Yes, and

On my mind

This week I finished up two months of improv classes at the Washington Improv Theater. The last time I took an improv class was four years ago in San Francisco, before I moved to D.C. and I had been itching to get back into it. The goofiness, chaotic energy, and pure skill of creating unusual characters and dynamic scenes just from a one word suggestion—is there anything more exciting? I was part of an improv troupe in middle school. In high school, I would watch Whose Line Is It Anyway? in awe and devoured all things SNL, Improv Everywhere, Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade. It was only a matter of time until I returned to the stage.

The focus of the improv class I took was on scene work, which meant learning how to quickly build scenes that involve characters with defined relationships, establishing an emotional stake, and heightening those emotions to create entertaining conflict. I learned so much through the class of how to think more quickly, dramatize my characters and be a stronger player in my scenes. Some of the random characters I played including an overzealous spelling-bee mom training her grumpy daughter for the finals, Mrs. Peacock in a Clue murder-mystery inspired scene, an annoying girl who got cast as Ariel’s understudy in The Little Mermaid, and a rich old grandma who wants to buy art from a granddaughter who hates her.

Unexpectedly, I found so much of the instruction to help me with my writer’s block. There were numerous classes that I’d walk out of and realize why a certain character in my novel felt flat or a particular scene I wrote just wasn’t interesting enough. It goes to show that you can be “writing,” even when you’re not writing. 

I am very much in a “Yes, and” stage in my life. I’m making it all up as I go and have no idea what’s next. It’s an exhilarating and scary exercise in letting go of control and accepting what comes your way. Signing up for an improv class and starting this newsletter quite suddenly are just a few things I decided to do just because and so far, it’s been worth it. While I’m happy to have my Monday nights back, I’m grateful for the time I gave myself to be silly through improv and invest in something I’m passionate about. If you’ve been thinking about trying something new or have started doing an activity you enjoy that isn’t work-related, tell me about it!

What I’m noting

  • The 1619 Project //  This is a new project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones  of the New York Times Magazine with essays, literary work, photography and graphics that explore the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding of 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” 

  • She Called Out Priyanka Chopra at BeautyCon, And It Went Viral // Check out this interview with beauty influencer Ayesha Malik who called out Priyanka Chopra for her tweet supporting the Indian armed forces despite being a UNICEF peace ambassador. “I may have made a fool of myself two days ago, being emotional in front of millions. But I brought awareness to Kashmir and that’s all that matters to me.”

  • Sahan Journal // Check out the only 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to providing authentic news reporting for and about immigrants and refugees in Minnesota.

  • ‘They want to erase us.’ California Uighurs fear for family members in China // A United Nations committee estimated last year that about 1 million Muslims — mostly ethnic Uighurs but also other minorities — in the autonomous Xinjiang territory were being “held incommunicado” without “being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.” Hear from Uighurs living in Southern California about their memories and experiences.

What you’re noting

  • 11 Reasons Why Ramy Doesn’t Deserve a Second Season // Did you watch the first season of Hulu’s Ramy? I only watched half the season, partly because I don’t have Hulu but also because I got too lazy/busy to bother finishing the rest of it. But I’m totally here for all the discourse around the show. Aisha J. sent in this article and said: “This piece offers a critical lens on the politics of representation and the conversations surrounding the first season of Ramy.

That’s it for me. Tomorrow, I’ll be performing in my class showcase and next Wednesday night in WIT’s Improva Palooza, so wish me luck! 

Have a good weekend!


You must write it

On my mind

I’m writing to you from the National Association of Black Journalists conference in sunny and humid Miami. Being surrounded by so many black journalists and media professionals is still surreal for me. I saw maybe a handful of black students and teachers in my entire educational experience let alone in my journalism program. We’re discussing issues and stories around health equity, criminal justice reform, the 2020 election, culture reporting, sexual violence, education, the census, business while also actually centering black voices. Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker came out to talk about their presidential campaigns and answer our questions. It sounds so basic, but I honestly never got that message that stories from communities I was a part of mattered. I didn’t learn how to find them and fight for them to be covered as anything other than niche stories. I also love meeting so many black experts on a wide range of topics, because another important part of making media diverse and inclusive is changing who gets cited in stories. Black doctors, correctional officers, statisticians, educators and lawyers. They all matter.

