“What’s up, Osama?”
This is what the stranger in the park said to me: What’s up, Osama? I wasn’t, in fact, Osama bin Laden. Nor (at least to my knowledge) had I ever been.
I was just a sixteen-year-old brown boy with a scraggly beard in the middle of Arkansas. My confusion should be understandable, then; how did this person come to mistake me for the founder of al-Qaeda, the man who took credit for September 11th, and who was (at the time) a fugitive?
He hadn’t really, of course. He was just a stupid fucking racist. But the moment taught me something: if you’re brown, you’re not just not American, you’re considered actively dangerous to America. I have brown skin (I’m Latinx, actually), so clearly (to this person) I must be aligned with one of history’s most hideous terrorists.
But it wasn’t just a reaction to my brown skin, of course; it was part of the fervent Islamophobia that possessed much of America, a prejudice that has only grown in the 10+ years since my relatively minor skirmish in the park. In fact, anti-Muslim hate crimes and discrimination have skyrocketed recently, particularly in California, and particularly against Muslim women (this is clearly an issue in several countries, but in the US, we can point to at least one specific reason for an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence).
Muslim Americans have then been forced to prove their American-ness, to be a “good Muslim” to mainstream Western culture, as a means of survival. But what does it really mean—to be a good Muslim? Or a bad Muslim? Or to be Muslim at all?
I can’t answer that, of course, as I’m not Muslim. But Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh explore these complex questions in their comedy podcast, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. Taz (@tazzystar)is an activist and storyteller, and Zahra (@zahracomedy) is a comedian and actor. Both are writers, and both were published in Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. They began the conversation as a hashtag on Twitter—#GoodMuslimBadMuslim—and it quickly evolved into their podcast. On their show, they keep up with creeping sharia, issue fatwas, and give out good Muslim awards.
I asked Taz and Zahra about identity and comedy, and I did my best to try to avoid ending up in their “Awkward Ask a Muslim Moment.”
The Rumpus: You’re both well-known for your writing, performances, comedy and activism. So why a podcast? What specifically about the format of a podcast seemed like the best choice for this work?
Tanzila Ahmed: I started blogging in the mid-2000s when everyone had a blogspot and they were writing in daily about their personal life. I feel that podcasts today are what blogs were back then—technology has made it easier for everyone to be able to record their voices and upload onto the internet. It’s not just a medium for radio professionals anymore. As for the conversation—I think the conversations that we have on the podcast can be seen through our other mediums, like our writing and our performances—but the podcast gives us a chance to share our conversation with each other and to more people.
Zahra Noorbakhsh: Like Taz said, each new medium brings with it a new audience. The ability to dialogue is also a YUUUUGE part of my process as a writer and performer. I notice that I prefer mediums that provide me with the opportunity to have an ongoing conversation as opposed to narrative formats that sit frozen in time. Even with my plays, like my one woman show, All Atheists are Muslim, audience participation and dialoguing are built into the story. Fans and friends of #GoodMuslimBadMuslim have mentioned how much our voices evolve over the course of the first six months. I love that about the podcast medium—that you can listen to that shift happening.
Rumpus: Your podcast is absurdly funny, but you’re also not afraid to sincerely discuss and confront the very real fear and horror that exists in the world. A point you’ve made frequently on your show is that it’s important to combat those horrors with comedy, but how do you keep being funny in the face of so much awful, awful shit?
Ahmed: It’s hard to stay positive when there is so much awful, awful shit happening. But it’s getting so awful, it’s absurd, and in that absurdity, there is humor. I don’t consider myself a comedian—I consider myself someone who works in the stressful space of politics and then uses humor, satire, and sarcasm because how else is anyone supposed to deal with the absurdity of it all?
Noorbakhsh: I think we bring the funny out in each other because we’re both “in” on the context of being Muslim American women. We don’t need to educate each other before we can get to the punchlines. Humor is also a way that I deal with anger. When I’m angry, it comes out funny. Probably why I’m a comic.
Rumpus: I’m not sure this one is so much a question as a long comment: One of the things that I personally have struggled with as a writer of color is the issue of solely being defined by my race—as a “Latinx writer”—but also recognizing the fact that I am, unavoidably, a Latinx writer. I think one of the most admirable things about your podcast is its dedication to showing the diversity of what it means to be Muslim; that is, you can be Muslim without having to fit any singular definition placed on you externally. How do you deal with external expectations of the “Muslim identity” against your own actual, internal Muslim identity? Does that question even make sense?
