- Boston, Massachusetts - I came to meet Sara Saleem about six months ago and we quickly got to know each other as good friends. She is presently a student at Framingham State University, where she is working towards her teacher's accreditation with an emphasis in Special Education and Development. As a Pakistani-American, she quickly came to mind when I was trying to think of who would make a great first interview for Sour Grapes Winery. Furthermore, as a rather Americanized young Muslim woman, I felt she would have some interesting insight into the life of a first-generation immigrant and also into the experience of American Muslims in light of the recent controversy regarding the Islamic Centre to be build near Ground Zero and the threatened Qu'ran burning in Florida. Enjoy!
Joel Bain: Thanks for agreeing to be our first interview subject at Sour Grapes Winery, Sara. To start off, I wanted to ask you, how did your family come to live in the United States of America?
Sara Saleem: My Dad got accepted into the Masters/PHD program at Boston University in Economics. He arrived months before we did because my Mom was pregnant with me. She also came here and attended Northeastern for her Masters in Economics as well.
JB: And what year was this?
SS: I’m not sure about my Dad. My Mom came in 1988, but my Dad might have been a year before.
JB: Have they ever spoken to you about what it was like for them during their first years in America?
SS: No, not really. It wasn’t very interesting, since they spent most of that time as students.
JB: Okay, well, just to clarify, you were born in Pakistan and then your Mother brought you over to the United States?
SS: Yes, I was two months when I came here.
JB: Do you have much of an emotional attachment to Pakistan then? You only spent your first two months there.
SS: I do have an emotional attachment, it's my home equally as much as America. I feel pain when I see people hurting there, and I want to help. I went back once when I was 16; it was interesting and I enjoyed it, but it was mostly spent with family.
JB: Have you ever been back since you left, or do you have a desire to go back one day?
SS: I would love to you back; next time, I want to see the people there and their lives.
JB: Are you still in touch with most of your family there?
SS: Not as much as I should be. More so, through my mother, I just ask her and a few times a year we make a phone call.
JB: How were you received when you went back to Pakistan? I imagine that with spending most of your life in the United States, you've certainly absorbed a lot of the culture there, which would be foreign to your Pakistani family.
SS: With open arms, literally and emotionally. They were exceptional and tried to make me as comfortable as possible. They were always telling me that I could wear my jeans and t-shirts, and watch the shows I wanted. I decided to wear the cultural clothes; for one, they are gorgeous, but more importantly, I wanted to show them the acceptance and respect that they showed me.
JB: So they had some clothing that you could wear, or you had to go on a little shopping spree once you were there?
SS: I have cultural clothes here; I wear them to gatherings with our Pakistani friends or weddings. I brought those with me and I definitely went on a shopping spree as well. *laughs*
JB: How long were you in Pakistan for this visit?
SS: I was there for five or six weeks, I think.
JB: A good-sized trip. Do you miss it?
JB: What do you miss the most about it?
SS: I miss how humbling it was. You see these people, who literally live in straw huts and their beds are outside, but they are happier and more thankful than me, and I have everything. I mean, it's not all that way. Some people are very wealthy, but it was very humbling on the whole and made me appreciate things.
JB: Your experience reminds me of a trip I made to Guatemala. It was a very similar feeling and reception that I experienced as well, though I had no previous connection to the country.
SS: Want to hear a story?
JB: Of course, I do!
SS: My mother’s side of the family is well-off, not wealthy, but they have enough. My father's side, on the other hand, is not so wealthy. They actually live in the huts that I was speaking of earlier. When I visited them, they made sure I had everything to eat that I wanted, and I know that the food and gifts alone had cost them weeks and weeks of salary, but what shocked me and made me cry was when my great Aunt, who lived in this tiny cement square, so small the bathroom was outside, she pulled out a Rolex watch and gave it to me as a present. It made me so happy but sad at the same time. I can't imagine how long she had to save for it and she actually thought I deserved it.
JB: Do you still have the watch?
SS: No, someone took it.
JB: They stole it?
SS: I left it at an ex's house and he got mad and never gave it back.
JB: How unfortunate! Well, besides dealing with hoarding exs, what were some of the biggest adjustments for you personally, and your family, when you all came? I realize that you were only two months old when you came, but I imagine that culturally speaking, it was an active process of adjustment throughout your childhood?
