A “Reaction” to Haroon Moghul’s “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story”

Please note if you clicked on this link for a formal review, my apologies, it is not the place. Considering you have found yourself on my personal blog, it will not be a typical book review, you’ll get a little bit of me in this too. {Just wanted to provide a polite warning before any potential disappointment.  🙂 }

In the past two weeks I learned of a story that I have connected to personally in various ways. Every once in a while, I come across a novel or memoir like this, but not quite like this. There was sufficient congruence in my own life with this story, and personally, I would be remiss, if I did not take a moment to discuss some of the impacts for me, as I became acquainted with this author, because it also speaks to the intended themes of this blog.

Haroon Moghul’s memoir, “How To Be a Muslim: An American Story,” provides a deep account of one individual’s coming of age, a story that may resonate with many Muslim Americans from the “9/11 generation.” Moghul brilliantly, deeply, and powerfully exposes and explores the various intersections of his identity as a Muslim American, part of the 9/11 generation, that responsibility being at the front-lines of the action in NYC, addressing Islamophobia, his experiences exploring his faith, his Pakistani and Punjabi ancestral influences, a divorce, family tragedy, physical illness, etc…. And amid all that and more, what was most intriguing to me, cutting across all elements of “being:” his mental illness. Moghul, as a Pakistani American Muslim, writes and speaks honestly and openly about his struggles with mental illness. Signifying the cross-cutting nature of mental health, from my perspective, it seems to be a recurring and important theme throughout his book.

On August 17th, I attended the book talk on this memoir at Politics and Prose in Washington DC, with Haroon Moghul and Wajahat Ali. Interestingly, it was just a week before this event that I wrote a blog piece illustrating a scratch of my personal journey with hijab, faith and identity as a Muslim American woman. It was an important piece for me and difficult to write in some parts. And I became aware of this book, this book talk, and this author, just days after I spilled a little bit of my own story in the abnormally long 7000+ word blog post. To be reading someone else’s memoir from around the same era, after writing that particular piece, felt a bit coincidental. I am certain if I did not write that essay and a very close friend did not read it, and later informed me of this book talk, I may not have known and attended this memorable event. It was an interesting chain of events for something of great significance to me, and of course, my obsession with symbolism made me reflect on what this may mean. Regardless of any spiritual, cosmic or “kismet connection,” it feels natural to follow that post with some observations on this book.

As I learned of Moghul’s story, and attended this book talk, I found myself at a state of paralysis for nearly a week after the event. (Which is partly why this blog post is coming a little later than I intended). I didn’t quite understand fully at the time what made the experience of hearing this story so painful, and to this extent. Though there are some reasons I may know, but it could potentially be even too personal for “Elsa the Open Book” to share on a new blog with just a handful of readers, and one that is just among millions of others in the World Wide Web.

Perhaps hearing references to death, illness, and suicide may have triggered the ideations once again. I don’t know what it was, but I did find myself at that place again, that horrible painstaking reality of feeling obliged to live, but wanting to die. Of feeling like an imposter in every little thing I do. Even cleaning my apartment or doing laundry felt like a fraudulent activity because I wasn’t doing it right, because it wasn’t perfect. Being stuck in this “irony of living” is fascinating if you study it when you can get outside yourself, yet painful when you are immersed in it. And although already floating around in your subconscious, when triggered at those moments, it can become an extremely painful episode, and debilitating when it lasts for days and weeks. I was worried in a way I haven’t been for some time. I was worried I needed to be admitted. I was mostly worried because I was silent. I became once again ashamed of my condition (which may have caused a silence), when I had not been for some time.

How could this story have placed me here?

In some ways, Moghul’s memoir helped legitimized my own struggles with identity and illness in my mind, despite the unique extraordinary account he describes, and obviously being a well-known and consistently active prominent leader in the aftermath of an American travesty.

There may be a common thread to a narrative that we are just tapping into and can be explored even more, as more stories are revealed. But even if those stories remain hidden, and Moghul’s story may have universal congruence, we may never fully know, but from what he shared with us, one can presume that Moghul didn’t dare hide a damn thing. 🙂 Which makes this particularly refreshing, and important in what I will talk about later in this piece. And his memoir is special on many accounts beyond this.