And of course, we’ve all been remembering the powerful work and legacy of Toni Morrison, who died this week at the age of 88. What I love about her is that not only was she one of the best American writers who particularly cared about centering stories of black people in literature, but she also helped publish talented black writers as the first black female editor in fiction at Random House. She was a bold truth-teller, teacher, and a master at her craft. When it comes to writing characters, she said:

“I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing.”

I’ve only had the opportunity to read The Bluest Eye, which was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about a young black girl who learns to hate her own appearance and aspires to have blue eyes, but that book on its own opened me up to Morrison’s brilliance. I’ve got Song of Solomon next on my reading list.

I also frequently go back to Morrison’s wise words on writing and life as I navigated my own identity, particularly these two:

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I hope you take these as inspiration as well when you are doubting the worthiness of your own ideas.

What I’m noting

Kept this one short for this week while I’m out for the NABJ conference. Keep sending your links and sharing your thoughts with me.

Have a good weekend!

— Nesima

The Mis-Education of the Black Muslim

On my mind

The Black Muslim Psychology Conference was such a special gathering I was fortunate enough to attend a few weeks ago. The annual conference is a project of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia. This year’s theme was on The Mis-Education of the Black Muslim, exploring internalized oppression, knowledge of self, health, history and the development of Black/African Muslims in the United States. Overall, I was extremely impressed by the organization, direction and energy from everyone who was a part of this event. I’ve never been a part of a space like this where I could bring my full self and talk critically and honestly with other people about so many relevant issues. You can see the full agenda here for all the workshops and sessions. Next year’s theme and dates have already been announced, so don’t miss out!

Here are some of my takeaways from the weekend (which by no means does the conference justice):

  • The gap between imams and their communities is real: The first session I went to was a roundtable of a dozen or so black imams (American born and foreign born) from around the U.S. who talked about their background and journey into religious leadership. The point of this session was to create a conversation that doesn’t happen very often between leaders and the community and to challenge them to think about what issues matter to their community members. Unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising to hear some pretty narrow-minded views shared, particularly when it came to gender, sexuality, and politics, and they often stuck to answering questions from a strictly textual perspective instead of handling such delicate topics with grace and nuance. There wasn’t enough time to get everyone’s questions heard and with so many participants at the table, people couldn’t express themselves to the full extent or certain imams dominated the conversation. I hope there will be a continuation of this dialogue, so there will be opportunities for imams to connect on a meaningful level with the realities of being Muslim in the United States.

  • Love and intimacy in Islam: This was one of my favorite sessions held by Angelica Lindsey-Ali aka The Village Auntie and Quaiser Abdullah, that tackled the complacent Muslim courtship model and what needs to be done to build vulnerability, real intimacy and healthy relationships. For a lot of Muslims (and people in general), the basis for marriage is social, cultural and religious pressure, which is just a set up for failure. To reach a point of real intimacy in a relationship, they advised starting with psychological readiness (the ability to navigate or help someone get to where they need to be), then moving towards intellectual, experiential, emotional, and then the physical. There was so much more discussed, but I could write an entire newsletter on that. Email me if you want to chat more on this and please follow The Village Auntie.

  • Black Muslims need more support on college campuses: I heard from students who were frustrated with their experiences in Muslim Students Associations as a black Muslim and their Black Student Union/African Student Associations as a Muslim. Being at that lonely intersection of being marginalized and not having their struggles validated by either group pushed these amazing students to create their own affinity spaces at universities like Columbia, UPenn and Smith College. The students had to fight to get funding and support for their clubs and prove that it was necessary for their well-being and development and I’m so proud of them.