Ahmed: I think what’s been at the heart of my work is how I’ve been on a journey of trying to figure out what it means to be a Muslim, South Asian, woman in America—when I was growing up, I didn’t have any example to pull from as examples of what that meant. There was nothing to aspire to and nothing to help me better define myself for myself. I think what you see in this “pulling of diversity” is just that—it’s our discovery of realizing how complicated the world is, and how the worlds that Zahra and I were raised in didn’t expose us to a lot of variety of what it means to be “Muslim American.”
It’s hard to be reactive only to what “external expectations of the Muslim identity” is because it always reactionary and secondary. American Muslims are then defined by others. On the other hand, I also think the internal Muslim identity is complex—it’s always changing with external cultural expectations and the basic journey through human life. I think Zahra and I through the life we live, we are really just saying, “Fuck it—what values am I trying to live with, what do I value and how do I recenter my narrative around this?” At the end of the day, it’s very American, if you think about it. Just with a Muslim twist.
Noorbakhsh: This question comes at an interesting time for me. I recently wrote a piece for Bitch Media about coming out as Bi to my parents after mentioning it on the podcast. There is this expectation that the Muslim identity can’t be a lot of things, including queer. Story is so powerful. Like Taz said, a lot of what inspired us to do this podcast was to be able to say, “F it! I am the most Muslim Muslim.”
Rumpus: Speaking of diversity in the Muslim identity, y’all both notably have different beliefs and backgrounds. How has interacting with each other and having these kinds of conversations affected your personal perceptions of Islam and the concept of a Muslim identity?
Ahmed: I’ve always been fascinated with the diversity of customs and cultures under the Muslim umbrella. I knew they existed—but it was always not polite to ask people how they were taught how to groom their body hair or why they covered their bodies differently (amongst other topics, too). Interacting with Zahra allows me to ask all those questions and have those conversations that were always taboo. I’ve learned about how we have different prayer, wudu, and body hair grooming styles. I’ve always known of the diversity—but our conversations have helped me have a better understanding.
Noorbakhsh: I speak as an authority on Islam always, all the time, and on behalf of all 1.7 billion of us and our 72 different sects. This is my personal perception and a fact about myself. In all seriousness though, it is a real problem: everyone seems to think that they way they grew up, whatever their parents taught them is the “real deal” Islam. Maybe because I’m Shia and there was always this question of contrast with Sunnis in my Sunday school learning, it was always clear to me that there isn’t one mode of practice. But doing this podcast, over and over again I’m surprised by how incredibly diverse the experience of being Muslim and the ways to observe and practice really are. Every episode I learn something new, and that’s impressive. I was pretty darn sure of myself.
Rumpus: A certain trend in history is what Spivak refers to as the problem of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” This seems particularly pertinent to Muslim women; I’m thinking specifically of Donald Trump’s recent claims that by standing up against “radical Islamists” he’d be protecting women and LGBT people (God, I hate to bring up Donald Trump, but I guess this is the horrible world we live in). What, in your opinions, is the best way to confront and combat this White Savior-ism? How do you deal with this, not just with gross conservatives like Trump, but also with the sometimes well-meaning (but paternalistic) behavior of Western feminists and liberals?
Ahmed: Are we in college? This sounds like a final exam essay question…? My way of dealing with this is to figure out how to leverage their white guilt and savior-ness in the form of money. I.e. ask these White Saviors to donate to my campaign, buy my book, come to my show, or give me stacks of money. For any saviors reading this, I’m on Venmo.
Noorbakhsh: YES PLEASE! Come, White Saviors, and kickstart my brown liberation. MailKimp? Let’s do this. Also, Marine Le Pen really needs to learn the difference between feminism and fascism.
Rumpus: I think an underlying part of your podcast is a drive toward solidarity between those oppressed by White Supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, xenophobia, and other inequities. Does that seem accurate to you? What does solidarity look like to you?
Ahmed: Yes, absolutely accurate. I actually lately have been wanting to move away from the word “solidarity”—because to me solidarity implies we are standing next to each other. But I think we are ready to move forward from that term—we need to acknowledge how our struggles have intersectionality. And we need to acknowledge that people hold multiple identities at any given time. When I think about how the Asian American community is working to uplift the Black Lives Matters movement—that’s not solidarity—that is some real empath, community building, intersectional, recentering-while-sharing, commingling type shit happening there. More of that is what we need.