I learned about his book one day before the event, I wasn’t able to finish the book and digest it prior to his book talk. But as I finished the book and learned of his story, though our experiences were unique and different, the memoir is emotional and philosophical, and through a lot of his thought processes, I felt as if Moghul was writing from my point of view. In simple words, I could relate to so much, and it felt painful and wonderful at the same time. And I am sure many others may have felt the same, which is partly why a book talk in Washington, DC would be overflowing with attendees, anxious to hear from him. His story is one that can echo with the sentiments and experiences of many Muslim Americans and beyond. For that reason, the memoir is a crucial and valuable read.

Beyond him speaking openly about his struggles with mental illness, both at the book talk and in his book, my heart opened to his references to Rumi and Muhammad Iqbal, some favorites, who’s influence I am still fully capturing and understanding in my life. I guess that may go for many people of Pakistani or Persian origins. Another reason why his story connects.

What I appreciated most of about his book is how he normalized and humanized the experience of Muslims and Muslim Americans in our generation: The “9-11 Generation.” Those who fall into the millennial generation category, and those that encountered that “responsibility” as young adults or professionals when the towers were struck on 9/11. Those who grew up as teens and young adults, coming of age during a challenging time in history, classified by many as an historic “turning point.” I briefly mentioned this “responsibility” in my previous blog post I alluded to earlier. Moghul speaks honestly and with humility, about not feeling like he lived up to that perfect image of a Muslim, feeling like an imposter while trying to defend Islam and Muslims under attack in the aftermath, and having to take on the persona of what he termed, a “Professional Muslim.” But the humility and vulnerability in all this, can be a magnetic force that lures the targeted masses to your corner. I believe it is an essential quality of any good leader. It is admirable to be frank and candid about this reality too. Struggling with your own faith… and having to present a certain image while in a pivotal spotlight.

Now, at the event on Aug 18th, I planned to just be present, sit, relax and listen, take it all in. I told myself, Elsa, you are just there to listen, don’t cause any trouble, don’t smile mistakenly at any (east coast) desi boys who may misinterpret your Wisconsin cheese-head smiles and friendliness for something else. Just sit and don’t say a word.

But when I heard the young author speaking about his illness so openly and when Ali was asking such direct questions on his illness, with mention about being near a “ledge,” in terms of the suicidal ideations, it triggered some unpleasant memories, as it would for anyone with that sort of experience.

The “bridge” is a theme Moghul addresses throughout his book, but a lot more towards the second half. It is also a theme that has been present too often in my life. So when Ali mentioned this “ledge,” the words from Moghul soon after muffled a little as the flashbacks rushed towards me and became the new intrusion at the moment. Those times when I was standing on the ledge, on the other side of the rails, just holding onto the rail and trying to negotiate with conflicting thoughts about the value of my own life. Sometimes on that bridge connecting the two campus banks in college. Sometimes on the Washington Channel where I lived near the SW DC Waterfront, next to the National Defense University, sometimes on the bridges in Pittsburgh where I studied during my Masters. Sometimes on the bridge near the Tidal Basin in DC. Sometimes in recent years just on the deck of the Old Town Alexandria harbor. Sadly, I have even romanticized the idea of “going under” to the extent that it never escapes my mind when I happen to be upon a bridge or even drive on one. Perhaps just conditioned thinking that I haven’t taken the time to recondition.

There was a point where he mentioned at the talk that after every performance he found the suicidal ideations coming back to him. There was just this immense emptiness, everything is done, people are gone, and it is just you and your mind. When I heard this, I wrote something in my notes, and showed it to my friend sitting next to me: “That is exactly how I felt about my dissertation proposal defense.” She showed me compassion, and I immediately had a visible depressive episode, and a panic attack, silent but visibly in tears, and I became worried that the layers of makeup would uncover my scars and imperfections, rather than my state of mind at that moment that could prevent me from truly taking in this important story and book talk.