SS: Oh, it got messy at points. I was raised here and immersed into this culture. I had boyfriends and was engaged to someone of a different religion, you could just imagine the debates! Everything at one point was an issue: food, clothes, friends, boys, and even lifestyle and choices. But as we’ve grown older, we've bridged the gap.
JB: Which would you say has been the most constant adjustment?
SS: Oh, the boys. With everything else, in time, we moved towards each other and did so happily, so there was always eventually a compromise. Boys, it is taking longer, which I prefer. We are taking time to believe in the choice that we are making or allowing our loved ones to make. I also feel that because I'm getting older, I'm getting more religious, which is bridging that gap and they are starting to realize what in a partner will make me happy. I guess you pick your battles carefully when you are older, because you realize the worth of the people in your life and that losing them over some high school boy is not worth it.
JB: That seems like a rather universal lesson that many of us have needed to learn at one point in time or another. Some are still waiting, it seems.
SS: I think I'm still learning it as well.
JB: So the assimilation to American culture continues?
SS: It does.
JB: How do you feel first-generation immigrants, like yourself, are being treated in the United States today? Is there a lot of pressure to assimilate or get out?
SS: I'm kind of reserved to answer that but I feel that says a lot. Honestly, it depends on the person. Some people are so amazed and excited and actually push me to hold onto my culture. Sadly, most people do place a lot of pressure on first-generation immigrants to assimilate. I hear it all the time "Speak English, you're in America"; "If you can't dress like us, don't be here"; "If you want to cover your face, go to Saudi Arabia, we believe in freedom," which is very hypocritical to me. It's not just Muslims, but as you said just immigrants in general. As a kid, I was uncomfortable in my skin and I wouldn't talk in my own language, but I've had people throughout my life that pushed me and made me realize how important it is to hold on to my culture and to share it with others. I’m not sure if that was a sufficient answer, I jumped everywhere.
JB: Do you still speak your native language, Urdu? Do you feel like your strength in your language has diminished much?
SS: Yes, and yes.
JB: At your home, which language do you speak, English or Urdu?
SS: I respond in the language I am spoken in. I tend to initiate in English, but when I realize this, I tend to mix it up. I want to hold onto it and pass it on to my children someday.
JB: Would you hope that your future spouse would learn to speak the language as well to help with passing it on to your children?
SS: I have no preference. I'd never force a guy to lose his culture and join mine, because I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me.
JB: You mentioned how it is not only Muslims who face this pressure to conform to American society, but immigrants in general. Do you feel like there is added pressure on Muslims in particular?
SS: I feel it depends on what's going on the world.
JB: So it is ever evolving then?
SS: If something related to the Middle East is on the news or a terrorist alert, then the pressure increases, but if it’s about building a border fence against Mexico, then pressure on Mexicans increases.
JB: So the pressure is completely reactive in your mind.
SS: For most of it, yes. For others, it is hate.
JB: Is there a general reaction that you witness from people when they first find out that you are a Muslim, or are most people pretty accepting about your faith? Or is it awkwardness that you see from them?
SS: Definitely awkward.
JB: How so?
SS: Some people never talk to me again, some say terrible things, some people think it's really cool, and others are neutral.
JB: What does that do to you? How do you deal with it?
SS: I don't take offense. I understand, I might not like it and would never do it, but to each his own.
JB: What would you say that it is one of the most challenging things about being a young Muslim in America?
SS: Trying to find the balance between who I am and whom I am supposed to be as a Muslim Pakistani-American, but I guess that's everyone’s struggle in a way.
JB: Is it more profound for you though?
SS: I'm not sure; I don’t want to say my life is harder than others. I know personally it's really difficult. American culture and Pakistani culture are almost polar opposites and then it’s not just culture but throw in religion too and it’s a mess.
JB: How do other Muslims look at you? Do you feel accepted? Condemned? Indifference?
SS: Depends on the person. I think I’m accepted. I just feel so paranoid because I'm americanized, so sometimes I feel like I'm not.
JB: Is there a part of being americanized that you've found particularly hard to deal with?
SS: All of it. It's a constant fight with yourself about what you personally weigh as being more essential to the type of person you want to be. When I was younger, it was very hard. It has gotten easier, but I still struggle.
JB: What type of person do you want to be?
