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Rabia Ahsin

Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali

September 01, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.32

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ALI: I'm Zaheer Ali. I'm the oral historian for Brooklyn Historical Society. And I'm here in Valley Stream, Long Island, interviewing Rabia Ahsin for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. So Rabia, if you can introduce yourself to the recording by saying your full name, and when and where you were born.

AHSIN: My name is Rabia Ahsin. I go by Rabia Ahsin Tarar. I was born in Brooklyn [date redacted for privacy], 1991.

ALI: So you said you go by -- what was the -- the last part of your name?

AHSIN: Tarar. It's my family name, but it's, like, not on my birth certificate, yeah.

ALI: Oh, okay. How do you spell that?


ALI: Oh, okay.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: All right. So Rabia, tell me -- you said you were born in '91 in Brooklyn. Where did you grow up in Brooklyn?

AHSIN: Wow. Okay. So I would say I grew up in and around Coney Island Avenue, so I guess that's the Midwood area, but I -- for the past 20 years, I think, I was 1:00in Ditmas Park. Most people don't really know where that's at, so I usually say Midwood. [laughter] But we moved around a lot growing up, so for a little bit we lived in Sheepshead Bay. We lived -- where else? A couple of other places that I can't remember. We lived in upstate. But -- so every year, we were, kind of, moving around, and then we, sort of, settled on -- or right next to Coney Island Avenue. And then we started moving around near there, [laughter] so generally in that area.

ALI: What was -- what was it like growing up around there? What was the neighborhood -- were the neighborhoods like?

AHSIN: So, it was pretty, like, heavily South Asian, specifically Pakistani, and so I never really felt out of place, in that sense. I grew up in a very, like, you know, cultural household, so I was very aware of being Pakistani, and then my neighborhood. So I remember, like, the first apartment building that we had, or that we lived in, it was literally, like -- I don't even know. There were 2:00just so many desis growing up that we didn't even have to speak English. Like, it was -- so my first language was Urdu, and it was because I was in such a heavily, you know, South Asian community, or -- and that was also [closely] knit in and around Coney Island Avenue before we ended up moving elsewhere, but it was pretty concentrated. Yeah.

ALI: So what -- in addition to the people, what were the kinds of ways the community was present, or you could see signs of the community, in terms of what was there?

AHSIN: So Coney Island Avenue has -- is just -- it's littered with, like, desi grocery stores, and, like -- I remember there's, you know, like, the meat stores, and, like, video stores that only had, like, Bollywood movies, and, you know, Jewelry stores that were all Pakistani Jewelry. And it was like -- so you would -- you could walk on Coney Island Avenue, or at least certain parts of it, and you couldn't tell whether you were in Brooklyn or whether you were in 3:00Pakistan. It was, like, that concentrated and that intense. And so, like, the -- like, the awnings had, like, Urdu written on them. And so, you know, it was very -- from, like, an outsider's perspective, it was very, like, cultural. And so it was -- it was nice.

ALI: So a term that you've used is desi. Can you define --

AHSIN: Sure.

ALI: -- that term?

AHSIN: Okay. So desi is an all-encompassing term, and it, kind of, includes Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi communities, also Sri Lankan communities, but generally, I think I identify anyone from, like, the Indian subcontinent as desi, whether or not, you know -- I mean, even, for -- for example, like, Guyanese can be desi. And so you have any type of ancestry back to the subcontinent. Desi specifically -- I mean, desi means, like, of the -- of the land. Des means land. And so people in the pardes, or people outside in, like -- you know, outside of the subcontinent were called pardesi. But people of the 4:00land are always referred to as desi, because they -- we know that their roots, you know, are ultimately in South Asia.

ALI: So it's a, kind of, way of describing the diaspora.


ALI: Okay. So tell me about your family. How many members of -- were there in your family, and where were you in -- in that sequence?

AHSIN: Okay. Okay. So I had five members in my immediate family, but I also lived with my aunt and uncle, and we all lived, kind of, in -- before my uncle was married, we all lived together, and then we, sort of, lived in, like, a two-family house. But it was mom, dad, older sister, me the middle child, and then my little brother. And as our family, kind of, expanded, my uncle had gotten married, and then all four of his children, and we all lived in, like, the same house, so --

ALI: Tell me, is that a common -- was that -- how -- how usual was that, to have 5:00the extended family -- like, living with an extended family?

AHSIN: So it wasn't -- I mean, living with an extended family wasn't so unusual, especially if you think about just how certain norms are set up in Pakistan, for example. People often live with, like, extended members of their -- or members of their extended family. But it wasn't so common in the US, because if you think about immigrant communities, they started out in apartment buildings, or very small spaces, and so you might have had one or two family members, but to have, like, an entire other family living with you was -- it was, like, accepted. It wasn't something, like, oh my god, shocker, but it wasn't something that was done by everyone. And we had the privilege of living in a two-family house to have -- or, like, a townhouse, where we could all live together, and then eventually move out. Yeah.

ALI: Were there, like, boundaries between the two sets of families? Or how did you relate to your aunt and uncle and your cousins?


AHSIN: So -- so we were very close growing up. I mean, first, it was, like, just physical proximity. Like, we were just so close [laughter] that you couldn't really avoid one another. But in a -- in some ways, there was no differentiation that, "These are my children and these are your children." For my mother and my uncle, it was very much, like, "We're raising each other's children." And that was -- and that has always been normal. So, for example, if my mother goes and, I don't know, scolds or disciplines one of her brother's children, it's not seen as, like, "Oh, how dare you?" It's very, like, "Yeah, what did you do wrong that your aunt had to scold you?" And --

ALI: So that -- so you weren't -- as -- as a child, you weren't like, when your parents were away and it was just your uncle, or your aunt and uncle, you were, like -- you weren't, like, "Yea, we can do whatever we want"?

AHSIN: [laughter] No. I was, like, deathly afraid of my uncle. He was -- I loved him so much, but I knew that he -- he didn't -- like, he would, like, discipline me in two seconds. Like, if I -- if I did something wrong, like -- it would be, like, these really awkward punishments, like, "Oh, face the wall for, like, I 7:00don't know, an hour." [laughter] I don't know if that's, like, cruel and unusual, but it was, like -- I was, like, "Just beat me to death. I just don't want to stare at the wall for [laughter] another hour, please." So it wasn't -- yeah.

And I remember -- but when we had separated, because they had eventually gotten their own place, and, you know, they were, you know, able to move out and whatnot, it was really heartbreaking for me, because I -- like, this -- this is like your own family. This is like an extra set of parents. And I remember, I was, like, in -- I was probably, like, eight years old or something at the time, and I was -- like, you know, this is, like, my family, like, separate -- even though they only lived, like, two, three minutes away from us, so it wasn't even that far away. But still, it felt like a set of parents had just left. And so that was -- but it was nice, because then I was able to find more friends in, like, the area that they lived in, because I would go there all the time.

ALI: So tell me, in terms of your family's religious background, what was your 8:00childhood like in terms of religious life?

AHSIN: I grew up in a very, like -- I wouldn't call it areligious, but religion didn't necessarily play a very obvious role in my life, but culture did. And so I knew I was Pakistani. That was, like -- I knew I was Punjabi. That was very much ingrained in everything that we did. The language, food, clothing, you know. I grew up on, like, Punjabi stage dramas and Star Trek, and those were, like, the two things that, like, kind of, made up my childhood. Like, for example, when I came back from school, it was -- I had to be in shalwar kameez. That was -- there was no question about it. Like, I switched out of my, in quotes, "Western clothing," to, like, my home clothing, which was shalwar kameez. And so it was -- and it wasn't because it was, like, oh, this is more modest, but that, no, this is your culture. This is what you wear at home. You speak the langua-- even though we didn't speak Urdu at home, because it was 9:00embarrassing. [laughter]

ALI: How -- how so?

AHSIN: So, okay. So basically, me, my brother, and my sister, we're, like, about a year apart each, or a year and a couple of months. And so when that translates into, like, school, we're literally only just one grade -- there's a difference of one grade, so we're often in each other's circles, or at lunchtime, or whatever the case was. And, like, speaking Urdu in school -- even though Urdu was my first language, speaking Urdu in school was seen as, like, this, kind of, like, "Oh, you can't speak English. That's why you speak this other language." Even though by the age -- by the time I was four years old, I could read in Arabic, speak in Urdu, understand English, and speak whatever I could.

But it was, like, understanding, you know, multiple languages at such a young age, and yet there was this fear of, like, if I spoke in Urdu in school, they would assume that I was automatically the other, or I was, you know, not as intelligent, because, you know, for some reason, at such a young age, English is ingrained as, like, the language of intelligence. And so there was this fear 10:00amongst me, my brother, and my sister, and then -- and it wasn't even like we sat down and spoke about it, and decided one day that we're just no longer going to speak to each other in Urdu. It was just, kind of, like, known, that we're not going to do it. It's kind of lame. Let's just speak to each other in English.

But my parents really took a hit, because they spoke to us in Urdu, and they spoke to each other in Punjabi, but when they'd get mad at us, they'd speak to us in Punjabi, so it was, like, something that we were very familiar with. And yet we struggled so much to speak it, especially after a certain age, where you haven't really practiced the language. It becomes very difficult for you to engage in it on a -- on a more meaningful level. And so I could understand it. I can understand various dialects of Punjabi, even, and -- but I can't speak it to this day because of that fear.

And so -- but going back to that question of, like, religion. We didn't -- you know, it was funny, because my mom, she was seen as, like, this religious figure in my household, but she wasn't particularly -- looking back now, she wasn't particularly religious. She just -- she was our Qur'an teacher. And so she would 11:00-- she would -- she's the one who taught us how to read -- read in Arabic, and read the Qur'an, and that was something that we had done from a very young age. And it was a regular part of our life, in that sense. Like, it was, we had Qur'an lessons, like, if not every day, every other day. And she was very strict about that. And so -- [laughter] she wasn't as strict with us as she was with other kids. And so we -- she would teach, like, a couple of our family friends, their children. And she'd get so mad at them if she didn't -- if they didn't do -- if they didn't say -- if they didn't read their lessons, or if they hadn't practiced, or whatever the case was. And -- but she would, kind of, like, let us off easy.

But it was something that was very much a part of our life, and -- but it was funny, because it was, like, for prayer -- when it came time -- when it came down to prayer, she didn't really force that on us, but she made sure we prayed, like, maghrib, which is, like, the sunset prayer. That was, like, the only thing. She was just, like, "Make sure you pray maghrib." And it was, like, the only thing she really, you know, kind of, like, drilled in us. And -- but other 12:00than that, my father, he wasn't particularly religious at all. In fact, when we started wearing -- me and my sister started wearing hijab, it was, like, a really big, "Wait, why are you doing this?" Like, "This isn't something that our family does." Like, "Take that off." You know? And it's -- you know, on the outside, that seems like a very, like, normal, natural thing for, like, Muslim families to be, like, okay with, like, accepting that phase in your life where, you know, you decide to take on -- or take responsibility for your own, kind of, outward appearance, of whether or not -- how Muslim you want to appear. And -- but for my parents, it was, like, a very big, like -- that's not what our family does.

ALI: So I -- I want -- I want to talk about that. But before, I'm interested in your -- the distinction, because you -- how -- how do you square the fact that you don't consider your childhood particularly religious, but you're being 13:00taught the Qur'an regularly, if not every day?

AHSIN: Right.

ALI: Which people would -- some people would think, "Well, that's -- that's pretty religious." So for you, why -- what is the distinction?

AHSIN: So -- so one thing I think we have to understand about religion and culture and identity is, like, these things are fluid, and they're not boxed in these, kind of, like, "Well, this is your cultural box. This is your noncultural Western box. And this is" -- not that that doesn't have any culture, but, like -- "and this is your religious box." You know? And so we often tend to box ourselves in, like, these different kinds of categories, and that's not how any of these things work. And so culture is very fluid.

And Pakistani culture is intertwined with religious doctrine, whatever that doctrine may be, and whatever -- and much of it has been formed because of -- of religious ideas that, you know, for centuries have existed in the subcontinent, whether that's various types of Hindu doctrine, or various types of Muslim doctrine, or whatever the case may be. But all of these things inform our understanding of what culture is.


And so reading Qur'an was -- whether or not you implemented, you know, what the Qur'an tells you to do, how to dress and how to behave with people, and when it -- especially when it comes down to, like, money, for example, is, like, a really big deal. Like, you don't take interest, and you don't engage in, like, you know, inappropriate transactions, or whatever the case may be. And those are really big markers in -- in understanding how one becomes, in quotes, "religious," right? And what is -- I mean, I hate using these terms, because they, at the end of the day, have no meaning, and are very, like, superficial, right? But just for the sake of, like, what people understand as, in quotes, being "religious," I'm going to use that word for that particular reason.

And -- but culturally, reading the Qur'an was, like, oh, yeah, that's just what you do. Whether or not you practice religion doesn't really make a, you know -- make or break a person, but it's, like, oh, this is just what you do, just like how you wear shalwar kameez. And if you look at the clothing that we wear, it is particularly modest. You know, the shirts are generally longer, and the sleeves 15:00are generally looser, or whatever the case may be. You know, even if fashion, kind of, like, alters the way our dress is seen, there's certain elements of it that are still, kind of, consistent with this understanding of modesty. Whether or not you are a modest person or see yourself as one, when you wear shalwar kameez, that's just something that you do, because it's a cultural thing, or you like it, and it just happens to be modest.

In that same way, my family wasn't particularly religious. We didn't necessarily, you know, implement certain religious ideas or, like, really talk about religion in this open way, but we read the Qur'an. Whether or not we understood what was being said, it was something that we did as, like, a -- oh, this is just what we do. This is what Pakistanis do. And --

ALI: So at the time that you were being taught to read the Qur'an, if you can go back to that time, did you feel like this -- this was a -- you were doing this because you were Muslim or because you were Pakistani, or --?

AHSIN: Okay. That -- no, that's an interesting question to even -- at what age 16:00do I then differentiate me being Pakistani versus me being Muslim? And I think growing up, I was very much aware that I was Pakistani. That was a hands down, like, no questions asked, like -- I think when you live in a society where you are automatically, kind of, seen as, like, the other, because you are not White, you don't speak English at home, your parents don't wear jeans, and they don't, you know, listen to particular kinds of music or eat particular kinds of food. And, like, even though those things, at the end of the day, that -- that doesn't necessarily make you, in quotes, "American." Again, that's something that we can talk about and deconstruct later on.

But, like, at the end of the day as a child, that's how I see us. Like, oh, they're not American. I'm not White. Therefore, I'm -- what I am, I know I am Pakistani, and that becomes ingrained in me. And that's something that I don't necessarily automatically -- you know, as a child, I'm not, like, deconstructing. It's just something that is known. And Pakistanis just so happen to be Muslim. In fact, when -- I mean, in my mind, that's what I'm thinking of. And obviously, as I grow older, I understand [laughter] that that's not the 17:00case, but when I was younger, I -- it wasn't even so much Pakistani. It was, like, Punjabi, you know.

And at one point, I -- my mom had -- she had a friend. She's -- this friend was from Karachi, and they're considered Hindustani, meaning they're of India, and they -- their family had migrated to Karachi after the partition. And so my mom was telling me they don't understand Punjabi, and I remember at -- at eight years old, nine years old, I was so shocked that there could be Pakistanis that didn't understand Punjabi, or that they were considered Hind-- you know, Hindustani, meaning they weren't Paki-- they weren't Punjabi, you know. And so for me, that was such a big deal.

And so these little things, as a child, for me, it was -- my identity was really constructed around language, food, clothing, not so much religion. I knew -- I knew that we -- you know, Allah was a divine being. Like, that was something that was told. It wasn't that -- that wasn't something that, you know, I discovered in college. But, like, it wasn't something that was, like, a regular part of our conversation. So for example, if my mom wanted me to do something 18:00that she believed was good, because, you know, all parents instill some type of moral compass in their children. She would say things like, "Oh, Allah's going to be mad. God is going to be mad." Right? And -- but -- you know, that -- that was about it. I didn't understand, like, metaphysically.

I don't even know if they understood metaphysically certain implications of good and bad and things like that. And that's not to infantilize them, but do people automatically always think about the metaphysics behind good and bad, or do they just do it because that's what they've been taught, you know? And so those are things that, yeah, sure, as, like, a millennial, you know, second, first-generation child of an immigrant, I can think about and discuss, but I don't know if my parents were, and were they thinking that consciously about when they were teaching us, you know.

ALI: So outside of your home, did you participate in -- in community events, or was there a mosque that you considered a home mosque? Were there other rituals 19:00that you participated in, in addition to prayer? Say, fasting, that kinds of things? How did those things --

AHSIN: Okay.

ALI: -- factor in at that time?

AHSIN: So we -- we observed Ramadan every year. And I remember it was during Ramadan that I saw my dad pray. So outside of that month, I hadn't really seen him engage with religion on any serious level. But Ramadan was such an exciting month, because we got to, like, change up our routine. We would wake up in the middle of the night, or what seemed like the middle of the night. Didn't realize it was early in the morning. But we would wake up, and since we lived in, like, a townhouse at the time, and my aunt and uncle lived on the second floor, and we were on the first, and so it would became -- it would become, like, a really fun, like, we're going to eat all this junk food, and we're going to eat all this, like, fun stuff in the morning, with, like, my cousins, and, like, everybody and all of us, we would just do this, like, really fun thing.

And it did feel like a sense of, like, secret that we're keeping from, like, the outside world. Oh, we're not eating, because this is our special month. And 20:00we're going to eat together, like, when -- whenever we'd break fast, and it's going to be fun food. It's going to be samosa and pakora and all this, like, greasy, oily goodness. And, you know, those things I think I remembered as a child and wanting so badly to fast, because it was, like, a secret, kind of, that I kept from, like, my peers, you know. And for me, that was, like, a really fun thing. And I think as -- as a child, feeling that kind of special -- I don't even know. Special association that I wouldn't have otherwise felt. Whereas, like, bef-- whereas, like, in other senses of, like, being different, like, it was very -- it was hard to be different. But it was nice to be different in this sense, and it was very -- that -- that, for me, was, like, a rare feeling.

But we did fast during that month. And -- but we didn't really have, like -- we didn't have a mosque to go to. We didn't really have, like, a masjid community. Our local masjid, actually, Makki Masjid -- I don't know if you're familiar with it, but it's, kind of, infamous for being, like, constantly, like, under construction. And so that construction actually started when I was very young. 21:00And I remember I went to Sunday school maybe one or two times, because my mom's friends, their -- they brought their kids there or something like that, and so my mom was, like, "Oh, yeah, I'll bring my kids." But it wasn't, like, a thing that we did regularly.