But despite the emotions, I suddenly felt the urge to get up there and ask a question during Q&A. This may seem normal and not out of the ordinary for most people. But this never happens to Elsa. I never do this. What the hell am I doing (future Elsa is telling present/past Elsa). I knew how I would come off. I knew it would be disaster. I knew I am certainly not capable after just having a panic attack in my seat at an event with so many beautiful people, and shaking visibly in my seat, to walk up to the front of the room, right in front of these established (very clean and nicely groomed) writers and well-known voices, and just spit it out. It was a critical question for someone to ask, if they really grasped the context. So why not be Elsa, the Warrior KQueen to ask this one important question. Never in all my nearly 8 years in Washington, DC have I had the courage to ask a question at any type of event (i.e. think tank events, conference lectures and seminars, book talks, even courses, etc.), and here I was going to do it. So I wrote the question down in my little field notebook.

I got up from my seat, tightly grasping his book, my tiny notebook and pen, and worked my way toward the mic. I could feel as if the world around me was moving in a circular motion, as if I could actually sense the orbit of the earth. The ground beneath me was shaking, I walked up to the mic visibly trembling with my 4.5-inch pencil heel pumps, taking lunge-like steps to ensure a firm grip upon the moving floor. I could feel I was about to trip and fall on my face right in front of these handsome young gentlemen, yet I approached the mic, made eye-contact with the moderator, smiled and waited to ask my question, while telling myself to breathe normally. When it was my turn, I said “Thank you for being here, thank you for writing this story, as it resonates with a lot of American Muslims. You understand Mental Illness, so I am sorry I have to read this question.” For those who have anxiety disorders, symptoms sometimes become more prominent in stressful moments, like in public speaking. I have had a share of public speaking experiences in difficult academic audiences and beyond that, and among large groups of people. I even just completed four different academic presentations that generally went well over the two months at the beginning of this summer. But the anxiety has always remained the same no matter how much practice one gains. No matter how mature you get. The illness is an illness. More on anxiety and public speaking another time (another idea for a blog post!).

But the reason I had to read the question is crucial. Because if I didn’t, I would lose my train of thought, I may speak more from the pain, very serious emotions would begin to form, and I would have a very visible emotional outburst and panic attack in front of a very large audience! So to save them from witnessing a panic attack, I went on trying to read whatever it is I wrote, even though I felt half blind. It was written almost illegibly, because I wrote it while I was having the panic attack in my seat, but I read what I could anyway:

“The Intersection I connected with most in your story was with mental illness. As a fellow suicide attempt survivor, and someone familiar with this conversation, I hope you know what kind of ground you are breaking, and trails you are blazing, by speaking on mental illness especially in the South Asian and Muslim American communities. Can you talk about how you navigated through the “What would people think” mentality, or the “Loag kya Kehngai” (what will people say) mentality deeply ingrained in South Asian communities when communicating issues on mental illness, translated from generation to generation, and can you describe what it is about this mentality that makes it much more different/difficult?”

I can’t remember what I ended up articulating beyond what I wrote in my field notes.

The “Loag Kya Kehngai.” If you are familiar with Hasan Minaj, you may be right in assuming that I watched his Homecoming show on Netflix just a few days before attending this event.  🙂 So it was fresh on my mind perhaps. Or perhaps it is something that has unfortunately always been stuck in my mind, even though I have rebelled against that concept so many times and in so many ways in my life.

So I have outed myself about my mental illness many times the past decade or so in one way or another indirectly. But in recent years, I have been open more publicly, visibly and directly, starting in 2015 actually, a year after Robin Williams death, to commemorate the legendary actor and comedian (who passed away by suicide in August 2014).

And although there is always discomfort for both sides, I always feel some empowerment in revealing it. But I have only shared this among small groups of people or one on one, or behind a computer screen through a very long Facebook post (among under 900 friends or much less, as most do not follow me on Facebook), or my blog that I only recently shared to my online social networks.

This out-of-the-blue-spontaneous-unexpected-Elsa-facing-fears, was the first time I expressed anything related to having a mental illness in person, in public, in front of strangers. For several days, I didn’t understand the consequential “paralysis.” I couldn’t understand why I felt like I should have just kept my mouth shut, and been my usual nerdy self, smiling, nodding profusely at everything that was spoken at the event, and sit tightly in my chair. ….It is an opportunity for me to explain that this is what happens with my OCD. The painful intrusive and negative thoughts come in and invade and immediate compulsions take place that lead to huge disruptions in your daily routine and your sleep patterns. Days after being at this event the compulsions conquered me and my life literally stopped.   … And in a way it hasn’t in a long time.

