Amani Saeed: The poet championing Muslim women
into your bland dishes,
for some nostalgic rewind
of the diasporic ticker tape to some time,
where Allahu Akbar meant god is great
and didn't turn you into a walking pipe bomb'
Just some of the powerful sentences by poet Amani Saeed, who has taken the London Slam community by storm with her defiance in the face of Islamophobia and her exquisite words on the beauty – and complexities – of being a Muslim woman living in the West.
The 24-year-old recently published a collection called Split, in which she documents her thoughts on spirituality and her identity, multi-faceted as it is.
"The first poem I wrote was about Charlie Hebdo," Amani tells The New Arab.
"The school I went to in the States was really diverse and I was actually in the majority. It was mostly South and East Asians. There's something about your confidence when you're in the majority, of not being knocked down from a young age and not having to bear the brunt of that.
"So when I came here [UK] it was a real culture shock for that reason. I just remember being so appalled by how people were treating Muslims at the time. That was when Daesh [the Islamic State group] was at its height and they were beheading bus drivers and so on.
"I lived with a bunch of Evangelical Christians. They were lovely people, but I remember once we were watching the news and they were showing a [graphic] video with the guy's head blurred out. It was terrible, but all of their heads just turned to look at me. And I remember thinking, 'What are you looking at me for?'" she adds.
"I then realised they were looking for an explanation. Or some kind of proof that I thought this was terrible – which I thought was a given!"
Born in the UK, Amani grew up with a foot in England and a foot in America's New Jersey, along with a rich cultural tapestry. She has family from both Iraq and India, as well as uncles and aunties born in both Pakistan and India after the partition of 1947.
Hers is a unique position; Amani is both a Muslim and a 9/11 survivor, and carries both the trauma of the Twin Towers falling in 2001 – a seismic shock in the cultural fabric of America – as well as the Islamophobia that was borne out of that shock.
A storm of anti-Muslim sentiment is spreading across the world; India's Hindu-Supremacist Narendra Modi has made the country deadly to live in as a Muslim, with riots and killings happening all over the country. In the UK the Conservative party is frequently having to deny its Islamophobia.
"That was my first day at first grade," Amani says, recalling the moment the towers were destroyed.
"We went into the towers, we got boat lifted out of the situation, my mum was on one of the last trains before the building went down."
|It's impacted so much on our lives. We used to live on a river across from New York and the very next day they weren't there anymore. There's so much I don't remember. And yet it was the huge politicisation of Muslims after that, the whole suspicion of Muslims after that, I was at the crossroads of both those things, which was excruciating|
She adds: "On the one hand you think, 'That is my personal trauma, that is something I experienced,' and at the same time people are calling you a terrorist. It is hard."
And it's not only political landscapes that provide a breeding ground for anti-Muslim rhetoric. A viral hashtag, #FlyingWhileMuslim, was created after Ryanair CEO sparked controversy by saying terrorists are "generally Muslims," pushing for more checks on Muslim men.
The rise in far-right rhetoric has bolstered Islamophobia, as seen in the deadly New Zealand Christchurch Mosque massacre, and more recently the deadly Germany shootings which is being investigated as a far-right terror incident – but it's not always overt.
"I have a lot of privilege in terms of I'm light-skinned, I don't wear a hijab, for all intents and purposes a lot of the time people think I'm hispanic. So I don't get racial epithets yelled at me in the streets," Amani says.
"Where I faced more Islamophobia is in the workplace. I remember one time when I was very new at my job, I walked in and someone who was a couple of levels above me found out I was Muslim. In front of everyone in an open-plan office, she said to me, 'If you come in tomorrow wearing a hijab, we know you've been radicalised. Ha ha ha!' She thought she was being funny. I remember standing there, 21-years-old, facing off a 40-plus-year-old woman thinking, 'I'm new to this job, what the hell do I say to you?'
|Amani faced microaggressions at work [Gaia Caramazza]|
"A year later the Muslim ban was in effect in America and again she thought she was making a joke by saying, 'Oh, it means you can't go back to the States to visit your parents anymore. Ha ha!' I'm a dual national and I'm privileged to have both passports, but I remember at the time, my inner New Jersey came out and I went, 'Damn you can't say that!' It just came out. I didn't even think about it!"
Amani also commented on the situation in China, where millions of Uighur Muslims have been interned, tortured and killed on the basis of "re-education" and the weaponisation of the 9/11 rhetoric.
"It's the next Holocaust, and the world is passively watching on," she said, choosing to spill her frustrations out by writing a poem about it.
Read also: Stop Uighur internment camps or take the Olympics away from China
"I wrote Xinjiang because I am horrified," Amani explains.
"I wrote it because we don't talk enough about it when it's the next Holocaust. It is! You're putting people in concentration camps, the stories that come out of there are atrocious. There are stories of people being experimented on. Of people dying.
"It's horrific and no one seems to care, or if people do know about it, they decide China is such a big economic power that of course 'What can any one government do?' It's horrible."
Read also: Why Muslim countries are turning their back on China's repressed Uighurs
Much of Amani's poetry explores the lines between stereotype and expectation and of Muslim women's bodies being weaponised by both white feminists – who use it to argue for liberation, and for parts of the Muslim community – who weaponise it as a form of control.
|'I will be a monster if that's how I'm free' says Amani, right [Gaia Caramazza]|
"Being a Muslim woman in London is being a walking contradiction," Amani says.
"It is being someone who can't win the argument between your society and your community. I say it so much. No matter what you do, people are scrutinising your existence.
"If you're not wearing a hijab, 'Why aren't you wearing a hijab?' If you are wearing a hijab, you're not wearing it correctly."
She continues, "If you're doing arranged marriage, 'Oh Jesus Christ you're not liberated!' according to Western feminism, but if you try and find marriage for love, if you have sex before marriage "Astaghfirullah! Everyone has an opinion, a debate over your body and you just get lost in this wash of people's opinions."
Despite the maelstrom of misunderstanding, stereotype and stigma pushed onto Muslims as though they are a monolith, Amani remains steadfast in the simplicity and beauty of Islam.
|Being a Muslim to me, at its core means believing in a higher power, and being a good person. That's it|
"The sahib I knew in America answered all my questions about that. He said something that really stuck with me, which is that, 'Islam is a really simple religion for those two reasons. And if people are complicating things, they don't have to be that complicated because what is at the root of it is your intentions.'
"There are different ways of reflecting on God, and I think the most important thing to me as a Muslim woman is not to be so prescriptive about things, but to do the best that you can and to have the best intentions that you can when you do it."
Amani Saeed is a member of Barbican Young Poets and the poetry collective The Yoniverse. She runs a poetry open mic night called The Hen-nah Party and is currently working on a poetry show at The bunker Theatre.
You can purchase her debut collection Split, on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Narjas Zatat is a staff journalist at The New Arab.