When I was around eight years old, or -- I think a lot of these things are happening around that time, because we were transitioning from different houses and whatnot. But we did -- we had, like, a Qur'an teacher for some time that we would go to, I think maybe for a couple of months. But it didn't last very long, and it -- we weren't -- it wasn't something that the kids were -- us kids were very interested in.

But other than that, we didn't really have a sense of community. We had family friends, and I think that, for us, was a community. It was, like, oh, these are my mom's friends. We all generally live in, like, the same neighborhood, and if not the same neighborhood, at least the same borough, and that became, like, a -- you know, a thing, like, dinner parties, and, like, that's when we would meet all of these, like, you know, non-school friends. But outside of that, we didn't really have a sense of, like, real -- what I imagine community to be now. Not to 22:00say that that wasn't community. That was definitely some sort of community for my parents. But how I understand or imagine a community in this present day, from my, kind of -- I guess what I desire in a community is very different now than it was when I was a child.

ALI: How did you learn the different rituals? You know, the -- the prayer, the -- the principles of, like, how and why fasting happens? How did you -- how did you get that -- that -- that learning?

AHSIN: So I think as a child, my mother was, again, like, the -- like, the most religious person I knew was my mom. And so she would, like, instill certain ideas of, like, okay, well, this is how you pray. This is why you pray. Again, it's just because God's going to get mad. And then as far as fasting was concerned, it was, like, "Oh, it's so that you can understand what it feels like to be without." And that's -- that's all I remember growing up, in terms of, 23:00like, fasting, was so you can feel what it feels like to have -- to not have something that's so easily accessible to you.

And -- but when it came to prayer, since it was me, my brother, and my sister, and, you know, Arabic wasn't really a language that we spoke with fluency -- we could read it, sure, but it's not something that we, obviously, incorporated in our everyday life. And so [laughter] my mother would break up the prayer in different parts. And she would say, "Okay. Annam, you say, like, the beginning portion. Rabia will say the middle portion, and Taha will do this part of the prayer." And so, literally, we couldn't pray unless we were all together. [laughter] And so growing up, like, if -- if my mom was yelling at me to be, like, "No, it's maghrib time. You have to pray," I literally would have to gather my siblings, like, kind of, like -- I don't even know -- like Transformers, like some type of force, and be like, "Okay, guys. We got to pray."

And it would be so funny, because, like, we'd get so excited if one of us, like, really just couldn't be there. Like, I don't know, my brother was away, or 24:00somebody was at somebody else's house. Like, it would be like, "Well, sorry, Mom. We can't pray, because we don't know the other part." So [laughter] it was, like, kind of, like, all or nothing. But, you know, in that sense, it really did develop this, kind of, like, prayer is with family, prayer is with community. And, you know, at that time, it's not something that I really, like, thought about, but, you know, in retrospect, that is what it was, you know? It was, it's, kind of, like, this is all you have. You have your siblings, and you have prayer, and that's it.

ALI: So y'all were like the Voltron force of prayer. [laughter]

AHSIN: Yeah. Literally. Literally. And -- [laughter] and it was so funny, because we only knew our parts, so we really couldn't, like, pray, [laughter] unless the other person was there, or all three of us were there. Yeah.

ALI: I love that.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: I love that. One of the things that has come up as you've been talking is the role of food. Tell me about the importance of food growing up for you --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- and -- and how you related to food, either as -- just maybe you -- as a 25:00consumer, or as someone who helped prepare it. I'm interested in your relationship to food --

AHSIN: Okay.

ALI: -- growing up.

AHSIN: Okay. So food -- it's so interesting. In my mind -- okay. So as a child, I wish I could go back and just, like, talk to myself as a child, because I had, like, the craziest understanding of, like, food. In my mind, food was attached to what you were and what you were not allowed to eat. So for example, I thought that White people could only eat American food, and I thought that Pakistanis could only eat Pakistani food. I didn't know that, like, if you weren't of that particular culture, you could eat other people's food. So I -- because in my household, we only made Pakistani food. And, you know -- and I knew at a very young age that we can't eat meat from outside, because that meat is not halal, or it's not slaughtered in a very particular manner, and so therefore, that meat is not permissible for us. So that I knew.


So for me, in my mind, I was like, okay. So we can only eat this kind of food, because we are Muslim, we're Pakistani, this is who we are, but other people can't eat this food. This is only for us. And so it was a very, like, I guess, like, anxiety-driven relationship with food, because it was, kind of, like, oh, what we can and can't eat -- like, can and can't eat. And from a very young age, we were taught to read labels. And so I remember -- it's not even like I can understand what is in this label or whatever, but I just had to look for the word "gelatin." If that word was there, I could not eat this product. And so it's not even like, at that age -- like, can you imagine as, like, a first-grader, like, I don't understand anything in this label or this ingredients list, but I do understand that G-E-L-T-A-N -- however you spell -- I know I spelled that wrong, but however you spell it, is a word that you can't -- you can't eat this, because there's pork in it. And so can you imagine, like, as a six -- you know, six-year-old, like, understanding contents of, like, a food 27:00product, what you can and can't eat, and becoming, like, the judge of that.

And, so, you know, food. I love food. I never really helped my mom prepare it, even though -- it -- it was always, like, a fight, you know. She'd always be, like, "Come and watch me in the kitchen. How are you going to ever, like, learn how to cook?" And it's like -- and now I'm, like, suffering. Like, I can -- I can make you tea. I can't prepare you shami kabab, or anything, you know. I can't, like -- [laughter] but it was -- food, for me, has, I think, always been, like, an anxiety-driven relationship, just because of, like, at a very young age, I was taught what you can and can't eat. And so on school trips or wherever I was where, you know -- and it wasn't even as if, like, "Oh, my mom's not watching. I'm not going to eat this." It was very much, like, "I can't eat this." And I have at that -- at a young age, the integrity to not eat it, because I know God's going to be mad, you know? Yeah, so I -- you know, I've actually never even thought about the fact that I've never disobeyed my parents 28:00in that sense.

ALI: So was your mom the primary food preparer in your household? Or did any of your other siblings --

AHSIN: So --

ALI: -- kind of, take on that --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- role as well?

AHSIN: Actually, my father was living in the States before he met my mom, and so, you know, he, as, like, a bachelor, had to learn how to cook. And so my -- my dad used to cook, but not very frequently. Like, he could make, like, breakfast things. And my uncle, also. He was -- he actually -- he makes a mean omelet. So, like, he was, like, a very, you know -- so everyone in -- all the adults in my -- in my life could cook. My mom -- my mom was, like, the main preparer. And as my sister got older, she -- her relationship with food has always been, like, "I love to eat, and therefore I'm going to learn how to make the things that I love." And so she learned how to cook. She learned how to bake.

Actually, I tried baking recently, and it -- like, my cookies, literally, they came out like paper-thin. They were so disgusting. And then the dumbass in me 29:00was, like, "Okay, I'll make another batch. Maybe this one will come out better." It was literally the same thing. And I was, like, "I wasted so much product, [laughter] and I don't even know what to do with this nasty, like, batter."

But, yeah, so my sister was -- my sister was a cooker. She was a baker. Me and my brother, we just -- that -- that skill just went over our heads. So, yeah.

ALI: So, and you -- you've also talked about the meals that you would share, the pre-dawn meals for fasting, the breaking fast meals, and the dinner parties. Tell me about food and socializing.

AHSIN: Oh, man. You know, so I -- I love hosting people, but I have, like, a deep anxiety of, like, what am I going to give them? Because I can't cook. I would love to order food for them, but it's just, how much can I order? Like, how can that become, like, such a regular thing in my life? Because I have, like, this deep anxiety related to, like, the way that my mother would host dinner parties, and that was, like, a very regular thing in our -- in our life. 30:00It was, like, every weekend. Like, today. Like, every weekend, it was, like, somebody's coming over. It wasn't something -- or we're -- or we're going over. And that's literally, like, how I met so many of my childhood friends, was because of how frequently we would be in each other's spaces just eating each other's food.

And it was, like, that was something that -- you know, my mom always says, in Urdu, you know, "Kana to bahana hai," you know, "Food is just an excuse to see people." And so it's never really about the food. It's about the fact that we can use this as, like, a means to then meet each other and, you know, stay in each other's lives, especially -- you know, being part of, like, this diaspor-- diasporic community, where, at the end of the day, my parents have been living here for 30-plus years, and, you know, they've developed deeper connections with the people here than they did back home. And for them to maintain those relationships, you know, dinner parties are just, literally, dawat is what we called them. You know, dawat means, like, an invitation. And for them, it's 31:00really, like, such a central part of, like, their everyday life. And I think that when I juxtapose these types of things, or this type of upbringing, with some of my non-desi peers, it's something, like, "Oh, what? Like, you guys have people over that often?" Or, like, "Your mom is, like, hosting, like, 20-plus families? Like, what is that?" Like, it seems -- it seems like such an out-of-this-world, like, unnormal thing to do, but it's -- for us, that was our upbringing.

ALI: Can you -- can you break down the anatomy of a dinner party in your house? Like, what -- what -- the preparation -- I want to hear, like --

AHSIN: Okay.

ALI: So a dinner party's happening next weekend. [laughter] Tell me what -- how -- how do you [inaudible] what happens?

AHSIN: Okay, okay, okay. So a dinner party -- and it happens -- okay, so -- growing up, like, up until now, like, they're very different. So growing up, there was always kids, right? So you have to prepare for this idea that you're not just inviting, like, two people over. You're inviting, like, six, seven, eight people. That -- that's just one family, you know. And then if you have 32:00two, three families, then it becomes, like, even more. And so -- okay.

So we would find out, so-and-so is coming next weekend. We would automatically get excited. So the kids are having their own thing. Like, I'm preparing my room, and my toys, and, like, putting everything in order. Like, okay, so-and-so is coming. I don't like her sister, or I don't like so-and-so and their family. And so you're preparing your room to, kind of, like -- almost like a display of, like, this is what I have, and it's, kind of, like, you know, you're a child, and you're showing off, and, you know? You're excited. I remember I had, like, so many crushes, and so I'd get really excited when my mom would invite certain people, because I'm, like, "Oh, my crush is coming over, and he's going to see my room, and whatever." You know, like, dumb things that in my mind, like, I'm thinking about.

And -- but my mom, her role is, like, very, like, interesting, because she is, like -- she -- I -- she has, like, this, like, strength of a freaking bull. Like, I don't even know how to describe. Like, even now, like, she's, like, post-cancer, post-chemo, post-radiation, and she's, like, way more active than I 33:00am in, like, everything. You know, mashallah. But for her, it was, like, she -- I remember she would start cleaning, like, days in advance. And mind you, we weren't, like, reg-- like, I clean regularly, because I have, like, OCD anxiety about, like, no, my house has to be pristine, because growing up, that's, like, not at all what it was. And so she would, like, prepare, like, two, three days in advance, and start cleaning.

And she would, like, literally, like, stock up on meat, and stock up on all of the ingredients that she had to get for, like, the day. And she would never make just one dish. It would always be, like, a feast of, like, five, six different dishes, two different types of rice. It was always, like, this over-the-top, like, "Why are you doing this, mom?" [laughter] But she would get all of her ingredients, like, a couple of days before. And literally, the entire day would be just, like, her cooking. So from, like, nine a.m. 'til, like, six p.m., and it would always be this thing. She always did this thing where, like, the guest would come in, and she'd pop the rice in the oven, for whatever she was doing. And so, like, literally, as guests are there, she's, like, preparing the food.

And I'm just, like -- as a child, I didn't understand this, but I realized, that was her -- that was her thing. Like, they need to see that she made the food. It 34:00wasn't ordered outside. It wasn't somebody else. It was my mom cooking. And so she would have this, kind of, like, display of, like, "Oh, I'm coming in a minute. It's still in the oven." And so -- yeah. So my mom was very, like, into her dinner parties. And my dad was -- my dad always -- his thing was, like, "I'm going to clean the bathroom, because nobody can clean it like how I can clean it." So we all had our roles.

And as I had gotten older, my mom was able to relax a little bit, because I was, like, this clean freak. Like, literally, I would spend, like, two days deep cleaning everything. And then my mom would, again, just prepare the food, and my sister would help with that. So I never really -- I never really helped out in the kitchen, in that sense, but I can clean pretty well now. [laughter] Yeah.

ALI: So what would happen during the dinner party?

AHSIN: Oh, during the --

ALI: What -- what are the activities, and who's -- who's with who, and how does that break down?

AHSIN: Okay. So our families -- it was so interesting, because, like, our families also -- they changed over time, again, as everything changes over time, but growing up, it would always be, like, the women, kind of, like, you know, 35:00hung out together, and the men, kind of, hung out together. And then when they -- when it was time -- and the children, obviously. So everyone, kind of, just relegated with their own, kind of, like, cohort, or, like -- not cohort, but their own peer group. And men would always talk about politics and sports, and, like, you know, the super macho manly things that men talk about. And then, you know, women would, whatever, the stereotypical gossip and, like, all of that. So that's how I understood things, growing up. And then children would just, like, you know, be children and do a bunch of things, and -- in my bedroom or, like, whoever's.

But it -- when it was time for food, everybody got together. So we didn't have this, kind of, like -- so whoever could sit at -- around the table would sit around. So it wasn't like this, kind of, like, "Oh, this is just for the men," or, "This is just for the women." Everyone would, kind of, get there. And if there was, like, excess -- or there were too -- no, sorry. If there were too many people there, children and, like, the young adults, we would all just, kind of, be in, like, the living room space or whatever. And so there wasn't really, like, a, "Oh, this is the kiddie table and this is the adult table," because 36:00there was always, like, 20-plus people in a household or in, like, a space. Like, we would just, kind of, like, relegate ourselves in that sense, and everybody would, kind of, come together.

And then food would be served, and, you know, seconds, thirds, and especially my mom would just, like, constantly be, like, "I see your plate's empty. Why is it empty?" And this is, like, you know, "Oh, this is, like, my third helping. I can't eat anymore." And my mom would be like, "You need to eat more."

And so once that was done, the men and the women would, kind of, come together in one room, either, like, the living room or wherever, and then tea would be served, and sweets, and things like that. And so that was the time where, like, regardless of where you were in your peer group, you just, kind of, like, sat together and, like -- it always fun and games. It was always, like -- everyone was always having a good time. There was not -- there -- like, my dad is, like, such a -- I don't even know how to say. He has, like, such a great sense of humor, and, you know, he would -- growing up, I always thought he was very serious, but when he came around out with his friends or, like, with family friends and whatnot, regardless of gender -- it didn't really matter for us -- 37:00he was always, like, the center of, like, the jokes and, like, everything. That was really nice.

And as we had gotten older, and really, like, I think, in college, post-college, there were -- you know, he had met a couple of families who were a little bit more religious, and there was, like, this -- there started to be, like, this gender, like, separation that I hadn't really seen growing up. And it was -- and I remember when my father was first introduced to that gender segregation. It was very, like, whoa, that's strange. Like, this feels awkward.

ALI: Tell me about that, when --

AHSIN: So my dad, growing up, again, he wasn't very particularly religious. It was very, like, you know, I'd seen him pray in Ramadan, and that was it. I remember also in college, every day for -- can you imagine -- four years. Every day, I would, like, knock on his door to wake him up for fajr, and he just would not get up. And it was something that -- you know, for me, and I'm just, like, "I'm just going to do it because I have to do it. You know, whether or not he gets up is up to him." And, you know, one day four years ago, he decided that he 38:00was -- or five years ago, rather -- he decided that he was going to start practicing. And, you know, he's been practicing since then.

But during that, kind of, phase of, like, his children are getting religious, or becoming more observant, and his wife is, kind of -- you know, my mother is, like, following in our footsteps in that way, because she's -- you know, she sees something that she feels very comfortable in, and starts to become more observant, and starts, instead of just praying one, she starts praying all five prayers. And so for him, it became, like, a very, like, "Why am I stuck in this, kind of seemingly, like, uncomfortable black hole that I -- I myself didn't sign up for? And, you know, my -- my -- my children are following this path, and whatnot." And so when we brought over our friends, and they had, like, their families come over, for my father, it was very, like, "Oh, not again." You know?

And so gender segregation represented a larger religious, I guess, 39:00understanding, that he wasn't -- that he hadn't signed up for and he wasn't willing to, kind of, accept. And -- but now it becomes, like, a regular part of his everyday. So whether -- whether folks want to segregate or they don't, my father has become this, kind of, figure of, like, "You know what? Whatever everyone's comfortable with." Whereas prior to that, it was very much, like, "No, no, no. We're not going to gender segregate. That's not what we -- our family does." And it was very -- and I think for him, he, kind of, hid behind the, "No, this is not what our family does," because it was just uncomfortable for him to accept something that was different.

ALI: How did the -- the dinner parties change during this period?

AHSIN: So, again, we're all so much older now. Or when this phase was happening, we were much older. We were still living in the house, but we -- there weren't -- you know, there wasn't this, kind of, expectation that chil-- that folks would bring their families, and it was just, kind of, like, the -- my parents inviting their friends at this point. So it was, you know, no longer the expectation that children were going to come, and all of this, kind of, what -- what -- what we call, like, hungama, like, this chaos was going to happen. It 40:00was just a very, like -- they were much more, like, I would say, sophisticated in that sense.

There was levels of segregation, but it depends on, like -- it really depended on who was in my father's circle at that -- or in my parents' circle at that time, so who they're inviting over. So depending on whether or not this is, like, an old family friend, or, like, a more recent one that doesn't really -- depending on, like, you know, who they, I guess, invite over.

But it changed -- I didn't -- I don't think, more or less, because of, like, the religious reasons, but I think it really changed because of, like, the age factor, and, like, as time went by, like, their friends -- friends' children -- and so it's like a -- I don't know. It just changed because of, like, family dynamics, but -- yeah.

ALI: So let's -- let's go back a little bit to, when did you start wearing the hijab?

AHSIN: Oh, man. Okay. So I started wearing hijab, like, three days before 9/11. But it was, like, not -- I would wear it to school. And I wore it because my mom, I remember growing up, was, like, "Oh, you should wear it." But only to 41:00school. It wasn't something --

ALI: Did your mom wear hijab?

AHSIN: She didn't really, but it was something that [laughter] she wanted us to do, just for, like, this, kind of, like, oh, you know. They wanted me to wear shalwar kameez. That was a hundred percent. They were like, "You have to wear shalwar keemez." At one point. They refused to buy me, like, American clothes, because they wanted to, like, instill -- and I say American. Obviously, all of that is, like, in quotes, whatever that means. But they really wanted to -- they didn't want us to lose our culture, and I think there's a real fear for immigrant parents that their children will no longer understand, love, or uphold the same kind of, like, respect towards their cultural upbringing that they did. And so they very much wanted us to wear shalwar kameez.