It wasn’t until I began writing this blog piece this past week, that I realized why I was feeling so shitty, why I wanted to die, why my OCD was off the charts in ways it hasn’t been for some time, why the intrusive thoughts, voices, and compulsions were some of the most painful I have experienced in a long time. It was a combination of things to be honest, even beyond this, including the emptiness from just defending my dissertation proposal two months ago, which I expected to feel.

But in terms of this event, I outed myself in public for the first time beyond a computer screen. I outed myself as a suicide attempt survivor and a person struggling with mental illness among most people I have never met, and some people I knew but didn’t expect to see among the audience, and while asking that question. I didn’t even intend to share that. I didn’t realize what I was doing, and it just seemed so natural at that time, because I have been so open about it. I don’t regret it and I am glad I did ask this question. I will also selfishly argue, I may have been the right person to ask it, and perhaps the way I did it, revealing vulnerability and imperfections, was in fact perfect. Because ultimately changes come with greater exposure and familiarity around people who struggle with these types of illnesses with symptoms, that when visible, are interpreted as weaknesses rather than strengths (something Moghul also mentioned briefly at the book talk). For example, symptoms of anxiety often can come off as not having confidence, as being shy (shyness is also not a bad thing, but is often interpreted as a weakness), and with self-esteem problems and insecurities. That is NOT always the case, but unfortunately, it can come off that way.

Some colleagues told me that I need to have “confidence” in myself after they saw my proposal defense. I told them very clearly, it is not confidence, it is Anxiety. The proper term is “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” But I don’t think they understood, and that is okay. I don’t know how many times I tell people, or want to take the time to explain… there may be some connections between confidence and anxiety, but when it is a chronic illness, it is truthfully not the same thing as lacking confidence.

I think there was limited time for a complete answer to that question. And I can’t remember enough to articulate his answer. But I will say, we all may feel we don’t care what our families, communities, and networks think or say about us. But naturally, we should admit we do care at times. I say too often that I don’t care, and I still remain true to myself even if it defies norms, even if I feel uneasy about being “myself,” but ultimately, what I care most about, and what most desi kids care about, is what their parents think of them, and the expectations from their parents.

I have always been wrestling with mostly the idea of what my parents would think of me more than anyone else when it comes to speaking so openly about mental illness and posting so openly about my episodes on Facebook. Sometimes I think about excluding them in the privacy of the post, but it just wouldn’t feel right. If I’m open, if I’m out there, I’m open, it’s out there, and that’s it. I face all consequences and I face all retributions. That is partly what it means to write with courage.

But I am only speaking my truth. I’m only putting words to my sometimes visible and sometimes invisible reality.

At times, I was right to be afraid. I was afraid I would lose them, because they were all I had. I was afraid of how the Muslim/Desi community as a collective or as certain individuals sometimes reacts to these types of “unusual” things and informs parents, despite knowing that I am now an adult well into her early 30s. Impressing and pleasing the parents is a constant never-ending intrusive thought for Desi children of immigrants. I have desperately wanted to make them happy and make them proud all my life, despite being a bit of a rebel on various things. Mainly, so that I wouldn’t be considered a “waste of a daughter,” (my own thinking). As someone focused primarily on career and education, an un-married 33 year old Desi girl/woman, with all five of her highly accomplished brothers and sisters married and some with children, it’s certainly a challenge and some pressure if your “marriage” is seen to be the “Grand Finale” among the six sibling dynamic. I often instead say that I am married to my PhD, and this pursuit is the number one tool to please the rents. I am proud of how my parents have evolved with me on this, that this has become “enough” for my parents. The pressure isn’t there to pursue a particular path so much anymore, but in a sense its remnants are there. Because it becomes internalized over the years as a cultural expectation, especially for women, and the idea of marriage is such a huge thing in the South Asian culture. I love Moghul’s well-told reference to this in his memoir. His reference to the pressures of marriage from the male perspective (and as a South Asian American) was particularly interesting.

