Oral histories are intimate conversations between and among people who have generously agreed to share these recordings with BHS’s archives and researchers. Please listen in the spirit with which these were shared. BHS abides by the General Principles & Best Practices for Oral History as agreed upon by the Oral History Association and expects that use of this material will be done with respect for these professional ethics.
Every oral history relies on the memories, views, and opinions of the narrator. Because of the personal nature of oral history, listeners may find some viewpoints or language of the recorded participants to be objectionable. In keeping with its mission of preservation and unfettered access whenever possible, BHS presents these views as recorded.
The audio recording should be considered the primary source for each interview. Where provided, transcripts created prior to 2008 or commissioned by a third party other than BHS, serve as a guide to the interview and are not considered verbatim. More recent transcripts commissioned by BHS are nearly verbatim copies of the recorded interview, and as such may contain the natural false starts, verbal stumbles, misspeaks, and repetitions that are common in conversation. The decision for their inclusion was made because BHS gives primacy to the audible voice and also because some researchers do find useful information in these verbal patterns. Unless these verbal patterns are germane to your scholarly work, when quoting from this material researchers are encouraged to correct the grammar and make other modifications maintaining the flavor of the narrator’s speech while editing the material for the standards of print.
All citations must be attributed to Brooklyn Historical Society:
[Last name, First name], Oral history interview conducted by [Interviewer’s First name Last name], [Month DD, YYYY], [Title of Collection], [Call #]; Brooklyn Historical Society.
These interviews are made available for research purposes only. For more information about other kinds of usage and permissions, see BHS’s rights and reproductions policy.
Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong
October 01, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.44
STRONG: Today is Monday, October 1st, 2018. My name is Liz Strong; I'm here withKameelah Rasheed for the Muslims in Brooklyn Public History Project with the Brooklyn Historical Society. So, Kameelah, just start by saying where and when you were born, and a little bit about your life growing up.
RASHEED: Yep, so I was born in 1985, [date redacted for privacy], in a smalltown called East Palo Alto, which is in Northern California. We are now in what is called Silicon Valley; Facebook is now behind my parents' house. And I grew up there most of my life with a brief stint in East Menlo Park and then coming back to East Palo Alto when I was a bit older. Both of my parents are from California; my mom is from Los Angeles, and my dad is from Menlo Park, which is near East Palo Alto. And they met in college, as I'm told, in the chemistry library, which is cute because they had chemistry.
STRONG: I love it.
RASHEED: And they moved up to the Bay Area around the early 1980s and had my1:00little brother. And prior to having my little brother, my dad had been looking for a different religious community. Both him and my mom grew up Christian, and they found this Muslim community. It was the Warithuddeen Mohammed community at the time, which was the community they -- that Warithuddeen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad, had founded after the Nation of Islam -- after he transitioned folks out of the Nation of Islam. And so that was the community that my dad took his shahada in and then my mom took her shahada in, and that was the community we were raised in. Our community was down in Oakland. I spent a lot of time in Oakland, California, at the masjid on 47th and Bond. And just spent a lot of time there in the small masjid back home in East Palo Alto. But a lot of our 2:00time was spent in those communities getting to know them. And for my dad, him and his process of trying to figure out what was to be of this new life where he was raising these kids under a religion that he was coming to know and that was in many ways foreign to him but he really, really was drawn to, as was my mom.
STRONG: So -- sorry, were you born before or after your parents converted?
RASHEED: After. I was born about two or three years after my parents converted.Yeah. So I was basically learning alongside them, which I think is an interesting experience of coming into knowing things as the people who are raising you are coming into knowing. And so I think that for my parents, it was a fun challenge. I think that for a kid, it's a hard challenge, because you don't really know necessarily what is permissible, what's not permissible, because everyone else is still trying to figure it out. So I think that while -- while I grew up in a very clearly Muslim home, I think there were still moments that were -- like, the Christianity that my parents grew up with seeped in.
So, our extended family was still Christian, so we didn't celebrate Christmas,but on the 26th of December, my grandfather would bring us gifts because he didn't want us to feel left out. And so we didn't necessarily celebrate Christmas, but there was also an element of like, you're still part of the 3:00Christmas tradition. And so I grew up with a lot of that. And we didn't eat pork, so when we went to a family member's home, they'd make sure that we had the food that we needed, but we were always sort of like part of this very syncretic family history and just family gatherings where everyone was sort of kind of negotiating what was permissible for us and what we did and what we didn't do, while also trying to maintain a sense of -- sense of coherence for themselves. So I think it was like a fun exchange and a fun challenge, which I think extended into when I went to high school and ended up in a Catholic high school. Well, I guess I didn't end up -- I chose to go to a Catholic high school.
There were many other high schools to go to and I chose to go [laughter] to aCatholic high school, because I had done summer programming there and I really liked the school. At 12 or 13th, I was like, "I like the curriculum." I don't even know what that means, but I like -- "I like the curriculum." So that's where I ended up going. And that experience was really important to me because it was just yet another opportunity for me to sort of think about -- sort of like the agility or flexibility of how I make sense of religion -- being in another religious community that wasn't own, after being in a family -- an extended family with a people who practice in a way I didn't practice.
STRONG: You said something about --4:00
RASHEED: [Coughing] Sorry.
STRONG: -- your Catholic school when you were talking before that you connectedwith Jewish students --
STRONG: -- who were there.
RASHEED: Yeah, so, we started a Muslim-Jewish alliance, which was basically justme and a couple other Jewish students -- [laughter] And it's funny to me now that I laugh because we clearly both wanted to form like, a community there, of like bridging this gap between these two religious communities, but also, I think, in our youth not really fully understanding what that meant -- or what it meant to have a coalition, or what it meant to do things with one another in the service of building relationships and coalitions. But I think it was a very early -- early experience in thinking about intersections of identities and intersections of experiences, but also being okay with differences of experiences.
I feel like there's oftentimes a lot of push to figure out, "What are thesimilarities? How can we all get along? How can we all hold hands? How can we all be excited about how we're all the same?" But I think it's also -- in the midst of that -- okay to acknowledge that people are different, and I think that in my youth, the goal was to really figure out, how are we similar? But I think 5:00that as I've gotten older, trying to think about how those differences are also important and beautiful and useful and generative as well.
STRONG: I found a quote from you -- I forget what I'm quoting --
RASHEED: Uh oh. [laughter]
STRONG: -- but you said you were a Muslim kid enrolled at a Catholic school whoattended Mormon school dances --
RASHEED: Yes. Oh yeah, I forgot --
STRONG: -- who went to Shabbat dinners and attended --
STRONG: -- Sunday church services with friends.
RASHEED: Yes. I forgot about that, yes. [laughter] So across the street from theCatholic school that I went to was the Mormon church, and one of my good friends growing up was Mormon. And so she had seminary in the morning, and sometimes we would ride with her. We didn't go to seminary, but we would just sort of like hang out in the parking lot. But we knew her community, and they used to have school dances, and all their school dances were gender segregated. So like, boys 6:00and girls went, but they weren't in the same space. And for my parents, it was like great. My parents were super excited. They were like, "You can go to as -- " [laughter] "as many Mormon school dances as you want."
And so I spent time in that community in that way. And her family was alsoreally into wrestling. So I often spent all the time at her family's house like, watching -- what I found out was fake wrestling [laughter] -- and eating this Hawaiian bread and chicken. Her family was Tongan. And so we spent a lot of time sort of like making sense of her -- her life and her experiences, but not actually knowing what it meant to be Mormon. We just knew that she was our friend. She practiced something else that was different than my other friend, who was like non-denominational Christian, but it didn't ever make a difference. We just were always in community; and sort of like, rotating in and out of one another's community, without even the slightest hint of anxiety or frustration or -- or -- annoyance?
That kind of -- I miss that. [laughter] I miss that youthful experience of justexploring something and noticing things without adding extra layers of judgment or concern. And one of my other good friends in high school, she -- her father ran a really popular church. And so sometimes, we'd go to services with them. 7:00Another friend of mine was also Christian, and so sometimes I would go to her church services. And it was like, if you're at someone's house on a Sunday, you just go where they're going --
RASHEED: -- and you just end up where they are. And as long as you're at home bythe time you're supposed to be home, it wasn't an issue. Yeah. [laughter]
STRONG: And the Shabbat dinners?
RASHEED: Yeah, there was -- there was a Jewish friend that I had, and her familyhad Shabbat dinner. And a couple times I went and it was great. [laughter] Yeah, so, I think as a kid I really enjoyed being able to sort of like, migrate and move between a lot of different communities and make sense -- or not make a lot of sense -- just to experience things that I would not have experienced if my parents had been like, "You're only going to be with us," or if I had chosen to. And I'm really lucky that my parents were kind of like, "I don't care what -- go. Meet people. Do things. Talk to people."
My parents were never really people to say that, "Well, because we're Muslim,you also have to be Muslim." My parents were very much like, "You've hit puberty, you do what you need to do and make the decision that you need to make. And if this is meant for you to practice, then you'll come back to it. And if it's not meant for you to practice, then you won't." So my parents had rules, but in a way, they were very excited about like, my exploratory nature and about 8:00the fact that I had chosen to be in a setting that sort of pushed me to learn more about myself but at the same time like, learn about other people.
STRONG: So, talk to me then about your own relationship to the faith that youwere born into, and how that kind of changed throughout your adolescence.
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean, I think as a kid there definitely were more Christiansand Jewish folks that we grew up around. And in our small town it was mostly Christian folks. And so for me, it was isolating as a kid to a certain extent, because there weren't a lot of other people in my immediate neighborhood to look to, to say like, "Oh, we're all fasting for Ramadan." Or, "Oh, we're all going to specific event." It was often like, "Oh, Kameelah is not like, eating today." Or, "Kameelah cannot have the pepperoni on the pizza."
And so when you're like, 10 and 11, that's just very hard, because you're tryingto explain something you don't fully understand -- but you know it's important but you don't fully understand it. And so I think as a kid, there are elements of growing up where I just felt like, isolated. And then when we would go to Oakland and we would be around other Muslim kids and you'd feel like, "Oh, okay. 9:00That feels a bit better." But then you'd eventually have to come back. And so Oakland and East Palo Alto were very far away from each other, so like, those moments of being around other Muslim students would happen like, once every couple of weeks depending on everyone's schedule.
And so you sort of like, rev up and get excited about those moments we werearound like other kids who like, understood what you were saying -- you didn't have to explain a lot of things -- but then you would be thrown back into a context where you did a lot of explaining or a lot of sort of like, sitting back and watching to see how other people were engaging to make sense of how you sort of like, fit into that context. Yeah.
STRONG: Were you able to make close friendships with the kids in Oakland? Or wasthe distance a little too much?
RASHEED: The distance was very difficult, because I think in a lot of -- and Iwas talking to my husband about this this morning -- we were thinking a lot about like, memberships at different religious communities, and how different religious communities form -- sort of like memberships in [inaudible] communities and create a sense of community -- and feeling in a lot of ways that there is an assumption -- I think this happens in a lot of communities where people practice the same, so they just assume that everyone will figure out 10:00their place in it.
There -- there is an assumption that everyone will just find and fall into aplace without thinking about like, the people who are traveling long distances, the people who can't come out every single day, and so in a lot of ways, I think that the distance like, made it difficult to form long lasting -- like, you know these people; when you see them, you know, "As-salaam alaikum, so-and-so. How's it going? How's your kid?"
But as far as like, close relationships -- that was really hard. Because we like-- this was before the days of Facebook and Instagram where you could instantly 11:00contact people. It was like, if you happened to get another kid's number, and they were on the phone -- which at 10 or 11 we just weren't -- then you would form a bond. But I think -- yeah. That was hard. You'd just see people when you saw them, but you wouldn't really know or engage with them outside of that.
STRONG: Was there a space for you that felt kind of like, home base, eitherfaith-related or otherwise?
RASHEED: No, and I feel like, I was -- [laughter] I've been very itinerant in alot of ways, and I think -- I think that has like its pluses and its minuses. I think on the plus side like, being able to move in and out of communities means that I'm able to experience a lot of different things frequently and to like, talk to a lot of different people. But I think at the same time, it does become very hard to not be able to identify a place where I'm like, "Oh, that's my home -- that's the masjid that I go to." Or like, "That's my imam." Or like, "Those are the young people that I engage with."
And so I know a lot of people, but I don't feel like any of those peoplerepresent a coherent community for me. And I think that when I moved to New York, I think that for most people who moved to -- like young people; I was like 22nd, 23 when I moved here -- what popular imagination of what New York is like 12:00plays a lot into your expectations of what happens here. Like I'd read all this stuff about New York and like large Muslim communities and the visibility of Muslims here. And then getting here and being like, "Okay, so, where are the people that I had read about? Where are the people that I had seen on these like, documentaries and these like, television shows? Like, where are all these people? Where are these communities?"
And I think -- I think my imagining of New York as this sort of place like,where Muslim culture was very visible and apparent and explicit, and you can just stumble into a community and stumble into a group of people -- I think when I got here, I found it to be much more difficult than I had ever imagined. I think that was a shock for me, because I really -- I moved here because I was 13:00tired of being in the small town that I grew up in, and I wanted to be in a bigger city. But I also moved here because I wanted to have like, a larger Muslim community.
And I think that when I got here -- yeah. That threw me off. I definitely waslike thrown off a bit. [laughter] Trying to like, find the north star in that situation, and feeling a bit disoriented and not knowing which communities to go into, and I think -- because of the community I grew up in back home -- we -- like, we all walked through the same door, and men and women would sit on different parts of the carpet -- we all walked through the same door. And we -- there -- there was a different type of cultural engagement around genders, and there was a different type of cultural engagement around a lot of things.