And then at one point -- so basically, my mom would tell me, like, "Oh, you know, I think you should wear the scarf." We didn't really call it hijab back then. We just called it a scarf. And I remember I would wear it sometimes, and I'd be, like, "Mom, they don't allow it in school. They say no hats in school, so I can't wear it." So, you know, I -- I -- I guess -- I would say that, like, 42:00every year for, like, two, three years. And then one day I was just, like, "You know what? I'm just going to wear it. Who cares? Whatever. I'll see if I like it or if I don't."

And then it was fifth grade. So it was two thousand ele-- 2001. And, yeah, I put it on, and three days later, 9/11 happened. [laughter] And I was, like, "Oh, shit." Like, now -- you know, it was, like, interesting, because as soon as I put it on, nobody really, like, thought anything differently or -- you know, it was -- it was something that was normal, I guess, because they'd seen other people do it, and they'd seen, like, their friends' moms wear it, or whatever the case is. And it wasn't something, like, "Oh my god, why are you wearing this thing on your head?" And again, I would only wear it to school, so if anybody saw me after school or at home, or wherever, I wasn't -- you know, I didn't have it on me, so I wasn't even -- you know, I wasn't, like, Rabia changed so much.

But I remember being really excited. It's sounds -- it's going to sound so stupid now, but I remember being really excited that after 9/11, Pakistan was 43:00something that was -- you know, people knew who Pakistanis were, and Pakistan was something that was, like, known. It was in the papers. Like, I remember getting so excited reading, like -- because we -- we would have the New York Times and Daily News, like, daily delivered into our classroom. And for social studies or whatever, or current events, we used to call it -- but we had to, you know, read articles, or, like, get ideas -- like, talk about what was happening in, like, whatever, the real world. And I remember getting so exciting that, "Oh my god, people are going to know where I'm from."

Because it was something that I had to constantly explain to people, or I would tell -- you know, they didn't really understand where, geographically, my family came from. But a lot -- and then I was, like, you know, "They're going to understand why I wear this." For me, I thought of it as, like, as a -- initially, that Muslims were in the news, I thought of it as, like, a positive thing. Not because -- I didn't, obviously, realize or understand the connotation of, like, what was happening, but to me, it was, like, "Oh, I'll be known. I no longer have to explain myself to people." And then I realized I would actually have to end up explaining myself to people for the rest of my life. But in the 44:00beginning, it was, like, a --

ALI: How -- how -- what was the demographic of your school?

AHSIN: I went to school on Kings Highway, and I remember there being a lot of Russians or Eastern European students, and many -- I think, just, like -- I -- I can't, like, place them geographically, but they were pretty White. There weren't as many Black or Latina students -- Latino students. Sorry, I said Latina because I teach in a predominantly Black and Latina school. There weren't that many Black or Latino students. And there were, maybe, a handful of, like, desis. In my class, there was probably -- because we would, kind of, like -- we would, kind of, pretty much be with the same kids -- group of kids for, like, you know, a couple of years. Generally, I had, I think, maybe three, myself included, in my -- Pakistanis in my -- in my fifth grade class. And -- but it 45:00was, I think, pretty much White.

ALI: So can you tell me what you remember of 9/11, of that day, how it unfolded for you?

AHSIN: Sure. [laughter] I'm laughing now because all these kids were leaving. So I remember -- I didn't know what had happened. I -- I did know that my -- one of my teachers. I don't remember who it was, but -- because in fifth grade, we had, like, different teachers for different subjects. So my teacher had received a phone call that something -- some crash happened in -- in Manhattan. I had no idea what this crash entailed, obviously. Like, all I thought was, like, "Oh, this must be a car crash. Oh, how horrible. A car crash happened in Manhattan. But why -- why did she have to receive a phone call for this?" Like, I think -- I thought these things had happened normally.

And throughout the day, we had students, like, leave, like, their parents were calling them out, you know, and just asking to -- asking them to come home. And 46:00I remember thinking, like, "Oh, Mama would never call me home." She would never -- [laughter] she would never be, like, Rabia, come home, for whatever reason." And actually, I didn't realize that those students were being called home because of the crash in Manhattan, whatever that crash may be. I hadn't connected the two. I just thought something other than that had happened, that students are being, you know, called out. And I remember, by the end of the day, I was just so upset. There was, like, maybe, like, five kids left in the class, me being one of them. And I was just so mad at my mom. Like, why didn't she pick me up? Like, why did she let me stay the whole day in school?

But afterwards, like, I -- I remember there being, like, just a bunch of trash, like, litter everywhere. Like, wherever -- from, like -- especially in our -- my mom's current neighborhood, which is, like, in the Midwood area, there was just, like, trash everywhere. Like, litter. Like, I don't even know how -- like, crumpled-up paper, just debris wherever you could -- wherever you went, there was just debris. And I remember talking about it with people years later, and 47:00they were just, like, "There was no debris there. Like, I don't remember any of this." But I was just, like, "No, there was. I'm not -- like, I'm not making this up. There was debris all around my neighborhood." And it's not even like we lived particularly close to the city, that, you know, it would have, you know -- that I just so happened to see it. But it was, like, everywhere.

And later on that day, we found out that, you know, the planes had hit the towers and whatnot. But at the time, I didn't understand the implication of it. I thought -- actually, it's so funny, because I thought this was, like, a regular thing. Like, this happens all over the world. Now it's just happening here. I didn't understand, really, what this would entail.

And then the following day we understood, oh, hijackers. Hijacking became something that was a regular part of my language at that point -- or after that, rather. And then Osama bin Laden. And, you know, then, you know, understanding that there is a negative connotations to, like, Muslims being in the news, and Osama bin Laden. And I remember, like, a couple of months after that, I remember 48:00kids saying, "Oh, is Osama in your basement? Are you hiding him? Is he your uncle?" And all of these different things that I'm sure that hundreds, if not thousands of, like, Muslim New Yorkers, especially, had to, probably, deal with.

ALI: How did you deal with it?

AHSIN: I -- you know, I became a bully. So, in order to prevent me from being bullied, I became the bully. I was such a -- I was such a bitch, especially, like, after fifth grade had ended. I remember in fifth grade, somebody had, like, pulled my scarf off, and I cried so much because I felt so violated, not that I had any real, like, attachment to the scarf, like, definitely not as, like, a religious thing, or not even as, like, a cultural thing. It was just, like, "Oh, I do this. Whatever." But I felt like somebody had violated me, because it was a part of me that they had ripped off. And -- but the following year, especially this one kid. He would constantly -- with, like, the Osama bin Laden jokes. Like, it -- it was so lame. It was, like, you have, like, nothing 49:00else in your arsenal except this one lame thing that you keep saying? Meanwhile, I'm, like, literally shitting on your entire life. Like, how? But I became a really big bully, like, in middle school. And a lot of it ended up -- a lot of it was because of this fear that, if I don't bully, someone's going to bully me. And --

ALI: How did that manifest, your bullying?

AHSIN: I -- I picked on anyone and everyone, I would say. I was pretty witty, and so I could, like, you know -- I don't know. I would just, like, make fun of people, make fun of the way that they looked, make fun of the way that they did things or, like, their -- especially, like, their level of intelligence. I always hit -- like, wherever I felt like somebody had an insecurity, I would, like, pick at that. So I was pretty good at finding out insecurities.

And -- you know, and it's interesting, because, like, years later, when I met some of these people in college, and just randomly, like, totally coincidence -- like, if I would meet them coincidentally or whatever, I would apologize for 50:00being that person. And I remember this one person in college. I -- I randomly saw him, and I -- I remember chasing him down, and being, like, "Do you remember me?" And he's, like, "No, I don't." And I was just, like -- and I had to remind him. And in reminding him, I was crying so much. Like, "I bullied you, man. Like, I'm so sorry about the person that I was then," and, you know, explaining myself to him, and that I'm different, and that I've, like, repented. And he does not understand anything, or did not understand anything that I was saying to him. But I remember crying so much. Like, "I'm sorry for being that way." And -- but I was a bully. I was -- I was really mean, and -- but it was survival.

ALI: Okay. So let's talk about college, going off --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- to college. Let's first start with, what -- what did you plan -- or, what did you end up studying in college? Brooklyn College.


ALI: When did you start Brooklyn College?

AHSIN: I started in 2009. So actually, it starts in high school, because I had 51:00gotten into a couple of places, but at one point, I decided I didn't want to go to college. I just wanted to do hair. I wanted to become, like, a hairdresser, and work on runways, and, like, things like that. And so I was, like, college is, like, not for me. I need to go to, like, some type of beauty school or something like that. And --

ALI: Where did the interest come from for that?

AHSIN: I was just really -- I was really into hair. I had gotten a perm, and I was, like, you know -- for me, I was just, like -- I don't even know. Like, I love doing hair. And I remember giving myself, like, a razor cut. I had spiked it all out. It was, like -- I had done a lot of stuff to my own hair that had really, like, I guess, gotten me -- like, sparked that interest in me, in, like, doing other people's hair. Okay. But, yeah. And I remembering bringing that up to my dad. And he was okay with it. He was just, like, "You know, whatever you do, just be the best at it. Like, don't -- don't ever settle for second best. It's okay if you want to go to beauty school and not college. It's totally fine."


I don't know what convinced me to go to college, but I ended up going to Brooklyn College. And I took on film and political science. Actually, I wanted to go to med school, so I had -- that was the goal, I think, for every brown person as, kind of, like, an initiation. Like, you have to try pre-med before you try anything else. And so I was doing pre-med. And so I was taking all the pre-med reqs, and I was doing political science at the same time, and I had taken on documentary filmmaking. I was really into that. And then -- I forgot the question.

ALI: Your -- what you wanted to study.


ALI: So that -- that was -- that was the answer to the question.

AHSIN: Okay. [laughter]

ALI: So outside of the classroom, what kind of activities were you involved in?

AHSIN: Okay. So, you know, college was the first time that I was exposed to a Muslim community in this, kind of -- in this different sense of the word. Whereas prior to college, community wasn't really community, it was just family 53:00friends. It was just a collective of sorts. Whereas in college, I found like-minded individuals. I found people who had similar leanings towards religion, even if they -- even if I, myself, didn't really consider myself particular religious or observant at that time. But I found people who had similar values that were grounded in this, like, higher sense of morality, where -- you know, I can articulate that now, but at the time, I just saw people who were like-minded.

And I think for me, the biggest thing was, like, I found people who were -- I didn't have to explain myself to. And that feeling that I was describing, you know, post-9/11, where I didn't have to explain myself to people, in the sense that, like, Muslims and Pakistanis exist -- I finally found myself in, like, a really true sense of, like, the phrase. I really did not have to explain my existence to another -- to a group of people now, and that felt really nice. Like, I could drop in phrases, or I could drop in understandings or connotations 54:00of certain situations, and it was just understood that, yeah, this is -- this is just who you are. And that was really nice.

And meeting these people, and having very particular leanings towards, you know, political understandings that also started to develop in college, that first semester specifically, where, you know, myself and, like, a -- a couple of friends, we had started the Palestinian Club. They had already had -- they had it in the way -- I'm sorry. It was already in the process of being started, and I had, kind of, joined that. And we were part of, like, the very first Palestinian Club at Brooklyn College. So there was no SJP prior to that -- Students for Justice in Palestine. There were no other clubs on campus that was -- that were, sort of, advocating for Palestinian rights, and the right of return specifically, because Brooklyn College has very specific leanings towards, you know, Zionist ideology, and, like, Israel. And there is a very 55:00strong -- I would say, like, a -- I -- I wouldn't call it a lobby, but a very strong, like, demographic that really propagates Israeli ideology in -- at Brooklyn College. And so it was, like, the first time in Brooklyn College's history that you had, like, this, kind of, like, very direct counter towards that ideology. And --

ALI: Why -- I'm interested, because you're Pakistani. What is your -- or what was the basis for your identification with Palestinians to the point where you would be part of this founding organization?

AHSIN: Right. So my political sense of self started to develop in high school. And it really happened after Operation Cast Lead in -- in Gaza in 2008, where -- I was still in high school. I was -- it was my senior year, and it was for the 56:00first time that I was being exposed to, you know, a realm outside of, like, kind of, like, this bubble that I'd created for myself, as, like, high school students often do. And it was the first time that I was exposed to, like, global politics, and, like, international affairs, and how myself, as, like, now I'm becoming more comfortable with the identity of being Muslim, or with this understanding of being Muslim, I started connecting my own identity with the identity of others, like, abroad. And in -- not just abroad, abroad, but, like, people that were being held by the US, you know, in Guantanamo Bay. And, you know, I started seeing that, okay, I'm -- it's -- thing -- there are things out there bigger than myself. And, like, this understanding of being Muslim is connecting me to people outside of Pakistan, outside of my own, kind of, like, very small, like, niche community that I had, I guess, been brought up in.


And so Operation Cast Lead, and, kind of, seeing, like, the way that the media had depicted it, and understanding that this -- there -- there -- even if, at that time, in this, like, kind of, naïve understanding, that there are, in quotes, "two sides," one side is very obviously, like, more violent. And, you know, my understanding of all of that has changed over time, but especially then, it was very obvious that Israel was the perpetrator, and the oppressor in this particular situa-- in all situations [laughter] -- but this particular situation especially. And so for me, I became, kind of, like -- my political sense of self became, like, really awoken at that time. And I remember fighting with friends, and I remember -- and it was, like, the first time that I decided to take any political stance on anything, really. And -- and it felt good. Like, it felt like I was doing the right thing, despite people not believing me, or despite people, you know, being so vehemently against certain ideas that I was 58:00bringing up.

And coming into college with this, kind of, like, -- this, like, internal, like, fiery, impassioned, God knows what -- it -- it felt like the right thing to do, even though, for me, my understanding of being Pakistani and being Muslim was now, finally, kind of, coming together in this, kind of, very, like, seamless way. And so Muslim started becoming my primary identity. And that was really nice, because it was something that I actively, I think, tried suppressing as a child, and -- yeah. That's why I joined the Palestinian Club.

ALI: You said you fought with friends. What -- what were the fights about?

AHSIN: It's so funny, because, like, we're all in high school talking about international affairs like we have any type of or level of expertise. And so we just -- you know, read a newspaper article or something online, and we're just -- you know, establish an opinion based off of our very limited sources. And I remember fighting with people that, you know, were pro-Israeli. And for me, it 59:00was just, like, "Are you not seeing the level of bloodshed that's being -- that's happening right now? Like, the -- the war crimes that are being -- or that are happening in Gaza right now, or, like, the illegal weapons that are being used? And -- are you just, like, completely blind to that?"

And for me, I became -- I would actively read, like, the New York Times, and I really -- and I -- I think that's when my hatred for the New York Times was really, kind of, like, established, because I was finally being able to see -- or if I was finally seeing the disparity in the way that the media represented Muslims versus, specifically, Israel. And so it -- that disparity, it just, kind of -- it threw me off, and the -- it, in many ways, took the -- like, that blindfold off. Like, what we consume on a regular basis isn't actually the reality on the ground. And fighting with people, just based on that fact, 60:00especially in high school -- like, we're all, kind of, like, trained to, like, in many ways, consume and, like, accept the things that we're consuming through media. And so the fights were really based on what's fact and what's fiction.

ALI: Okay. So your -- you -- you -- you said your views have changed over time with regard to this?

AHSIN: Yeah, so --

ALI: Do you want to talk about that now? We -- we'll come back to college, but I'm interested --

AHSIN: Sure.

ALI: -- since we're in that line --

AHSIN: Yeah. So I think when I first started learning a little bit more about the Palestinian-Israeli, back then, what I would call "conflict," it often made it seem like the two sides were somewhat on the same playing field. And as I've gotten older, as I've become more aware, and especially when you, like, interact with people who have lived under occupation, they are in no way, shape, or form in the same playing field. Like, they're not even in the same realm. So my understanding went from, "Oh, this is a war," to, "No, this is actually occupation."


And what occupation entails is that there is an obvious oppressor, and then there are victims. So understanding, like, colonization as it happens in the modern world is something that I had to learn over time. Whereas prior to that, I understood this as, like, "Oh, yeah, they may, you know -- there may be both sides -- there are two sides to, you know -- two sides -- both sides are in the wrong, but one side is just more wrong than the other." And then that -- that transitioned into, "No, no, there is really only one wrong side." And that's how my understanding of Palestine, specifically, has changed over time. And that, you know, it -- it's caused problems, because people -- it's not about, "Oh, you're not being open-minded about a particular situation." For me, it's like, "No, I've literally seen every argument. I've seen every understanding of this particular situation. And this is the only side that makes sense to me."

And -- and I'm comfortable with that, and I'm okay with that, but I think in 62:00academia, you have to play a very particular role in saying -- kind of, being hands-off with the Palestine issue. And I just don't think that, morally, I can do that.

ALI: So let's bring that --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- activism into college, in Brooklyn College. So you're part of this founding of the Palestinian Club. Did you face that? How did you navigate that opposition or that resistance that you've described?

AHSIN: Sure. So I think from the very start of starting this organization -- because I know that there had been attempts prior to my -- my first semester at college to start the organization. And for a number of reasons, it just didn't work out. We had problems with the administration. We had problems with the student center that would, like, provide funds. Like, they weren't giving us, like, an account. And then we had problems with other clubs on campus that were 63:00just, like, "No, they're spewing lies. Like, this is not true. Look at Israel. Look at all the good things that they've done. Israel is really the victim here, not Palestine. Look, they don't even want a dialog with us, and --" you know, just because we had very, very different understandings of this particular issue. We were constantly defamed.

We were -- they had gotten -- over the course of four years that I was there, and then the year afterwards where I was helping out with SJP that then became -- the Palestinian Club then turned into SJP, and so helping out that organization as well. And seeing over the course of five years, like, the vitriolic, kind of, take on this particular organization. Like, how you had government -- people in council -- council members, you know, speak out against this organization, because of whatever we were, you know, talking about, or, like, the issues that we were bringing up, or the fact that we had brought in certain speakers. Like, you know, we had threats to, like, you know, pull out 64:00funding out of the school if, like, we continued with our organization [inaudible].

ALI: Out of the entire school?

AHSIN: Yes. So we had people -- [laughter] we had former Brooklyn College -- like, Brooklyn College -- an alum, who basically threatened to pull Brooklyn College out of their, like, inheritance, if they continued to, like, either promote Moustafa Bayoumi's book, or hold certain events where a department would co-sponsor the event or something like that, because, you know, that automatically means that everybody in the department agrees with the event. You know, it was, like, this, kind of, like, over the top, like, you know, response to us just existing.

