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Muslim in Appalachia

Women Explore Rural Muslim Identity in the South

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Khadijah Rashid, a filmmaker and storyteller with the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Mississippi; Saba Ashfaq, of American Indivisible; and Emily Pelland, who is producing a documentary film about Ashfaq, share stories during a panel discussion on Muslim women in the rural South. Photo: Shawn Poynter

Two Muslim women from the rural South said they have a complicated relationship with their communities, which can be both accepting of their religious choices and simultaneously heartless.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder, but features a conversation moderated by 100 Days in Appalachia’s Digital Managing Editor Ashton Marra. 100 Days was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

Greenville, S.C. – When Saba Ashfaq was stuck on the icy streets of her West Virginia city during a snowstorm, her neighbors came to her aid.

“I was driving on a cold winter night with no cell phone and I got lost and then I got stuck,” Ashfaq said during a panel discussion on Muslim women in the rural South Monday, October 28, 2019.

“Strangers came and helped push my car up a hill – twice.”

The act of kindness convinced Ashfaq that she needed to reach out and get to know her neighbors in Morgantown, a university town in northern West Virginia. Ashfaq, who is Muslim, had stepped back from community involvement after anti-Muslim sentiment increased after the 2016 presidential election, she said.

The helping hand on an icy road opened her heart. “I realized, these are my neighbors, and I trust them with my life. I need to know who they are,” she said.

“Two days later, I walked out of my house and someone called me ‘ISIS.’ But I’m not letting that stop me.”

The complex relationship with the community was one theme that emerged in the session, which was part of the Rural Women’s Summit in Greenville, South Carolina.

Ashfaq was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents. She moved to West Virginia as a young girl. “West Virginia was the first place that I could call home,” she said.

Khadijah Rashid of Mississippi described similar complex feelings as an African American Muslim woman from the South. When she returned to Mississippi after living in Los Angeles, she had a better sense of her connection to other Southerners.

“I realized that as a Southerner I had things in common with white men that I didn’t have with people in Los Angeles,” she said.

Rashid is with the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a filmmaker and storyteller.

She said people of faith need to overcome the segregation that defines much of the Southern experience.

“I was sitting in an interfaith meeting led by a white pastor who’d just moved into the area and really he wanted to shake things up,” Rashid said. “So he called in all the churches and said we’ve got to fix this. Then he broke us up into groups. One white woman in my group said, ‘I don’t know how to work with Blacks, I don’t even know where to find them… It was because she’d self-segregated herself in the suburbs… My simplest answer is to get to know us – let’s be friends, let’s break bread together, let’s talk.”

Also on the panel was Emily Pelland, who is producing a documentary film about Ashfaq. The documentary, which is expected to be finished in 2020, has expanded from telling Ashfaq’s story to revealing a larger story.

“It’s remarkable because it started out as a story in Appalachia, but it has gone beyond that – to Baltimore and Jordan,” Pelland said.

Ashfaq said she has felt the shift in the documentary project. “We first started the documentary, I feel like it was just humanizing me as a person,” she said. “But it became a story about me as a Muslim, as a teacher, as a mom, as a community organizer.”

Tim Marema contributed to this story.

The Rural Women’s Summit is produced by the National Rural Assembly, part of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder. You may follow the summit on social media using #RuralWomenLead or via FacebookTwitter and Instagram. The Daily Yonder also has compiled stories from the Summit.

Muslim in Appalachia

Q&A: W.Va. Author Rajia Hassib Explores Muslim, American Tensions in ‘A Pure Heart’

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Author Rajia Hassib. Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House

In “A Pure Heart,” the forthcoming second novel by Egyptian-American author and Appalachian Rajia Hassib, protagonist Rose struggles to reconcile her identities as both an Egyptian and an American after her sister is killed in a suicide bombing in Cairo. 

Rose married an American – a West Virginian– and immigrated to the U.S., leaving her family, including her sister Gameela, behind, but after her death, Rose begins to explore more fully her sister’s commitment to her religion and her country, reflecting on her own experiences in a country that often sees those as “other.”

While not a biography, portions of the novel mimic Hassib’s personal experiences immigrating from Egypt with her husband in her 20s and eventually settling in southern West Virginia.

Hassib spoke with Hart Fowler for 100 Days in Appalachia about her new novel, her views on immigration and her experiences living in Appalachia.   