SS: Oh god, that's a loaded question. *laughs* I want to be something different every day. I want to be charitable, always remember those in need. I want to be an appreciative person and never take a moment for granted. I think, I just want to be a lover (in a non-sexual way) as lame as that sounds.
JB: And most of this, you feel is compatible with your faith?
JB: Do you feel any sort of pressure to keep your faith under wraps in your daily life? Do you ever fear that your faith will interfere with your dreams in an American society?
SS: I used to feel like I had to keep it under wraps, I actually did for years. I've recently reached a point in my life that I've stopped doing that. It is a process, but I'm proactively working on it. I think faith, no matter what it is, should ever interfere with your dreams in an American society. We are given the right to freedom of religion; this is one of the few places people actually believe that this is possible. So technically, my faith should never interfere with my dreams in an American society.
JB: What sort of dreams do you have?
SS: Have a job where I can support my family, including my parents and the ones in Pakistan. To be married with kids. Be a teacher. Write a novel. Help people. Start a Charity. Learn to play the violin! I guess my dreams are like everyone else's. Oh, and I want a dog too. *laughs*
JB: Would you like to bring your Pakistani family over to live in America one day, or you're fine with them living there?
SS: I'm fine them living there. If they want to come here, then by all means, but I think we are all happy where we are at the moment.
JB: Was any of your family affected by the recent flooding in Pakistan?
SS: No, thankfully.
JB: Good, that must’ve been a relief. Does your family abroad have certain dreams and aspirations for you as well? Do they match yours?
SS: Honestly, I'm not sure. I’m not sure if this answers your question, but they think we have an easy life. That America equals instant success.
JB: So whatever you do, in their eyes, you will be a success easily?
SS: Well to them, it’s easy to succeed, but my parents aren’t rich and they work low-class jobs, so they think we are failures.
JB: And what about you? You are still too young to be classified as a success or a failure?
SS: Yes, well, I guess I’m considered successful since I’m in university, so in comparison to my age, I’m doing what they expect me to do.
JB: Does being considered a success by your Pakistani family cause any animosity between you and your parents, who are seen as failures?
SS: Oh, nope. My family's very proud of me.
JB: How important to you is it that your parents are proud of you? Does it cause you to maybe sometimes make a decision in a way that wouldn't be to your liking?
SS: It's one of the most important things to me, not that they are proud, but that they are happy with my choices. I never want to hurt them.
JB: Would you ever sacrifice your dreams to make sure that they were proud of you?
SS: Depends on the dream. I am wrong a lot but sometimes so are my parents. Well, I guess that means it depends more on the reasoning of why they don’t want me to do something. Sorry, I told you this would be everywhere. I think after I talk. *laughs*
JB: That's okay. You haven't shot your mouth off or said anything completely stupid yet. *laughs*
SS: I was going to, but now I won’t. *laughs*
JB: *laughs* Well, onto something of a little different nature. We've talked a lot about being a Muslim in America and what that entails in areas of family, dreams, being an immigrant, etc., but as you know and as we've discussed, Muslims have been the targets of several political attacks, in particular after 9/11. Why do you think that there has been such an antagonism between many Americans and people of the Muslim faith since 9/11?
SS: Because terrorists use Islam as the reasoning behind murder. It’s an understandable cause for hate. There’s way too much hate in the world though.
JB: But most Muslims aren't terrorists, particularly in the United States. So why would American Muslims face the brunt of the hatred for something that they don't espouse to?
SS: Who else are they supposed to take it out on? When we hate and are hurt, we take it out on those around us. Rationality doesn’t usually find a place in pain and hate.
JB: Has anyone ever directed their hate and pain towards you?
SS: Yes, sir.
JB: Can you share that experience?
SS: I was refused service at a Walgreen’s when I was younger. I wanted to buy a candy bar and the clerk said they don’t serve my kind.
SS: Another time, I was at Blockbuster with my friends, some of whom were dressed in traditional garb and we were silent but some lady came up to us and was like, "if you can't keep it quiet, you need to leave. I can’t hear. I know you dress different and are different, but if you need to live here, then abide by my rules."
JB: How old were you? How did you respond?
SS: I was about 14 or 15 for both. I just silently walked away. There have been countless times when I’ve been asked if I was going to blow something up or if I’m a terrorist.