And so that was really intense, but at the same time, it was honestly really fun. It felt really great to, like, get under people's skin, because, for me, it was, kind of, like, you're all comfortable in understanding and believing the 65:00things that you believe in, but this is, kind of, like -- it then became, like, this, kind of, like, the gadfly analogy, where you are annoying people to the point where they're just -- they're responding in that way, whereas they -- they were never probably as active.

And so every year, there was something new that had happened. So one year -- actually, the following year, Moustafa Bayoumi's book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, became -- on the freshman reading list. And people immediately started associating that book with the Palestinian Club. And I remember there was -- in response to all of this -- oh, we had also gotten -- what's his name? I'm forgetting his name. This White guy, used to go to Brooklyn College. God damn it. Wait. How am I forgetting his name? I mean, he's also irrelevant now.

But anyways, you know, speakers that we would invite, paired up with the fact 66:00that Moustafa Bayoumi's book was, you know, on the freshman reading list, on -- on top of all of -- all of the things that we did. And then we would start, like, the apartheid wall, and, like -- which was basically a -- during the Rights Education Week, we would hold up, you know, wooden boards that, I believe Sarah Aly had also helped paint. And we would put that up. And all of these little things that we were doing to create or have a -- bring attention to issues concerning Palestine, but I guess in the case of Moustafa Bayoumi's book, issues concerning Muslims specifically.

We had Hillel, which is, like, the -- the Jewish organization on campus, and we had the Israeli Club, and, like, other organizations that were affiliated with Israel, come out, protest against everything. They had, at one point, in response to our giant apartheid wall, they put a giant peace ball or something like that on campus, where everybody had to sign and talk about peace, and, 67:00like, all this, like, I don't even know, bullshit, or something like that, in response to what we were doing.

And so what -- whatever we would end up doing, we had, like -- the administration would say, "Oh, no, no, we can't actually do that. You can't actually have wooden structures over four feet on campus, on the quad." And I'm, like, "Oh, so what other organization, aside from the Palestinian Club, has a structure -- a wooden structure over four feet on campus?" You know, and so it was, like, they would have these policies directly targeting us, in response to the things that we were doing. And at one point, one of my friends, she decided that, "You know what? Instead of doing, like, a four-foot wall, how about you guys just dress up like the wall instead?" And so we would find creative ways to, kind of, like, circumvent, you know, the -- the ridiculous policies that they had against us.

And I remember Professor Cherry, in response to Moustafa Bayoumi's book, he ended up bringing in David Horowitz. And I'm not sure if you know David Horowitz, but he is this absolutely vitriolic, like, disgusting individual, who, 68:00during his event, at one point, he alluded to the fact that Muslims -- or, you know -- Muslims should be hung, to that effect. And it was really horrific. And I remember being so angry I went from one end of the library to the other, because the event was actually held in the library. I went from one end of the library to the other just, like, cursing my head off. I was so angry at the fact that the campus allowed somebody who has a history of, you know, not only spewing this nonsense, but inciting violence, and that they allowed him on campus. And their response was, "Yeah, well, you know, you brought your own fair share of speakers who spoke out against Israel." But I'm, like, "Not a single one had ever called for the hanging of any Israeli, any Jewish member of campus." You know? And so -- yeah. So it became a very, like, hostile environment, between, you know, people part of the Palestinian Club and then 69:00people part of, like, the Israeli organizations.

ALI: How -- how did you -- how much did your parents know about your level of activism, and how did they feel about it?

AHSIN: So in the beginning, my parents -- I kept them out of the loop, because I didn't want them to be afraid of, you know, what we were doing on campus, whether it was a protest, or whether it was, you know, an event that would incite a counter protest, or whatever the case is. I kept them out of the loop for the most part, out of this fear of, like, not so much that they would stop me, but that they themselves would just be afraid for me. And I think that had been, like, a looming, kind of, cloud for many years in my life, where I wanted to protect them from whatever I was doing, because I understood that whatever I was doing could ultimately get me in trouble. And I just didn't want them a part of that world.

And I remember when David Horowitz had come, that's when I started telling -- 70:00this was, like, maybe, my second year, my sophomore year. And that's when I started telling them, or making them more aware of, like, what I was doing, and, sort of, what was happening on campus, and just keeping them, kind of, in the loop. They were -- you know, many times, they would, kind of, just be, like, "Well, you know, maybe you shouldn't put yourself out there. If you want to do the work, do it, you know -- don't be at the forefront. Don't let people see or connect your face to these particular issues, because it may cause problems for you later on." And that was, kind of, like, the advice that they had given me. But in no way did they, kind of, try to stop me. Like, my parents were the ones driving me to protests, you know, in the city.

So it wasn't something that they did not like, but there was this level of fear that they had of, like, what could happen. And I think that fear was also what had driven them from -- or driven them to, kind of, you know, stop us, or try to stop us, from wearing hijab. And, like, I remember at one point wearing abaya. It was, like, a really big deal, because for them, they were just, like, you 71:00know, "What are you turning into, and who" -- you know, they were just afraid of who might target me.

ALI: They weren't, like, "Don't you want to do hair?"

AHSIN: [laughter] You know what my mom would do? When I started wearing abayas, my mom would buy, like, the cutest outfits for me. And she's, like, "Don't you want to wear this?" And I'm, like, "No, Ma, I can't. You know I can't." [laughter]

ALI: What -- what was the -- what were the circumstances for you deciding to wear the abaya?

AHSIN: You know -- okay. So my political identity, in many ways, informed my religious identity, and vice versa. And so they were, like, mutually constitutive in that sense. But really, what I think ignited this, kind of, like, fire in me to become a little bit more observant, and, you know, just, like, become more spiritual or whatever the case was -- I was actually dealing with a lot of, like, mental health issues, depression, anxiety. At the time, I 72:00didn't really know what it was. I mean, I've been diagnosed afterwards, and I'm much more comfortable in my emotional self at this age in my life, but in the beginning, I just really didn't know what was happening.

And I -- for my freshman year of college, I had suffered through what I thought was only depression. And it had taken a toll on me, spiritually and physically, and in all ways. But it was because of that, I decided to seek, like, an outlet to, kind of, counter whatever I was feeling emotionally, and religion happened to fill that void. And, you know, prior to this, I didn't really have a sense of, like, religious community. And so the community that I was exposed to happened to be a very, like, Salafi-leaning community. And so because these were the only Muslims I was exposed to at the time, and this was the only way of Islam, really, that I was exposed to, in the sense that, like, they were openly Muslim, and this was what they were openly propagating.


However, they dressed in whatever they said was appropriate, or within the realm of religion, is what I believed to be part of what I had to do as a Muslim. Like, I had to wear abaya. And it became something I was very comfortable with. Like -- and -- yeah. So that's when I started wearing abayas. And then I started wearing niqab and wearing gloves, and it slowly became this, like, transition from, like, you know, "Western clothing", to, like -- and I say that, again, with quotes -- but, like, that to, like, niqab, abaya, gloves, the full ordeal. Socks, everything. Like, literally, there was, like, not an inch of me that you could see.

And that, my parents -- I hid that from my parents. Like, I would wear niqab only when I went to school, and it was, kind of, something I did in secret. My mom found out, and oh my god, she threatened to pull me out of school. And I was, like, "Okay, okay. I won't do it." [laughter]

ALI: Can you talk about that moment, or talk about that --

AHSIN: Yeah. So my parents, at this point -- my mom wasn't always really comfortable with abaya. Actually, now, even if my brother wears, like, a thawb, 74:00my mom hates it so much, because it reminds her of what we were like when we were going through those phases. And I -- you know, I may have been outwardly religious, or what seemed to be religious, but with my family, I was still such a bitch, because I was just, like, "You guys are just, like, not -- you know, you guys are doing all the wrong things. Like, why can't you just be good Muslims?" You know? And for me, I -- I approached it in a really inappropriate way. I was very rude, and I was very, like, condescending, and I would start fights. And, you know, there's -- there are ways to, you know, address issues, and I just wasn't -- I -- I wasn't doing it the right way.

And my mom associated all of those things and my bad -- my really bad character with religion. And so she wasn't comfortable with abaya, and then when she found out that I was doing niqab, it was actually -- she dropped me off to college, and I thought she had, like, driven off or whatever. And I -- and I'm out there fixing my niqab. And then I get a call, and it's my mom, and I can hear her on 75:00the phone, and I can hear her screaming from, like, a block and a half away. And she literally drives through, like, orange traffic cones, like, liter-- it was, like, I don't even know. Like, freaking Fast and Furious, like, part 7 or 8. [laughter] It was, literally, she drove through all of them. And she was, like, "Take that off!" And she's, like, "Get in!" And she slapped me. And then she was just, like, "I never want to see this on you again." Like, "I'm going to pull you out of college." Like, "You think I can't do that?" Like, it was a very, like -- very hostile environment, and she just was not having it.

And for her, like, the niqab represented more than what I was doing. It represented an ideology that she just vehemently disagreed with. And so for her, she was afraid that I was falling into this, kind of, like, Salafi, Wahhabi ideology that, you know -- again, this is just not what we do. And, you know, in some ways, like, moms know. [laughter]

ALI: What -- what was the outcome of that moment?

AHSIN: I -- I was really traumatized. I was very, like -- I remember crying so 76:00much, because I felt like this was, like, the most right thing to do for me. It felt so right for me to do. And it was taken away from me. And I remember I -- I read something at that time. A friend of mine who was with me, who was, kind of, consoling me, she just, like, randomly pulls this book. And it said that the only things that happen are what God wills, or something to that effect. And it was -- at that time, that was the only thing that had consoled me, because I was, like, "You know what? If it was meant to be, it would have happened, and it -- and it wasn't."

So -- and it felt like a really -- it feels like a really silly thing now that -- in retrospect, thinking about this whole thing, and, like, you know, me on this, like, kind of, fence between childhood and adulthood, and finding my own way, and doing the things that I want to do versus still living in the -- versus the fact that I still live in my parents' household, and I still have to abide by their rules, especially when it comes to, like, appearance, and, like, clothing, and things like that. And for them, religious clothing, in particular, 77:00was something that they just -- they felt this need to control. And I was dealing with a lot emotionally, and again, I had dealt with other mental health issues, and that, kind of, just, like, added to that.

But I was fine with it afterwards. And I realized that, you know what? If I want to dress modestly, I don't have to do this entire, like, show of, like, no, this is who I am. I can still dress modestly and, you know, dress in a way that I think is appropriate for myself without making my parents upset.

ALI: So you -- did -- that moment, you stopped wearing the niqab?

AHSIN: I did. I -- I stopped wearing niqab. I had only worn it for about a week, and then my mom had found out. So, I mean -- and you know, if she hadn't, I would have worn it for a little bit longer, but eventually, I would have taken it off. But in some ways, I'm glad she -- like, I don't agree with how she dealt with it, but in many ways, I'm glad that I hadn't continued wearing it, because I think I was spiraling down, you know, in ideology that, ultimately, I didn't 78:00really agree with, or, looking back now, I definitely don't agree with, but even back then, I may have been uncomfortable with, but I felt like this was the right thing to do because I didn't have an alternative.

ALI: So you talked about mental --

AHSIN: Health.

ALI: -- health issues. What kind of resources did you find in the various communities that you saw yourself a part of, to, kind of, deal with that?

AHSIN: Mental health issues have been -- or are the -- mental health in general has been something that has been at the forefront of my life for about, I want to say -- I don't even know -- eight years now? But it's also something that I haven't actively addressed for many of those eight years. And so it was something that I was internally very cognizant of, but not something that I would talk to my parents about for a very long time. And I didn't actively seek 79:00out resources to help that for a very, very, very long time.

But I did seek out religion, because I knew religion made me feel good. And by that, I mean, like, you know, understanding it in a more holistic way made me feel good internally, and those two things I had connected as, like, a way to heal. And I did find religion, for a very long time -- and even now, but then, it was, like, this, kind of, intense, like -- "I finally feel whole again." And outside of that, I -- I had smoked for five years, and that was in -- in its own way, a sense of healing, but also not. But it was something that I had used as a way to deal with stress, and deal with depression and anxiety. And it -- it calmed me down in way that many other things couldn't, and so I took that on for a long time. And then the day that I decided to quit, permanently quit, was also the night that I went to my first therapy session.


And so, you know, while I was at Columbia [University] -- this is, like, about three years ago now, three and a half -- is when I started seeking out professional help. And, you know, I had dealt with a lot. Even post-college and in between and whatnot, I had dealt with, like, a suicide attempt, and mental breakdowns. I had, you know, these various, like, like, pangs of, like, rage and things like that. And, you know, putting this together, I was then ultimately diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and I think, in many ways, that had helped, because I was able to understand what my body was going through and what my emotional state -- why it was the way it was. I was able to address it more directly, and since then, I've been doing a lot better.

And -- but in the beginning when all of this is happening, and when your life is going through transitions, and you just don't know how to cope with certain 81:00things, it becomes very overwhelming, especially when you realize that other people might not understand internally what you're dealing with, and they may just, like, write it off as, "Oh, you're just -- you know, this is nothing," or whatever the case was.

And I remember telling my mom, and she was so stunned when I had first told her. And again, I just told her I had depression. I didn't really understand the extent of it. And this was, like, in the very beginning of my first master's. And I was just -- I remember in September, it was, like, almost as soon as school had started, and I was just, like, you know, "Ma, I think I have depression." And this is now, at -- at the time, at least four years post being comfortable with that understanding of having depression. And she just, kind of, looked at me, like, in this absolute shock, like, you know, "A girl like you doesn't get depression. You have everything at your feet. You have everything that you've ever wanted. Why would you be depressed?" And she was so shocked at, you know, what I was telling her. And I was letting her know that, you know, "I need to -- I need to -- I need professional help. I need to go to a therapist. I need to find other means to help me, because the means that I've been using, 82:00i.e. religion and, you know, sense of purpose, and what have you, whether it's, like, activism, or whether it's my research -- like, those things are just, like, not cutting it anymore. They're not filling that void." And she -- it's not that she was, you know, averse to the idea, but she was just, like, "I'm not -- I think that you don't understand yourself." That was, like, her approach. Like, "Maybe you're just thinking you have this."

And about two or three months later is when I attempted to kill myself, and that's when it became a reality for my family.

ALI: So I want to -- if you feel comfortable, I want to explore this a little bit more. But to come back, how did you come to the realization -- even before we get to the seeking professional help -- how did you come to the realization that -- that -- that you had depression, or what it is that you felt that you 83:00had? Because I'm interested in, you know, what shapes our frame of reference.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: And in, you know, my experience and my knowledge, is that in many Muslim communities, certainly in many communities not rooted in a Western tradition, there isn't a frame of reference for understanding mental health, right?

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: I would just go out and say, many non-White communities.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: Like, that's a White people thing.

AHSIN: Yeah. [laughter]

ALI: And so, you know, given your background, given your upbringing, given your frame of reference, how did you come to identify this for you?

AHSIN: Okay. Yeah. I think what you mentioned about, especially particular -- like, non-White communities are often averse to this idea that, you know, you may be dealing with a mental health issue. It's often relegated as, "Oh, no, there might be 10 other reasons why you're dealing with this thing, but it can't be depression." And, you know, for -- as someone who is exposed to mental health 84:00issues, whether it's through school, or whether it's through, you know, taking particular classes in college, or whatever the case is, you know, those aren't just the things -- those aren't the only things that help me understand emotional states, you know?

And it's -- for me, I, myself, existing in this body, knowing how I was prior to whatever rupture happened in my life that ultimately, you know, opened this, kind of, like, dam of, like, emotion in me that I didn't -- hadn't prior to that ever experienced, like, I understand in myself, like, there's a -- there's this transition that's happening, and I need to identify what it is. And I think that need to identify what it is, is something that many of us have in different capacities. And so for me, it became, like, a -- okay, here are my symptoms. This is what I'm feeling. And it first started out as this, like, almost, like, juvenile attempt to, like, diagnose myself medically, you know? Like, I'm 85:00experiencing intense grief. I've -- can't do anything. I have suicidal ideation. I no longer want to socialize. And I don't understand where this is coming from, and I can't necessarily root it in one specific cause. It's just something that, over the course of months, has become who I am now. And I see this change in myself.

And so, you know, having the internet at your fingertips really helps, often. And so I just became, like, this, kind of -- I, you know, started googling, and started trying to make sense of, like, what my emotions were, and if other people were experiencing what I was experiencing. And, you know, we often throw around the word depression casually, and, you know, without ever understanding what the connotation of what depression actually is. And, you know, since -- I don't even know when that word first entered my vocabulary, but it's something that I was familiar with, and so when I read up a little bit more about it, and 86:00understanding it through, kind of, like -- even through, like, in college, like, when you take psychol-- psych classes, like, understanding, like, "Oh, okay. This is -- this makes sense. This -- at least this aspect of whatever this may be, this disorder may be, makes sense to me, because I'm experiencing it right now." And -- yeah.

And so, you know, bringing that up to my parents was -- it obviously took me four years to talk to my mom about it, but even with my dad, when I had told him soon after, it was -- he was also in shock, because it was, kind of, like, this isn't something that is -- is -- is in his repertoire of, like, solutions, you know? Or diagnosis -- diagnoses. For him, it's just, kind of, like, "No, you just need to talk to me. I'm your friend." And it's, like, "Yeah, I do agree. You are my friend, and I can talk to you about many things. But you're not understanding that this is, like, an emotional state that has ruptured."

ALI: Did you, at the time when you were in college -- were there people that -- or peers that you felt comfortable sharing this with, or did you just really 87:00deal with this as -- by yourself?

AHSIN: So for the most part, I dealt with, again, what I thought was depression by myself -- for the most part. However, there were many people that I could go to in moments, and talk to them, and, like, kind of, like -- about aspects of what I'm dealing with, without, again, burdening people, without, kind of, turning them into my therapist, but as friends always do for one another, they become, like, your, kind of, companion in -- in -- they become your shoulder to cry on and whatnot. And so I was able to do that with many people, and that's really nice to, like, experience. But at the same time, I didn't really seek out that professional help, or, like, seek out those types of solutions with people who weren't equipped to deal with my emotional state. But it was something that I had let people know. Like, "Hey, I'm dealing with this thing." And, you know, when I started becoming a little bit more observant, and, like, allowing myself 88:00to, kind of, obsess over religion, it, in many ways, helped me ignore, or helped suppress those feelings that I was, you know, being overwhelmed with. And -- yeah.

ALI: At the time, had you made that connection, or is this something that you experienced looking back?