And so when I moved here and I went to a couple of masjids where men and womenweren't even in the same building, or entered in different places, I was again disoriented because it was a type of -- it was a version of Islam, an articulation that was unfamiliar to me. Not wrong, not right -- but just unfamiliar. Because my first impulse was I'm just going to walk in the door 14:00behind Brother Habib. I don't understand why -- [laughter] why I'm going in a different door. And just sort of being like, taken aback by that -- and so trying to find my place within that. And I think also having grown up in a mostly black Muslim community in Northern California -- also coming here and trying to like, make sense of being in a different community and -- and -- a different class community, a different racial and ethnic community, different linguistic community -- it was just like many things that were just different, and having to orient myself to make sense of that. I would not -- I would not say that I ever gotten my handle on anything. I'd been to lots of different places in the city, but I wouldn't call any of them, "That's my home masjid."
It's sort of proximity-based -- like, if I'm near NYU [New York University],then I'll pray at NYU. If I'm near Masjid [Abdul Muhsi] Khalifah, then I'll pray at Masjid Khalifah. And that's sort of like how everything is proximity-based, 15:00not based on like, a sense of belonging in a community.
STRONG: We can always jump back in time, but I kind of want to spend --
STRONG: -- a little time in this transition --
STRONG: -- to Brooklyn. Walk me through -- what were your experiences ofencountering each of these mosques --
STRONG: -- and how prayer was different or how practice was different in each ofthese spaces.
RASHEED: Yeah, so, when I first came, I was like, "I want to go to jummahprayer." I remember going to Masjid Khalifah. And Masjid Khalifah's like a Warithuddeen Mohammed community, so that was very familiar to me -- like, even the way that people dressed, even the way the people spoke, even just basic ornaments in the space, like -- thing in the ar-- everything felt very familiar to me, and that was like, very comforting. But then walking in, I was like, still these -- I don't know these people. So there was still like a sense of like, familiarity in the accoutrements of the space but no familiarity in the sense of being a part of this community.
So I went to jummah, that was fine, prayed with everyone, and everyone waspolite. But I didn't return for probably like, maybe a year or two, because I just didn't immediately feel anything -- and I don't think there was anything -- anything wrong in particular with that community. There just wasn't a sense that I was supposed to be there.
And I went to Masjid At-Taqwa; in the same sense I think I only went there once.And I went -- and I remember having to go -- I remember being confused -- [laughter] because I didn't know where I was supposed to go. And then someone 16:00directed me to the back entrance; and then me just being confused. And then there just being like a -- we couldn't see the imam. There was a screen that was supposed to show the imam, and I think that day in particular there were some issues with the screen. And so like -- I just felt disoriented, because like, I'm a visual learner -- [laughter] and I needed to like, be able to like, see the thing that was going on and to see the person who was reciting at the time. And so I was disoriented by that -- that situation.
I didn't return -- and I haven't returned. And my husband has been a coupletimes and has enjoyed the experience a lot. But I just think that he's enjoyed the experience a lot for reasons that he'll probably never understand -- 17:00[laughter] why I was disoriented by it.
STRONG: Because he would be in a totally separate space --
STRONG: -- than what you encountered.
RASHEED: Exactly. And so I think that -- for him -- he -- "Because I don'tunderstand what the big deal is." And I think that for him, there's still like a learning curve in understanding -- jumping from a community where you walk into the same door, and then going to another community. And I think that for some people like that, it's just like a small change and, "I don't get what the big deal is." And I think for me, my parents -- not that they didn't let me do whatever I wanted -- my parents were pretty permissive in letting me just explore. And so for me, that moment of restriction or -- or -- or being directed, it just definitely threw me off. I think at like 23 or 24, when you have like certain ideas formed about how the world should look, you're like, "I have to go through another door? What is this?"
Even when you intellectually understand this is how large parts ofMuslim-majority world function, [laughter] to then be confronted with it was -- was -- yeah. Just -- it was very new for me, and I didn't know what to make -- 18:00to make of it. And my husband's been encouraging me to go back, because he's like, "They have lots of great programming. There are lots of things going on." For the past two years, we've struggled to find a place where we want to go and celebrate Eid, because Eid can be like -- it can be very lonely and sad if you're going by yourself and you don't know anyone.
And so, this year -- we'll end up having to work. And I think it was the sameissue last year, so I think it may have been either in the middle of the week or sometimes it was like, really inconvenient for -- [laughter] -- for -- for -- for people who need to like, pick up those hours. But yeah, I think the -- the -- the feeling of like not belonging to a community here becomes the most stark around Ramadan and Eid celebrations, because those are the times where you're going to go celebrate with a bunch of other people with whom you've been like fasting and breaking fast with and known and been to their homes, and then to like walk into a space where you don't know anyone's name -- it's hard. [laughter] 19:00
And so we've gone to NYU as well. And that's like a younger, student-basedcommunity, and so like the khutbas have like, a different feel to them. Yeah. I think the caveat -- or not the caveat -- but the qualifier to all of this I guess is that none of the communities were wrong or bad -- they just didn't -- they don't yet feel familiar to me. They don't yet feel like where I'm supposed to be -- and I don't know where I'm supposed to be. But they just don't feel yet like where I'm supposed to be.
STRONG: Is it an issue of like, people don't recognize you back? Or --
RASHEED: I think it's an issue of -- I feel like I have a very particular ideaaround, like community. And I think that particular idea around community is often rooted in like -- it's my head; it's like, "Every masjid -- mosque -- should have like a welcome committee that hands out welcome packets." And when I say it aloud, I'm like -- I feel like that sounds ridiculous, but I'm like, no. Actually, like -- no, I think that if you want people to return, you want people to feel at home, then if you see someone new walk into your center, you should -- there should be someone on staff whose job it is to find the new people and say, "Hey. Hey. Who are you? What are" -- like -- "Do you need help? Are you --" Like -- "What's going on?" I think that -- when I think about the growth of like, any community, a Muslim community -- like, any community there, I think there again is an assumption that people just fall into place. And I actually think that -- more now than ever -- people actually need like support and 20:00scaffolding for that experience, because I -- I think that -- like, I'll return because I want to find a place to pray and commune with other people, but some people might just go and never return because they're like, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
Like, "I don't know who these people are. No one's said anything to me. I'm --"Like, and so I think that my biggest wish as I think about building more coherent and sustainable Muslim communities is trying to figure out the way that we welcome people into space and like, welcome them back into space, and have like tiered experiences for people who are new either to Islam or new to the community or new to the city, but there's a way that we are really thinking about the variety of people that are coming in, because I think there's a -- 21:00some masjids are also so old, I feel like the people that have been there have great-grandchildren, so everyone sort of like is grandfathered into this particular experience, and then if you're new, it's like -- we hope you figure it out.
But we'd never had to experience it ourselves, so we don't even think that weneed to create an experience for someone else -- we never had to go through it. It's like, of course, let's figure it out, and it's like, that you didn't have to figure it out. Like, you had like a grandmother that was here, or you were like the first person that found this place -- [laughter] -- so you didn't have to do this type of work of trying to fit in. So, yeah.
STRONG: All right, well, let's hop back in --
STRONG: -- time a little bit. Take me from high school into college.
RASHEED: Yeah, so, high school was a doozy. [laughter] So 9/11 happened in the22:00middle of -- it was junior year of college. And I remember 9/11 because I -- my parents -- my mom -- there were five of us -- my mom used to drive us -- all five of us -- to five different schools every single morning. And I remember on the day -- I think it was like a Tuesday -- I may be wrong about that, but it feels like it was a Tuesday -- I remember my mom driving into the parking lot of my school, and everyone was sitting outside their cars listening to the radio, and I was like, "What's going on? This weird. Whatever, I need to get to class; I don't want to be late to class." And someone's like, "There's a terrorist attack." And I was like, "No, there wasn't. Like, it's whatever." [laughter]
And so I'm trying to like sort of piece through this entire situation, andthough, so, I don't know if you remember those like, TVs that were on those roller carts -- [laughter] -- like, rolled all these roller carts into all the common areas -- and now I realize -- it was probably just encouraging PTSD, but like, they really should not have had roller carts of repeated terrorist attacks on -- [laughter] -- TV for like fourteen year olds to see. But they rolled all these carts, so we were like watching all this stuff. And I just remember immediately feeling sort of like start-- startled. Or afraid, or -- I wasn't 23:00sure what the emotion was, but I was, I was like attune that something was going to happen. And it wasn't that I didn't care about the terrorists' attacks as it was happening here in New York; it was like a sudden attuning to the fact that this would have very significant impacts on my life. And I think up until that point, everyone knew that I was Muslim, but I wasn't covering at the time, so there was like no immediate way to read me as such, and I started covering like my senior year of high school.
And I -- and I was like immediately attuned to the fact that like, "Oh, this isgoing to be -- this is going to be an issue." [laughter] And not knowing what that issue would manifest as, but definitely having these sort of like, tense interactions between students. And I don't remember all of them; I think there's part of me that's sort of like, tried to block them out or tried to color them differently, because I wanted to remember these students in a very particular way. But I was definitely uncomfortable; it definitely felt like I had to 24:00constantly be on defense of Islam and also for like, I had to be on defense of my family; I had to be on defense of myself. But feeling this immediate need to be on defense and feeling like exhausted -- or trying to like, preempt everything.
And it wasn't that my school itself was like, doing anything to like, fosterhostility. But I think for students who -- for the first time -- read me and understood me as Muslim, because there was like a significant world event attached to it, that was alarming for me. So I think in the same way that people sort of like engage with me as like, whatever, they're mostly -- this was a majority white school. There were like, three or four black students there. So like, the register -- or the identity which people mostly saw me -- it was like, "Oh, she's the black kid who's like, bussed from outside of the city to come here," that register became even more complicated, "She's not only the black kid who gets bussed from the city -- from a couple cities over -- she's also the black kid who's also Muslim, and like, right now, we as a nation don't know how we feel about these people." [laughter]
And I think at 15th, that was like, a very startling thing for me to come termswith -- that people didn't know how to make sense of me even though they had sat in class with me all this time. Yeah -- and I -- and we had to take religious studies classes, and just remembering being invited to like, talk about Islam -- and none of the presentations ever asked me to like defend Islam, but it was like, "Tell us about the five pillars or talk about hajj." And me just feeling like -- not knowing -- feeling like, "Of course I need to do this, because if I 25:00don't do this, then they're probably going to get like, crazy information from somewhere else. So I definitely need to do this, but also just feeling like -- exhausted. Or sort of like, put on the spot by feeling the need to explain -- to explain things all the time." Yeah.
And my parents not knowing what to make this either, because I think they werealso experiencing the world as like, adults. Which I think is very different than experiencing the world as like a kid at that time. And so I eventually graduated -- and I went to college and there weren't like, any Muslim students there. If I think -- no, there was a Muslim student. The girl next door to me 26:00was Muslim; we were good friends for a year, but then she -- she left and got married and moved to Canada. So there were like [laughter] no other Muslim people on campus. There was like another girl or another campus nearby -- but like, for the most part there weren't a lot of Muslim students there. And there definitely weren't any black Muslim students at the school. And so like, we had like, Muslim Student Associations, but those Muslim student associations were not attuned to the fact that there were other Muslim people that were not from Muslim-majority countries outside of Africa.
And so trying to even like have a conversation about what it meant to be like, ablack Muslim person in America, and people being like, "So you're from like, West Africa." I'm like, "No. I'm from here." Like, from here. Like, from America. Like, this is where we were born for like, generations. And so, trying to find my place even in Muslim communities to try to articulate that like, black Muslims do exist and like, make up one of the largest populations of 27:00Muslims in America.
But yet no one sees us, and trying to sort of even like, lobby for evenprogramming support around things that like people may not have been interested in because they didn't have to do with like, a place -- a part of the world that we typically perceive as Muslim. And so, I think that college was difficult for me, A, because there were just not a lot of Muslims there and there weren't like, other people to sort of like, engage with, but also because the Muslims that I did engage with, there was like a shortsightedness, or like a very clear desire to not recognize other people existed. And that was hard for me to -- again -- to feel like I'm again, sort of like lobbying for -- for like space or existence. And it just didn't feel -- feel good and just -- often feel like I'm getting into like these tense conversations, where I'm like, "We can also do programming about this." Like, "It doesn't only have to be about this." And feeling like a lot of pushback. Yeah.
And that being hard and frustrating, because I'm like, "Dude." [laughter] Like,28:00we're all Muslim. I don't understand why this is a moment of contention. But also recognizing that it was a moment of contention because folks had not done their homework. Like, quite honestly people had just not understood the history of America well enough to understand what it meant to be black and Muslim at this particular point in history, and like, the groundwork that was laid by black Muslims in this country, and just like, the complete failure to -- like, we know of Muslims in America often through like the lens of like, Muhammad Ali, or like, these other black Muslim celebrities. And yet, when it comes to having conversations about Muslims, it often is veered away from black Muslim communities. And it's just like -- and that just made me really angry in a lot of circumstances.
STRONG: So, around this time, both of your parents were having health issues, isthat right?
RASHEED: Yeah, so in 2005. It was like a -- a catastrophe rainfall. [laughter] Alot of things were happening. So my mom had some heart troubles and got really sick. And then my dad got cancer and got really sick. And they had given him a short period of time to live, which he decided to tell me pretty nonchalantly one day when I came home for Thanksgiving break -- he was like, "Yeah, so like, the cancer thing. And like, eight months." And I was like, "What? You decided to tell me like this in the kitchen?" So, I think -- that was -- that was a 29:00startling moment for me, because I had four other siblings -- three younger and one older -- and so even just thinking about like, what it meant to not have my parents, alhamdulillah, they both made it through, but it was definitely a difficult time. And trying to balance like, being at school, and then also trying to like balance concerns about my parents' health.