HF: In “A Pure Heart,” your main character Rose migrates from Egypt to the United States in her 20s, which is very similar to your own story. You and your husband moved from Alexandria, Egypt, to the United States when you were 23. After stints in New York and California, you relocated to Logan, West Virginia, in 2006, and finally Charleston in 2011. What of Rose’s story did you draw from your own personal experience?

RH: The most important part that I drew from my personal experience is the sense of alienation you get from the country you immigrated from. After having lived in the U.S. for several years, people back home in Egypt start to treat you like an American. There is a sense you don’t live there anymore, you don’t know how it is there anymore. 

Sometimes when the conversations become politically charged, which happens a lot nowadays because of recent political activities in Egypt, you get that you don’t have the right to comment on politics because you’re not a part of that anymore.  It is an interesting dynamic because you get treated as an American by Egyptians, but you’re still treated as an Egyptian by Americans.  

HF: Rose and her husband, who is a journalist, settle in New York City, but as a native West Virginian, her husband takes Rose to visit his home state. When Rose travels to West Virginia for the first time, she takes special note of the trees and landscapes.  

You write:  

She marvel’s at the state’s untamed connection to nature, a quality so different from Cairo or New York that she feels she is visiting an ancient, independent country…Rose loves the trees.  She loves the trees mainly because Egypt has so few of them…[The Trees] are wild, spreading endlessly in waves that hug the curves of the mountains ahead, claiming ownership of the land.  

What do you remember about your first trip to West Virginia, specifically about the natural landscapes in contrast to Egypt?

RH: Even up until now, I share Rose’s reaction to nature. The first time I came to West Virginia, we flew to Charleston than drove [Route] 119 to Logan. It is a one-hour drive that is pure nature the whole way and it was one of our first impressions, just how much greenery you can see, which is something we hadn’t really experienced before. It is still something my husband and I talk about and enjoy a lot. It is so green and natural and looks like it is untamed here and it is a beautiful thing.  

On one hand, I appreciate the pure beauty, but also the sense of longing that I was trying to express in that section that also plays on the feelings of immigrants when they are coming into their adopted land. This land is so old and so ancient. Even nature belongs here in a way that immigrants aspire to. They struggle with that for a long time, not sure if they’re ever going to be able to achieve [the feeling] that “this is my land and that I belong here.” 

I used nature to express that.    

HF: Rose’s parents, who are cosmopolitan Egyptians living in Cairo, are enamored by the culture her husband Mark grew up in. Specifically, his stories of bow-hunting for deer and eating venison. That is foreign and unimaginable and intriguing to them, but a fairly common experience in Appalachia. Did you similarly experience a kind of shock and awe when coming to Appalachia? 

RH: I did to a degree. I have friends who teach their kids to hunt when they’re very young.  They show pride of having a boy who killed his first deer. I think you have to live in Appalachia long enough to understand the cultural aspects of hunting for food and not just not as a sport. The idea of marksmanship. There’s just an interesting heritage and a kind of pride to the approach of hunting which I think people who live in other cities or don’t know someone from this particular background don’t get.  

Growing up in Alexandria I hadn’t heard of that at all.  Living in New York or Los Angeles, I‘d never talked to anyone who has gone hunting before. In Egypt, I’d know people who shoot birds, but we didn’t have the same kind of wildlife or the same kind of hunting. I thought it was an interesting cultural aspect and it was important for me to highlight what I wanted to paint as Rose’s definition of everything that is Western, including things that [her parents] don’t really know enough about to be fascinated by.  

They don’t know the heritage idea, the pride in hunting, they just like it because it is different and because it is Western, which is also something I wanted to paint when I was underscoring their characters [as being] fascinated by everything Western.   

HF: Does that relate in a way that we in the West look at some of the traditions of cultures that are foreign to us?   

RH: Yes, it is almost the reverse of Orientalism, there is sensational attitude towards things that are different and ‘other,’ and sometimes it is done without really understanding the cultural underpinnings at all, but it is just so different that it becomes fascinating.  

But then of course when you’re looking at postcolonial issues you can argue that there are parts of the world like Egypt that have been colonized for years and part of the fascination with the west comes as a result of that. Almost an internalized idea of the west that is a post-colonial heritage of this particular part of the world so there is that aspect as well.  