AHSIN: No. So I understood -- as soon as I could feel better about myself through religion, I understood that this became, like, a solution for me, that this was, like -- in many ways, I could hold onto as, like, a crutch. I knew I was still going to deal with depression, in many ways, and I knew it was going to come out in -- at times that I didn't want it to, or didn't expect it to, or whatever the -- not that you ever want it to, but, you know, in the most inconvenient times. But at the same time, I understood that religion was there for me as, like, a -- a -- a -- a metaphorical shoulder to cry on. And it really helped until I became disenchanted with this particular understanding of religion, and then, you know, that spiraling downward, because that thing that filled your void was something that you could no longer latch onto, and therefore, your void starts opening up again.


ALI: Okay. So -- I -- we -- we may get a chance to come back to that, but I -- I want to, kind of, get back into a little bit of the sequence of things --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- to your interaction with other students on -- on the campus, and other people that you were meeting on the campus. Tell me about the Muslim Student -- I guess it's not an MSA, technically, but what was the Muslim Student Association called?

AHSIN: It was called the Islamic Society of Brooklyn College, or --

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: -- for short, ISO.

ALI: Okay. All right.

AHSIN: Yeah. But there was also another ISO, which was a socialist organization, so they always had to differentiate.

ALI: [laughter] Okay. So this is your -- part of what's happening, it sounds like, in college, is -- versus before college, is that there's a -- a kind of intentional community on your part. And being more intentional about the relationships that you're having. Tell me what -- what it was like to -- to -- 90:00you know, what was the ISO like at that time? How was it -- what was the experiences like, and what did it mean for you?

AHSIN: Okay. So actually, there was two organizations on campus, like, Muslim organizations that I was a part of. One was ISO, the Islamic Society, and then there was also MWEI, which was Muslim Women's Educational Initiative. And so that was, like, an all-girls, kind of, organization, but -- and it was very different from ISO, but then ultimately, kind of, became the sister organization and the means for funding for, I guess, what is now really a combined organization.

And so the ISO, it was my -- I don't even know how to -- God knows -- oh my God, how am I going to describe this organization to you? Okay. So my first exposure to ISO was literally my first day of school. And it was during Ramadan, and all of us, we were fasting and whatnot. And I think it was a Friday, so this was 91:00probably right after the Friday prayer. I had seen, like, this gigantic segregation wall. And, like, mind you, my family had never really had any type of gender segregation, and so seeing a physical, kind of, manifestation of gender segregation that was so shocking to me. Like, it was, like, a culture shock, for sure, but also, I just didn't understand what the need of it was. Why was it there?

And I remember one of -- there was a -- a female student talking to a male student behind the wall, and so they were talking to each other, but, like, there was a wall between them. And so that was also something that was so absurd to me. Like, why can't you -- because -- and it was so interesting, because these same people, outside of this space, would talk to each other normally. But why was it that in this space, you had to speak behind this wall? Was it -- you know, what was the purpose of this physical manifestation? Because if you really didn't want to talk to the opposite gender, or opposite sex, rather, you could just be on the opposite ends of the room. You didn't have to -- no one was 92:00forcing you to interact with one another.

But it was, like, a very, like, no, no, we're going to have this wall. And this wall, for, like, the next four years of my college career, becomes something that's so, like, present in all of our discussions, because we start fighting about it, and we start -- you know, some people want it, some people don't want it. It becomes such a normal part of, like, the MSA culture -- to even fight about it becomes a normal part of that culture.

ALI: Did your views of the wall -- how did your views of the wall change over the years?

AHSIN: [laughter] Oh my god. I think my views of the wall really, in many ways, become, like, an analogy for my religious change over time. And so it becomes a culture shock, like, and in many ways, it, kind of, reflects my own newness to, like, the religion. Because I -- because even -- you don't even have to agree with the wall to understand that it's a normal part of a particular society. But for me, it was just, like, "Whoa, people do that?" Like, I had no idea.


I remember at one point there was a -- there was a brother who was walking. We were on campus. I was, like, walking in one direction. He was walking in the opposite direction. And he looks at me, and then immediately looks down. And I remember being, like, "What the hell? Like, did he do that intentionally?" And I remember, like, walking past him, just, like, looking the opposite direction. Like, "I don't see you, either. Like, okay. [laughter] I guess we're going to play this game." Like, I was so shocked, like, people did that. It was something that I had never been exposed to. Despite my family being on the more conservative end of culture, or whatever, I -- that wasn't something that we did, you know? And so I remember being really confused by that.

And then over the course of, like, the next four years, when I become a bit more -- when I -- when I'm more Salafi-leaning, and, you know, follow within their particular ideology, it becomes something, like, "No, no, we have to have the wall. This is so pertinent to our religious existence that we must -- like, no non-Muslim is going to tell us to take the wall down." You know, it became, like, a very, like -- we have to protect the wall, because it, in so many ways, 94:00protects our values. And [laughter] as, like, weird as it sounds, like, it -- I really, like, fought for that wall. And, you know, eventually I also then, on the opposite end, fight to tear it down, once I, like, come out of this, kind of, zone of, like, what I understood to be correct religion. And --

ALI: This happens -- this -- this -- all this happens within your time at Brooklyn College?


ALI: This whole journey?


ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: So it starts out with, like, confusion, then, like, acceptance, then, like, vehement love for it, and then acceptance, and then, I fucking hate it. And so that, I think, in many ways, really encompasses, like, my religious understanding of a lot of things, as well, or my understanding of religion, rather. And -- yeah.

ALI: So tell me -- tell me about meeting Mel [Melike Ser - undercover alias of NYPD officer].

AHSIN: Oo, okay. So Mel -- I -- wait, let me talk more about ISO --


ALI: Okay. Yes.

AHSIN: -- because I think you need --

ALI: Got it. Yeah, yes.

AHSIN: -- to understand ISO --

ALI: Yes, yes.

AHSIN: -- to understand Mel.

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: Okay. So ISO -- I know I keep saying Salafi-leaning, right? So there are certain terms that need to be defined. What is a Salafi? What is a Wahhabi? And how many understandings of Islam are there? And to describe Islam in this, kind of, like, monolithic sense is so disturbing, because Islam, historically, even during its inception, has never been a monolithic entity. And so many religious groups today, in many different spaces, will present Islam as this monolithic entity, and, "If you're not doing it our way, you're doing it the wrong way." And ISO just happened to be one of these entities. And it's not just ISO, it's all -- and it doesn't have to be just ISO's understanding of religion. All -- it's so interesting, because all of them say, "We're doing it the right way," and so all understandings, or many understandings, of Islam will often present 96:00themselves as the only way to practice religion.

And, again, ISO is also a group of students. And so they're very immature in, not just their own understanding of religion, but also in their understanding of, like, society. Like, how people interact, how people grow, you know. They themselves have grown. But in the midst of it, they don't see that you, yourself, can understand things differently today, and will understand those very same things a year, four years, five years down the line, in a completely different lens, or through a different lens.

ALI: Yes. Young -- young people are prone to idealism --


ALI: -- that takes them to either one extreme or the other. Yeah.

AHSIN: Absolutely. And I think that goes for young people everywhere --

ALI: Yep.

AHSIN: -- regardless of whatever ideology they follow, because at that age, I think many of us desire an ideology, a purpose, something to, like, kind of, bind ourselves to. And it's so funny, because we want to limit ourselves within 97:00those circles and those spheres, because it feels amazing. It feels purposeful. It gives you a sense of, like, I have something to look forward to. And we may not articulate it that way, but in retrospect, that is what it is. And it -- that's what it gives us. And I don't know what it is, but I think young people like being part of cults. And I think that's something that, historically even, people -- like, why do people go off to war? They like being a part of this exclusive cult where they can tote guns, and, like, feel purposeful. Um --

ALI: What was the demographic of ISO?

AHSIN: ISO was, for the most part, I want to say, South Asian, children of immigrants. There were Arabs there as well, various kinds, but I think -- like, let's just say, every ISO event, we had some type of desi food. And so I think that speaks volumes about, like, who these people are, and the fact that they're children of immigrants. And so that, I think, also is telling about why certain 98:00people lean towards particular understandings of religion. Many of them come from conservative households -- or not -- and some of them are running away from what their households have already brought up in them. And so they find that conservative Salafi appeal very intriguing.

And so -- and of course this is not all immigrants, but I -- if you look at New York City's demographic in general, you have a lot of immigrant communities that are holding on to cultural norms, because it -- one, it's they're fresh off the boat, so to speak, but they're also, in many ways, like, afraid of what will happen if they lose that aspect of, like, their conservativeness, or their culturalness, or whatever the case is. And this is, again, New York City. If you go to Long Island, it's a very different community altogether.

And so anyways, ISO's history is deep and long and -- but when I was there, it 99:00was very, like -- kind of, it was already entrenched. So there were certain figures, alumni, for example, that were very influential in shaping ISO. And they, themselves, if you look at them now, have changed completely. But at the time, even though that they had graduated, had -- and were not even in the country, were still influencing this, like, student organization. And so that was a little strange.

But they were very conservative, and they followed very particular understandings of Islam. Like, followings of, like -- or they -- they were -- they read a lot of, like, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim [Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah], like, people who often are affiliated with the Wahhabi school of -- I don't even want to call it a school of thought, but an ideology, really. Many of them did not follow a particular school of thought, so they didn't identify as, I'm Shafi, Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, but many of them, I would say, were more leaning towards, like, a Hanbali understanding of fiqh, which is 100:00religious rulings and whatnot.

But it was -- you know, for them, they were, like, "No, no, we don't like culture. You know, we don't want to associate Islam with culture. We want it to be in its pure form." They were very puritanical. But, you know, in -- even in that, it's, like, you're not understanding that you may strip it of South Asian culture, but you're filling it with some other type of culture, and you are, in many ways, Arabizing Islam. And -- and Arabizing it in a very particular way. So it's, you know, things that were, like -- for example, all of our books were -- they came out of publishers that were established in Saudi Arabia, you know, and so there was very specific kinds of ways to look at the world, and it was through their eyes. And it was interesting, because if you look at the authors and the scholars that they've read, those scholars in and of themselves would have disagreed with the -- the lifestyle and, like, what they were propagating in this particular organization.

And, you know, as a disclaimer, they weren't particularly political, you know. 101:00They -- this organization did not propagate in any way, shape, or form anything political. In fact, it was very much, like, self-discipline, and this is not permissible within worship, this is permissible. It was very, like, menial things if you look at it on the outside, but it was so strict in what they were -- and how they were doing certain things. Like, for example, like, they said that I wasn't allowed to wear shalwar kameez, because shalwar kameez separates my legs. Like, I -- like, the pants in and of themselves separate the legs, and therefore, you should wear a skirt, or, like, an abaya, and you shouldn't even wear a skirt, because a skirt separates your torso from your bottom half. It was, like, so intense. And I was, like, "What the fuck? Like, what can I wear, if not an abaya?" Like, this is, like, the only thing, really, that I was -- felt allowed to wear. And I felt judged if I didn't, you know, uphold a certain -- I don't even know -- outward religious observance. It -- I felt very, like, "No, no, they're going to find out that I'm not that great on the inside, even though I'm trying." You know?


And so, aside from, like, the gender segregation and just all of it, like, they didn't feel like -- I felt very impassioned by certain things politically, and that just wasn't allowed. Like, "Oh, no, we're not going to cosponsor this event, because there's no segregation wall." And I'm, like, "What the fuck? The event is on Palestine. Like, why -- like, what is -- why do we need a segregation wall for that? [laughter] Like, I don't understand. Like you do have a segregation wall in class? Like, I don't understand. Like, is that something that, you know --" And so there was a lot of conflict with that organization. But while I was in it, it was something that really, I think, in many ways, helped hone certain things, create, like, a foundation, and then I left it, and I didn't -- had no longer any need for it. But it was very strict in -- in the values that they upheld. Like, there was no bending rules.

ALI: So where does Mel come into play with this?

AHSIN: Okay. Mel. Oh, wait, before -- [laughter] I guess I can talk about this and Mel. Okay. So Mel comes to play -- I -- this is 2011? Yeah. I was a 103:00sophomore at the time. This was spring. And every spring, they have Islam Awareness Week. And so ISO is, and always has been, very active in their da'wah initiatives. They love proselytizing people. They love turning people into Muslims. Like, they love turning Muslims into more Muslim, like, super Muslims. Like, they love doing that stuff, because they feel like this is their purpose on campus, is to proselytize people. I don't agree with this. Even when I was there, I didn't agree with it, so I'm really proud of myself for never falling into that little, like, you know, cultish pitfall.

But anyhoo, so there was Islam Awareness Week, which was initially just set up -- it's actually a -- a thing that most MSAs do across the US, where they try to -- and I -- I disagree with this premise, as well, but to, kind of, repel any of the misconceptions that people may have of Muslims. And again, it's, like, why 104:00are you doing that? Who are you doing this for? Like, stop succumbing to, like, what people think of you. Just exist as you are. You don't have to do Islam Awareness Week. But, whatever.

Anyways, so Mel comes during this week. We have a bunch of, like, events every night, and then we also have our regular classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, which were common hours, basically. People didn't have class at that time, generally, and there was just time for people to go to their club events, and hold student type of events. And I was, like, part of, like, so many different clubs, and very active in all student organizations, even while I was in the middle of this, like, world, or what have you. So Mel actually doesn't come to an Islam Awareness Week event. She comes to one of our classes, which was only advertised to Brooklyn College campus, okay? So it should have been a red flag, but at the time, we were like, "Oh, you know what, she probably saw another 105:00event, and decided to come to this event."

So Mel, along with some other non-Muslims at the time that decide to, you know, come to the events to either be exposed to Islam or to have some of their questions answered, or -- many of these people had already been thinking about either becoming Muslim, or just, you know, clarifying certain things about the religion. And so Mel, along with, like, another individual, come to this class. You know, and this particular -- and the other individual, actually, she was a high school student planning on coming to Brooklyn College, and she had friends at Brooklyn College, and so they had invited her to this class.

Mel, on the other hand, literally had no connections to Brooklyn College, which, again, should have been a red flag, but again, we're -- you know. College kids looking to proselytize any -- anybody. [laughter] So she comes, and we don't really ask her too many questions. She --

ALI: How did she introduce herself?

AHSIN: So she calls herself Melike. And so -- she doesn't introduce herself in 106:00the beginning. After the class is over, the other girl who had come was, like, "Oh, I want to become Muslim." So she takes the shahada, which is just the, you know, the declaration of faith and the -- and she openly accepts Islam in front of witnesses. Whatever. She's Muslim now.

ALI: This is the first time that she -- you'd -- she had come to this class?

AHSIN: Yes. So this other student, who was a high school student at the time, she had already been thinking about becoming Muslim for a long time.

ALI: Oh, okay. Okay.

AHSIN: So she comes and she just finds that this is, like, the ideal opportunity. She's with her friends, and it's -- she feels comfortable. She does it. She takes the shahada. She becomes Muslim. Mel sees this happen, is, like, "I want to become Muslim, too." First time she came to this class. First time she came to Brooklyn College, allegedly. I have no idea if she's been there prior to that. But, you know, she's, like, well -- so she takes it. We don't ask her any questions at the time.

And then she -- you know, we tell her, "Oh, how'd you find us -- find Brooklyn 107:00College? How did you find this class?" Because again, we've only really advertised it to other Brooklyn College students. I think maybe other CUNY students, like Hunter, but really nothing beyond that. Whereas the Islam Awareness Week events were -- they were advertised everywhere. And these particular classes were only advertised, again, to Muslims, not just to Brooklyn College students, but really just to our MSAs. And she was, like, "Oh, you know, I just saw it a flyer for it." Again, another red flag. We should have, like, caught it then. There are so many red flags. Like, I swear to God, if I were to sit down and just write down all the red flags, like -- I want to slap myself or, like, somebody for, like, not picking up on this earlier.

But anyways, she was, like -- she also was, like, "Oh, I want to take the shahada." She takes the shahada. Whatever. We welcome her. We -- they end up -- I actually didn't go with her at the time, but a bunch of them decide to go eat and then hang out in the MSA room afterwards, and then just get to know Mel after the fact.

And so -- but in that time, while she's in the room -- sorry. While we're in the 108:00class still together, she was, like, "Well, uh, my family's Turkish. You know, they're secular Turks, so nominally Muslim, but have never practiced a single thing of religion in their entire life." I'm, like, "Okay, so, you're just, basically, like" -- I wouldn't even -- I don't even know what to call this. Like, I'm -- a revert, or something like that. But -- so her family was technically Muslim, so I guess that's the excuse that she -- or -- well, we obviously now know she's probably not at all Turkish, but, like, this idea of, like, "Oh, I just want to reconnect with the religion. That's why I really -- why I took the shahada." She tells us to call her Mel, so nobody calls her Melike.

ALI: Did she give a last name?

AHSIN: So what's so interesting is, like, she did give a last name. But on her email address, it's the first three letters of her last name, which are S-E-R. And I forgot what the rest of her last name was. And so this comes in -- this 109:00comes in -- or what I thought would come in handy afterwards, but we can go back to that later --

ALI: Yeah.

AHSIN: -- about her last name.

ALI: So she's -- just introduces herself as--

AHSIN: She introduces herself --

ALI: Mel-- Melike?

AHSIN: Yeah. She introduces herself as Melike, and insists that we call her Mel. And then -- so this is the spring of 2011, I want to say, like, March, April, something like that. And then from there up until I -- for, like, the next couple of years, becomes, like, an everyday part of Brooklyn College -- Brooklyn College's MSA community.

ALI: Mel does.

AHSIN: Mel does. Mel, who told us that she was from Rutgers, or had graduated from Rutgers in, like, some communications degree, right? So has no connection to any of the CUNYs. She lives in Queens, so it's not even like she lives in -- near Brooklyn College, that she would --

ALI: Did she seem older or younger -- what did she seem?

AHSIN: So she -- she had, like, kind of, like, a baby face. She did -- she said she had already graduated, so she was a little bit older than all of us. So if I was, like, 20 at the time, she must have been 24, allegedly. Something to that 110:00effect. Again, you know, she lives with her mom. She's -- doesn't really have much family or a community, for that sense -- for that matter, and so she feels, like, a sense of community with us, and therefore she decides that's she's going to continue to stay with us. And that's, kind of, like, how she's presenting herself as.

I don't know if others have gotten -- or other people who had communicated with her at the time had gotten more information about her family life and personal life and things like that, but I never asked her where she worked, for example. So I didn't know, you know -- I didn't even know whether or not she had a car, you know. So these things I didn't really know about her that you would normally know about friends that, you know, you would see so frequently. I just never chose to pry into her personal life like that.