And what that meant in the context of like, what my responsibilities would be,but also like, my younger brothers were not 18 yet, they were still in high school and in middle school, so like what that would also mean for -- for their lives. And so alhamdulillah, they both made it through. And then in 2006, I graduated and took a year off to do a Fulbright in South Africa where -- in that context -- was able to engage with a different -- I was -- I was able to think about Islam more globally, because I was out of the United States [laughter] and thinking about how I was often read in those contexts as being West African and 30:00not Black American -- people being sort of like, thrown by that.
But also like engaging with Muslim communities in that context and sort of like,navigating -- navigating those communities as a person who was not only unfamiliar with sort of like the cultural norms of how that worked, but also linguistically, which is sort of like outside of things. And so this -- I think 31:00like a repeated thing that I guess I'm realizing as I'm talking about this is like, this feeling of being outside of something, but never actually being like fully inside of like, a community. Like, being able to identify what's happening and what's going on and why I don't feel part of it, but also still not being able to identify what exactly would make me feel part of those communities.
And I think there's also like sort of like a surrender in the sense of like,recognizing that possibly those just weren't my communities; they're adjacent and we're all Muslim, but I think that -- I feel like as I've gotten older, recognizing that being Muslim is not enough of an identity to form a community around -- as much as we want to believe that it -- I just -- it's not -- it's not enough there has to be more. And the practice of Islam does unite us, but the reality is that people still need to feel anchored into that and there are a lot of other factors I think that make people feel anchored into the community, and it can't be, "We're all Muslim." Because at the end of the day we're all 32:00Muslim; we're all individuals with our own stuff happening.
STRONG: So -- there was a lot in the answer to that question.
RASHEED: Yeah. [laughter]
STRONG: I guess just to sort of rest in that moment of time --
STRONG: -- for a while, what were you -- what were you studying in school? Whatwere your passions at the time?
RASHEED: Yeah, so, in undergraduate, I was studying public policy and history,and that's what I ended up getting my BA [bachelor's of art] in. And when I was in South Africa, I was studying urban planning, and I think -- in both of those contexts -- I was really interested in policy and really interested in history, but not so much like I want to go make it law, but I was really interested in the process of like, implementation and the fidelity of implementation -- like, what happens in between the moment when something is written as policy and then you leave people free to implement it? And I think that's in the same way my interest in history was sort of thinking about like, how people construct and sort of like unpin narratives in a lot of different ways. And so, I enjoyed talking to people, and I enjoyed doing research, and I enjoyed sort of like 33:00unraveling and unfolding things, and I feel like policy and history gave me an opportunity to do both.
And when I went to South Africa, that was an opportunity for me to sort of thinkabout that in another context that was unfamiliar to me, and I had studied in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2005, and had done -- had taken Arabic classes while I was there; I was involved in MSA [Muslim Student Association] when I was there. Had really gotten deep into the community there, and I won another opportunity in 2006 to go back to South Africa -- but to go to Johannesburg to sort of figure out, "What about this community kept calling me back?" And I think that Johannesburg was the first place that I had lived in where I actually feel like, "Oh, this is kind of what home feels like."
And it was a very distinct feeling because I remember going to Johannesburg, and34:00I remember my bags being lost [laughter] before I arrived, and I remember getting there and having like, maybe like a backpack, and the person -- the university was hosting me -- the professor gave me, like 200 rand, which was enough to buy toiletries and like an outfit. And I just remember being 20, and being like, "I got it." Like, "Whatever." Like -- or maybe I was 21. "Whatever." Like, I just felt like, 'I can do this.' And I just sort of like went out into South Africa in 2006 and just sort of like, went for it, and just met like really great people, and actually felt a very clear sense of like, "Oh, this is what it feels like to feel like I belong to a community." Or like, this is like, "Oh, this is what it feels like? Oh, I like this. This is what I've been missing and I didn't even know that this was exactly what I was looking for." And that was like, with a range of people who were like Muslim, some who were not Muslim, some people who stayed in the suburbs, some people who stayed in the townships, and I think that it was just a reminder for me that like, Islam is like an organizing unit in my life, but it's not -- it is not the only thing that unites 35:00me with other people. Yeah. Yeah, and that was like, a very lucid moment for me of being like, huh.
I think understanding -- those people understanding my practice andunderstanding my life definitely created the sustainability -- I still talk to these people. What is it? 2006? Twelve years later. I'm going back in November to see them; I go back like every year or two. But it was -- yeah, it was -- I felt accepted in that context, and I feel like even though those folks were not Muslim, I feel like they didn't have an issue with me being Muslim -- [laughter] -- which seems like a simple qualifier, but like it was just nice to be in a space where people, you know, remind me that I have to get up to pray, or, "you're not supposed be eating today," or like, "don't you have to go home now?" Like, those were -- those were very interesting and beautiful moments for me of like, people having taken the time to like, understand who I was enough to hold me accountable for things. Yeah. That was -- that was -- that was the first 36:00time. I miss those guys, which is why I'm going back -- [laughter] -- in November to see them again.
STRONG: What were some of the things that you united around?
RASHEED: Music. Like, I really at the time didn't -- like, I liked music, but Ididn't know a lot about music, and the guys that I first met when I got there were all like musicians, so we just spent a lot of time horsing around, talking about music, and like, we used to meet up at the university theater, because there were also kids who were involved in theater. So like, anything involved around the arts and like, making stuff and tinkering with things was sort of like where we united. I think we were both like, fascinated by the fact that we were from two sides of the Atlantic, but like, had similar slang and like, ways of talking about things.
And so like, we spent a lot of time sort of like being disoriented by the factthat like, "Okay, so you're black over here in New York," and like, "You're black over here in like, Soweto. So like, how? Like why? Like how? What?" And of course there's differences, but like how do these similarities exist? And so I think, we sort of like we're-- like -- we're amazed by just that element of 37:00being like, oh. Of like -- this coherence. And not coherence in the sense of like everything makes sense, but like, this like familiarity without having known each other for a long time, and that, which was just really, really nice. We also have like similar family arrangements of like, sort of like intergenerational families that sort of like, collapse themselves into like the same space of like either living in the same home, or like a parent or a grandparent who's taking care of like, kids. And so there's like these moments of like family organization or music or just like -- not so much shared history, but shared points of context that we'd unite around.
And we're also like, all like young; we were all like 18th, 19, 20, 21, and wewere all trying to figure out life and figure out what to do. And we knew that we liked art, and we knew that we liked making stuff, and we didn't know what we were doing, so we spent a lot of time also just like talking about what we wanted to do, and holding each other accountable to it. And one of my friends -- he was a graffiti artist, so we ran around town tagging stuff. It's fine. It's 38:0012 years later; I can talk about it. [laughter] Or like, making music or like going to their shows. Yeah. It was just like, a lot of just like, hanging out without the pressure of having to like -- none of us felt the pressure of like, having to prove ourselves to other people. We just were like, doing normal people things which is -- yeah. A coveted experience, I think -- I feel like, now.
STRONG: This is the same time that you're starting to get into the arts --
STRONG: -- transitioning into the arts out of writing.
RASHEED: Yeah, so I had spent my last year of college -- it was like, "Oh, Ilike art. I'm going to minor in art." And it was too late. [laughter] I had, like, taken the one art class, and it was too late by that point. So when I got to South Africa, I was spending a lot of time photographing some of their public sector strikes, and like attending meetings and events and trying to document -- because I was really like into documentary photography and like writing about the things -- and so I spent a lot of time just being with people and 39:00documenting what was going on. And at the time, I had like a four megapixel Sony camera -- this was way back in the day. Four megapixels. [laughter]
And I remembered just running around with like -- I just remember -- now I thinkabout myself and like, 'Wow. You were so much more courageous than you are now.' Because I would just run around with all these other professional photographers who had these large cameras, and I had this little tiny point and shoot, and I was just like running around like snapping everything, snapping everything, stopping and talking to people, trying to figure out -- in between their -- their broken English and my broken Zulu -- trying to have this conversation and just feeling like very excited about telling stories, and I think that's where sort of like I entered the arts with this interest and trying to tell stories, but not just telling them for the sake of telling them but like, thinking about the stories that either don't get a lot of space to be told, or they're often told from the perspective of someone whose outside of the situation or hasn't taken the time to talk to people about what was being experienced. 40:00
And so -- yeah. I was just really excited to -- I was really excited to work inthe context of talking to people. And I feel like if anyone were to ask what would I like to do, it's like, I like talking to people. I like -- I like talking to people. [laughter] That's sort of like the essence of my practice; it's like me either talking to people directly and the conversation is in the context of like an interview, or like a public program, or it's like me talking to people through an installation that I'm building, but it's all built around relationality and that like experience of people engaging. It's not like a passive exchange of like, "You're just going to sit there and you're just going to listen," but this actual moment of exchange and interaction or growth. Or this moment where you realize that everything you held to be true possibly is not true.
So like those actual moments of collision where things rub up against eachother. That's what I like to do, and that time in 2007 in a way that I was 41:00manifesting that was like, through photography and then like, writing about the things I was experiencing. And I think later on in my practice, I started to think more about installation art, and I think the stuff that people would consider to be the fine arts of installation, printmaking, like all this other stuff. But I think if -- if you strip away all that stuff, it's really -- for me -- like -- how do you say? Like a desire to -- a desire for the intimacy, or like the desire for the -- that moment of exchange. Because I feel like that's -- there's something -- there's something that's lost when -- I mean, there's something that's lost when people don't talk to each other. There's something that's lost when we don't actually spend the time trying to get to know one another, and I feel like art gave me a very wonderful excuse to be like, oh, I'm just going to spend a bunch of time talking to people. And people are going to call it art; I'm going to be like, Cool. I'm just talking to people. [laughter] And that -- that works out for me.
STRONG: I want to circle back to your family at this time --42:00
STRONG: -- because you kind of left us hanging.
RASHEED: Yeah. What --
STRONG: Your father told you had -- he had eight months to live --
RASHEED: Yes. My father is so dramatic, isn't he? [laughter] So my father didsay that he had eight months to live, and he used to work at the Stanford Cancer Clinic -- he was a pharmacy technician, so he was making all the chemo medications -- and he sort of resisted chemo for a little bit because he was like, "I make the stuff. I don't want it in my body." Like, "I kind of know what's in there." He finally decided to take chemo; he went into remission -- maybe like a year. Let's see -- we're now in 2018. So I want to say he went to remission -- I want to say 2008. So maybe three years.
So he's been in remission for 10 years, and we say that he's the strongest, mostannoying person alive -- [laughter] -- because of my dad is -- he's like a tedious -- I feel like after you get older, you just become more and more annoying to your children just because you're just like, you're just sort of 43:00finicky and nitpicky, and just, like -- but we always say that he's like the strongest and most annoying person alive, because everyone -- like, basically you got a death sentence, and you're still kicking -- [laughter] -- far after that death sentence. And so I -- for him -- the one thing I remember most about that is that, like, making your prayers five times a day is difficult for me. Like I'm always just like, ooh, missed like three of those. Try again tomorrow. I don't remember my dad ever missing a prayer throughout his entire cancer and chemo. I remember being in his hospital bed praying, and I remember my dad -- even when he couldn't walk in more recent years because of the neuropathy in his feet -- I remember seeing him when I would go -- go home to California, like, sitting in a white chair, praying.
And I'm just like, wow. Like, literally none of us have an excuse, because ifyou are praying in the midst of cancer -- [laughter] and chemotherapy -- and with an inability to make full sujud because you can't go to the floor. You know, none of us really have an excuse. And so I think -- for me -- that 44:00experience was really interesting because it was a complete surrender to the will of Allah in ways that we all talk about in theory, but when you're actually confronted with it, you're like, "Oh, so this is what it means to accept that things could not turn out the way that you want them to."
And then, to actually have to -- to deal with that was very, very hard, and Ithink it was very, very hard for him, because he had spent so much time -- he used to run marathons; he used to bike to work every day -- to being like super, super active and then having something that like completely took away every ability to do the things that like made him who -- who he was. He was a pharmacy tech, but before all that, he was a person who loved to do calisthenics at the park and to run marathons, and to bike everywhere, and to play basketball with us. And so I think for us, seeing how active my dad was prior to 2005, and then him not being able to be active, and to even see him now -- because he's -- what -- 60 -- 65 this year -- now seeing him be so inactive, it's very, very hard, 45:00because everything we remember of him is like him getting up and like throwing k-- like, tossing someone, or like running after someone, or when we used to go eat in Oakland, like, him playing with everyone's kids and -- and so to see him in sort of this state, it was very hard to -- I know it's hard for him personally to actually have to physically experience it, so I won't even make it seem like of me witnessing it is harder.
But I think it's hard for all of us to have sort of that complete reversal inyour life, and then sort of like the only reconciliation of that process is like -- you just have to surrender to the will of Allah, and -- and that becoming not theory but like -- [laughter] actual lived experience, I think that -- I don't know if I -- this is may be the case for all folks who are involved in faith, but the things that we do as theoretical thought exercises versus the things 46:00that we do when we're confronted with the situation rarely -- rarely align. [laughter] And I think that 2005 was an interesting year, me being like, "This doesn't seem fair." Like, "I should get one sick parent, not two at the same time. Can we space this out?" Like, "What's going on?" And when my mom got sick, luckily, she was still -- she was still -- it wasn't cancer. She was able to still be more mobile than my dad, but it was also hard seeing my mom who used to get up every day and drive five kids to five different schools -- and I don't remember her ever sleeping because she was awake when we went to bed, and she was awake when we woke up -- also be sort of knocked out -- [laughter] -- and I think seeing both of them in this state of not being as physically capable -- and really having to like sit with that -- that was definitely -- and it still is hard. Was hard -- still is hard -- will always be hard. Because there isn't really a reconciliation other than just like, situation is what it is. And it's uncomfortable, and everyone just needs to settle with the discomfort of it all. 47:00
STRONG: You mentioned a couple things that stood out to me. You -- one wasobserving that many of your siblings weren't yet adults.