  • How to unlearn internalized anti-blackness: In one session we talked about how we learned to hate ourselves and how we learned to love ourselves. The ways in which we learned to hate ourselves were the expected: media, school, peers, history, racist people etc. but I loved hearing everyone share where they learned to love themselves and how they pass that on: self-affirmations, affirmations towards their children, the energy and positivity around Eid (#blackouteid), family and friends, learning about your history, creating supportive spaces like this conference, ceremonies like funerals and marriages, seeing black Muslims love on each other online and in person (we talked about how many of us don’t get salaams from other Muslims in public), and strengthening your relationship with God.

  • How concerned U.S. Muslims are about their place in society: The Pew Research Center released findings from their 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims. Check out the report for info on demographics and attitudes about politics, religion, identity, discrimination and more. Not surprisingly, there was a sharp difference between how U.S. black Muslims felt compared to U.S. Muslims of other races and how U.S. born versus foreign born Muslims felt about discrimination, identity and the direction of the country.

    What I’m noting

  • How Australia's "Most Publicly Hated Muslim” turned to YA fiction to heal // I remember coming across a clip of Yassmin Abdel-Magid debating an Australian politician about Islam, feminism and sharia on a live tv show. It was a viral Twitter moment and put Yassmin on a larger platform as an activist and speaker, but all of that fame made her a huge target of ugly hatred. Reading about her healing journey was incredibly inspiring.

  • How can we be responsible international travelers // Before you book that flight, check out this list of tips my friend Nashwah on how to be a more responsible and sustainable traveler.

  • The Crane Wife // I loved this story of finding happiness and validating one’s needs after a broken engagement with an emotionally abuse person. “There are worse things than not receiving love. There are sadder stories than this. There are species going extinct, and a planet warming. I told myself: who are you to complain, you with these frivolous extracurricular needs?”

  • American Wealth is Broken // “As an adult, I am thankful every day for how much my family sacrificed for my freedom. But I also know that, as a whole, black wealth is delicate, because for generations lawmakers and power wielders attempted to prevent African Americans from building it.” Set aside some time to read this compelling and personal exploration of the wealth gap in the United States.

  • The Issue With Meghan Markle’s Vogue Issue // I’m not a fan of monarchies, but I’m fascinated by Meghan Markle and how she’s navigating her new role as a “Woke Duchess.” This was a great critique of her guest editor role for Vogue’s September issue and the limits of her “radical” social justice, feminist activism.

  • Is Your Journalism a Luxury or Necessity // On what level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would you put the journalism you consume or produce? This piece was a great reminder of what journalists should think about when deciding what stories to cover and prioritize in order to serve a community’s needs.  

  • A media impact reading list // If you’re looking to learn more about what impact media can have on social change and community building, here are some reads to get you started. 

What you’re noting

  • Palestine + 100  // “It's an anthology of Palestinian science fiction writers! The theme is 100 years after Nakba, and it was published earlier this month. I just got it on Kindle to start reading (it's a little weird to order because you have to switch your Amazon country settings to UK first to be able to order either the hard copy or kindle version), but it seemed like an amazing initiative.” — Seher K.

That’s it for me. Mercury retrograde is officially over. How are you all feeling?? I for one am ready for some peace and quiet the rest of my summer. Also, keep sharing your links and favorite things!

Have a good weekend!

— Nesima

The paradox

On my mind

What I’m noting

  • Where Does Journalism End and Activism Begin? // “Traditionally, the division between journalism and activism has been motivated in part by a fear of being perceived as biased. Unspoken in that concern is who will perceive that bias.” I’ve struggled with this line since I was a journalism student and have since shifted throughout my career from traditional reporting to op-ed writing and strategic communications. I’m curious to hear what you think about objectivity and what that means today, especially when the media is debating what the definition of racism is. How do we speak truth to power and is that something journalists can/should do?

  • Migratory Notes // If you want to expand your news diet on immigration issues, this is a great pop-up newsletter that collects the latest articles, books, resources, events and jobs on immigration. It’s run by two immigration journalists, Daniela Gerson and Elizabeth Aguilera.

  • Sinead Harnett // Most of my favorite singers recently fall under the chill, alt R&B from London. If you like Jorja Smith, JONES or Mahalia, you’ll probably like Sinead too. I’ve had “If You Let Me” and “Unconditional” on repeat. Add them to your Friday playlist.

  • Queer Eye // The new season is out on Netflix. I’ve already watched four episodes and plan to cry and laugh through the rest of the episodes this weekend. I truly wish I had the Fab Five in my life right now.

  • The Pattern // Okay don’t come me for this, but this app is scarily accurate in its readings of my personality, challenges, weaknesses and circumstances. It’s definitely one of those fun pseudoscience/horoscope/watered down therapy things that casts a wide enough net to fit a lot of people, but I am not ignoring its daily insights, so… Let me know if you already use it or have at one point.

    That’s it for me. I’ll be sharing my takeaways on the Black Muslim Psychology Conference next week once I get myself together. The TL;DR version is it was amazing, empowering, informative and I can’t wait for next year’s especially because of the theme they already announced.

    In the meantime, keep sending me your links, recommendations and thoughts. Have a good weekend!

    — Nesima

Still I rise

On my mind

Where do I belong? That’s a question many of us struggle with. For me, having immigrant parents meant 1) constantly being reminded of my differences and getting frustrated by the limitations they placed on my out of fear and survival mentality and 2) understanding the real consequences of assimilating into whiteness and how that erasure would take a toll on me.

Now, by belonging, I don’t necessarily mean in the physical way as it relates to borders. I am not indigenous to this land so I don’t truly have a right to claim this country as Native Americans do. My American citizenship is one I am just fortunate enough to have from birth and I strive to be as mindful of that gift everyday. Your physical surroundings can change at any time, so when I speak of belonging, what I mean is having your existence, your voice, your essence valued and respected. 

I appeared racially ambiguous growing up, so I had the privilege of not witnessing the complete ugliness of racism the way many of my friends did. It was mostly subtle, minor things. Instead, most often, I wielded the weapon of racism towards myself. I internalized oppressive standards of beauty which made me crave being skinny, lighter skinned, and with pin-straight hair. I internalized the strangeness of not being white to the point I did not want to highlight being Eritrean and said I was Jamaican for several years (that felt more relatable for some reason?), did not like mentioning the Arabic names of my relatives, was often embarrassed by my mother’s accent and her hijab, and lied about what holidays I celebrated with my family. I did not feel comfortable belonging in my body, my story, my lived experience, but I was able to hide it and look like I belonged from the outside.

Belonging was questioned even further after I started college and began wearing the hijab. I was suddenly more aware of my blackness, my womanhood, and my Muslimness. That visible mark of an aspect of my identity made me reevaluate everything. How I moved on campus, what I said in class, how confident I was about my major, how I related to my classmates and people who lived in my dorm, what states or countries I felt safe traveling to for a study abroad or internship, the scholarships I competed for, what my overall purpose in life should be.

I came into college knowing I wanted to tell stories and make a difference in the world through journalism, law, and creative writing. I obviously dropped the law part, but on my dark days, I do reconsider it… Throughout my undergrad experience, I began to believe that someone like me could not achieve my goals, that my credibility would always be doubted, that I was “too close” to the issues I was trying to cover or improve and communities I want to engage with. I was sensitive to every little question, critique, negative response or pushback. It left me feeling hollow spiritually, mentally and emotionally. All I wanted was for someone to reassure me I could forge my own path and would be accepted or that I could just stop caring so much and shift my expectations, maybe even be quieter. 