We sometimes feel an obligation to make our parents happy, sometimes at the expense of our own happiness. But they deserve it, because we will never repay them for what they have given us. I love them to death, but I know it sometimes hurts them when I write about anything related to my illness, because no parent wants to be confronted with the reality that their child is suffering with a disease that is not fully comprehensible and that has social taboos. But I am hoping that I am able to demonstrate to all those concerned about my “openness” on mental illness, both in my personal and professional networks, that this is truthfully an essential part of my healing process. And it may make people think less of me, but it will help me. And it supports people like me, who are trying to beat their illnesses, to know you are reading our words, that are often written from a silenced pain. So, if I am using writing or whatever as a medium for my own cure, if I am using it as an outlet to support myself, and perhaps even help others in the process, it may be something I must do.

The “Loag Kya Khengai” is a serious issue in our communities. This question in terms of why, as someone who understands the intersection of both worlds (American and South Asian), why speaking about mental illness is so much worse among South Asian and Muslim communities, needs a clear-cut answer. And I will continue to have to understand how to cope with it, and find the most appropriate strategies to defy it.

Moghul writing this story, his story, defies it. It is emblematic of a hidden resistance. I am not sure to the extent of what he may have experienced from speaking so openly about his mental illness, but it must have been such a cathartic process overall. I believe he has built a beautiful formula for “survival,” which he described briefly towards the end of his book, and in some parts throughout, despite knowing this will be a lifelong journey, as he stated at the book talk event, it is something that stays with you whether or not the disease is fully curable. There is no known cure for Bipolar, which is the same case with OCD. There are just meds and coping mechanisms to tame it, and those memories of pain can sometimes haunt us and retrain or trigger our brain at any point in life, regardless of what we do to cope.

Despite this “cognitive dissonance” we may have in communicating issues surrounding mental health, we must continue having the courage to speak out. And Moghul has done that. So beautifully, with a balance of compassion and humor, charm and intellectually engaging wit, in a way that can touch the masses.

This is one of the first memoirs from the authors of my generation, sharing my identity, that moved me in a different way and I think the reason is because of how I personally connected with his story.

Moghul’s story and writing, both in content and style, was refreshing, tasteful, humorous, elegant and most importantly, this may sound a little cheesy, (though I am from Wisconsin), but we love stories that make us smile or make us think out loud and say, “me too!” His story reminds someone like me, that in terms of my illness and in terms of understanding my place in society from the intersections I possess, there are many  out there struggling similar battles. I really hate saying “you are not alone,” because truthfully we are alone in our own battles and that conventional language is simply not true. Ultimately, this particular story helps someone like me, who is challenged with those socially constructed boundaries, which make it so much more difficult to ask for help, to talk about it, and seek the proper necessary care and support.

I often joke with my parents, saying Zamana Badal Gaya Hai, “An era has changed”, when referring to how different things are now (interpreted in either a negative or positive way) for us kids, from their generation. Things have changed for the realm of mental health, but not enough, and there is a lot of work to do to continue to normalize these stories, especially in our first and second-generation communities as children of immigrants.

This memoir is an important personal account for those who want to understand how intersecting worlds can shape the way we think, and what we do. Eighteen years ago when I had chosen and embarked on the path towards working in the field of public and international affairs as a high school student, knowing to some extent what I wanted to do in life, I never thought I would be writing a personal blog primarily about mental illness and identity struggles in my early 30s. I never would claim mental illness as a critical intersection of my identity.

“Zamana badal gaya hai,” my friends. And we must embrace it.

Moghul’s memoir is a must read for anyone who wants to truly grasp a story of the extraordinary struggle of an American Muslim going against all his odds, in a critical era, and demonstrating resilience, vulnerability, taking risks, despite feeling and thinking the opposite along the ride. It is a story of survival and I am glad he is here today to share it with us. His strength to endure blow after blow after blow after blow after blow, amid the suicidal ideations and mental health struggles is simple exceptional. Thank you Haroon Moghul for moving us with your incredible story.

If you have not picked it up yet, I highly recommend it. It gives you a modern flavored humanization of a dehumanized identity, pertinent to current events, and it is absolutely worth your time.

peace and blessings, and warm salaams,

Elsa,

Warrior KQueen

 

 

 

 

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