But she becomes an everyday part of our life. And in fact, when the 2011 AP reports came out that the NYPD was spying on Muslim communities and has been since 9/11, she was so shocked. She's like, "How could they? Are you sure?" And 111:00we're, like, "Yeah, the news came out, and, you know, it's been all over everywhere, and people are being interviewed for that. And, like, you know, people are talking about this. Yes, we are sure that the NYPD has been spying on us." And, you know, for many of us Muslims, it was something that, yeah, it was shocking, but at the same time, it was just a confirmation of what we had already known to be true, and so it wasn't that shocking. And -- but it was still very scary that, you know, what was once an urban legend is actually confirmed by all sources of what people would consider authority. So you can only imagine what they're not telling us.

So -- but anyway, so she becomes a very, like -- very regular part of our events, of our get-togethers, you know. So this isn't just on campus, now. This is also off campus. She becomes -- she goes to weddings. She becomes somebody's bridesmaid. She becomes, like, very, like, intertwined within, you know, 112:00people's lives.

ALI: What are -- what are your interactions with her like during this time?

AHSIN: So my interactions with her -- it's interesting, because I -- they -- it first starts out, like, "Oh my god, she's a convert. You know, we have to welcome her. We have to make her feel at home. I never want her to feel like she doesn't -- she's without community, especially because she only has her mom with her, so it's not even, like, she has, like, you know, deep family roots or anything like that." And there was this fear of, like, "No, no, what if she -- I don't want her to ever feel like an outcast." So myself and, like, many other people, especially those of us who are little bit more outgoing, would do anything and everything to, kind of, make her feel good, and, like, you know, take her out, and do all these things, whatever.

And -- so the summer comes around. And this is the summer between my sophomore and junior year, and so now I'm thinking about, you know, my thesis, and, like, the things that I want to continue doing in -- within -- you know, for my major, and when I want to eventually graduate. And so I'm really, like, full-time 113:00political science at this point. So I'm taking a lot of classes that have to deal with, you know, whether it's IR [International Relations], whether it's, like, specifically Muslim issues, like, I'm starting to become -- it's not just Palestine anymore for me. It's, like, the larger Muslim international. And so for me, it becomes -- I'm -- I'm really being invested in, like, these ideas, and research, and things like that.

And so that summer happens. I'm still very active in the Palestinian Club. In fact, when the reports come out, I become so paranoid. Like, who can I trust, who can't I trust? Because Brooklyn College was listed as one of the places where you had frequent informants and, like, undercovers, and things like that. And the fact that, you know, members of our community -- you know, there were dossiers, like, written about all of these people. Like, they had their pictures, and their activities. And, like, all of these things had come out that I was just, like, you know, these people that are in my -- in this club that I, 114:00you know, am so close to, how many of them are actually working for the NYPD? And so it became, like, a very -- it became, like, a way to, kind of, like, disintegrate the work that we were doing, at least for some time, where it was, like, I felt like I couldn't talk to anybody anymore. I couldn't talk to family members. It felt very, very scary to even bring up my political ideas, because I was just, like, well, "Are -- you know, are you going to record this?" or whatever.

But anyhoo, so after the reports, I become very aware of, like, the domestic issues. So now I went from Palestine specifically, to the Muslim international, and now domestically, what's happening with us. And that became something that was at the forefront of whatever I wanted to either research or do something about, or, like, whatever -- my activism became a little bit more niche at that point.

Anyhoo, so around -- so that following fall -- this is after the reports -- Mel becomes really close with one of my best friends. And now, I have no issue with 115:00people becoming friends with my friends, like, at all. But I start suspecting her. And I'm just, like -- you know, and this particular friend of mine, is -- at that time, was very, I would say, impressionable. She was very kind and very, like -- she wouldn't assume negatively of somebody that she met, even if that person was, you know, had, like, a million and one red flags. She would make excuses for this person.

So she was applying for a degree in mental health counseling in Queens College, because she really liked the program over there. So now Mel, who, again, graduated Rutgers with a communications degree, is, like, "I'm going to do that, too." Has no background in mental health counseling, no background in psychology, no background in anything that would lead her to want to do a degree in mental health counseling.

I'm already suspicious of her, because I'm just, like -- she's, like, new to this community, like -- and then I start questioning, where did she actually 116:00come from? What is she doing here? Like, she can't find a masjid, like, near her home? Like, why's she gotta travel all the way to Brooklyn College, like, at the end of, like, the 2 train, to, like, you know, get to us, and then, you know, become so engrossed in whatever we're doing? Like, we're a bunch of kids. She's, like, 24, 25. Like, what is she doing with us? So now the questions start coming. And then when I find out that she's also interested in this program, I'm immediately, like, you know what? She wants -- she wants to entrap her. That's exactly what she wants to do. She -- like, why her of all people, you know, and why this program?

And so now, our community over there is so -- so our community is very conservative, but also very, like -- I don't even know how to describe this -- like, morally, like, righteo-- I don't even know how to describe it. But they're very, like -- their moral compass is so strong, like, you couldn't do anything to break the rules. And so one of the things that we were very -- what was drilled inside of us was, like, you don't backbite. You don't talk about another Muslim -- or another human being, but especially not another Muslim -- in somebody else's company that -- in a way that they would not want you to speak 117:00of them.

And so for me, it became, like, this -- I suspect this person. Like, my underco-- like, my informant radar is, like, going crazy right now. But at the same time, I can't tell anybody, because that's something that we don't do. Because, let's say, God forbid, that she isn't an informant, and I'm just suspecting her. Now I've, like, you know, disseminated doubt in -- amongst all of these, like, community members, about a convert, especially. Like, she doesn't -- like, this is all -- we're all she has, at the end of the day. And then on top of that, I, like, made everyone doubt her, and now, like, I'm going to hell. Like, that's literally, like, my logic.

And so I was, like, "Okay. I've got to find another way to convince my friend to stay away from her without putting doubt of her in her mind." And so I start convincing my friend not to go to Queens College. [laughter] And so I'm basically, like, "Listen. There are mental health programs, like, so many other -- in so many other places that are way better than Queens College. Just don't go there. Like, it's not a good place to go." And I'm, like, trying to convince her in all of these different ways. And she obviously is, like, "Rabia, you sound absolutely crazy. Like, what is going on?" And I was, like, "Listen. It's 118:00not safe." And I'm trying to -- like, my best not to say that Mel is a fucking informant, just stay away from her. And I'm literally, like, beating around the bush.

And I -- you know, looking back now, I wish I had said it to Mel's face, that, "I think I know who you are." And I didn't, because for those couple of months, I start obsessively googling her. And so this is where her last name comes in handy, or rather, does not come in handy. [laughter] And so I -- literally every combination possible, like, not just her name, but I'm talking, like, every social media. Anything connected to her. Turkey, Rutgers, New Jersey, Queens, like, anything. I swear to god, if I found even -- if I had found even a single thing connecting Mel to Melike Ser, or whatever she had told us her name was, I would've literally dropped it. I would've been, like, "No, she's a real person, and I'm just so paranoid and crazy."

ALI: So during this time, is she still coming around? Are you still seeing her?

AHSIN: Yes. So --

ALI: And what is your interaction with her like?

AHSIN: So Mel consistently comes to Brooklyn College, from my knowledge, up 119:00until 2013, which is when I had left. What she does afterwards, I'm not too aware of, but from 2011 to 2013, she is a consistent part of the Brooklyn College community. And the way that I interact with her, especially in the beginning, when I was really paranoid, I act totally normal, because I'm just, like, you know what? There could be -- I could be wrong. There is that chance that I'm wrong, and until I get a real confirmation that this is who she is, or this is who she's not, I'm just going to interact with her normally. I'll avoid her when I can, but I'm not going to behave rudely. I'm not going to let her know that I think she's not Muslim, because the connotations of that are so great that, like, I would never want to push someone away from Islam, especially when this is the only community that they've, you know, been a part of.

Like, now, if you were to ask me how I would be have with somebody who I thought was an informant, I would straight up let them know, "This is who I think you are. So you either clean up your act and stop acting shady, or you, you know, 120:00come out with the fact that you're an informant."

ALI: At -- at the time, based on your interaction with her, other than the -- the context of the mysteries around her, were there things that she said or did that, you know, kind of, signaled to you that there was something, just, not right?

AHSIN: Yeah. So Mel would -- again, I don't know -- I didn't know what Mel did for a living. I never inquired. I thought that was, kind of, rude to ask, "Hey, what do you do? Like, where -- you know, what do you do?" And so she would constantly talk about how she has a full-time job. Like, she wouldn't constantly talk about it like she's obsessed with it, but she would, like, mention it frequently enough for me to know that she has a full-time job somewhere. And she would talk about this, and I'm thinking, "If you have a full-time job, but you're literally here, whether it's at a morning event, an evening event, a weekend event, like, you don't care. Like, you're here. Like, are you working 121:00here? Is that your job, is to come here? Like, is that what it is?" And I remember thinking, like, "It's got to be it, because there's no chance in hell that she works full time but has the leisure to come to -- I don't even have the leisure to come to all of the events."

ALI: She's, like, "You're my full-time job." [laughter]

AHSIN: Yeah. And I'm just, like -- you know, that, to me, was such a big deal. And then she would do this thing where, like -- and again, I don't care how you -- like, even then, I did not care how -- like, I cared about my family's religious, like, sense of self, but I did not give two shits about, like, how other people behaved, what they did, what they believed in, what they wore, none of that.

But I found Mel so curious, because she would never wear hijab, but she would wear it at an all-girls gathering. I'm, like, "Why are you wearing hijab now? Like, this is the one time you could probably, like, if you wore it, take it off, you know." But she would do this thing, and I think it was, like, this, kind of, like, symbolic, like, "Oh, no, no. I'm still a part of you guys." And so she would wear it, but then as soon as the event was over, she would be leaving, and she'd take it off.

And to me, it wasn't really something that was, like, a big deal, but in context 122:00to who she was, I thought it was so weird, because from the day that she met us, up until the last time I've ever seen her on campus, she never changed. Like, she never went up and down with religion. And, you know, when you are a part of a community, you can love that community, but no doubt you're also going to hate that community, and there's going to be a push and pull, this, kind of, back and forth, and there's going to be ideas that you agree with, vehemently agree with, and then there are ideas that you absolutely are going to trash, because you're, like, "Nah, I'll do this, but I won't do that." And there's going to be a back and forth, kind of, with ideas and with people. And I felt like she never had that.

And you're coming -- if you tell me you're coming from this, like, secular background, regardless of how open-minded you are, there are going to be things about, you know, communities and cultures that you're not a part of that you're going to find very weird, you know? I came from a conservative background, and I thought the segregation wall was weird as fuck. Like, that was something that was so weird to me when I was first exposed to it, and I questioned it. And it's 123:00not because I'm particularly outgoing. It's because it was, like, "Whoa, this is a part of my religion? I must interrogate." You know?

Whereas with her, "You accepted niqab? You thought that was -- like, you thought that was obligatory? Like, you thought all of these -- like, you come from a secular background" -- you know, a secular Turkish background, allegedly, and there's, like, serious connotations to secular Turks within, like, the conservative religious community and vice versa. But, "You come from this background, and yet you wholeheartedly accept everything without this back and forth push and pull, and yet you implement none of it."

And to me, like, that entire, like, I guess, aura around that was so absurd that when she put on hijab in front of all girls, like, I just thought, connected to everything else that I know about you, it was just such a weird thing, especially considering, like, the Brooklyn College MSA. Like, their ISO was so influential that, if you hung out with them long enough, you became like them. But she stuck out like a sore thumb every time, so it made -- it led me to 124:00believe that, "You're not really in it, because if you were, you would have fights. You would come to one of us and tell us that, 'I'm having issues with this thing.' You know?" But -- and there were so many converts within our community who had just that, because that's a normal part of being part of any religious -- or any community in general, but especially a religious community, especially a Muslim community. Like, you're going to have ups and downs. And to me, the fact that she never had that, paired up with the fact that, "Hello, where'd you come from?" On top of the fact that she worked full time and, like, never was at work, apparently.

ALI: Or was at work.

AHSIN: Or was at work, [laughter] right? On top of the fact that, like, you know, I found her, like, ways and, like, latching onto people very odd. Like, all of this combined, and then having no information on her on the internet was so, like, alarming for me.

ALI: Did she ever try to start conversations to elicit the kinds of things one 125:00would think --

AHSIN: Right.

ALI: -- would be the objective of this -- this kind of surveillance?

AHSIN: So she had never done that with me, and I think part of the reason why she never spoke to me about, let's say, jihad, or revolution, or suicide bombs, I don't know, a number of one of those things that, you know, one would think that an informant is trying to, you know, kind of, like, harvest, is because I was very politically active, very politically, like, open about things. And because I was so paranoid, you could never catch me slipping. Like, you could never catch me talking about something that could even remotely be taken out of context. You know? Like a part of my regular language then also became, like, giving disclaimers, because it's, like, yeah, if you're going to record me, here, take the whole thing.

But I do think that she had targets on campus. I think there were very particular kinds of people and very particular people that she wanted to entrap. 126:00And I'm not going to name names, just for their own safety, but I did have friends who had later, you know, come out and said that, "She did very explicitly talk to us about jihad, and had questions, like, literally, day two of becoming Muslim, 'So what's the deal with jihad?'" You know?

And I think -- and there's a -- a -- another layer to this. It's very juvenile to ask about these things if you're an informant, because it's very -- like, you can be very easily ousted as an informant. And so, she wasn't an informant. She was an undercover, meaning she was trained to embed herself in a community and then slowly, kind of, entrap somebody. And so the difference between an informant is that they are untrained, and that they will ask these juvenile, kind of, questions, and people can immediately tell, "Okay, you're an informant. Why are you asking about this in this odd situation?" If I was to talk about jihad in, like, an academic context, for example -- like, I've taken classes on, 127:00like, jihad violence and secularism. You know? And so if I talk about it, natural, cool. Like, this is part of the research that you're doing. If you, like, literally, just became Muslim and started asking me these questions, that's obviously a red flag, you know. I'm obviously not going to talk to you about these things in any context.

But with her, she had done that in the beginning, and then she, kind of, slowly stopped. She didn't do that after awhile. Her main purpose then became to embed herself within that community. And I think she was strategic in doing that, to legitimize who she was.

ALI: So as your suspicions are growing, how did you -- and -- and you said you were -- you were hesitant to do an outward accusation, or even to start talking to people, because you didn't want to engage in, you know, gossiping or -- or backbiting is the term you used. Tell me what then happened next.


AHSIN: Okay. So because I didn't want to openly talk about her in a way that would accuse her of not being Muslim -- that was, like, my main concern. It wasn't even that she was an informant, but that she was, like, not Muslim. I didn't want to throw that out there, because I obviously felt religiously compelled to keep that to myself. But I did end up -- because I was obsessively googling her. Like, she literally became my obsession that semester. I was googling every combination of her name possible, or every combination of her identity possible.

And then I was, like, shit. You know what? I need to have her last name in order to make this search really work for me. And so I text a friend of mine who was part of the MSA at the time, and I was, like, "Hey, someone wanted to know Mel's last name. Do you -- do you have, like, the sign-in sheet from this last event, or something like that?" [laughter] Like, I tried to be mad, like, nonchalant, like, really, like, you know, beat around the bush over there. But then she was, 129:00like, "Rabia, I have the same concerns. We need to have a meeting." And so that was the first time that I had somebody else that I could go to and talk to them about these suspicions. Because, mind you, at this point it's been, like, what, four months that this has just been, like, you know, mulling over my -- whatever, that I've been, like, simmering about this idea.

And, you know, what's so interesting is, like, with this particular person, I hadn't spoken to her openly -- even then, after we had, like, our little meeting, and I'll go into that -- I hadn't spoken to her openly about Mel or said her name ever in this context until 2015. So this is now three, three and a half years later that we finally, actually, openly talk about Mel.

But at the time, what ended up happening was that me and this person, we decide that we're going to hold, like, a little meeting with some key members of the MSA and, like, people who we think would be interested in at least doing something about the Mel situation. And so we're like, okay, let's have a meeting 130:00at -- in the quad. No phones, no electronics. Everything's going to be put away. It's going to be out in the open, in the grass, where there's no possible way that somebody can record us. And we'll just talk about what's happening. So it was myself, and, I want to say, one, two, three, four, five other people. Right? So it was -- and my sister being one of them.

And so we're talking about this, and I give -- at the time, I'm also working at CAIR [Council on American-Islamic Relations] as a communications intern, so I was, like, you know, more engrossed in what was happening. We would do, like, Know Your Rights workshops and things of that nature. And so -- and surveillance and Muslim issues became really at the forefront of whatever I was working with outside of school, in school, and now in my personal life. I'm sorry -- Muslim issues directly related to the NYPD. I should clarify.

Anyhoo, so the five of us meet up at the quad, which is, like, our -- the lawn area at Brooklyn College. And we start -- I give this whole spiel about, like, you know, surveillance, and Fahad Hashmi, and, sort of -- he was an alumni of 131:00Brooklyn College, and what had happened to him, and how this is, like, a repetition of what's going -- might happen to somebody at Brooklyn College, you know. And so we're -- I'm talking about the historical situation, the present situation, and potential for future action, what we can do to help protect ourselves.

And so once I'm done with this, like, little, you know, 10-minute spiel that I give, one of the girls -- I wanted to slap her. She was, like, "Hmm, you know, that's fine, but I think the only way we can protect ourselves is through God, so we should go and have classes about Islamic creed, and why we shouldn't be afraid of -- of anyone." And I was, like, "Are you fucking serious? Like, I'm telling you there's, like, a real problem on campus, that there's somebody out here, potentially, that is trying to entrap another Muslim, just like they did with Fahad Hashmi, and you know, you're telling me that we need to become more religious? Like, what -- [laughter] like, do you see there's a disconnect here? Like, I'm not telling you not to, you know, take on these religious classes or, 132:00like, you know, 'protect yourself,' in quotes, with God, but I'm telling you to do something practical about it, as well. Like, we need to, you know -- we need to take action against what we think might actually end up harming the community in the long run."

And I -- you know, I had talked about, like, Know Your Rights workshops that we can set up through CAIR, or, like, all these other things that we can do to, kind of, prevent -- or, even if we can't prevent anything, at least, at the very least, protect ourselves with what we -- with whatever arsenal we can, meaning, like, at -- you know, when we spot something fishy, what do -- what do we do?

But anyhoo, so that, kind of, like, gets brushed under the rug. And I, at this point, am also starting to leave -- this is my junior year of college. I start leaving the MSA completely, because I'm just, like, this is -- this is an organization I don't vibe with. I don't vibe with their values. I no longer adhere to their particular religious ideology. And there's really nothing in here for me left to make me feel, like, a sense of purpose [inaudible].


