Manhattan for the eighth monthly open mic night at the Muslim Writer's Collective. The MWC provides an open space where young Muslims can share their stories, be supported, and mentored in journalism, poetry, or spoken word. 

Khan’s  piece dealt with the questioning of religion, a consistent theme throughout the night. Worried this might turn people off from his performance, Khan said he didn't intend  to offend anyone. This was his first time performing and his hands shook slightly at the start of his reading. As an electrical engineer who designs control systems for the new World Trade Center, and therefore not a professional writer, he admitted he felt like that girl from Mean Girls who “doesn’t even go here.”

“I just have a lot of feelings,” he said. 

Although he was scared at first, he became confident as he felt the crowd being responsive to his reading. "They were laughing at the parts that were supposed to be funny. They got quiet at the parts that were supposed to be sad. I could hear the silence and how much people were paying attention—and you could almost feel how much people were enjoying it," Khan said. His poem moved the audience, and when I went to see him directly after he performed, he told me, "I didn't get over his death until now. It lifted the burden for me."

Khan's poem was one of the best of the night. 

The media often portray Muslims using tropes that don't represent the incredible diversity of the Islamic community. Examples include the Muslim who goes clubbing  all the time, the Muslim who never stops talking, the angry Muslim, the terrorist. In the face of these stereotypes, the Muslim Writers Collective is one attempt to reclaim the narrative of American Islam. Although the organization only launched in January of this year, it has been rapidly growing, becoming somewhat of a movement and spreading from New York to San Francisco.

The monthly open mics have remained the MWC's core event since the first one in February. That event was so well received that, even now, co-founder Hamdan Azhar says he just announces the event on Facebook and "people from all walks of life show up—high school students, college students, young professionals—and share their stories about their experiences."

Azhar didn’t mention it, but his Collective follows a tradition that goes back to the very foundation of Islam. The very first revelation of the Qur’an from the archangel Gabriel to Muhammad was “Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created.” Thus a vibrant literary culture has always been a part of the Islamic tradition and poetry recitals in particular hold a hallowed place in it.

When I met Azhar a year ago, he had mentioned his interest in creating a platform to share ideas for young Muslim writers, people active in the arts, or pursuing creative fields. The idea needed more structure, so he and his friends sent out a survey to college students and found there was a definite need for a space where young Muslims could share their stories and art. 

"I think there's an incredibly untapped pool of creative resources in the [Muslim] community,” he said. “It's a community struggling to find itself, just like many hyphenated American communities trying to make sense of its experiences. 

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Azhar started the night, his enthusiasm revving up the crowd that was a bit too large for the venue. He wore a blue shirt and black suit adorned with an untied red-yellow-green-brown-striped scarf and an abnormally large necklace that he later categorized as bling. Behind me, Annam Chaudhry quietly rehearsed. Wearing a deep green hijab with a heart pin on it, the rapper and poet regularly performs at the monthly open mic nights, saying it "force[s] me to challenge myself to write new pieces."

While many, like Khan, made disclaimers about not being political or against religion, there were also a number who delivered fiery and provocative  pieces, fueled by passion. One such performer was Nadia Kashmiri (not her real name). In September, a devastating flood hit her home, Jammu and Kashmir, a state in India.. The flood led to the death of over 500 people and left 20,000 homeless. Distraught, she wrote her poem on the subway on the way to the event. Her overwhelming anger captured everyone's immediate attention.

She slammed the media, saying the coverage has been scant and inaccurate. She condemned the Indian government and its refusal to accept help from the United Nations and other disaster relief organizations. Most of all, she says, she denounced “the apathy of Muslims towards social injustices,” even asking the audience, “Why are you silent, my Muslim collectives?”

After the performance, I asked her about the situation. She cried. She had lost touch with her friends and, more than anything, she wanted to help the people in Kashmir and find out if her friends and family were OK. She requested not to be named. "India really monitors who speaks against them, and I won't be able to see my family and friends if my name comes on print," she said. "To be honest I am freaking out that I spoke, [but] I hadn't spoken to my parents for a week and I was fearless."

Co-founder Azhar ended the night with a story about the origins of the night’s theme: "Gravitate Levitate Meditate." The theme was a tough one to follow, and most people didn’t try. While it seemed philosophical, at its core, its had nothing to do with the open mic. He had been invited to speak on a panel at the Islamic Society of North America annual conference and decided to come up with a rap for his talk. Azhar's three favorite words of the rap were "Gravitate Levitate Meditate" because, in that order, the first letters of the words are GLM, an acronym "generalized linear model," a theory in statistics that is the foundation of predictive modeling. Being an advertising researcher at Facebook, he got excited and deemed “Gravitate Levitate Meditate” the night’s theme. The audience laughed, applauding his candidness and humor.

In closing, Azhar told the crowd to take risks, be unconventional, and never be afraid to express themselves.

The New York next open mic night is Oct. 17.