STRONG: So what kind of role did you and your siblings take in helping thefamily while your parents were going through this?
RASHEED: So I was away at college, so it was interesting for me in that there --there are several parts of my mom's illness and my dad's illness that I just didn't witness; I witnessed through reports from my siblings. And so the timing of it was interesting in that my mom got sick first, and then I think my dad got sick right -- actually, I don't remember; I honestly don't remember who got sick. 2005 -- 2006 was a bit of a blur. Whoever got sick first -- however it was timed, my mom was well enough by the time that my dad was really sick to take care of him. And so there's an element of that where I don't feel like my mom ever fully healed, because as soon as I think that she got her bearings again, that my dad was sick. And so she took on the caretaker role of getting him to 48:00all his appointments, making sure everything was being handled -- and I was in school and I was sending money home as well, and when I graduated from college, alhamdulillah, I got a bunch of these like, you know, back in -- they gave you these $1,000 awards for like department stuff, so like I had a bunch of small, micro-grants that came from that that I was able to give to my parents, which was helpful because like, all this stuff is expensive.
And I remember my dad came to -- everyone came to my graduation in 2006, and Iremember feeling badly because my dad was too sick to really leave the hotel room because his neuropathy was already getting -- he was like, too sick to sit still for too long. But I remember everyone coming down; I remember not being able to celebrate with my dad because he had to stay in the hotel -- because he just wasn't feeling well enough. Yeah. That -- and I -- I feel like the dynamic definitely was like, myself and my older brother were working and making sure 49:00that we were helping with money and my dad's co-workers were really nice and they donated a bunch of paid time off hours, so he would still get paid while he was out.
My parents emptied their retirement fund, you know. You know, it was definitelyhard. It was just a lot of shuffling of things, and it was also just I think we all probably felt like we became adults -- [laughter] -- very, very early on, because there were things that you were thinking about, like, who's going to take care of your -- your little brothers? And, where's everyone going to live? And how are all these things going to be organized? When you're like, 20, and thinking about graduating, and also feeling guilty about -- like, I'm going to go to South Africa for a year, but also my parents being like, you're going to go. Because you -- you're going to go, but also feeling like, oh, I should also stay behind. So I think there's also some things associated with like guilt around going on and living my life while all this is happening, but also getting 50:00a sincere blessing from my parents, but also trying to figure out how to balance -- balance all of that. Yeah.
STRONG: The other thing that stood out to me was you mentioned that --
RASHEED: Excuse me [coughs].
STRONG: [Coughs] Me too. [laughter] You mentioned that your relationship withyour faith kind of has to change. Can you --
STRONG: -- describe that a little more for me?
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean, I think before we were all saying like, "It's Allah'swill" and -- or we say it all the time: "It's Allah's will." You know, mashallah. Like that's just what happened. And I think that when you are faced with Allah's will in a way where it does not align with what you want to happen [laughter] -- it's like, "Oh, Allah's will." Like there's almost like an antagonism to that, and I think that I felt that a lot in these years because it was like -- it was just a lot to carry, because it was like, okay, one thing after another after another. Just when you thought someone was getting better, 51:00they were getting worse. And just when you thought your brother was doing better in school but got distracted because all this other stuff is happening, like -- and it just felt like an accumulation and an accretion of things in a way that it didn't feel like I could keep pace with it -- any of us could keep pace. And so I think for me it wasn't so much that I lost faith, it was like, I was reminded that faith is like an active thing. Like it's an active exercise in making the decision every day to actively recognize and surrender to the things that you have absolutely no control over. There is a million and one things we could have done, right? We could have found the best chemo doctor -- we're at Stanford University; we have the best chemo doctor. We had all of those things, and so we didn't have control over it.
And so for me, I think that for a person who has like a type A personality andlikes to be able to predict everything -- for me, that was very hard for me to actually have to -- to actually embody it and to deal with the entirety of what 52:00faith meant. And I think that up until that point, I had been able to skate by on faith being like, "Oh my god, you got a B+ and you really wanted an A." And like, "That's Allah's will," to like, "No, your parents are dying, and like you may have to deal with that." And so I think for me the stakes just became higher, and I think that when you're younger, if -- like -- the stakes are just lower and I think as I got older, I just was like -- oh, the stakes are higher. This is an active thing that I have to participate in -- I can't just let things happen.
And even thinking about like the things that I prayed for just being different-- and then just being more basic from like -- in -- when you're 20, "Hope I get this fellowship." Like, or, "inshallah I get this fellowship," right? Or like -- whatever the things that you want, and then sort of shifting the context of your prayer towards like, "I hope people don't die." Or like, "If they do die, I hope that I have the strength to deal with it," being like a complete sort of like an 53:00overthrow of your entire understanding of the world. And then also being in a space where not everyone around you understands the way that you're dealing with the situation, which is like -- when you -- when you're -- as a person of faith, when you're talking about like sort of surrendering to the will of things, also recognizing that some people that see that as a surrender surrender, versus just like a recognition that there's just things that I cannot control, and so it's futile for me to -- [laughter] it's futile for me to -- to engage in this practice of trying to control every aspect of it.
So I think it was just recognizing that -- I feel like people have said thisbefore -- Islam is a verb. Like it's an active thing. And it's like, no, really -- [laughter] you're not getting very far in anything if you are sort of skating by on the hopes that -- the hopes that you don't actually have to activate or make use or put into practice, and like -- and I don't want to be like, oh, my 54:00parents' illness was like a challenge that I needed to conquer. But it was definitely a moment where I was like, oh, this is definitely a moment of testing for me to -- for me to actually understand -- if I understand what it meant when I said that I am Muslim. Because we all will say, "Oh, I'm Muslim. I'm Muslim." But like, did I actually understand what is being asked of me in this moment, which is -- which is something very specific that I had not had to like confront thoroughly. [laughter] And then having to confront it and then being like, again, disoriented. Being disoriented by it all. Yeah.
STRONG: Did -- did faith support you as well as demanding s--
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean -- I think -- I think this was a point where we were allkind of like, very confused and angry. And it wasn't so much a loss of faith; it was like a severe interrogation that I think that we needed to have. And so I -- 55:00I don't -- I don't know if I'm like, oh, faith supported me, because nothing is very comforting at these times. Like, you can make dhikr for as long as you want -- you can like -- nothing comforts you, necessarily when you're like, oh, my parents could die. Nothing is comforting necessarily. But there is like this weird sense of calm that overcomes you when you're kind of like, I have exhausted every single thing that is possible for me as a human to do and to exercise within my power. And at this point there is nothing else for me to do. Other than to pray about it -- and that prayer, that's it.
And so for me, there was -- there was support in recognizing the limitations ofmy -- [laughter] but there was a moment of just recognizing limitations, like where I started and where Allah start-- and just sort of like recognizing the boundary between those two -- I think that there -- there was a point, probably, 56:00in my life where I felt like, whatever's thrown in my direction, I got it. And faith meant just going forth. No matter what challenges like come in front of you, just like, you got it. You do it.
And the faith is also like surrender. And the faith is also recognizing that thesupport that you want may not be the support that you get, and that the support that you want may not look like what you get, but you're still being supported. It just doesn't look the way that you want. And if your parents die tomorrow, that doesn't mean that God loves you any less; it just meant that that was what was going to happen, and that the support comes in that moment of -- of -- of recognizing that this is like, this is what is going to occur. And I went to -- I used to go to Buddhist meditations in the city, and there was one that I went to a couple years ago where the woman was explaining suffering, and she said, "Suffering is pain times resistance." And I remember being like, what is that?
And she was like, "Suffering is literally when you are faced with a painfulsituation, and you resist feeling the pain, and you resist what that moment is 57:00articulating, and you're suffering because you refuse to surrender to what is happening." And I was like, wow. That's the most lucid articulation of suffering -- [laughter] -- that I ever had like heard in that plain of language. Because it was like -- that is what we are -- that is what we were taught as kids, but then filtered through this very simplistic equation, and then this Buddhist meditation -- [laughter] -- said -- in the city, I was like, "Oh." There was like this moment of convergence of things that I had always known and heard, and this moment where I was like, "Oh. Yeah. That's why I felt -- that's when I felt suffering, was when I could not surrender, or I could not accept the terms and conditions [laughter] that were being applied to the situation."
STRONG: I think you had said that early on in your artistic practice, you drewfrom your biography --
STRONG: -- a lot, so what role did art play for you at this time?
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean -- I don't know. I felt there was -- there -- at thebeginning of my practice, I felt like my work was definitely more autobiographical. I was talking a lot about my family's -- like, my family's 58:00history -- and one thing we didn't talk about was my family being homeless and being in unpredictable housing at this time. And I didn't talk about it, because I feel like I've talked about it so much so frequently that I often feel like, early on in my practice that was the only lens through which people spoke to me about my work. It was like, "Oh, the homeless artist. Oh, the artist talking about her homelessness." And so at the beginning of my practice, that was really important for me to talk about. My parents' lived experiences, my experiences, and what all of that meant -- and I feel like, as I got -- as I grew in my practice, there was this desire to reveal parts of my personal autobiography, but also to make some elements of that more opaque or more abstracted for -- and a desire to protect my family's privacy, but also -- and this desire not to feel 59:00like exploited or instrumentalized for like particular purposes.
And so I think that as I've sort of moved on in my practice, I have beeninterested in thinking about contextualizing my autobiographical experiences in like a larger social history, so I think that there's one element of like -- as an artist -- constantly talking about yourself -- [laughter] -- and then there's like this other opportunity to constantly talk about yourself but then to try to situate it in a context -- not so much so that everyone else feels comfortable or safe, but so that you yourself are recognizing both the uniqueness and the non-uniqueness of your experience, because I think it's very easy where you're constantly thinking about yourself to assume you're the only person in the world that has experienced this. And I think it's James Baldwin's quote when he talks about, "You think that you've experienced the worst thing in the world and then you read." [laughter]
RASHEED: And then you're just like, "Oh. okay." And it was -- not to like createcompetition about whose story is, you know, the most painful, but I think it was 60:00a moment for me of being like, "How do I then make sense" -- like, so what? Like, then what? Like -- yes. Okay. Then what? And so, I think that my practice has evolved a lot into thinking about language and thinking through that lens, because I do like to spend a lot of time talking, but I also like to spend a lot of time talking and thinking about how people are using language to describe a particular moment or to describe a particular experience. And so I think for me growing up, my dad used to wake us up very early to read the Qur'an in the morning, and like he taught us Arabic as kids, and I used to be so excited because I was like, "Man, I'm like so literate."
Like I just felt like so literate, because I -- we all learned to read veryearly, and even though all of -- all -- all of my brothers had learning disabilities, and all of us had IEPs [Individualized Education Program] and 504 plans, like, we all read super early, and I don't even understand how that happened. We all read early. And that was a large part of our growing up is that 61:00we constantly had books; we constantly reading. And part of that experience made me very interested in like storytelling and how people told stories. And so I think that later on in my art practice, a lot of that -- trying to make sense of how people tell stories, and even remembering as a kid, being completely confused by the Qur'an, because I think -- in the way that the Bible is a series of stories that sort of follow this narrative that has momentum -- the Qur'an will jump around, like you'll be here with Moses, and then you'll be here with Abraham, and then you're like, "What is happening?" Like, "What is going on?" And so I think as a kid reading that and not really understanding the organization, the chron-- also made me interested in thinking about narrative structure and being like, oh, there's this whole entire book, and like this first revelation is like, chapter 96, and this second revelation is over here. And this other thing is organized like this. And just being like, oh, there are different ways of telling a story. 62:00
And me being very fascinated as a kid about the ways in which like -- Muhammadpieced it all together, all these like -- revelations. And then someone wrote them down. And then someone then organized them. And then someone put them into a book. And like all these different layers of how a story -- how a bunch of disparate things come together to become a story was like fascinating for me, and so like a lot of things that I do in my practice -- even if I don't explicitly talk about them as being inspired by the Qur'an as a text that has a very particular formation history and a very particular way of -- of narration -- is often influenced by this like sort of like non-linearity and this like -- I feel like there are these interesting unexpected turns that happen as I'm reading where I'll -- I would have read the same passage over and over, and like the 16th time that I've read it, I literally see something I didn't see before. And so these moments of either misreading or reading too fast or slowing down to like pick up something, like, all these moments of interaction with the text are 63:00what's interesting to me now in my practice, just because I -- I feel like I just got older. [laughter] As I got older and I wanted to talk about being Muslim, and I want to talk about things that are interesting to me, but I didn't want to be like, "Hey, guys. I'm a Muslim artist. Let me tell you some things about being Muslim."
And I was like, no, that's been done, and it does not feel like what I'minterested in. And so I sort of didn't -- I don't want to call it an abstracted route, but I took what felt like an organic pathway, which is -- I'm Muslim. So anything that I make will implicitly be impacted by the way that I make sense of the world, so there's no necessity in making like a large pronouncement. And people who know me and even know like a tidbit of Islam will find these small hints and these small gestures, so I really liked working with like the small hints and gestures in my work; it's like an invitation for people to look closer, or to pay att-- to, to unravel things, or to be like hit with something 64:00that's unpredictable, because I feel like when you meet me, you're like, oh, she's Muslim.
But I don't feel like people immediately get that when they're like, "Oh, she'sblack." Like, "I got that from her work, but I had no idea she was Muslim." Like, maybe her name would have given a clue. So I kind of like those moments of surprise where people are engaging with something implicitly, and I think -- as I spend a lot of time as a high school teacher -- I'm always interested in sort of like implicit-learning experiences, where you learn something that you didn't expect to learn, and you learn it through like a particular architecture that you didn't even see. It's just there, though.