ALI: So this is coinciding with your, kind of --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- emergence out of --


ALI: -- the more con-- the Salafi-type thing.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: Yeah. So I start leaving this organization, not only because I just don't vibe with, like, the religious adherence to their -- sorry. Not only because I don't vibe with, like, their religious understanding, but also because I feel like, practically speaking, like, this organization is not for me. You know, I want to do something about real issues that are happening that are affecting the Muslim community, and this organization is holding me back from, you know, engaging in anything that might, I don't know, help us.

But anyhoo, Mel, then -- okay. So this is 20-- this is my junior year. I get in contact with Professor Jeanne Theoharis. I want to focus my -- I want to do an independent study with her, and I wanted to focus on Muslim issues. Specifically, I was actually looking at Guantanamo Bay, and, kind of, like, 134:00connecting, you know, what -- what we were dealing with over here in the domestic, kind of, sphere, with, like, what ends up happening to Muslims in, sort of, Black site prisons and whatnot. And --

ALI: And what drew you to Professor Theoharis?

ALI: So I didn't know much about Professor Theoharis at the time. I did know that she was Fahad Hashmi's mentor, and that, you know, she had also mentored another friend of mine, and he had done an independent research with her -- a study with her, as well. And I was interested, because those -- those research interests overlapped. And so I was, like, maybe she might be somebody I can, like, at least, you know, study under. I can't take any of her classes, just because of the classes that she's having, or whatever. They just don't coincide with my schedule for my senior year. And so I was, like, I'll just do an independent study with her. That way, I'll be exposed to, kind of, her expertise, while also working on my eventual thesis.

And so -- but anyhoo, so that summer -- so at this point, I'm, kind of, like -- 135:00I've left ISO. I'm no longer a part of that organization. And then over the summer, I get in touch with Professor Theoharis, and she gives me a reading list. And we're -- I'm, kind of, working towards honing some ideas over the summer. And that fall, you know, we, kind of, go in headstrong with, like, whatever I want to eventually do my thesis on. But it changes over time. So it goes from working with my ideas about, like, Muslim prisoners, to, like, talking specifically about surveillance in -- in New York City.

And then that same fall, that same semester, we have an informant that came out, the John Jay informant. And, you know, this, kind of, reopens fear within the community that there is somebody here, or there was somebody here, you know, presenting themselves as something that they were not. And that -- with their sole purpose being to entrap somebody or get, you know, another member in 136:00trouble, and whatnot.

And so that fall, Shamiur Rahman comes out. And I remember going to Theoharis, and telling her, obviously, that this had happened, and then a couple of days later the news breaks out that, you know, he was, in fact, an informant, whereas prior to this, it was, just, kind of, like, hearsay -- not hearsay, but Facebook messages and things like that letting us know that, you know, watch -- watch out for this person.

ALI: Facebook messages among --

AHSIN: Muslims. Like, amongst just friends.

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: Like, this --

ALI: So people, kind of, -- so the -- just to get the sequence.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: The report is that there's an informant at John Jay. It isn't named. The person isn't named yet.

AHSIN: No, he's named.

ALI: Oh, he is named?

AHSIN: Yeah. So basically what happened was, there was a Facebook status that had come out. And again, this is just for friends. It wasn't --

ALI: Yeah.

AHSIN: -- something that was, like, public. But he, you know, he was a mutual friend at the time. And he basically said that there's -- within our community, Shamiur Rahman, who many people knew, because he was part of a larger 137:00organization to -- it was called Fesabeelillah [Services of NYC], which was basically to help -- it was, like, a charity organization, which -- their goal was to eradicate poverty, which obviously can't happen, but the idea being, like, they really wanted to help poor and homeless people in New York City. He was a part of that organization for, again, the sole purpose to entrap somebody in there to eventually -- whatever -- to find somebody that they can entrap.

Anyways, so somebody in this organization comes out and says that Shamiur Rahman has come out as an informant. If you are in contact with him, just be careful. He's already ousted himself as, he is an informant, has been working with the NYPD for x amount of years, is not even a Muslim. Like, him not being Muslim wasn't even an issue. It was the fact that he was working for the NYPD.

ALI: Oh, so this is independent of the John Jay thing.

AHSIN: So he is the John Jay informant.

ALI: Oh, he is the John Jay --


ALI: -- informant.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: And so -- okay. All right.


AHSIN: Yeah, so --

ALI: So it isn't -- this -- this doesn't break in the news. This breaks within the network.


ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: So this, just for us, for people who were either connected through Facebook with these people or were friends with them in real life, we find out through social media that Shamiur Rahman, the John Jay informant, comes out -- has ousted himself, and no longer wants to work with the NYPD, feels bad, whatever the case is, and is basically saying, I'm out. Don't contact me, to the people he was in contact with before.

I go and tell Theoharis that this has happened, that, you know, again, that fear that had, you know, kind of, ruptured when the 2011 reports came out obviously has reopened. And then either that day or, like, a couple of days after, breaking news, John Jay informant, Shamiur Rahman comes out, etc., etc. And again, the AP does, like, a whole thing on that as a part of their surveillance series.

And then -- so me and Theoharis talk about that for some time. And then I 139:00finally feel comfortable enough to tell somebody about my fears of Mel. And so now this is fall of 2012. So this is about a year and a half after Mel comes into our lives. I finally tell somebody openly that -- sorry. Excuse me. I finally tell somebody openly that there's somebody within our community that I really believe is not saying who they are. And again, at this time, I -- just assuming that she's an informant. I have no sense of, like, she could potentially be an undercover or something else.

And so I tell her this, and then Theoharis says, "Wow, that's really interesting that this is a female informant, or somebody who may be potentially an informant, happens to be a woman." And so prior to this, we've only ever had male informants. And it's very interesting that you would -- that they would have in -- a female undercover slash informant in our community, because we are 140:00segregated, and so if you want to spy on Muslim women, you can't do so if you're only sending out male informants because of how deeply segregated our community is. And so Theoharis also said that kind of makes sense that they would do that.

And so she, I guess, makes sense of the potential of it. We, kind of, like, sweep it under the rug at that point. Again, there's no tangible proof that Mel is who she, you know -- Mel is not who she says she is. And so we drop it. I end up doing my research, actually, on CUNY students that have -- sorry. Muslim students within CUNY that have either dabbled in something to do with surveillance, or, you know, they feel that they're being watched, and whatnot. So basically, my research was essentially the thing that was happening to me personally.

And so, you know, I complete that project. And then 2013, I graduate, and I don't really think about Mel until about six months later. My sister had done 141:00this conference on, like, hijab and modesty in Muslim women, and it was a relatively big conference. Many people had come, and one of those people happened to be Mel. And I saw her in passing. And it was the first time that I just -- she acknowledged me, and she, you know, was so excited to see me, and I was just, like -- and I just turned away. Because at this point, again, no longer adhere to those, like, religious, you know, values that I had had when I was in college, where, you know, despite your own suspicions, you treat somebody fairly, or whatever the case is. Not to say that I wouldn't have treated her fairly, but for me, it was just, like, I'm not even going to deal with, like, being kind to you. Like, I'm just going to look away, and, like, not interact or engage with you.

And that was the last time that I had seen or heard of her for a very long time, until 2015, when the two women that she had gotten arrested, the news breaks out 142:00that, you know, two women in Queens are associated or affiliated with some ISIS-related crime. And I, at that point, just tend to tune out -- even now, today, I tune out these types of, you know, like, news stories, because to me, it's, like -- it was most likely entrapment. I'm sick of, like, consuming this type of news. It's, like, not good for my own mental health. I physically can't do anything about it. Just going to tune it out.

So normally, I would tune everything out, but I found out that these two women I had actually -- I had known them in different capacities. So one of them I had known through social media, and I had also met her at different protests. And another one I met in real life, and she had told me that she was, like, a fan of mine, and that she would follow me on social media. And, like, I didn't really think anything of it. Again, these -- like, they weren't some -- they weren't people that I had regularly interacted with. But what I did know of them, that they were very nice people, wouldn't do anything particularly erratic. The person that I had met at this event, she actually dealt with mental health 143:00issues, and the other one had dealt with poverty and dealt with -- they were both vulnerable in different ways, and --

So it also makes sense why Mel had latched onto them, because part of what undercovers and informants do is they find people who are vulnerable in different capacities. So whether those people are vulnerable financially, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, etc., and those people are easier to latch onto, because they can find, like, an insecurity or whatnot, or a void that they can fill. And once you fill that void, you become, in many ways, irreplaceable for them, and can manipulate them, and you have, like, a -- there -- there becomes, like, a power dynamic there. And I think she took advantage of that power dynamic and had entrapped these two women.

And they were arrested for, like, some bogus charge of, like, keeping -- I don't even know. Something like can-- like propane canisters in their basement or something to that effect. And I'm not going to speak too much about the case or 144:00anything, but what ended up happening in 2015 when Mel had arrested these two women -- and again, this is two years after I had graduated, and at this point, this is about four years that she's been active in the -- and not just our -- our community, but in New York City. So at this point, she's, like, traveled to different communities. And so Mel -- sorry. So once we find out that these two women had been arrested, I was a -- I don't even know how to put this now. Okay. So there was -- this is, like, I've got to backtrack for a little bit. Wait, edit all of this out. [laughter]

Okay. So basically there was an organization I was a part of. It was called No Separate Justice. And this organization met monthly to do vigils in front of MCC -- the Manhattan Correctional Center, which is basically, like, a prison Black site in Lower Manhattan. And so basically, at this vigil -- I actually wasn't at 145:00this vigil, but Professor Theoharis and another friend of mine, Ayisha Irfan, they had met up, and Theoharis had let her know that, you know, the lawyers are saying that the main suspect in this particular case is this Turkish woman named Malikah spelled differently than how Mel would spell her name. And so now Ayisha is on this mission to find out if anybody in her network knows how Mali-- this Turkish Melika. Mass texts, everyone that she would think might know, or whatever the case is.

And it was interesting, because that night, I quit smoking. I went to the therapy. And I got a text from Ayisha telling me that -- or asking me, rather, do I know a Turkish Melika? And at first, I'm, like, because it was spelled differently, I didn't think anything of it. I was, like, "No, why?" And she was, like -- and remember, also, at this point, I haven't seen Mel in a very long 146:00time. And she was, like, "Theoharis thinks that this is" -- or, sorry. "Theoharis has told me that the lawyers think that she's the main suspect in terms of who might -- who they think might be the informant in Asia and Noelle's case.

And immediately, I start hyperventilating. I freak the hell out. I call Ayisha, and I'm, literally, like, heaving. And all I say is, "I know her. Sometimes she wore hijab and sometimes she didn't." And so it was, like, this absurd thing that comes out of my mouth. And again, I don't care that she didn't wear hijab. Like, to me, it was just, like, a series of, like, different things. I wanted to tell her all of, like, the red flags that I had seen, and everything, like, why I had suspected her for so -- for, like, all these years. And all that comes out is, like, "Sometimes she wore hijab [laughter] and sometimes she didn't." And then -- and again, I'm, like, hyperventilating, heaving, like, going -- like, literally, I have, like, no sense of, like, control at this point. And I also just had, like, my first therapy session, so I was already emotional as is.


And then she's, like, "Breathe. Just tell me what happened." So I literally just sit there telling her everything that I knew about Mel and everything that -- and why I think that this person might have been the informant, and, like, everything else makes sense in terms of, like, what, I guess, the lawyers had told Theoharis. And then we get Theoharis on three-way, and the three of us are talking.

And then I'm, like, obsessively, like, texting one of my -- the friend that I had texted all those years ago about Mel, the first person that I had ever alluded to. She's not picking up her phone. She's not tex-- I'm like, oh my god, I haven't kept in contact with her. Maybe this isn't even her number. And I'm, like, freaking out. I email her in all caps, like, "MEL WAS AN INFORMANT. GET BACK TO ME." She calls me, and she was, like, "Oh my god. What happened?" I have -- I -- it's, like, Subhanallah. Like, I can't believe this, but I can. But it was, like, this rush of emotion that, like, I guess, the five of us are, like -- really just the two of us at this point -- were, like, dealing with.

And then I tell her to send me as many pictures of Mel as she can. And so it's so interesting, because Mel didn't really take pictures, and she made that very, like, clear from, like, day one. "I don't like taking pictures." And so she was 148:00always on the other end taking pictures of other people. And so some of the pictures that she was in -- actually, all of the pictures she was in, every single one of them has -- she's wearing glasses, and some of them, she's, like, sitting so far from the group, you would think she's, like, a regular person, like -- not a regular person, but, like, she's, like, not part of the group. Like, she's just, like, a pedestrian or, like, somebody just, like, j chilling, like, on the side. Like, they're not, like, really a part of, like, this friend group. And she sends me all of these pictures that she has, whatever -- and there obviously weren't that many. And then -- so we end up sending them to the lawyers, and they confirm that this is the person that Asia and Noelle believe is the informant in this case.

Sorry. At this point, we now find out she's an undercover, because in the report, it was actually "UC" or whatever, which indicates that this person was an undercover. So now this becomes even -- there's, like, a level of, like, or a layer of, like, I don't know, sinisterness that happens, because it's just, like, oh my god, wait, this person was actually trained. Her sole purpose, her 149:00work, was to do this, which is, in many ways, far scarier than, let's say, like, an informant. Which is scary, but an informant could be just somebody who did some petty crime and wants to get off, whereas, like, you know, this is, like, your sole purpose, is to entrap somebody or to, you know, do something to harm the community.

And, you know, so this happens. And mind you -- okay. So I talk to -- I talk to the lawyers, and, you know, we -- whatever. And so we get, pretty much, a confirmation that this is it, and then they start trying to build their case. Like, you know, how can we -- because entrap-- entrapment cases are very hard to fight, because it's basically 99 percent conviction, or if not that, then you have to take a plea -- plea deal, or whatever. And so they're trying to now build a case. Like, maybe we can find more informants, because how -- it's so rare to, you know, uncover an undercover in this case. And, you know, the fact that we all, kind of, came together. We were able to, like, find out that this was -- because, you know, they probably thought that, okay, caught these two 150:00women. There's no way that, you know, Mel would be discovered, or whatever the case was.

And then, you know, this story becomes so, like, absurd. A -- a friend of ours, a journalist friend, she ends up writing about this. She drafts, like, an article, and sends it to a couple of different sources, and nobody wants to take it. Nobody wants -- you know, it's, like, it seems, like, unbelievable. We had people in our community who were just, like, "No, these are just" -- you know, respected people that you could go to, and they were like, "Oh, no, these are just a bunch of girls just making things up for attention," or some shit like that. Or, like, "They don't really have the facts. This is, like, something made up. This can't be true."

And anyways, our journalist friend goes, and the Gothamist prints it out. And they, you know, they publish this story. The story goes viral, and the commissioner confirms that Mel was in fact the undercover at this case. So we now have a confirmation at that level. We -- you know, and they went and said, 151:00"Oh, but it was necessary. We had -- we -- you know -- it was -- we had permission from the Handschu committee, or whatever the case was. And there was no -- nothing wrong that was happening on campus."

And obviously, there was, like, things that can be said about that, lots of things, but point being, the commissioner had admitted to it. And then that becomes, like, a, kind of, like, "holy shit" moment for all of us. One, that we had enough trust within ourselves to come up with the fact that this person did exist, and she was in fact the informant -- or the undercover, rather, in this case. And a, kind of, like -- you know, this reality is much harder to fight than we thought it would be. And -- I don't know.

And it just became, like, a very surreal, kind of, situation to be a part of, because, you know, when you become, like, the subjects of -- of the thing that you've been researching for so long, it -- it -- it's a really strange, like, 152:00out of body, like, experience that you have. Like, at least for me, it was, like, a -- I am both -- I am both, like, the researcher and the subject, and it was, like, a very uncomfortable situation to be a part of. And I remember when this had all happened, I was in Columbia, and it was my first year. I was finishing up my first -- or, rather, my second semester. And I remember thinking, like, "This life isn't for me." Like, I can't continue to do the research -- I can't continue to be a part of this academic world that talks about these things, or about these issues in this, kind of, like, third person perspective, when I'm dealing with -- when I'm literally, like, dealing with it head on. And the fact that this is, like, so viscer-- like, like, has such a visceral effect on my mental health, like, I need to put myself before I put my academic research. And -- yeah.

ALI: What -- how do you feel the impact of this news was felt -- once confirmed, 153:00was felt by your peers or the other members of your community?

AHSIN: So I had actually made, like, a Facebook post once we -- once I got a confirmation from the lawyers that this was in fact the person that Asia and Noelle had been in contact with, I had made a Facebook post just saying, like, "Listen, just watch out for this person. She was an informant. For anybody who has been in contact with her post-Brooklyn College, like, just be careful." It was a shock to everyone, like, within my peer group, and so it's -- they had all believed it, for the most part. I didn't -- you know, I hadn't come in contact with anybody who thought it was, like, so absurd or out of the ordinary, or whatever the case was, but they were shocked, and they were -- especially, like, you know, she was a bridesmaid for, like, one of my friends, and so for her, it was also, like, a, "Holy shit, like, she danced at my wedding." Like, you know? And it seems like, so stupid to even think about those things, but it's, like, 154:00this person came so intimately close to your, like, personal life.

And once the confirma-- and the thing is, but when the confirmation had come from the commissioner, it had been so many months after or later, that really, the only people it affected that deeply were the people that, I think, were, you know, in the midst of it, versus -- like, everybody else had already believed it when the news had come out via word of mouth. And so that shock, kind of, subsides after awhile. And it becomes, like, such a normal part of our existence as Muslims in New York, that, like -- like for example, I teach at a high school. And when I talk about surveillance to, like, non-Muslims, my colleagues, or if I talk about surveillance to even my students, it becomes, like, a -- it's, like, shocking to them. Like, "Wow, this thing can happen? Like, people do that? Like, you guys are being targeted like this?" It's -- it's -- it's -- they're genuinely curious, you know? But for my age group and maybe a little bit 155:00younger than myself, and definitely older than me, like, for them, it's, like, "No, no, this happens. This is, like, a normal part of, like, the experience of being Muslim in New York City post-9/11." And that's really disturbing to me.

ALI: What -- feeling that, or -- or -- or sensing that, what does that mean to you in terms of your sense of your relationship to this broader city, to -- to Brooklyn College, to New York City, to Brooklyn, to this -- whatever people see this, as this --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- kind of, community? How does that --

AHSIN: So, you know, I love this city so much. Like, I just came back from, like, a two-month vacation, and as soon as I landed in JFK, I was just, like, "I -- I need to make sajdah. Like, I need to, like, put my forehead on the ground, 156:00because of how grateful I am to be back." And it's not because those places aren't nice, and, like -- you know, but home is home. Like, this will always be my home. Wherever I am, however I feel about the United States, like, if people ask me, you know, especially when I'm abroad, where I'm from, I always say I'm from New York. I never say I'm from the States. I never say -- I don't even -- I don't call myself American. You know, it's something that I'm very openly and -- happy to say. Like, I'm not American. I'm a New Yorker. And that's something that -- and when I saw New Yorker, I don't mean upstate, and I don't consider them New Yorkers. But, you know, for me, Brooklyn has and always will be home, regardless of where I live.

