Oral History — June 15, 2017, 10:34 am

Making Moves

Muslim Americans on pursuing political careers in the age of Trump

[Bonus track]

Muslim Americans share their reasons for getting involved in politics.

Think about your mother’s cooking,” political trainer Monica Perez tells a group of nearly 30 people as they toss around ideas for stump speeches. The workshop, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is part of a weekend-long training for immigrant and first-generation Americans considering running for office. Founded by Sayu Bhojwani in 2010, the New American Leaders Project organizes at least four sessions a year in an effort to make American democracy more representative of the country’s changing demographics. Most applicants cite some integral part of their identities — their religion, race, ethnicity, or immigrant background — as the main obstacle they’ll face on the campaign trail. But Bhojwani encourages them to capitalize on those differences, telling them: “You bring something unique to the American experience.” Even during an election where religious and racial vitriol fueled Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid, two Muslim Americans won state house seats — and Bhojwani says she expects to see more Muslims win elections in 2018 and beyond. The number of Muslim-American applicants to NALP trainings has doubled in the last year. “What we’re seeing,” Bhojwani says, “is not people going underground but people standing up even firmer and taller and saying, ‘I am not going to let this happen to my community again.’” I talked to several Muslim Americans who attended the April training about why they’re getting more involved in politics.

Ghida Dagher, 28, works at the United Way of Southeastern Michigan and was helping train participants at the NALP workshop. She served as campaign manager for Abdullah Hammoud, who became the first Arab-American to represent Dearborn in the Michigan State House in 2016.

I moved to Detroit when I was nine as a refugee from Sierra Leone. Both of my parents are Lebanese by heritage. My mom taught English to immigrant moms and was a salesperson at Macy’s and Hudson’s. My dad runs medical clinics. Although he is a medical doctor, he can’t practice with his French degree in the U.S.

One of the things about being an immigrant and a refugee is that you have to grow up very quickly. I felt like I had to step up in my own way to help with the family. Growing up I always wanted to be a doctor like my dad, because I thought that’s what security and stability meant. In college, I realized that wasn’t the right path for me. I remember calling my family and saying, “Mom, Baba, I’m not going to be a doctor.” I expected a really negative reaction, but they were like, “Okay, that’s fine. Now what are you going to be?”

I started telling them about the kind of work I wanted to do and they didn’t get it. I had to phrase it this way: I want to see change in the world and in order to see change in the world I don’t want to just help one or two people, I want to help on a large scale. I think the most effective way to do that is through policies.

I was never somebody who grew up saying, “I’m going to be a politician.” But in times like this there is a sense of responsibility that all of us are feeling from underrepresented communities. We don’t have elected bodies that are reflective of our communities. I think that’s why a lot of us are stepping up now. It’s completely unacceptable to say someone can’t be an American or be a part of American society because of their religion. My immigrant experience and my Muslim experience ground me, but it’s really my American experience that propels me. The future that I want for America is one that many others want as well.

Hanan Yahya, 23, is a community organizer and educator living in Detroit. She moved to the U.S. from Yemen with her family when she was three.

I’m number eight out of nine siblings. My mom is illiterate. My father didn’t go to school either but he does know how to read and write. When we moved to the U.S., my older siblings had to sacrifice their opportunity for school for the rest of us.

I always wanted to do more than anybody I know has ever done. It wasn’t even an ego thing, it was like, “This is for my family, this is for my community. I have to do it for them.”

I went to a small charter school with limited resources that focused on standardized exams rather than the real potential of its students. It took a substitute teacher noticing me from the crowd and saying, “You are going to be someone and I will help you” to make me realize that there was so much that needed to be done in my community. I want to be able to advocate for schools that create an environment for students to thrive academically and intellectually, to be challenged in various fields, to be involved in extracurriculars, and in the community, and to provide leadership development. This is not a revolutionary idea. But it’s not happening for the children of Detroit.

My family is definitely cautious of supporting me, knowing how risky running for office is to my reputation, to my family’s reputation, and to my personal safety. I think there’s a fear that every move I make and everything that comes out of my mouth will be representative of my family, of my community, of Islam. To some extent I get it. There are so many risks. But at the end of the day it’s still a job.

It’s not something new for my identity to be thrown in the mix and be used as fuel. From the everyday glances and glares, people who belittle me and think I’m inferior, I know what’s coming. Being negatively stereotyped on the campaign trail is definitely a fear, but it’s also a driving factor in why I want to do this. Most of my work is in the realm of representation — teaching and inspiring the next generation. Getting elected would be the epitome of this work.

Maytham Alshadood, 32, is a registered nurse in Denver, Colorado, who also helps resettle refugees through the International Rescue Committee. He immigrated to the U.S. after working as an interpreter for American troops in Iraq.

I was born and raised in Baghdad. In 2003, when the invasion happened, I graduated high school and went to the College of Veterinary Medicine in Mosul. I was only able to finish two years because violence there escalated. I decided to postpone my studies and go back to Baghdad. My best friend and I decided to work for the U.S. Army as interpreters.

I was a part of an advisory and training team that helped to establish the New Iraqi Army. After doing that for three years, I came to the United States through a special immigrant visa. I had already been screened and cleared to work in a very sensitive position. I proved my loyalty more than once. I experienced IEDs, firefights, and constant threats. But I still had to go through the rigorous vetting process. It took me almost two years to get through the process and be granted a visa.

I’m very proud of the work that I have done for the United States. I was in a unique position where I served my old country and my new country simultaneously. I want to continue serving my community here. The United States is a global force, and our actions have ripple effects. I work in refugee resettlement, and I think we can take more responsibility and refine the work that we do. We receive families one at a time. I think there are things that can be done at the city, county, and state level so we can help more than one person at a time. A lot of people see refugees and immigrants as burdens. However, they usually become productive members of our communities. I think we can do a better job of showing people what refugees have to offer.

If we restrict the entry of refugees and immigrants, we’ll be less exposed to other culture and ideas. I want to run for office because of that lack of representation, to bring more diversity into the political process. There is a perspective that’s missing, and I feel like I can bring that perspective to the forefront.

Fatou-Seydi Sarr, 42, is a community organizer based in Detroit. She is a single mother who grew up in Senegal.

As a community organizer, I know that there is only so much you can do in the trenches. For example, Michigan voted to take away driver licenses from undocumented people in 2008. Detroit approved a municipal ID, but it doesn’t allow them to drive. To further the work I’m doing, I have to be able to impact the legal side of things, to think about what legislation is needed and how it is being written. Are we really thinking of the people that live in our district or are we just thinking about money or simple ideology? I think we need to go back to the basics — understanding social welfare as something that we all aspire to, regardless of where we come from, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of how much money we make.

I am an African immigrant and I am a woman. I am a single mother. I’m a Muslim also. I know that rhetoric can be used against me. People might say I’m just newcomer, I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe my values don’t align with what some people would call “American values.” Maybe some people will think, because I’m a Muslim I might be a liability. People equate Muslims with terrorists.

Negative stereotypes are always going to exist. But I believe that people also see beyond bias. They know when you are lying, and they know when you are being authentic. I think the key is being authentic and being who I am and showing that I care about the issues — about folks that look like me and those who don’t but are encountering the same struggles. At the end of the day, we are living under the same system, and we all want the same basic stuff for our families.

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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