STRONG: So, when you went to graduate school at Stanford --
STRONG: -- it was not for art; it was for education.
RASHEED: Yes. I have no degree in art.
RASHEED: [laughter] I have no background whatsoever at -- I have no formalbackground or training in the arts. That's correct.
STRONG: [laughter] That is not my point. [laughter] My point is --
STRONG: -- that central to your work is --
STRONG: -- is learning and education.
RASHEED: Yes. I -- I -- I -- and so back to thinking about like language and65:00thinking about conversations, I like -- I was trying to figure out the other day, like, oh, what is it that I do? Like, what is it? And -- and -- I think the end of last year, I start -- I start -- all artists brand, and I hate the language of branding, but I was like, "I need to like rebrand what I'm doing." Because I'm like writing these artist's statements, and like, none of them seem right. They all seem like a bit wonky. And I was like, "No, this is what I do. I'm a learner, and I make that learning visible through these different things." I'm not going to tell you a thing, because that thing may change tomorrow. Like I may be interested in frogs tomorrow; I may be interested in this particular plant tomorrow; I may be interested in this cellular process tomorrow.
Like -- but whatever I'm doing, I'm a person who enjoys learning, and I'm tryingto manifest or make that learning visible to you as a person seeing my work, even if it's an installation, if it's like a book, if it's a poem, if it's an essay, if it's a video -- but like, every single thing is serving the purpose of me trying to make how I think about the world at that particular moment visible. And I've sort of like switched my practice in the sense that I don't make static 66:00works anymore, so I'll make work -- but I'll intervene during the time that it is installed, or I'll constantly be revising it or changing it because I think that -- the assertion that when we install work on July 14th, 2018, that the way we felt about the thing that we created is the same way that we feel about the thing by August 15th seems a bit irrational and unrealistic. I'm constantly learning new stuff like, "Oh, I was wrong about that. Was wrong about that. Was definitely wrong about that. My views have changed about that."
And so the one thing that's interesting in my own art practice is like, sort ofsurrendering to revision and surrendering to contingency which is that everything that I believe about the world could be overturned at any moment -- [laughter] -- and there's great anxiety in that but there is also great relief in that and knowing that I don't have to know everything and I have had interviews before where I keep going back to the same surah -- which is the same 67:00surah Muslims are encouraged to read on Friday, which is Surah Al-Kahf, which is this series of stories and within that surah, there's a story about Moses and Al-Khidr and this sort of interaction they're having where they're going on a journey, and Moses is like, "Can I go with you?" And Al-Khidr is like, "Yeah, you can go, but don't ask me a bunch of questions along the way." And Moses, of course, keeps asking him a bunch of questions. And then Al-Khidr says, "Stop asking questions," and they eventually part ways, but he explains to him all the things he was asking questions about. And I love that story so much because it's like this reminder of this constant pursuit of -- to know the answers to everything.
And then the surah ends on this note of about if the oceans were like ink for meto tell the story of the world, there would never be enough oceans for that -- and just this constant reminder of like, there is so much to know about the world and there is so much to understand -- there is so much possibility for everything you know to be overturned by knowing something new that you don't 68:00actually have to know anything -- you don't actually have to pursue knowing everything, but sort of being in this moment of surrender or complete contingency of like, "I can know a bit of this and a bit of this," and being open to revision. And so I like to think about my art practice -- again, even if it isn't explicitly being like, "I'm Muslim, and some Muslim people think about this."
It's like, my practice is completely open to revision and contingency, because Ihave control over nothing -- [laughter] -- and everything, I don't know enough of anything to actually have any firm feelings about most of anything. I can have -- I can have firm feelings; I can't have firm anything else about that. So I feel like a lot of my practice is rooted in the pursuit of understanding sort of paired with the recognition that I will never understand enough of anything to become an expert. And that's like a great relief to me, because there was a point in my life where I wanted to be an expert at things, and then Allah is good at reminding you that you don't know anything, so -- [laughter] -- that's 69:00always nice when you're just like, "Yeah, you don't know anything. So chill out." Yeah.
STRONG: So what -- what drew you away from urban planning and policy -- thesethings -- into education?
RASHEED: I think those things are still part of what I do. I think about -- mydad tells a story when he -- before he converted to Islam, he says that he felt like he was going around to different religious community and that each community was -- it was like a buffet. He was taking a nibble of that, a nibble of this, a nibble of this, but he never felt full until he -- until he came to know Islam, and I -- so I think that I sort of take the same approach of accretion in my own practice where like, I studied urban planning and I studied policy and I studied history and I make art -- and none of those things have left me.
None of them -- they're still -- they're still here. They may not make like --like a star -- star appearance in my practice, but they're still there, because I think about all the things that I do sort of ecosystemically in that the thing 70:00that I do as a visual artist connects to the thing that I do when I teach -- it connects to -- like all these things are in relationship to one another, and so when it comes to urban planning and public policy, my job during the day -- writing curriculum for history has completely influenced my thinking about like, policy. Like we're writing curriculum that schools will use, and even though it's not a law, it becomes an implicit form of policy in that teachers are making decisions around what they're going to implement, what they're not going to implement, you know, how they're going to implement it with fidelity, and those things are going to have impacts on kids, and so there are frameworks -- even if I'm not explicitly using an explicit content from what I've learned -- there are frameworks and schemas and ways of thinking about things that always have an impact on how I make things and how I move through the world.
And there's no way for me to escape that they're there [laughter] and they sneakup on you in ways that you don't always notice. But everything is -- everything is there. It's always there. 71:00
STRONG: So just to -- to rest in this his-- history, which is Stanford, for alittle while --
STRONG: -- tell me about, as you described in other spaces, your connections to,you know, maybe Muslim Student Associations --
STRONG: -- and faith groups there.
RASHEED: Yeah, so -- [laughter] -- after my fun experiences in undergrad withMuslim Student Associations -- [laughter] -- I did not think I wanted to try it again. But when I got to grad school at Stanford, I actually really enjoyed that community, and it wasn't -- there were definitely blind spots again, and I think the blind spots exist because if you have only been in your community and never had the experience of acknowledging anyone's existence, then you're going to have some blind spots. But I think the thing that actually made this community feel good -- like, not good as like an inherent good; as like, made me feel good -- was they had sort of -- they had what I was talking about before, sort of like a welcoming committee of like, "Oh, okay, so like, you're a new student 72:00here? We've never seen you before," so like -- oh, I think I remember. If I'm remembering correctly, I remember walking around Stanford and maybe a student approached me and was like, "Hey, are you new? Come to this place."
And then -- I think that is what happened. I'm almost certain that's whathappened. I feel so old sometimes when I tell stories. I'm like -- that was a decade ago. I don't remember. Whatever the case, I felt invited. Whether it was an explicit invitation or an invitation that was imagined, I felt invited. And I remember -- it may have been Ramadan, because I remember going to iftar -- and people just being very like, "Hey, you're new. What's your name? What do you do?" And there's also like, "We want to get you on a committee really quickly to get stuff organized."
But there was like -- there was like -- sort of like a movement, and so fromthere I joined different communities and joined different groups, and so that was important for me because I -- I didn't want to sort of just like -- sort of like wobble and just hang out in a community, but I wanted to feel like I was actively doing something. So I think that that there were actual communities and enough Muslim students there where there could be multiple groups and multiple 73:00communities and multiple things to do was very exciting, because I was like, "Whoa," like, "there are people, and we all have class at different times, but there's one musalla that we go to. If we're in between classes, we can go pray." During Ramadan, there were a group of girls -- a group of us girls who would wake up one another for suhoor and go from dorm to dorm to pick up one another and then walk and have suhoor, pray at morning prayer, and then everyone would go crash.
And so like, even those small moments of getting up together and going from dormto dorm, and waking everyone up, and making sure everyone's up, and laughing because what are we going to do when Ramadan is over? We'll have no reason to talk to each other. Because it was like that was such a ritual, and all of us actually feeling quite sad when Ramadan ended, because we were like, "Oh, do we just wake each other up like randomly? Like, what do we do [laughter] what do we do now?" But it was like a really wonderful experience where it was like, nothing particularly special, but it was like a routine around being in relation to one another; it was really, really powerful for me. Yeah. That was -- that 74:00was a really great experience. And the students delivered the khutbahs -- so the women couldn't deliver them.
So we wrote them and we had a male student deliver them, but it was also like, Igot to write a khutbah, which was kind of cool, and I'd never written one before, and that was like, pretty cool experience of having done that. So yeah, it was -- and it was hard to leave Stanford after that, because I had left, and I started teaching, and I was near Stanford, so sometimes I would go back to hang out with people, but it was a hard transition out of that because I moved off campus, got my own apartment, and was teaching, and just felt like I was sort of untethered because I had spent an entire intense year around all these people celebrating and having all these things and then to be untethered and sort of floating about again was really, really hard for me, those first couple of years in California when I was teaching. And I eventually made the decision 75:00to move to New York, because I was like, "I want a sense of community." Everyone at Stanford also -- everyone was graduating and moving on -- everyone was moving and dispersing; I just wanted a sense of community, and I was like, "Oh, when I was in Johannesburg, being in a big city with lots of people made it much easier to find coherence here -- find a group of people."
And so I was like, "Oh, I'll try out New York," because you're like 23, 24,that's what you do. Just like, pack up your stuff and go places. [laughter] And so I applied to a couple jobs, got a job teaching, and I moved out to New York on July 4th, 2010, because I wanted to be symbolic -- [laughter] -- and stayed with a friend for like a week and a half, two weeks, and then got my own apartment. And -- yeah, just spent a lot of time sort of like, walking around, trying to get my bearings for the city, sort of like popping into different masjids, into -- and being excited even if I don't feel like Islam is as 76:00explicit or public as in like, a place like Philadelphia. [laughter] It was nice to walk down the street and see people I could say as-salaam alaikum to, in ways that I could not do in my hometown. Like, you -- where would you -- like you could say it to your parents, but to actually walk down the street and hear the adhan -- those were really beautiful experiences for me, and I -- when I moved to New York, when I was looking for an apartment, I ended up moving to a Hasidic neighborhood off of Eastern Parkway, which people were like, c-- "Why would you move to a community that is not" -- I'm like [laughter] "This is what I do." [laughter] "This is sort of what I do." And so it was mostly a Hasidic and Caribbean neighborhood, and I was really excited about living in Crown Heights; I had read about Crown Heights, the conflict and tension that was there, but also the history that was really apparent in that space, and the first five years in New York City, I spent sort of like, being this person who I felt very, 77:00very open and free to meet people and engage people and to ask questions and made friends with the young Hasidic guy who ran the deli down the street from me, and in that context got to ask a bunch of -- because I had been reading a bunch of stuff, and I wanted to learn more, and the best way to learn is just ask people questions.
And sometimes people would ignore you and keep walking, and sometimes peoplewould, you know, would stop. And so, asking things about kosher law or like, particular clothing choices that men had. And, I remember being in the deli and I remember seeing this young Jewish woman, and I think she was in the Lubavitcher movement, and she had this long skirt, and I had been looking for long skirts. I just -- I was like, "Where do people find these long skirts?" That's -- you know -- people know -- I was like -- and I was like, "okay," -- and so she gave me the complete rundown of where they shopped. They were like, "No, you have to go to H&M. You have to go to this section. You have to get this."
And so she explained it and I was asking about the wigs and the scarves and Ilearned about the wig industry and these wig expos that happen. And so, having 78:00all these sort of like, unexpected interactions with people was really amazing for me to grow and to make sense of myself and I was like the insular person who was practicing my own thing and making sense of the world for myself, but in relation to another person and other groups of people. But also this interesting moment: I remember walking home after going to some event, and there was a woman sitting on the corner, and she kept saying, "I need help. I need help." And for whatever reason I was like, "Oh, it's only like, 9 o'clock at night. I can definitely walk over to a screaming woman who's saying, 'I need help.'" So I go over and I'm like, "What do you need?" And she's like, "Oh, it's, you know, Sabbath. We can't do any labor, and I haven't pushed my kid home yet." Because she hadn't like, they couldn't -- according to Jewish law, there were certain -- they can't lift or do labor at -- on the Sabbath, and I was like, "Oh. Okay." And I was like, "No problem."
And she was like, "It's just right around the corner." And I was like, "Nope, Idon't mind pushing your kid." And I was like, "But where's the kid?" And she was like, "Oh, the kid's upstairs." And I was like, "Okay." So, I don't remember -- I -- whatever -- for whatever reason, I was like, "Oh, it's completely sane for 79:00me to walk into this stranger's home." So I walk into her house and I -- and she hadn't packed up the kids yet. And I -- and she's like, "Oh, go ahead and sit down; we're just finishing Shabbat dinner. Do you want anything?" And I was like, "Oh no, I'm fine." And we were sitting there talking; she's packing up the kids. And there's a couple families that all need help getting back to where they live, and there I was as asked -- oh hey, what's going on? "Oh, what religion are you?" And I was like, oh wow, this is so interesting that you have no idea -- [laughter] -- any context for who I am. And so on the walk home we had this very interesting conversation, like, "Oh I'm Muslim, blah blah blah," and they were telling me things about their relationship with Judaism because I think they were part of the Lubavitcher movement, so they had come back to Judaism -- like, there are all these interesting intersections of conversations. Around the corner meant like a mile and a half away, so it wasn't around the corner, it was like in the dead of winter, so I was definitely walking for a while.