And my relationship with the city and with its people, I don't think has changed much since I was little, because there's an understanding that New Yorkers have with one another, regardless of background, and I think that's felt very differently when you have gentrifiers coming in, and there's a very different 157:00relationship that I have with them than I do with people that are born and raised and, you know, have been here for however long. And I feel, even -- regardless of whether or not they're an immigrant, there's, like, this, kind of, like, connection you have with those kinds of people, versus people who have been coming into and gentrifying Brooklyn and whatnot.

But my relationship with the NYPD, for example, like, completely deteriorated. And it's not just because they've been surveilling us. It's because this institution has and always was racist. It was established on, you know, oppressing marginalized, vulnerable communities. And so as an adult, I've just become more aware of that. And so whether or not they were surveilling Muslims would not have changed my relationship. I mean, it -- I would have had a -- altered relationship from, like, "Yeah, cops are great," to, "Fuck them." And -- but that was -- you know, for the -- it wasn't just because Muslims were being targeted. It's because Blacks and Latinos are being targeted. It's because poor 158:00people are being targeted. Transgender folks are being targeted. It's because people who are marginalized and different are being targeted by this institution that make me -- that makes me hate them so viscerally.

And my connection with the city, again, has been unchanged, but my connection with institutions completely altered. My understanding of and sense of being American, gone. Like, I don't consider myself that, and I don't want to be associated with an entity that thrives off of oppressing people abroad as well as at home. And so -- but I'll always be a Brooklynite.

ALI: I think that's a good place to -- I feel like that's a good place to stop. We didn't talk about -- and we -- we can. I can ask you about your work at Columbia and what you do now, if you want to spend some time on that, or we can 159:00-- it's up to you. What do you --?

AHSIN: I mean, I don't mind.

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: But I also don't mind not talking about it.

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: Like, I just feel like, what do you think would be relevant to, like, the work that you're doing?

ALI: Well, I -- you know, the -- for this project, it's really just -- it's all relevant, in the sense that even the most mundane things, you know, are a form of challenging people's -- the -- part of the challenges of -- of being Muslim is the exceptionalizing of Muslims in a way that separate them from the common human community.

AHSIN: Right.

ALI: And that exceptionalism requires seeing Muslims as, somehow, so different.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: And so I think hearing Muslims talk about the mundane things is, like, "Oh, really?"

AHSIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ALI: "Same thing?" [laughter] So -- but you touched on -- on Columbia. Tell me 160:00-- tell me what you're doing now.

AHSIN: Okay. So I am a special education teacher at an all-girls high school. Well, it's actually 6 through 12. I -- this is my third year, so I'm -- you know, they're just piling on the responsibilities, but I love it, because I love working with kids. I love working with kids with needs, especially in this environment where they are so depoliticized. Meanwhile, like, special education as a field has always been political. And I think empowering, especially, young women who are marginalized for so many reasons, whether it's a disability, whether it's race, religion, age, anything. Like, for me to see them in -- in a space where they feel comfortable with, like, you know, speaking truth to power, even if it's to another teacher, like, I fucking love it. And -- yeah.


So, you know, and I'd always wanted to be a teacher. I just didn't know in what capacity. I, for a long time, thought I wanted to teach undergrad, and that might be in the cards for me in the future, but for now, I'm really content, like, really happy with teaching the age that I teach. I also don't -- I mean, I teach in an ICT setting, which is an integrated co-teaching. So I teach students with and without disabilities. So it's really nice to, like -- I don't know.

It's just, like, seeing the changes that New York City public school system is going through now, versus, like -- I was a product of the public school system, literally up until college. And so I know what it was like growing up, and seeing, like, it change so drastically, as a teacher, and seeing the fact that, you know, the way that in which, like, students with disabilities are being truly integrated, in a society where, like, segregation is, like, so normal and so natural. Because it's not like our schools are desegregated completely. 162:00They're definitely not. You have, like, neighborhoods where it's, like, all Black and Latino, and those schools are mostly impoverished, and that's done systematically, and it's -- and people are okay with it, and that's not okay. And, you know, true integration requires all stratas to society -- you know, every strata of society to be completely desegregated, which means class, which means race, which means ability level, you know? And it's nice to be a part of that in a small school that truly believes in that type of integration. So, that's what I'm doing right now.

ALI: How -- how has your -- I guess -- I guess -- and this is question of, just, like, how -- comfortable isn't the word I'm looking for, but how -- how have you made peace with your history in terms of any kind of public awareness of your -- 163:00your history and your experiences?

AHSIN: So, since I was in college, I was always paranoid that if I kept too much of what I truly believed in my, sort of, private realm, that it would come out in a way that was negatively, kind of, portrayed. Like, "Oh, can you believe she doesn't call herself American?" or, "Can you believe blah, blah, blah," whatever the case is. And I had this fear that in -- at any given time, that there was somebody in my circle of friends, or, you know, acquaintances, or whatever the case was, that was recording things that I was saying. I mean, that happens, obviously, after, you know, being so engrossed in this understanding that Muslims are being surveilled and, like, what have you. And so there was, like, a natural fear that I had.

And so I made it, like, a mission of mine to, like, make sure that everything I do is so public that nobody can ever turn around and say, or take me out of context, because it's already out there for public consumption. So when I was more political -- or not political. Sorry. When I was more vocal on social media 164:00-- I mean, if you look at my social media, everything is public. My Twitter, Facebook, my Instagram, anything that could possibly be social media is already out there. Nothing is private. And my ideas have not been taken down, or whatever the case is, unless Facebook, obviously, does that on their own. But everything that I believed in or believe in now is still out there for public consumption.

And I think that's -- for me, I make that okay, because my private life will always be private, and that's something that nobody can tap into. And that's what I'm comfortable with. But when it comes to ideas, when it comes to my beliefs, my values, those I allow to be -- because I'm allowing it to happen, so I'm comfortable with that, and no one can ever say or take something that I believe out of context, because it's already there for everyone to see, context and otherwise.

ALI: What would you say to people who either disagree or whose, I guess, sensibilities are different from -- from yours?


AHSIN: Who disagree with me, or disagree with the fact that I'm making everything public?

ALI: No, disagree with you.

AHSIN: Oh, disagreeing with me?

ALI: Yeah, with something that you said, or may -- may find offensive, something that you said.

AHSIN: I mean, I've always been a huge fan of debates, so I always welcome disagreement. It's not something -- you know, I'm not, like, some sort of demagogue that says, like, "You cannot disagree with me." I love it. I -- you know, I love taking down -- taking down arguments. I love tearing people apart when it comes to, you know, their ideas. And if you're doing the same with me, like, that's great. I think it's, you know, it's all the more fun. And I think -- and I've always been open to growing and changing, and it's not something that I look down upon. So if you so happen to prove me wrong, you know, more power to you. Like, [laughter] I welcome that.

And so I've never had, like, a problem with disagreement. I don't do character defamation, so if I do tear you down, it's simply because I disagree with your 166:00ideas, and it's your ideas that I'm tearing down. But I am -- I am firmly convinced in the things that I do believe, and until otherwise -- until somebody convinces me otherwise.

ALI: So my last question -- and again, because we hadn't discussed this. It came up in the interview, we hadn't discussed this in -- in the pre-interview. In thinking about your mental health journey, how has your sense of faith or identity or sense of being Muslim interacted with -- with that? How have you seen that in -- in accord, or maybe not --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: -- in accord with your mental health journey?

AHSIN: I'm never going to go and say that, look at this religious scripture. It totally coincides with, like, current, modern mental health issues right now. 167:00There has never been anything within my practice of religion that has prevented me from seeking professional help or prevented me from seeking resources outside of religion. But I also don't believe that, you know, Islam is there propagating, you know, "Go seek a therapist." You know? It's not one or the other. I don't -- I feel like religion is what you make it out to be, in many ways. So for example, if you want to seek mental health resources, and you so happen to find them in religious -- a religious foundation, like, that's great. Like, I think that's good for you.

But for me, I -- I allow myself to get help outside of religion to, you know, kind of, soothe whatever it is that I'm dealing with, or to help me cope with my emotional state better. And as far as it comes to, like, my religious practice, I have come to a place where, when I do observe whatever it is that I'm 168:00observing, whether it's fasting, whether it's, you know, dhikr gatherings, or whether it's prayer, or whatever the case is, like, I feel very good. Like, I feel comfortable, I feel at peace. But I also understand that, if in those -- in this space and in those -- in those moments, if I'm feeling -- or if I'm becoming emotionally volatile, I do need to take myself out and seek that professional help, and I don't feel like there's a disconnect there. And I think it's okay to relegate certain things for certain, you know, parts of you, and to relegate other things for different things that you're dealing with.

ALI: Many religiously-inclined cultures and communities, they're, like, "Oh, you just need to pray."

AHSIN: Right, right, right.

ALI: "If you have problems, take your problems to God."

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: That kind of thing. And the decision to seek assistance outside of that, you know, can -- can be seen as a -- an act of disbelief, right? So I guess 169:00that's what I --

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: I want to understand how you -- how do you reconcile -- or maybe you don't see the need to -- but how do you deal with those -- the idea that you're seeking assistance as part of your mental health journey in part because, you know, religion deals with so much, kind of, internal spiritual and thinking and feeling, similarly to the way that people think mental health deals with internal feeling and thinking.

AHSIN: Right.

ALI: How do you see seeking assistance outside of, you know, the formal channels of religion for mental health -- how do you see that as, in relation to belief in the power of religion?

AHSIN: Right.

ALI: I guess that's the question.

AHSIN: Okay, good. Okay, that's a good question. So for me, religion, for Islam 170:00specifically -- so obviously we can deconstruct what it means to be religious, and what religion actually entails in this modern context -- but for me, Islam is an all-encompassing way of life. That does not exclude the possibility that it will be culturally -- or it can be culturally malleable. And so, again, it's a question of, really, culture at that point. Because it's not just Islam that many people find -- oh, you have to go back into -- you have to go back and seek, you know, religious solutions to these, like, emotional problems, because it can also become a cultural thing at that point.

And for me, Islam has -- or the doctrine, or whether it's, you know -- whether it's scholars you go to, or whether it's religious doctrine you turn to, it does not prevent you from seeking help outside, but it also doesn't tell you to. So 171:00-- and in many ways, it's neutral in that sense. And so I find it that if I need help, or if I need -- like, for example, if I have a physical ailment, I'm not going to go to a religious preacher, or to an imam, or to my sheikh, and say, "You know, I'm dealing with a cold. Can you bless me so this cold goes away?" You know? I'm going to take the proper measures to get that fixed. And so whether that's going to a doctor or taking herbal medicine or whatever the case is, like, I'm going to find, like, a remedy outside of, in quotes, "the scope of religion."

But then again, you can also incorporate religion in the professional help that you seek. You can find a professional -- a -- a mental health professional who either incorporates your religious or your cultural norms -- and again, it doesn't have to be, like, a religious norm. It could be your cultural norm that you really find inhibits you from seeking somebody outside.

So for a long time, I felt so afraid to find a therapist, not because this therapist might not be Muslim, but because this therapist might not understand my Pakistani upbringing. And I was afraid that I would have to go and explain 172:00why I was okay with the fact that my mom slapped me growing up. Now, that's not a religious thing, or something rooted in religion, but it's, like, oh, this is just a cultural norm that, at this stage in my life, I don't agree with, but when I was a child, I was fine with it. And I don't think I was traumatized by the fact that my mom hit me. And, you know, to explain that to a therapist, I felt such -- like, it was such a daunting task. Like, now I have to deconstruct every aspect of my upbringing, so I, just, should just find a Pakistani therapist.

Which, you know, I don't -- I have a White therapist who, like, I love her, and she is such a great therapist, but, you know, those -- the inclination that I had towards, you know, finding somebody within the scope was -- wasn't so much because of religion, but it was because of a cultural aspect. And so I don't find religion inhibiting in that sense, and I don't think that, for me, it's ever been an issue when it came to religion. And yes, I do seek prayer sometimes 173:00when I'm -- when I find myself in certain situations, but that's not my only solution. I also seek my therapist's number [laughter] when I'm, you know, in those situations. So it's, like -- it becomes, like, a -- you can use every aspect of your life to, kind of, soothe or help or cope with mental health issues.

ALI: What -- because again, this -- this -- feel free to answer or not. What kind of resources do you think currently exist to Muslims who are on mental wellness journeys?

AHSIN: I mean, just like anybody, not just Muslims. But I think outside of seeking professional help, there's, you know, various kind of -- kinds of groups that you can join. And depending on the very particular mental health issue that you're dealing with, to find, you know, things to cope with that specifically. So whether it's, like, you know, being a part of, like, a DBT group, or being -- or even medication, if that's what you need.


ALI: What is a DBT group?

AHSIN: Sorry. Dialectical behavioral therapy. And so finding, like, a small group that can help you, you know, cope with certain, you know, volatile emotion, or whatever the case is, or, like, your internal and external state being so different, and trying to connect those two together. And finding, you know, whether it's a group, or a therapist, medication, whether it's, like -- for some people, working out, you know. There's different ways to deal with mental health issues. That doesn't necess-- that it doesn't necessarily mean that you're being confined in this, kind of, like, cold room, sitting on a couch, talking to somebody about your problems. It could be so many things. And I don't think that's also confined to just, you know, what can Muslims do? It's literally, what can anybody do?

ALI: Right.

AHSIN: And I think that mental health issues or -- or ways to deal with mental health, or even what mental health is [laughter] --

ALI: Right.

AHSIN: -- is something that's so misunderstood in the larger scope of society that people often don't think about it, or relegate it to something -- "Oh, this is just -- you know, it's all in your head."

ALI: Right. I mean, so -- it's interesting. I -- and -- and I think you're right that there -- broadly speaking, people are not made aware of what resources are 175:00available to them. I wonder, are there any of -- that you know of within the Muslim -- within Muslim --


ALI: -- communities in Brooklyn or New York, where, you know, this has become part of the language, or this has become part of the, you know, kind of, constellation of resources that people are -- are encouraged --

AHSIN: I see.

ALI: -- to look into, that kind of thing.

AHSIN: So it's not in New York City yet, but I know some people are working on it. It's called the Khalil Center, and I believe there's a branch in Jersey, and there's one in Chicago. And the Khalil Center is basically -- it's a bunch of Muslim therapists and mental health professionals who've come together to create, like, a system for, you know, people who are either a little wary of, you know, seeking professional help, or don't have the resources, whatever the case is. And so they provide a platform that connects, you know, mental health and -- with Islamic -- with an -- an Islamic foundation, or grounded within, 176:00like, that lens. And again, it's not in New York City, but there are people who are -- within New York City, you know, Muslim therapists, and, you know, people within this realm who can provide access. I personally don't have the numbers right now, but I know -- I know people who do. But the Khalil -- Khalil -- Khalil Center is, I think, at the forefront of that, at least within the Muslim community.

And outside of that, I -- I mean, I -- it really would depend. Like, I wouldn't have, like, a -- like, a catchall, kind of, for everyone.

ALI: Do you know of, like, say in -- in religious centers or among religious teachers in Brooklyn or New York, where they have, kind of, incorporated the language of -- of -- of --


ALI: -- mental health wellness --

AHSIN: Oh, I see. Okay.

ALI: in -- in their -- their -- their teaching of Islam and into their --

AHSIN: So, I wouldn't call it, like, like, a -- I know, like, the Islamic Center 177:00of NYU [ICNYU], for example, they always provide a space and a platform for people to discuss these issues through a religious lens specifically. And not just these issues, but so many issues, whether it's racial, sexual, whatever the case is, like, women's issues. They've always provided this lens to find -- that fit the kind of needs that their demographic, which happens to be young people, face.

And so, for example, during Ramadan this past year, we did -- sorry. They had, like, a panel on, like, various kinds of ways that, you know, why Muslims -- how many Muslims experience Ramadan, especially those of them who are not fasting. And some of them happen to be people who are on medication and, you know, dealing with mental health issues and things of that nature, that prevent them from actually, you know, participating in certain rites and rituals that many other Muslims, like, take for granted, and whatnot. And so how do you approach 178:00Muslims who are experiencing these things in a way that is sensitive to their experience?

And so, you know, these types of spaces -- the IC has always been, I think, an open space for all kinds of Muslims, and I think that's something that I -- it's a place that I've always recommended for, you know, folks who are either jaded or, like, you know, want some sense of community, but don't fit in in many other places. And so -- yeah. You know.

ALI: Okay.

AHSIN: Yeah.

ALI: All right. Well, thank you so much --

AHSIN: Cool.

ALI: -- for sharing your experience with us for this project. I really appreciate it.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Rabia Ahsin

Rabia Ahsin was born in 1991 in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. While studying political science at Brooklyn College as an undergraduate student, she joined the school's Islamic Society of Brooklyn College as well as with the Muslim Women's Educational Initiative, both of which were targeted by the New York City Police Department for religiously-motivated surveillance by an undercover officer while she was a member. She also became an outspoken activist against human rights abuses, including protesting with the school's newly-formed Students for Justice in Palestine and focusing her studies on surveillance in New York City. She went on to work as a special education teacher at all all girls' secondary school.

In this interview, Rabia Ahsin discusses growing up in a Punjabi Muslim family in the Midwood and Ditmas Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. She speaks extensively about the complex relationship between faith and culture, including her own connection to her Punjabi roots and her exploration of different traditions and customs within Islam. She expands on her education at Brooklyn College, including the hostility she experienced when she joined a school organization that advocated against violence in Palestine; studying human rights abuses against Muslims with Professor Jeanne Theoharis; and the undercover police officer who infiltrated the Islamic Society of Brooklyn College. She also talks about her struggles with mental health. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.

This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.


Ahsin, Rabia, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, September 01, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.32; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Ahsin, Rabia
  • Brooklyn College
  • Islamic Society of Brooklyn College (Brooklyn College)
  • Muslim Women's Educational Initiative (Brooklyn College)
  • Students for Justine in Palestine (Brooklyn College)
  • Theoharsis, Jeanne


  • Children of immigrants
  • Clothing and dress
  • Food
  • Hijab (Islamic clothing)
  • Immigrants
  • Islamophobia
  • Muslim women
  • Pakistanis
  • Political activists
  • Women in Islam


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Ditmas Park (New York, N.Y.)
  • Midwood (New York, N.Y.)


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Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories