Last week, I met up with a total stranger (I do that often – don’t tell my mom) in a New York City cafe so she could take my photo and record me talking about my life’s biggest dreams and my deepest fears. She trekked in from D.C. with a fancy camera, a MacBook, and cast on her left leg. We “met” via her Instagram page @MuslimAmericanFaces after it popped up on my home page. Well, this sounds cool, I thought to myself. And while I was expecting the stereotypical images of brown men with thick beards and women in hijab to be scattered throughout her Insta-feed, that’s not at all what I found. They were there, of course, but then there were posts of people who didn’t “look” Muslim – people like me. People who, when you see them on the street, or sit next to them on a bus, you wouldn’t immediately know are Muslim. You’re not afraid. You don’t hold the same animosity towards them as you would someone who fits the visual profile – but someone who still holds the pain of Islamophobia in his/her heart, who feels guilt over not facing the same daily difficulties of being racially profiled like their brothers and sisters simply because of what they were born looking like.
Her name is Heidi Naguib and she’s the creator of the Muslim American Faces project. Heidi and I weren’t strangers for too long. We clicked immediately, bonded over our obscenely busy schedules/lives, and about how no matter how busy we both are – we always find time to fulfill our passions. In Heidi’s case, it was starting this project. Here’s a quick peak into the inspiration behind your new favorite Instagram (and Facebook) account…
Storytelling is no longer a luxury, it has become a need.
MM: Tell us about @MuslimAmericanFaces – how did it get started and what was your inspiration to create it?
Heidi: As a storyteller and a filmmaker, I’ve always been drawn to a great story. Even when I’m hanging out with my friends, I always ask them to “tell me a story.” Stories are authentic human experiences that allow you to delve beneath the surface and into the complex lives of others. You learn about what makes them human: their hopes and dreams, their fears, and their struggles. You learn about their truth. So, I’ve always been interested in hearing others’ stories.
The inspiration behind creating a platform to share these stories lies in the representation (or lack thereof) of Muslims in western media. There seems to be this dichotomy in the representation of Muslims in the west, where the narrative either focuses on the stereotypical plot of the “bad Muslim” or on the rare story of the “good Muslim.” The notion that everything Muslims do is directly attributed to their religion is a very simplistic view. We are so much more than just our religion. We are complex human beings with fascinating experiences. These are the narratives Muslim American Faces shares.
You travel a lot for this project – how do you decide what cities to visit next?
I decide where to travel next depending on the interviews I can secure. At this point, I have traveled to Texas, Boston, and LA. I’ve been to NYC three or four times, and I’m already planning my next trip to NYC! In most cases, I make sure I am able to secure 3-4 interviews per day during my trips.
How do you find participants for your projects?
I started Muslim American Faces by interviewing my personal circle of friends. As the project has grown, I have been fortunate to have incredible family and friends who share the project with their extended networks and connect me with others who are interested in sharing their stories. People that I have interviewed also tend to share the project with their networks and connect me with others. So, the project is really growing through word-of-mouth. I have also directly reached out to quite a few people I’ve wanted to feature, and I’ve had a few people directly contact me asking to be interviewed.
What’s the most interesting story/person you’ve come across in interviews so far?
I don’t know that I can say there is a most interesting story or person that I’ve come across. I find that everyone I have interviewed has shared a very moving and/or compelling story with me. I have interviewed 68 people at this point, and what I find to be so beautiful about this whole experience is how open people are in sharing their most personal and powerful stories, knowing that they will be shared with the world.
…What I find to be so beautiful about this whole experience is how open people are in sharing their most personal and powerful stories, knowing that they will be shared with the world.
I’ve been told about people’s proudest moments and their darkest times. Doctors have shared tales about savings lives, while others have spoken about the times they’ve attempted to take their own. The scope of the stories I hear is incredibly wide. And this is why I do what I do. We are not a homogeneous community in any way, shape, or form. For each story shared, there will be others who are profoundly impacted and inspired by it.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from someone who you were interviewing?
While I’ve learned something from every interview, the thing that stands out to me the most is the overarching theme of a deep fear of failure that has emerged throughout my interviews. This fear manifests in different ways for different people. Some people develop anxiety due to their fears. Others might allow the fear to stop them from working towards their goals. And still, others become workaholics, and regardless of their success, they struggle with the fear that it will one day disappear. Hearing these stories from people that I consider to be tremendously successful helped me confront my own fears of failure. I recognized that sometimes we allow our fears to paralyze us. And when you recognize that, in those terms, it becomes easier to push past the fear and just get to work.
What do you hope people will take away from this project?
The aim with Muslim American Faces is two-fold. I hope all communities and people of different faiths can look at these stories and see themselves. I want people who follow Muslim American Faces to know that they are not alone. Whatever you are currently going through, others within the community are experiencing it as well. And I hope in these small moments of storytelling, we can serve to counter Islamophobia.
Second, I hope to utilize the stories to raise awareness of issues in our community and serve to better unite the Muslim American community. It is rare to discuss issues such as racism, depression, and other “taboo” issues among our circles. These topics tend to be much more repressed. In bringing these stories to the forefront, we are having these discussions on a public forum. We need to continue sharing our stories. Storytelling is no longer a luxury, it has become a need. Muslim American Faces allows people to share their truth, regardless of whether or not it reflects well on the community as a whole.