JB: So does that stuff sort of a leave a mark on you, or can you generally just move on from it without much thought?
SS: As hard as I try, it inevitably leaves a mark. One of three things usually happens: I feel embarrassed for myself; embarrassed for them; or lose hope in humanity.
JB: Do you feel like this type of discrimination is on the rise or decline in America?
SS: I'm not sure, I'd want to hope that it's declining, but we live in a time with such fear and hate that as soon as something triggers our emotions, our reaction is worse than the time before. For instance, it seems every 9/11, the reaction gets worse. In the past, it was just people saying they hated us, but this year it was the burning of a Qu’ran.
JB: What types of feelings does things like the threatened Qu'ran burning evoke for you as a Muslim?
SS: Sadness and a bit of fear from how hateful humanity has the capacity to become.
JB: Is there anything that you'd want to say to the man behind the Qu'ran burning, if you had the chance to meet him?
SS: I guess I'd first want to apologize for whatever pain he's faced, but more importantly, I would have liked to remind him of the reaction that his actions would cause in the Middle East. Something like the burning of the Qu'ran would not be received well and the reaction would put American soldiers in harm’s way. It would accomplish nothing, but more death.
JB: But what of those people who say that there are large numbers of Muslims in the Middle East who seem to care little about American sensitivities (such as Palestinians cheering upon seeing the images of 9/11), yet they show such outrage and violence when their sensitivities are disrespected (ie. Qu'ran burning)? Is there some level of a cultural misunderstanding between the Western world and the Islamic world that continues to fuel this?
SS: Oh, absolutely. I thinking there's a misunderstanding between humanity. *laughs* People don't understand the concept of mutual respect anymore. How can either side expect to gain the other side’s respect and bring about an end to this if we are unwilling to be sensitive towards each other? We see it everyday, even between friends. We think it's okay for us to take certain actions or react in certain ways, but if we were on the receiving end, we would react harshly and think the others cruel. Everyone is too concerned with self-gratification.
JB: But is there a way for the West to gain the respect of the Islamic world in particular?
SS: Honestly, I'm not sure. I feel there are good people on both ends and that's all it takes. For example, with the burning of the Qu'ran, all it took was a conversation with a Muslim who did not use Islam as a weapon to diffuse the situation. I don’t know the Florida guy’s name who was threatening to do it, so I’m not going to call him. *laughs* He clearly was not a malicious person either since he was willing to sit down and listen.
JB: Many Westerns say that all that needs to happen is for moderate Muslims to stand up against extremist Muslims to stop terrorism, but I'm curious about a moderate Muslim's perspective on this.
SS: *laughs* I'm sorry I don't mean to laugh at your question. Is life ever that simple? Do you know what the lives of moderate Muslims are like in those countries for one? And secondly, what should we do?
JB: No, I don't. Enlighten me!
SS: It’s not like they will sit and have a conversation with us. I know they say that if you stand up to a bully, they’ll go away, but that's not how it usually works. It just results in more bullying unfortunately. The Middle East is in shambles. Not just because of the war and bombs but government. They live in huts as I said, what exactly do you think they can do? The areas that terrorists occupy are in terrible conditions. I'm sure people have tried to stand up and I can only assume they are dead now. Just because we are the same religion does not mean we hold some power over them.
JB: Thus the Western view has an expectation that if enough people get together in a democratic spirit, things will change, yet you are saying that that is just not a feasible reality in the Middle East, as far as you are concerned?
SS: Sadly, yes. Terrorists have power that we as normal people do not. You really think someone who thought killing thousands of people was a good idea will listen to reason just because we are Muslims too? I wish it were that simple.
JB: In your estimations, what percentage of Muslims in the Middle East are against the use of violence or terrorism, or is it merely a situation of a minority intimidating the majority from changing things?
SS: I think any Muslim who's a true Muslim, not in practice or daily life, but in beliefs and thoughts is against the use of violence or terrorism. Statistically, I have no how idea how many of those there are.
JB: Okay, that's all right.
SS: From what I see and hear, I want to say that the majority hates terrorism as much as Americans do, possibly more.
JB: For change to come about in the Middle East, what needs to happen? Is it necessary for external forces to get involved, or does it have to be an organic, locally grown movement?