HF: Mark left West Virginia to become a reporter for the New York Times and was a foreign correspondent in Egypt, which is how he met Rose. While investigating a story, he visits an impoverished neighborhood in the slums of Cairo and reflects on riding a schoolbus as a child through the trailer parks of Charleston, West Virginia. I’m assuming that is written based on some kind of experience or personal observation, that you’ve witnessed poverty in both places and see some similarities. What are they? Why make the connection between these two places that seem worlds apart? 

Yes, it is based on personal observation. When I moved to Charleston I was struck by how the same neighborhoods can have high-end, very expensive houses and you can turn a corner and be an obviously more   impoverished neighborhood. It struck me that it is very similar to Cairo, partly because how these cities grow organically, but also due to the great discrepancy in wealth. This is one of the things that is true in Egypt as well as West Virginia. 

I wanted to draw attention to that similarity in the hope that people will understand we are not as different as we think and our cultures are not different in some of the very basic aspects… If you’ve lived long enough in different cultures, you see the similarities more than the differences. Of course there are huge differences [between West Virginia and Egypt], but there are things that are similar and I think it is important to point that out. 

HF: Mark’s mother, who has a painting of a white and blonde Jesus displayed prominently in her Charleston home, was heartbroken over Mark’s “conversion” to Islam to marry Rose. Rose’s parents are culturally Muslim, meaning they care more about keeping up culturally acceptable norms than fundamental beliefs, but her younger sister Gameela is more traditional in her Islamic beliefs and chooses to wear a hijab, or headcover.

How does one navigate the balance between traditional Christian and Muslim beliefs, especially in a place like Appalachia where there is a perception of intolerance toward religious differences?    

RH: I have this firm belief that prejudices are more a result of tradition and cultural misconceptions than a result of the actual religion, and I think that applies to all religions. I think the best way to overcome these prejudices, interestingly, is by not going further away from religion but by going deeply enough into the actual texts from each religion. Whether you’re going back to the Bible or the Quran and understanding that the prejudice is you and is not actually compatible with true belief.  

That has informed by my own religious approach. From my own experience, I have found the people that are the most truly religious are very understanding and loving towards others. So I think the best way to navigate that is to be very clear what is religion and what is cultural prejudice and what is self protective misconception that people feel like they have to resort to in order to justify their own position. 

It is unfair to label religious people as prejudice in general. I think it is more an ignorant approach to religion that makes some people prejudice.          

HF: At the West Virginia statehouse earlier this year, a political group displayed a poster that had a picture of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first Muslim women to ever be elected to Congress, next to an image of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The poster said “‘Never Forget’ — You Said, I am proof you have forgotten.” The poster was widely condemned, but it drew national attention and criticism as an example of tensions between religions and cultures in the U.S. How did that incident make you feel? And how did you feel about the national coverage it received? 

RH: I moved to the U.S. in ‘98, before 9/11, so I witnessed the change in perception of Muslims that happened after 9/11, obviously. If you fast forward 18 years to when this happened, it is almost as if you become numb to it in a certain sense that some people will not get tired of trying to blame Muslims in general for this horrific terrorist attack.  

But what Congresswoman Omar has been put through ever since she got elected is an example of that. She has had to prove her worthiness in a way that is not asked of people in other religions. But that is kind of expected in a way, it is not fair, but I think it is expected.   

I know that the person who put up that display is very outspoken and Islamophobic.  We in the Muslim community here have had encounters with her before, so I wasn’t surprised. I was truly upset that she was allowed to set up a display on GOP Day at the Capitol. I didn’t think that was appropriate, but on the other hand, I saw so many positive responses that decried that here from friends, from West Virginia friends locally, and that was reassuring.  

In an interesting way, the incident was doubly painful for me because I felt again attacked as a Muslim, which still hurts even though you become desensitized to it.. But also as a West Virginian, I really hate it when West Virginia is stereotyped on national news as a place filled with bigotry and hate because I have lived here for 13 years and I can testify to the fact that that is not the case.  

How we as West Virginians never manage to make national news unless it is something that is associated with bigotry and hate and the opioid crisis and it is all negative,as a West Virginian, it pains me. Interestingly, it makes me a member of two groups that are vilified, a Muslim and as a West Virginian. I think it is interesting that there are similarities between the two groups, and people wouldn’t usually assume that. 

That’s a very unfortunate incident, and the good thing is that a week later, the House of Delegates invited people of faith from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish [communities] to open the session with a prayer together. I think there was some sort of recognition that this should not have happened. Hopefully, it won’t happen again.     