But in that interaction, like, learned a lot about Jewish law [laughter] andrules around the Sabbath, and I learned about eruv, and that's instances where 80:00there's a wire around a community, there are certain things you are able to do on the Sabbath. And so I just learned a lot -- just felt very energized by the interaction, because I think there's lots of learning that happens when you sit and read a book, but there's also a lot of learning that happens in sort of these unexpected interactions -- I didn't expect to run into a family of people who had not looked at the clock and had missed their window for pushing their kids home, but they had no other way because everyone else on the block was also Jewish and observing the Sabbath, and they were literally waiting for some person who was not Jewish to push their kids home.
So yeah, I mean, those were sort of my experiences in Crown Heights and as I wasteaching, I learned from a lot of my students that there are lots of people who -- lots of folks who -- there are lots of folks who -- like my students who are often asked, "Can you come in and turn off the light? You can turn on the stove." And these are the -- the -- the folks on Sabbath that you sort of hire to do stuff for you. So it's interesting -- yeah, it was an interesting couple 81:00of years on that side of Eastern Parkway. And then in 2015, I moved closer to Fulton and closer to Bed-Stuy, where we live now. And that's definitely not the same community, and there are elements of my original Brooklyn community that I really miss. But the one really beautiful thing is that like, we are between three different masjids, so depending on how noisy it is outside, you can hear adhan, from multiple corners of -- of where you're staying at, which is great.
We also live across the street from a church and then next door to a HaitianSeventh Day Adventist church. So on Saturdays, we get the procession singing on Saturday, and then on Sundays we also get it across the street. And so, it's a very -- for my husband and I -- a very exciting experience to live in a community where you're literally hearing lots of different articulations of religion consistently. And in the apartment that I lived in off of Eastern 82:00Parkway, there was a church inside of -- there was a -- I think it was illegal; I don't think you're allowed to do that -- but there was a church inside of [laughter] the apartment on the third floor. I was on the fifth floor, and she -- or on the fourth floor; she was on the third floor, and she was definitely running a church out of her apartment. Got to do what you got to do.
But I think that -- that is a common thread in my experience in Brooklyn; it'ssort of like, rubbing up against or being adjacent to a lot of communities that were not my own, but feeling very excited about the possibilities of seeing how people engage to interact and make sense of that. And some people were complaining, "The church is too loud." "You shouldn't have moved here. You moved next door to two churches; what did you think was going to happen?" But for me it was completely exciting to be -- when I walk outside on a Saturday morning -- there are folks from Seventh Day Adventist, and I don't know a lot about that, but -- like, it's exciting for me, at least. Yeah. Yeah, it's been -- yeah, it's been exciting. [laughter]
STRONG: You said something on the phone about your experiences in exploring83:00Brooklyn about how hyper-localized all the cultures are.
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean, when I moved here, I only knew of -- of --
STRONG: Do you need to take that? I can pause.
RASHEED: This is my husband, who I have been trying to call for hours, who is --yeah, you can pause it real quickly.
STRONG: I will pause. Yes.
STRONG: We're back. Hyper-localized cultures of Brooklyn.
RASHEED: Yes. Yeah, so my husband is from Brownsville, New York -- Brownsville,Brooklyn, excuse me. He will correct me. And so when I moved here, I was like, "Oh, Brooklyn. Brooklyn is just Brooklyn." I know there are different neighborhoods, but when you talk to people who are born and raised here, they will correct you very quickly: It's not just Brooklyn. Like, it is Brownsville. And Brownsville, even that being small, has particular characteristics for different blocks. And so in the past couple years just really noticing how even the Jewish community where I lived off of Eastern Parkway, like, those couple blocks are very different from the Jewish community in Williamsburg.
And having these moments where you're sort of passing through both communities,84:00at a surface looking like, oh, there are similarities in appearance -- like, oh, you're all doing the same thing, without even recognizing that there are internal tensions within those communities or there are different practices or the people are coming from different regions of other parts of the world -- like, and -- and -- getting very excited about all the different pockets of things happening, so I think there is a tendency to -- and all the time; I feel like we've talked about this before -- to sort of homogenize for the sake of quickly understanding something, "Oh, it's like, all the same thing." Or like, we don't need nuance or detail, because we are just trying to understand something quickly, but I think Brooklyn presents a really beautiful challenge in that geographically we're talking about one particular part of New York.
But within that there are so many different -- so many different communities,like, I don't even -- it's amazing to me and boggles my mind and makes me so excited and when I started this project Mapping the Spirit a couple of years ago, it was like, my attempt to sort of make sense of all these different 85:00permutations of religious experience in Brooklyn particularly with black folks -- or not in Brooklyn, but in the United States -- particularly with black folks, and me starting at such like, the scale of like: What does black spirituality and religiosity look like across -- many black people across the United States? And then me spending time with one community of these people, the Moorish Science Temple, in Philadelphia but then going to Memphis and then seeing how it was different in Memphis -- but then even within that Memphis community, there was always pockets of things, and me just thinking like, in mathematical terms, of the literal permutations of lived experience being so insanely amazing and humbling to think about.
And I think that Brooklyn is such a beautiful example of that because there'sliterally no assumption you can carry into any community, which I think is a good lesson for life, like, there is no assumption you can carry from the community you encounter in this Brooklyn and into when you go into another part 86:00of Brooklyn, because you're just going to be wrong, and because where we are you will be corrected, and I love those moments of correction. So yeah. I -- I -- yeah. And I -- yeah. Yeah. [laughter]
STRONG: This is reminding me of something you talked about on the phone that I-- I don't remember the details of it, but you were describing the importance of ecosystems.
RASHEED: Yes. Yes. So I talk about ecosystems in terms of my own practice andwhere -- there is a story about a rhino, I think, that was going extinct, and it was a conservation biologist who was upset, because people were like, "Oh, extinction is part of evolution; it's just like if something dies then it dies." Well, it'll be fine. But then he goes into the story about the rhino's skin being home for these insects, and when he walks on these branches and crushes them, they become food for someone else, and the feces is food for something else, so he goes into all -- like this one rhino maintains his own very local 87:00ecosystem just on its body, but how it contributes to an existing ecosystem for an entire community of other organisms -- I think about my art practice in the same way of like, there are many things that are happening simul-- there are many interactions and relationalities that are happening within my practice and to remove one means that something is missing -- something -- something has gone awry. There is some disruption.
And I think about it in the same ways that I think about communities, too, and Ithink that this is sort of like -- for me -- the interesting way that I've been trying to think about gentrification as well, which is the obvious -- the obvious socioeconomic injustices of being priced out of communities, but thinking about this as not just the loss of human people who can no longer live there, but the literal shifts in an ecosystem of a community. Like, what happens when the Seventh Day Adventist Church next door to me can no longer afford to be 88:00there? And it gets replaced by like, whatever people are building these days. [laughter] Like a Star-- I don't -- I don't even know, right? Like what happens when that happens, and what happens when the young kids who hang out at the bodega down the street can no longer -- they can't -- their families can't afford to be here, so they're like -- moving somewhere deep in Pennsylvan-- what actually happens to a community?
And so for me, I'm really interested in ecosystemic metaphors, because I thinkthat they provide a way to think about the complexity of every single social interaction, which is not -- we are upset when people get removed from their communities and can no longer live there, because people should have the right to live where they want to live, and people should be able to afford where they've always been living, but they all -- literally something is lost when a community -- when something is removed, like when that church can't be there, and when that bodega can't be there, and those kids can't be there -- or like, when this juice shop can't be there, or when -- those -- when those things are removed, it seems like a building is lost or a person is lost, but that bodega was an ecosystem of its own, and that bodega contributed to the larger ecosystem 89:00of Nostrand [Avenue] -- like, all those things there -- there are walkways -- there are walk pathways that people have that are contingent upon that bodega being there, and when that bodega is not there, people are not -- there are all these different moments of intricacy and relationality.
And so ecosystems are exciting to me because I love biology and I love ecologyas a standalone topic of inquiry, but I think when thinking about social relationships, it becomes, really important, exciting, and imperative to think about the fragility of our relationships and the importance of evaluating gentrification as a loss of a set of relationships, not just the loss of a building. Because when you talk about buildings, it's -- people are like, "Oh, you build another building." When I think we talk about relationships, there's like an intimacy and a recognition of humanity that gets lost in a lot of these conversations, and I -- yeah. I guess just like, it's not just the bodega that's 90:00gone; it's like the bodega is gone, the man who was there who may have been teaching someone in Arabic is no longer there to do that, the kids who are just recent immigrants from Yemen who moved in down the street who stopped in this place to see someone who looks like them every single day -- they no longer have that experience. Like, the kombucha that I want is no longer -- there are all these things that -- and as trivial as that sounds, it's like a change in relationalities. It's a change in relationships. And I think that that -- I think those things are important.
STRONG: You also talked about the mobility and sometimes forced mobilityspecifically of black Americans --
STRONG: -- contributing to, like, people carrying things with them through spaces.
RASHEED: Yeah. I mean, yeah. This is one of the reasons that my husband and Ihave been like, "Oh, you want to buy land; you want to buy property." And being like, "We can't do it in New York." [laughter] And then like, what does that mean for our sense of belonging here, but also what does that mean for our sense of permanent permanence? Or ownership? And so like -- and so like sort of this history of black people through -- through actual laws and through just implicit 91:00actions at local levels -- not being able to own land or property and what impact that has on a sense of belonging and community, but also in that mobility can be good that you can always, sort of like, quickly move when you need to move, and you can quickly sort of like, evade the type of surveillance that becomes suppressive and limiting, but it also means that you don't have the permanence that is necessary to be able to build institutions that are sustainable that can be passed onto young people, right?
So like, thinking about a community where like, a lot of people don't ownthings, and like, not being able to pass on a building or an institution or a business onto someone else. And what type of impact that has psychologically but also what type of impact that has economically. Like, just not being able to have those things. And so that mobility of having to carry stuff with you and 92:00always be -- being in a moment of flight, I think, can be romanticized as something really beautiful, "Oh, we were always on the move or always agile or always nimble." But it also means that you like, never -- it's like heightened anxiety. [Laughter] That I don't think it's healthy for anyone, and so I'm really interested in thinking about community building in emotional-psychological terms, with a masjid being a place where people feel a sense of community, but also like, what does it mean when folks have ways and means to buy up a block of Brooklyn and to turn that block into a community?
Because there's a difference between a city and a community, and to turn it intoa community and to have institutions that sustain themselves. And that's the thing that I often fear when I walk through Brooklyn is like I see these places that are obviously things that have been in the community for a long time. I'm like, "Okay, so how -- how are we going to ensure that this thing is still 93:00around in 50 years?" Like, "How are we going to ensure that Masjid At-Taqwa is still here? How are we going to ensure that Masjid Khalifa is still" -- or how do we, like -- how do we ensure that they're still here? Because every single day there's always a threat of like, maybe you don't own the building, or maybe -- there's always a threat that that building could not be there, so how do we -- and I don't know enough of the laws to even understand all of the intricacies -- but how do we ensure these institutions exist and sustain themselves?
And I think that's always a concern of mine, because I would hate to walk downFulton and, you know, the things that I've grown familiar with seeing not being there, not because I deserve familiarity, but because I do think that -- in the case of Masjid At-Taqwa -- they've built a community. Like that block, people know what that block does. People know what they go to that block for. My husband goes there to get his hair cut. He goes there specifically to get his 94:00hair cut, because -- not because they do good haircuts, because the barber there is not always that great. He goes there because he likes the feeling of what it means to go into a barbershop where people are speaking Arabic and people are joking around and people are saying things and doing things that are familiar to him, and that he can get up after he's done, walk to get a bean pie, eat that, and then go make wudu and go pray. He likes that sense of community and being able to move through those spaces and knowing that those places will always be there.
And if you notice on the other end of Fulton, you see this quick encroaching onspace where things sort of -- buildings start being removed, and so now it's like half the block, now. And so there are these moments where I just do -- I get a little -- I get a little scared. Even though it's not the community that I really identify with, I know it's a community that a lot of people in New York -- and Brooklyn in particular -- identify with and it's always a concern of like, how we make sure that that's something that people can identify with for many years to come. [Coughs] Excuse me. 95:00
STRONG: [Coughs] Thank you for affording me the opportunity to cough myself[coughs]. You've made me very interested in this character in your life of your husband --
RASHEED: Yeah. [laughter]
STRONG: -- someone who is living in Brooklyn --
STRONG: -- and from Brooklyn --
STRONG: -- and feels at home --
STRONG: -- in these spaces, where you say you haven't quite felt at home --
STRONG: -- so tell me about him and his force in your life.
RASHEED: Yeah, so, he converted to Islam in 2011, and he took a shahada atMasjid Khalifah, and he -- I feel like he is a super curious person, so I think by nature, the way that he sort of moves through the world is -- he just walks up into places and is like "Hey, what's going on? What's going on? What's the deal? What's happening?" And so I think that -- and I think that he feels a particular sense of entitlement to do that as a Brooklyn person and as a Brownsville person -- he has a very strong Brownsville identity. And so I think that when he moves through -- and he's had experiences throughout New York City where he's gone to other masjids and mosques where people have been rude to him 96:00and have made it difficult for him to find a place to pray, or have -- like, he's had some nasty experiences in the city, but he's liked Masjid Khalifah, because he's like, "Okay, these people kind of -- you know -- they look like me. There's bean pies. There's a place to go pray."
And, the thing that he really likes is he loves public culture. He loves the --he loves to be able to walk down the street and see people outside. And Masjid Khalifah has a very particular culture around every Friday at jummah, there's -- everyone's outside selling -- everyone is outside. And my husband loves that so much, because he's like, "Yeah, this is -- this is the New York I remember. This is the New York in the '90s and early 2000s where like, everyone was outside, and this is before the cops told everyone they had to not loiter." And he was like, "Loitering is not loitering because all of us" -- because he grew up in the projects, he was like, "We lived in the projects; there was no space in there. We were outside because there was no space inside. And this is how we -- this is our living room outside." And so it's really exciting talking to him to 97:00sort of -- about what resonates for him, and it's like, the publicness of Masjid At-Taqwa for him is like the thing that keeps anchoring him. Because he's like, "Oh. So I can just walk by and buy a kufi. I can say hello to someone. I can" -- I think that for him, those are the associations that he has, and I think that for me, at -- I appreciate that also, but I was still looking for something else that I still have not -- I still don't know what it is. I just know that I haven't found it yet. And I think that he has found it in ways that I just haven't in which I'm happy that he has.
So I think that -- because I think that growing up Muslim is one thing, butconverting and going into a community is a completely different experience, and to have done that in your 20s when everyone else around you is doing whatever they want to do, and you're making a very explicit decision to change your entire life [laughter] and to change your relationship to other people, I'm very 98:00proud that and excited that he has sort of settled into something where he's like, "Huh. This feels nice. I like this." And he'll go to NYU, he'll go to -- he'll go all over the place. And he -- he's like, "When I need to pray," he's like, "This is where I'm going to pray." But he really -- he -- he likes going. He's like, "You know, this is cool. Bean pies. Haircuts." Haircuts are not always great, but [laughter] they do the job.
STRONG: [laughter] The hair is shorter. The conversation is good.
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean -- yeah. I mean there's -- there's less mistakes you canmake with a guy's haircut, so -- I wouldn't let them touch my hair. [laughter] They're not touching my hair.
STRONG: How did -- how did you and your husband meet?
RASHEED: We met through Tumblr. It's actually a funny story because he -- weboth had blogs at the time that were about black religious movements, and he saw my blog and he was like, "Oh, that's cool," and we were supposed to meet up. And then he canceled. And I was like, "That is so annoying. How dare you." And I was like, whatever. Fine. And then two years later maybe, he found me on Instagram; he was sending me a message -- I had posted something -- and he was like, "Oh, 99:00send it to me." And I was like, "Yeah, no matter -- I'll just send it through your DMs." And he was like, "No, send it to my phone because it's much easier for me to capture." I was like -- it was not, but like, whatever. And I realized that was a trick, because then he got my phone number. Slick one, he is.
But yeah, so we met through that, and then we met -- we finally met, like met upin person in 2016, and I remember it was the beginning of Ramadan, and maybe the day right before -- so this is like, late May/early June, and he met me in front of my apartment where we now live, and we walked -- we walked for hours, like hours through Bed Stuy and Crown Heights just walking. And the entire walk, he was giving a tour of Brooklyn. Like this is a person who is -- if there is like, a role for the ambassador of Brooklyn, someone needs to give this man the role and the award. He was like, "This is where my mom used to take me for this. That building used to be that, but then that building became this. And this is where 100:00I remember we went for foster care, and this is where" -- and he -- and it was this moment of like -- like, strange enthusiasm.
Not strange because it was peculiar, but strange because -- I had never heardsomeone talk about Brooklyn with that much enthusiasm when it wasn't just an advertisement for people to come there for tourism. It was a person who had spent so much time, and he was like, "This is where we got our hockey sticks when we were kids, and this used to be an arcade -- it's not an arcade anymore. This is where we got pizza, but that pizza was --" and just all these memories he had and all these associations we had, and then we sit at this park near Masjid At-Taqwa and played hopscotch [laughter] for a couple hours. It was a really sweet moment of having met someone who was so excited about Brooklyn, but also really sad about Brooklyn, because it was like, Who's holding onto all this information? Who's going to remember what this place was before it became Starbucks? And who's going to remember where you could buy hockey sticks in the hood before -- who's going to remember all this stuff? 101:00
And I was like, "You are. That's your job. That is actually your" -- so he's inthe process now of working on this project, which is trying to collect the history of Brownsville, because he was like, "Everyone always focuses on Crown Heights or Bed Stuy or Fort Greene. Everyone forgets Brownsville and East New York." And I was like, "You're right. People kind of --" [laughter] Like, it is the forgotten part of Brooklyn because it's not as glamorous, it's not as shiny, it's not as like, what people presume to be rich with history.
But he's like, "We've got Mother Gaston Boulevard; stuff happened here." Soyeah, it's interesting seeing how he's processing through all of this with a very clear desire to put Brownsville on the map. He's like mayor of Brownsville. That's what I'm going to call him: the mayor of Brownsville. He's [laughter] the most enthusiastic about -- and I remember saying like, "As a Brooklynite" -- he was like, "You're not a Brooklynite." And I was like, "But I've been here." And he was like, "Nope. You don't -- nope. You don't get --" And I was like, "Okay. 102:00Great. You get to make the determination, so. Yeah."
STRONG: [laughter] So even at home you're not like that --
RASHEED: Yeah, I definitely tried to pretend, and he was like, "No. Just be whoyou are." And I was like, "Okay." Because see -- I don't know if you've seen the signs at Albee Square -- those new -- they put up these new -- before they built all of the Albee Square, they had these new banners that said, "You don't have to be from Brooklyn to be from Brooklyn." And my husband was like, "No, that's the definition of being from Brooklyn is that you're from Brooklyn." [laughter] So my husband flipped out because he was like, "No, if you're from Brooklyn, you're from Brooklyn."
And so he was thinking about all this in the context of these moments wherepeople who have been here for generations and generations are like, where -- they're -- they're -- that identity is literally being removed from them. Like, to be a Brooklynite is to be this itinerant, nomadic person who's cool and edgy and is here for a couple of years and then moves on. But he was like, "No, to be a Brooklynite means that you were born -- you were born here and you were raised here and you've been here."
And so he -- he takes great offense to it. And at first, I was like, "This is so103:00much hyperbole. Like, chill out." But then I was like, "No, you're right. Why is it that when we talk about the history of Brooklyn -- why is it that we don't talk to people [laughter] from Brooklyn?" And that's why even at the beginning of this conversation, the first time, I was like, "I just want to be clear before my husband comes back to this interview in like 15 years, 'Why are they talking to you?'" I'm not -- I was not born in Brooklyn. I have lots of love and romanticism about Brooklyn, but I am definitely a transplant from -- what, almost nine-year transplant -- from California. Making that -- putting that on the record. [laughter] So that everyone knows.
STRONG: [laughter] I do remember that caveat from the first time we called you --
RASHEED: I was like -- "do I have to have born in Brooklyn?" And you were like,"No, relax. Chill out, lady." And I was like, "Just making sure."
STRONG: [laughter] Tell me a little bit about your experiences of art, art world-- being a professional artist -- 104:00
STRONG: -- in Brooklyn, and what that's like.
RASHEED: I mean, I feel like when I first moved here, it felt a bit isolating,because I didn't have networks -- I didn't go to art schools; I didn't know who the people were. And the way I had done anything in my life was like, hard work pays off. So then you just do the work and then you do shows. And then being like, no, you need to know people [laughter] and then sort of being thrown off by that. There were artists who I contacted when I first moved here who were really nice, who were just like, "I've seen your work. You seem cool. Hey."
And people emailed back and people were super friendly, and that was reallyencouraging for me. But I think now -- I'm onl y 33rd, but I'm like, "Now as I get older --" But honestly, as I get older in the ways that I sort of pursued art-world relationships and just being part of the art world, I feel like, I've sort of shrunk back and sort of removed myself from that type of activity. I was never a person who went to openings all the time, but I was definitely like, I want to be in the art world; that is what I want to do. And I have found as I've 105:00gotten older that that's really overwhelming and exhausting and it's a lot of -- it's a lot of work to build certain types of relationships that I'm not interested in. And I feel like a lot of the relationships were being built on networking, and building relationships with people because they have things that you wanted, and then that was the purpose of the relationship.
And sort of going through a couple first interactions in the city where I waslike, "Are we friends because we like each other? Or are we friends because like, you think I have something that you want?" And then, I -- so me trying to be better about having that diversity of relationships, some of which are with folks in the world and some of which [laughter] are intentionally not with folks in the art world, not because I inherently hate people who are -- other people who are artists, but because I think that there should be some distance and space in relationships to talk about things other than art and space in 106:00relationships where we're not constantly in the pursuit of like, getting a thing.
And I found like, my first couple of years to feel, again, disoriented by howrelationships were being formed or being confused about what I'm supposed to be doing and like, am I doing this thing right? And so I think now that I'm older, I kind of like -- I don't really go to openings. I don't even go to my own openings. [laughter] I'll do panels, and I'll do talks, but for the most part I'm not -- I'm like the elusive artist that shows up occasionally to things, and when I do show up, people are like, "Oh my god. Kameelah, is something wrong?" And I'm like, "No, this is my day. I decided this is my --" you know -- "my quota. I've met my quota for social interactions in the art world." [laughter] And so I think that became a situation for me of -- a couple things of -- I think unlike a lot of artists, I work full time, and so for me, energy and time allowance becomes really important in the sense that I don't have a lot of time, 107:00and so whatever remaining time that I have, I want to be really careful about the energy allotment of making sure that whatever I'm engaged in, I'm getting -- it's a beneficial exchange of energy.
Which is not to say that everything in the art world is terrible. It's New YorkCity; it's cutthroat. Like, everyone's out to get a thing, and all of us are out to -- we all want to get the best show or whatever the case may be, and a lot of the energy sometimes can feel overwhelming and exhausting and just sad and depressing. [laughter] And if you just come home from working 8 to 5, the last thing you want to do is then go to an opening where you're reminded either that you're not good enough yet, or there's some weird art-world drama.
And so for me, I try to be very careful about those relationships and how Ispend my time. And I think that can go for any field whether you're a lawyer or a d-- it's like, in any context where you feel like -- where the competition of that field actually makes you anxious, you need to make a clear decision about 108:00where you're going to contribute energy and where you're going to let it go. And I -- I think about maybe two years ago, I was kind of like, "No." [laughter] And I remember getting these emails from people about interviews, and me just being like, "No. I don't want to." And -- and -- and -- and all of a sudden, this feeling of like, "Oh, if I don't want -- if I don't do this interview, then I'm not going to get this opportunity; I'm not going to get exposure."
And I was like, or I could surrender to the fact that if I'm supposed to dosomething, then it's probably going to happen. And there's no number of interviews that I'm going to do that's going to guarantee anything, so I can just say no to the things that I don't want to do, and then not do them, and then have more time to watch X-Files. It all works out very well in the end I think. And so I think as I've gotten older, I've just been more attuned to that, and I think that -- yeah. It's interesting in I don't know how many Muslims there are in the art world, but it feels like there are very few of us. And I 109:00remember a student of mine at SVA [School of Visual Arts] being like, where are the other Muslim artists?
And I was like, "I'm sorry, dear, I do not know." Like, "We just met each otheryesterday, and I'm your professor, so" -- [laughter] -- "I don't know what to tell you." And so I think that element of being curious about who the other Muslim visual artists are, and either feeling like they don't exist or they exist in ways that other people have identified as the most palatable ways for them to exist. I guess it's a weird -- I get questions all the time, like, "Why don't you make Muslim art?" And I'm like, "I don't know what that means." I'm Muslim. Anything I make -- like whatever. I don't know what that means. Yeah, it's a -- it's a strange -- it's strange.
STRONG: What do you think of when you say palatable Muslim art?
RASHEED: I feel like there's a -- and I feel like it's the same in the same caseof black artists and expectations of what black artists do, like, your work needs to be figurative and representational and have a clear thing that's about 110:00black people. And -- and that's the thing. And, there are many black abstract artists, but that's often been like, "No, you need to make this clear." Like, no, what is the story? What is the message you're trying to get to? Like, make that clear and available. And, me being in conversations where people have called me reticent or withholding because I'm not telling them what to think I literally haven't told -- like, "I want you to tell me what to think." And I'm just like, "That is not my job. That is literally not my job. That is your job." [laughter] "I make stuff and you figure out relationships to things."
So there -- I think there's that, and I think that when you add another layer ofanother -- I think being black and being Muslim are both very agile and nimble identities, but because they are so agile and nimble, I think that people looking at us then get very, very uncomfortable with incoherence, and then feel an immediate desire to figure out a way to create a clear perimeter around it, so that we then become easily made sense of. And so I think that when it comes 111:00to Muslim artists, there are categories in which you can -- like you can talk about -- if you're a Muslim, you can talk about being oppressed as a Muslim woman, or you can talk about hijab, or you can make art about -- you make art with hijabs, that's what's you can do. Or if you're a particular Muslim country, you can make work about that Muslim country. Or you can -- so I just feel like there are all these tropes that are -- that are placed on artists -- particularly artists of color -- particularly artists who identify with a particular faith -- of their -- their expectations and tropes that would gear -- either -- not gear, or -- yeah, I would say gear towards or sort of expected to be attuned to and to perform.
And that is very frustrating when people are like, "We're looking for Muslimartists for this show." And I'm like, "I'm a Muslim artist." And they're like, "Where's the Muslim stuff? Where do we find the Muslim -- where is the Muslim thing?" And I'm like, "I -- I don't know -- I don't know what you want me to perform, but it's clear that you want me to perform a particular thing." And so, that being very exhausting -- and so what I talked about before, like, entering 112:00some elements of abstraction and illegibility in my work -- part of that is in protest to the expectation that my identity and lived existence is something for you to easily make sense of.
And you should actually work to get to know people. Like, you shouldn't easilyjust be like, "Here is my entire life history." Like, you should build relationships and get to know people. But it's also sort of my frustration with the assumption that everything there is to be known about Muslims and everything there is to be known about black people can be easily articulated in a canvas, and that no one else has to do any other work to unravel or untangle it. It's like -- it's someone's lived experience. I don't understand why you expect to understand it within five minutes of looking.