SS: Stop asking hard questions! Honestly, I have no idea because I don't live there. I don’t exactly know what they feel will help. I’m sure my opinions are different than theirs. I think if I had the answer to that I'd be President. Maybe time. Time might allow wounds to heal. The deaths need to stop everywhere so the pain stops increasing, which then results in hate.
JB: I feel like time can do one of two things: heal the wound, or lead to an infection of the wound, if it goes untreated.
SS: I agree, but in this case there is no “instant, pop in the microwave” solution. As I said, stopping the deaths would help in at least diffusing the pain, but that seems almost impossible.
JB: Well, it seemed impossible for the Cold War to end, but that in time ended suddenly. We can only hope, I guess.
SS: Perhaps that's the better answer. Hope, not time.
JB: Is there reason to hope for the future? Is there anything that gives you hope that things will get better?
SS: Everything. The sun rising. Everyday that comes about is a reason to hope
JB: We're all still alive, this is good! Onto another controversy, what are your thoughts about the fuss about the proposed Islamic Centre to be built near Ground Zero?
SS: I understand why people have a problem with it, I really do, and I'm not saying this from a Muslim point of view but from an American one. If it were another type of religious center, then there would be no issues. The fact that it is an Islamic center is the controversy, which goes against the basic constitutional rights that this country was based on. I guess I wish that the ones who proposed the center would also be aware of why the location is so sensitive and move it, if possible. Maybe that's what we need, someone to show the other group we care and we see your pain and we don't want to cause any more. Someone has to make the first move. They are right, they shouldn't have to move and I agree with that, but as I stated before, with the state of things, mutual respect is called for now more than ever on both ends, not just those building the Islamic center.
JB: What about the accusations that this is just another part of an Islamic take-over of the world? Several groups have tried to suggest that every time Muslims conquer a new city or territory, the first thing that they do is build a mosque to lay claim to the region. What would you say to people who claim that this is the case?
SS: I'd chuckle respectfully. Is that possible? Anyway, when is the last time a Muslim nation legitimately conquered a territory?
JB: The theory goes that several of the places were Cordoba, Spain (hence the connection with the Cordoba Center), then Jerusalem when Muslims defeated the Israelites, etc. etc. The other was in Istanbul when the Muslim Ottomans conquered Constantinople.
SS: Right and my point is that was so long ago. No one does that anymore. No one rides their horses in, has a war, and then states, "this country is not under the rule of the Roman (or American) Empire." I mean I could say the same, that America is doing that in the Middle East. I guess I think the notion is ridiculous and outdated.
JB: What about the notion held by some in the Islamic world that Americans and the Western world, for that matter, are merely re-enacting the Crusades by trying to impose their control or domination over the Middle East? It was something that happened a long, long time ago, but it seems, at least in the press, that this is a sentiment that has gotten some traction in parts of the Islamic world.
SS: I'd think the same of that statement as well. I don't know what the government or builders of the Islamic Center are thinking, or what their motives are. I was under the impression that the world had moved on from colonization. I could be wrong though.
JB: Agreed, but many say that the side effects of colonization are still ever present today.
SS: Agreed, I think people cling to what they know. Americans know that historically territories were conquered and mosques were built, but the Puritans did that too when they arrived in America. And people in the Middle East know that America is a democratic nation and wishes all others to be that way too.
JB: Just a final 9/11 question...do you remember where you were when 9/11 happened?
SS: I was in my seventh-grade history class. It was right after lunch and my history teacher came in tears and told us to watch the news when we got home. They didn't tell us about it at all. I went home and turned the news on. I had no idea what had happened until hours after it had occurred. Then I did what any seventh grader would do, I called my mother.
JB: She was at work?
JB: What was your initial reaction to the news?
SS: To sit and stare. I was in utter shock. It didn't even occur to me that Muslims were behind it at first, I just kept watching the video and could not fathom it.
JB: I remember feeling a certain numbness for the next 24 hours.
SS: I think everyone did.
JB: My first thought was that it was the Russians who did it. Literally, "I thought, they finally did it! They finally came!"
JB: I was 15 years old myself.
SS: We all tried to process it somehow.
JB: I guess. Well, Sara, thanks for your time and answering all of my questions! I’m sure we’ll be in touch sometime again.
SS: No problem! It was a pleasure!