HF: In 2015, you wrote an essay for The New Yorker about the difficulties of being a Muslim in the United States. You wrote: 

Every time I hear of a new terrorist attack—Paris, San Bernardino—I feel like I’ve been through all of this before, several times too often. It’s like being stuck in a time loop in Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil guides me, again and again, through the seventh circle of Hell, home to the violent and the blasphemous. With each lull in terrorist activity, I hope that I may graduate to the next two circles and, eventually, hopefully, to Purgatory, but then something else happens and we’re back to circle seven.

In that same essay, you wrote:   

When Trump speaks of a national registry for Muslims, of closing down mosques, of banning Muslim travel to the U.S., what I hear is this: ‘You are an outsider. You will remain an outsider. You will die an outsider. You will never be one of us.’  

At some point, while I was earning my degrees and writing my novel, I became the Other. And here I had believed that I was a fully integrated, good American citizen, rejoicing in my achievements, thankful, every day, for what this country has given me. My American heart bleeds.

Have your thoughts about feeling like an outsider changed in the past four years? 

RH: No. This is very difficult for me to address. It has to do with immigration in general, but it definitely is an aspect of being a Muslim American immigrant. I do have a constant feeling that culturally I will be always be labeled as an Egyptian-American Muslim, which is a way for some people to not even be labeled as an American. I know it is not true. It is something that I’m learning to live with.  

If anything in the past [few] years, maybe I’ve learned to be less pained by it because I’ve come to accept it as unfortunately a time that won’t go away as soon as I hoped. I’ve learned to live with it. It is still painful, but it is not keeping me up at night all the time. 

What I’ve learned to do is have more confidence in my own feelings and my perception of my identity and not care so much if others agree of how I see myself. 

And, on the other hand, [I want to] to underscore that it is not all bad. With the whole wave of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant [sentiment], the sensational reaction that has been going on in the country the past few years, there has been a lot of support as well from allies in general, from people all around me. That’s also very reassuring. 

I’m always grateful for people who take the time to express to me that I belong and are happy that I am here. So no, my feelings have not changed, but I’ve learned to live with it more. 

HF: Your children are 14 and 18. They were both raised in West Virginia, in Logan and Charleston. How has that impacted your experience as a parent? Are they growing up in an America that’s different in some way from the one you’ve experienced as an immigrant?

RH: I don’t think the America they’re growing up in is different from mine, but I think it is treating them in a different way, and they are perceiving it in a different way. They’re both fully American. They’re both born here. This could get into racial politics, but they’re both fair-skinned. They don’t look like foreigners, and that, unfortunately, plays into the way we perceive others and talk to them. As far as I know, they have not been treated differently in any way. People who don’t know their background don’t know they’re not regular, white Americans.

So, in a way, they have been spared a lot of the stuff that I had to go through. On the other hand, it is also normal because they were born here so this is their culture. They grew up in West Virginia, they feel that they belong here, probably more than I do. It’s been a generally positive experience for them. 

One of the reasons we chose to live in West Virginia was because we thought it was a great place to raise a family. My daughter is about to leave for college. I think we made the right choice, for a quiet and calm childhood, which is what we had hoped for.  So, I don’t think it is different in America here.                 

HF: What do you hope your readers take away from the experience of reading this novel?

RH: Mainly, I hope they come out of it with food for thought when it comes to the complexity with issues that are often presented in a very simplistic way. I hope they come out of it realizing that terrorists commit acts for very complicated and personal reasons and are not an issue of their religion telling them to do it, which is never the case. 

I hope also [they come away] with [an understanding of] the connection between Rose and [her sister] Gameela and feel passionate about both of those characters, that they come out knowing both women. There is no such thing as a [stereotypical] young Egyptian woman and that Rose and Gameela are just two representatives.

It is all about just coming to the understanding of the complexity in life, and I hope they enjoy reading that. At the end of the day, it is a story and it is very important people come out of it satisfied with having read an interesting and gripping story.  

Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was 23. Her first novel, “In the Language of Miracles,” was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and received an honorable mention from the Arab American Book Awards. She has written for The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker online. She lives in West Virginia with her husband and two children. Her second novel, “A Pure Heart,” is due out from Penguin Random House on August 6.

Hart Fowler is a freelance journalist and former publisher of 16 Blocks Magazine who has written for The Roanoke Times, C-Ville Weekly, Raleigh Magazine, Smokey Mountain Living, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Blue Ridge Outdoors.

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