I feel like that's such a bizarre expectation to be like, "Oh, now I understandwhat it's like to be a black Muslim woman in America." Like, "No, you don't. You'll not ever understand that because you're not that. But also you're not -- you should not expect to get that out of five minutes of looking at something." 113:00I think it's a bizarre acceleration of comprehension. No one learns like that. [laughter] At least I don't learn like that. I won't say maybe there's some genius somewhere who captures things quickly, but I don't think people learn like that.
STRONG: You're describing the experience of showing your art to people who areoutside of your experience --
STRONG: -- who are other than you. Can you tell me about encountering a timewhen someone has seen themselves in your work?
RASHEED: Well, that's a good question. I don't know -- I don't know that peoplehave seen themselves in my work as much as they've seen elements of my work that resonate with things they're grappling with. So, questions around legibility of like, What does it mean to make yourself legible or palatable or understandable? I feel like that's the conversation I constantly have with people, of looking at 114:00my work and being like, "I see here that you've intentionally left something off." Or, "I see here that you're making me think about this particular" -- and then being like, "Oh, that resonates with me, because I often feel like there's a part of me that isn't easily reachable that people have to work towards, and people are not making a decision to do that." And so I think in those contexts, people feel like, "Oh, that definitely is a moment of -- where it resonates."
I think that what I've found -- which is why I've said before that I liketalking to people that I've found in the past is that -- when I give public talks and lectures, those are the moments where people are like, oh. Which is to me like, I think the power of not just having exhibitions but having exhibitions that are part -- that -- for which we build an ecosystem of public programming. Because people can look at art for -- until they're blue in the face, right? But I do think that actual moment of interaction with another human person where 115:00through that exchange you're learning something becomes that transformative moment.
Like, I don't -- I don't -- I've never liked going anywhere and looked at apainting and been like, "I am transformed by this painting." But I have gone places and seen art and went -- like, gone to a public program with an artist or someone who is contextualizing the work, and I'm just like, "Oh, okay." And it's because that -- maybe there's this moment of not clarification, but there's this moment of either elaboration, or there's a moment for my mind to wander a bit, to figure out where things go. Or where they don't go. And so there's been a lot of public programming where I've gone and done lectures at universities or at museums where people come up to me afterwards and they're like, "Oh, that made a lot of --" like, "Oh, I get -- " like, "Oh, that's what you're saying." And those moments are really powerful for me. I read something on Twitter the other day that was like, "Some people go to the club, and they get dressed and go to the club, and that's their thing. I like public lectures. The public lecture circuit is my club." And I was like, "Yes." I pre-game the hell out of -- I love giving talks. I love it so much that that is my club. That is my thing. 116:00
And so I get super excited about when people either see themselves in what I'msaying or when they don't see themselves and there's a moment of tension. And that tension -- I like both. I mean, I don't need anyone to agree with me ever or to find themselves in my work; that's not why I make it. I'm making it to talk about what I'm thinking about, and if what I'm thinking about connects, then great. And if it doesn't, then also that's still useful and generative.
But I like when people agree and I like when people don't agree. I feel like youlearn a lot more when people disagree than when they agree, because the agreement is just a reconfirmation or a re-corroboration of what you already think, and it's just an ego boost. Like, "Yes, that is so intelligent what I just said, oh my goodness." But when someone's like, "Actually, that didn't make sense, and I disagree," you're just kind of like, take the ego bruise for a second, and then you actually have to take a step back and be like, oh. Like, did I connect the dots in the most lucid way? Or is there another way for me to think about it? So I -- I don't think that I'm in the pursuit of comprehension 117:00for the purpose of agreement, I think comprehension can still lead to disagreement, but I -- but I hope that people can see something that they can anchor themselves to to start a conversation.
STRONG: I'm thinking -- just calling back to a moment in our conversation fromway earlier because we've been talking for a while -- where you were talking about, you know, seeing -- you know, feeling like there's pain and struggle in your life until you read.
RASHEED: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
STRONG: So, seeing how you can find your own experience kind of reflected backto you in the art world -- so that's sort of what was coming to mind --
RASHEED: Yeah. Yeah.
STRONG: -- as you were talking.
RASHEED: Yeah, I mean -- I mean, we all think everything we experience isterrible, and I've been through some terrible things. I have. And it's not that reading then minimizes what you've experienced, but it definitely contextualizes 118:00it to the extent that [laughter] -- there are lot of suffering people. And I think that while that's a very troubling moment to sort of like, sit in, it's also a moment of deep empathy because we often are going through our own things on a given day, and we're just like, "Oh, I'm having a bad day, so this cashier's going to have a bad day because I'm having a bad day."
And I feel like -- I feel like this whole conversation's been like, as I'vegotten older -- but as I've gotten older these moments of -- of even deeper empathy and sympathy to the point where you have deep compassion for the cashier, because even if you don't know that person's life, you can imagine that they've gone through something rough if not five minutes before you got there but at some point in life.
And that makes me attuned to how I interact with people, and a lot of that --like, my mom, she's the greatest. My mom's a good person, and I say that because 119:00she is a person where when she goes into the grocery store, she remembers everyone's name, and she will stop and talk to someone for 15 minutes, and she will make an effort to make people feel okay for those 15 minutes. And she tells me the story of when we were going through a lot of stuff with our homelessness, she -- she -- I think she said there was a woman that she used to give money to. So my parents still gave to ch-- like gave people money when we didn't have anything, which is still amazing to me.
But she said there was this homeless woman who bought her a cup of coffee, andshe said it was the most humbling and just saddening moment; she says she kept going back to that same bench for weeks and weeks looking for this woman and she could never find this woman, so she's convinced this woman doesn't even exist but was just there for -- for that moment.
And it's just like, I don't know. I don't -- I think there are tons ofstructural problems obviously in the world, and I don't know if I'm answering your question -- I think there are a ton of structural problems in the world, 120:00and that's not to say that if we have empathy and sympathy and compassion for one another, we solve all of them. But I feel a well of compassion for another human being means that you have taken the time to learn and listen, and hopefully that softens you enough to reconsider how you establish a relationship with them as a starting point.
Like that's not going to end redlining. That's not what I'm saying. But at leastin our daily interactions, we can be softer to one another, because I go through the day and I see a lot of not soft [laughter] interactions, and I know why it's happening, but it just makes me sad, because I'm just kind of like, "You're having a bad day. They're having a bad day. Now we're all having a bad day." And again -- I don't know if I answered your question. I don't fully remember what your question was, but --
STRONG: It wasn't even a question, I'll be honest. [laughter]
RASHEED: -- it was just. Okay. Okay. I just -- I just -- think -- yeah. I just-- and I -- and my -- my -- there's a hadith about even -- a prophet saying, "Even a smile is charity." And then, being super excited about that, because 121:00it's in simple terms. It's not like, smile at somebody and that's your sadaqah for the day you're good to go. But it's like, what does it actually mean that a smile is charity? Like, to actually look at someone and smile and impart some type of compassion or just recognition of their existence is wonderful. And I remember when I first went to Johannesburg, a lot of my friends were Zulu speakers, and when you greet someone you say, sawubona, which means I see you.
And I was like, that is the best greeting ever. To literally say I see -- thegreeting is not "Hello, how's it going?" It's like, "I see you," like "I see you," and like, "I see you as a human person with recognition and acknowledgement." And I was like, oh. That -- our language does make a lot of sense if everyone's greeting is "I see you, I see you, I see you." I don't know. I just hope for moments in interactions that can soften us to one another, 122:00because there's a lot of rough stuff [laughter] happening that makes me very uncomfortable.
STRONG: This is making me think of you as an ecosystem.
STRONG: What opportunities have you had or do you hope you can have to change orcontribute to this space around you -- the physical space of Brooklyn -- as a teacher, as a learner --
STRONG: -- as an artist through your work. Tell me something about that.
RASHEED: Well, I have a long list of dreams and hopes. And this is also part ofmy movement away from going to art events, which is my preservation of my energy. But also it's not a good use of time; and I think there's a ton of other things that I could be doing. And so one of the things that I'm super excited about is I'm starting a training on October 20th at the Brooklyn Public Library to teach adults how to read, which is something I've wanted to do for quite some time.
As an educator we talk about this all the time -- literacy -- but literacy has123:00not been made a national agenda ever. There are people who graduate from high school who do not have basic literacy. And so one of the things I'm interested in is thinking about building community through -- building community through literacy, which seems like a very theoretical thing, but literally building community by sitting in relation to someone else in a moment where you -- where both people are being very vulnerable and this process of me trying to teach someone to do something that I learned very early very easily and just don't have problems with, and this person being vulnerable enough in that moment to receive and to interact and to co-learn with me, right? And so that's one element.
There's another friend of mine where we've been thinking -- and all this stuff Irealize has to do with education and learning which I think makes sense because this is -- [laughter] what I do -- are getting trained or are in the process of finding a place to get trained to teach classes for the new GED [General 124:00Educational Development] exam, which is our effort to support adults -- again -- who -- because you can't get a job in New York if you don't have a GED or a high school diploma. Modell's going to hire you -- they won't hire you. And so, thinking about the opportunities that are missed and blocked from folks who don't have that basic paperwork and we've been thinking a lot about sort of -- I guess the context in which we both grew up and which was like, Muslims were very visible doing charity in public spaces.
Like, I -- I remember growing up at our masjid where anyone could come in foriftar. You didn't even have to be Muslim; you didn't have to fast that day. If you were walking off the street and were hungry, you got to come inside and eat. Or any of our events were open to whoever was in East Oakland; it wasn't just for Muslims, and wanting to be involved in public efforts -- not for public 125:00acknowledgement -- but for public efforts of modeling like, you don't have to be from this particular community to receive the good or the charity or the work that comes from that.
And so us trying to figure out what are those small things we can do in Brooklynthat can be of aid, and she runs a program called Science Saturdays where she offers -- she's a biologist -- offers free science classes to folks ages zero and up where families can come in and do science projects. They build robots, they make solar ovens, they do a bunch of things. And so just being interested in -- not like these large scale like, "I want to go and change all of housing policy in Brooklyn," because I don't have that lever.
But of being like, here are the things that I do have -- these are things thatare in my sphere of influence. I can teach people how to read. I can learn how to teach for this new exam. I can offer services in a bunch of -- I can consult for people who need free curriculum development. There are all these things I can do, and trying to make -- Literally, I'm making a list of like, what are the 126:00things that I can do that I can do for free, and feel completely free and open to doing them for free, and then offer them to people without any expectation of getting anything back.
But back to the art stuff, yeah, the art will be a contribution. But I sometimesfeel like we fall back on art. It's like, art is a contribution to the community. And I'm like, "Yeah, but if people don't go to Brooklyn Museum, then it's not contributing to anyone." People actually have to get there, so it's like, you have to build relationships with people so they go to the places where stuff is happening, but we can't just fall back on, "Well, we made art in Brooklyn, so therefore we've done our job." It's like, "No, there's a lot more stuff we could do." So I kind of want to be in the -- a lot more stuff we can do that's a little bit less glamorous. I love having work at Brooklyn Museum. That is like -- that's cool, but someone seeing it means that they have to have felt comfortable enough to walk in -- they understood the payment policy where they don't have to pay to be in there.
There's a bunch of things that means that a large number of people in Brooklyn127:00will never go to the Brooklyn Museum. So yeah, I want to -- I want to be -- I want to be of service. And that's my responsibility as a Muslim is to be in service consistently, and I think that when I was a teacher, I felt that that was a real lived part of my life, and I feel like now that I've moved out of teaching the past five years, that has not been as -- like, I'll give -- I'll send money to organizations, but actually being out publicly in a community doing stuff, I need to do that again because that's a different type of work and it's the harder messier type of work, and then I can PayPal $100 to an organization.
But I -- I need to talk to people. [Laughter] I need to be out there again, likeI was before. It was a -- it was a good feeling for me, but more importantly I think that there are lots of things that I can do that you would normally have 128:00to pay someone to do that I feel fine doing for free. I need to do that again. Yeah.
STRONG: On that note, I want to pause for a just second.
STRONG: All right, so we're back. I just want to say this has been a greatinterview. Kameelah, thank you so much --
RASHEED: Thank you.
STRONG: -- for your time. And yeah, I think we're going to leave it there.
RASHEED: Okay, cool. Thanks.
Oral History Interview with Kameelah Rasheed
Kameelah Rasheed was born in 1985 in East Palo Alto, California. She was raised in religiously diverse communities by an African American family who embraced Islam shortly after her birth. She attended both undergraduate and graduate school in California, earning a bachelor of the arts from Pomona College in Claremont and a master of education from Stanford University, and spent a year in South Africa as an Amy Biehl Fulbright Scholar. She moved to Brooklyn in 2010 and worked as a visual artist, exhibiting work at a variety of New York cultural institutions.
In this interview, Kameelah Rasheed discusses growing up in East Palo Alto, California, especially regarding her interfaith group of friends, her parents' Muslim faith, and a series of family health crises while she was in college. She speaks about studying in South Africa for a year on a Fulbright scholarship, attending graduate school at Stanford University in California, and teaching in both California and Brooklyn. She elaborates on her exploration of her faith and experiences with Muslim communities in California, South Africa, and Brooklyn. She also talks at length about her philosophy and identity as an African American Muslim artist. In addition, she describes her relationship with her husband. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.
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.
CitationRasheed, Kameelah, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, October 01, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.44; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Masjid Abdul Muhsi Khalifah (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Masjid At-Taqwa (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Rasheed, Kameelah
- Stanford University
- African American Muslims
- Cultural pluralism
- Fulbright scholars
- Islam and art
- Muslim artists
- Religious education of children
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- East Palo Alto (Calif.)
- Johannesburg (South Africa)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories