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 me 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