Over the last 10 years, I’ve pushed myself through wandering academic and career choices, worked in nonprofits and media outlets, traveled domestically and internationally, delved into creative and performing arts, moved out of state twice, went to grad school, survived toxic academic and professional spaces, started going to therapy, and observed the dedication and emotional labor it takes for black women, women of color and Muslim women to stand in their power unapologetically. It feels like we’ve had to do that more than ever lately, with or without allies beside us.

The Nesima you know today would not be here without the brilliance and resilience of the black Muslim women she met over the years who challenged her insecurities and need for acceptance. Through group chats, book clubs, heart to heart conversations, long distance calls, mentorship, retreats and more, they have shown up for me when I needed them the most. I am especially grateful for their reminders that as much as we are fierce, we don’t have to be strong and powerful all the time. We deserve to feel angry. We deserve to feel sad. We deserve to feel scared. We deserved to feel tired. We can take some rest and when we are ready, we can continue on living and taking up space. And belonging? That’s a life long journey that I am still figuring out.

I’ll end with two pieces of poetry I like to come back to when I am overwhelmed, afraid, and want to shrink myself. 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Maya Angelou

“do not choose the lesser life. 

do you hear me. 

do you hear me. 

choose the life that is. yours. 

the life that is seducing your lungs. 

that is dripping down your chin.” 

nayyirah waheed, nejma

If you’re in the DMV area and identify as a Muslim woman, I’d love for to you join me and some awesome women for a chill retreat we are facilitating on August 24. There will be yoga + life coaching + art + creative writing + food! Space is limited so register ASAP. And if you know someone who would interested, please share!

What I’m noting

  • The legacy of Hodan Nalayeh // Really devastating news about a Somali-Canadian journalist, Hodan Nalayeh, and her husband who were killed in a terrorist attack in Somalia. Nalayeh had a passion for telling untold, positive stories about Somalis and returned to Somalia to pursue that dream. Please take some time to read about her work and help keep her memory alive. 

  • ‘The Erotic Is an Antidote to Death’ // On Being is one of my favorite podcasts and this week’s episode with therapist Esther Perel really delivered. I was introduced to the fascinating concept of “erotic intelligence.” If you’re into a discussion about spirituality, emotion, sexuality, creativity, relationships and the meaning of life, you should check it out.

  • IRL, Simba’s mom would be running the pride // Disney’s new version of The Lion King is out in theaters. I haven’t seen it yet and am still deciding if I will, because the original is hands down, my favorite Disney movie. As much as I love The Lion King, it totally gets lion pride dynamics wrong. Sarabi should actually be in charge, not Mufasa. That’s right. Put some respek on her name. Saraaaabiiiii 

  • How to make your home and workspace fuel your creativity // Enjoy this cool visual guide with step-by-step instructions for how to create a work environment and find living arrangements that can sustain your creative life. One suggestion I appreciated: See what spurs your creativity by tracking it: “If you’re specifically looking for a new space to help fuel your creative practice, spend a week diligently keeping a journal of when inspiration strikes and/or when you do your best work. By doing this, you can then adjust your home (or your listing) accordingly to maximize those opportunities.”

  • The life-changing magic of making do // What is your relationship with stuff? Do you have too much? Not enough? How do you stop buying so much stuff? You might appreciate this piece on the philosophy of making do, which is not about sparking joy, but, “asking of our things the only question we should ever ask of them: “Can you fulfill your intended use for me?

What you’re noting

  • Britain Is Hoarding a Treasure No One Is Allowed to See // “I think this piece is an important part of the post-colonial conversation.  It highlights how far Europeans nations, particularly Britain, are from redeeming themselves of the despicable actions of the colonial era.” — Sabrin S.

That’s it for me. I’m off to Philly for a few days to attend the Black Muslim Psychology Conference. I’ll be taking notes and sharing my takeaways with you all soon. Please keep sharing your thoughts and links with me. I love hearing from you and appreciate you telling others about my newsletter too.

Have a good weekend!

— Nesima

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