Noorbakhsh: I thought I was White until 2008, when Obama’s birth certificate fell under question because of this new “ethnicity,” called Islam. Blew my mind to hear that I was a person of color! Growing up, everyone in my surrounding Persian community kept emphasizing, “We’re not Middle Eastern really, we’re more Mediterranean, like Italians! We’re White.” The race for Whiteness feels like a kind of racism itself and is a real blind spot amongst Persians. Moreover, it’s a disservice to their children who are experiencing microaggressions daily and internalizing them—that’s what happened to me. We talk about this in our episode “Muslimish” (read the AV Club write-up on the episode here).
Rumpus: Has doing this podcast affected your writing or other work at all? Conceptually, ethically, aesthetically?
Ahmed: I honestly don’t think it affects me, at least not in the linear logic model you set forth in your question—because the podcast is a place for me to hold conversation I would already be having with my friends—with or without the podcast. We just happen to be broadcasting our authentic voices in conversation with the podcast. With my writing, I just happen to be broadcasting my authentic voice through written words. These are just tools to voice. What does affects my voice is going to a protest, or having a dynamic conversation with a volunteer, or living through a microaggression. And then the podcast gives me space to share those narratives. And that is what makes it amazing.
Noorbakhsh: I, on the other hand, have experienced a profound shift in my voice as a result of doing the podcast. It’s given me the space to dialogue—with Taz, with our awesome producer, Quincy Surasmith, and with our audience of listeners from around the world. It’s helped me cultivate my voice and has considerably changed me as a performer. I also didn’t come into this podcast as an activist. I found it through the conversations with Taz and our audiences along the way.
Rumpus: One of the best things your podcast introduced me to is taqwacore. It’s a refreshing change for me as someone who grew up loving punk but became disenchanted by its overwhelming male white-ness. Is there anything you else you would like to promote or recommend? Books, shows, music, podcasts?
Ahmed: The taqwacores changed my life when I stumbled on it—and writing about the scene really was my attempt to find like-minded people who danced at the intersection of being Brown, political, and rebels. A side project I started (because I believe strongly in uplifting the voices of Brown people) is Mishthi Music, an online mixtape highlighting music of the South Asian diaspora. For this election cycle, I produced an album—Voices of Our Vote: #MyAAPIVote Album—at 18MillionRising.org featuring featuring twenty-three Asian American musicians singing about politics, identity and the importance of voting. You can download it for free at www.VoicesOfOurVote.org. Finally—I’m in a fantastic book that just released this month—an anthology called Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion. I’m really proud to be in this book and to be sharing the pages with the ladies in it.
As for the things I’m currently fangirling—
Books: Alif the Unseen (by G Willow Wilson), Native Believer (By Ali Eteraz), Milk and Honey (by Rupi Kaur), Shrill (by Lindy West)
TV: The Mindy Project, Master of None, Being Mary Jane, UnREAL
Artists: Hate Copy, Hiba Khan, Kalakari Collective, Khushboo Gulati
Music: Horsepowar, Doctors & Engineers, Awaz Do, Anik Khan, Kiran Gandhi, Jai Wolf, St. Lenox
Podcasts: The Heart, Call Your Girlfriend, Asian Americana, The Mash-Up Americans, Yo, Is This Racist?, Sooo Many White Guys
Noorbakhsh: I love Riz Ahmed; I hate The Night Of. I could talk about that show for hours, but here are some other works that I’m super into: I’m loving Politically Reactive with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, I’m a huge fan of Call Your Girlfriend, Another Round, Zaki Hassan’s Nostalgia Theater podcast, a new show called Another Period that kills me, and being in NYC I got to attend a screening of Debate Wars with host Michael Ian Black and guest impromptu debaters like Aparna Nancherla, Guy Branum, and Judah Friedlander. It’s AMAZING. Look for it on Seeso!
Stay tuned—in the next installment of Podcatcher, I’ll be channeling Scott Pinkmountain of The History Channeler and Make/Work.
Rumpus original Podcatcher logo by Trisha Previte. Photograph of Taz Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh © Les Talusan.