“You broke the ocean in half to be here. Only to meet nothing that wants you.”
– Nayyirah Waheed, Immigrant
I am writing this blog post at a critical transitional point in my life. I have just graduated summa cum laude from college with a degree in political science and chemistry on the pre-med track. I have always intended to become a physician so that I can hold sick people’s hands and heal them. But now that I have spent the past few years studying political science, I realize that I need to find a way to thread policy into patient care.
At the moment, I honestly have no idea what the future holds for me. I sincerely hope that I will find a way to serve others with compassion and humility. To explore different options, I am now temporarily working as a Research Associate at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering and as Executive Director of the MetaSUB International Consortium at Weill Cornell Medicine. I am currently looking at novel methods of capturing the genomic composition of both the urban built environment and the human microbiome. In the one year that I have worked on MetaSUB, it has expanded to 58 cities in 32 countries across the globe.
This past June, I was fortunate enough to deliver my graduating class’ commencement address. This was an amazing opportunity for me to share something meaningful with my fellow graduates and so I chose to comment on the uncertainty of our times. I joked about Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and spoke about the polarized discourse on immigration to Western countries. I subtly satirized the irony of anti-immigrant backlash in former colonial states like Britain and France and commented on the nature of populist outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. Illiberalism, I argued, has contributed to the stunning rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the unprecedented “Brexit” referendum in Europe. Demagogues convince many amongst us that immigrants pose an existential threat to the national identity and security of Western liberal democracies. As a Muslim American immigrant of Indian heritage, I realize that there is a peculiar sense of double consciousness that comes with reconciling a multiplicity of identities. I am an American – a Westerner – who is also deeply connected to my Islamic faith. While I still have a long journey ahead of me in becoming a better person, I see Islam as a powerfully transformative spiritual tradition that translates personal ethics into a deep commitment to social equity, justice, and compassion in the public realm.
Nevertheless, navigating public spaces has become increasingly difficult in the present political and social climate. I am chronically aware that my presence in the West angers many, regardless of my aspirations to help people. It is, as Hannah Arendt puts it, a schizophrenic form of existence. Before my national identity, I identify first as a Muslim because my religion is the prism through which I see the world. It is my moral compass, my inspiration, my reason for living. I could not imagine my life not being Muslim. It would be like not being able to breathe.
So when I read about Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States or about Marine Le Pen’s desire to curb resettlement of Syrian refugees in France, I cannot help but marvel at the level of unveiled demagoguery and bigotry that is becoming increasingly rampant amongst many sectors of our societies. I inevitably feel a profound sense of sadness, alienation, and frustration when I am confronted by such vitriolic political rhetoric that paints all Muslims with a single brush.
At the same time, I acknowledge that this is not a uniquely Western phenomenon. Every group of people, including my fellow Muslims, has vilified other groups for any number of reasons. Extremist groups often use religion as a rallying cry to mobilize people in regions of the world that are still deeply theocentric to achieve very specific political agendas. Ironically, while extremist groups claim to speak on behalf of Muslims, they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims, as demonstrated in the recent bombings in Baghdad, Dhaka, Medina, and Istanbul. Many Western Muslims leaders, like my favorite scholar, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, are on ISIS’ hit list.
As an American Muslim, I hope that bigotry, xenophobia, and exclusionary policies have no place in our society despite our long history of it. I wish I could believe that racism and ignorance are antithetical to the values upon which this nation was built. While this may be wishful thinking, given our country’s very long history of racial exclusion and enslavement of non-white peoples, I believe that we have a responsibility to undo the wrongs of the past to create a more equitable, just, and humane future for our children.
I hope that this blog post will help me meditate on my past and family origins so that I can look to the future with optimism and certainty. Migration through time and space is a traumatic experience for many and it has been so for my family and I. We came to the United States in search of educational opportunities so that we could give back to our adopted home. However, in order to facilitate this process, immigrants need to feel like they belong. And I do not feel welcome in a place I have called home since infancy. It is crucial that the United States not marginalize, stigmatize, and criminalize the people who come to its shores in search of better lives.
If there is one good thing that has come out of my experiences, it is that I have developed the ability to understand and contextualize other people’s feelings of alienation and suffering. This is an indispensable skill to hone, particularly if one is as passionate about medicine and social justice as I am. I hope it will serve me well in the near future.
– Sofia Ahsanuddin, July 2016
I am part of an ethnoreligious group of people called the “Hyderabadi Muslims” of India. We are mostly found in the Old City of Hyderabad, where the vast majority of my relatives in India reside. I actually lived about twenty minutes away from the Charminar, a historic monument that was built by the Mughal ruler, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 CE. The Muslims of Hyderabad are distinct from the “Hindustani Musalmans” of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, many of whom are descendants of the Muslim refugees to Pakistan after the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. Aside from the Islamic religion, Indo-Persian cultural tradition, and the Urdu language, we do not have much else in common with the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh.
Hyderabad was previously known as the “City of Pearls” because of its status as the wealthiest of the princely states under British colonial rule. Jews, Turks, Arabs, and Africans flocked to Hyderabad because it was a major trading hub. The Yemeni Chaush peoples and the Siddi peoples of Bantu descent still reside in Hyderabad. The royal legacy of Hyderabad is apparent in its many modern public institutions – the hospital my family members go to when they are ill is named after Princess Durru Shehvar and the private school my cousins currently attend is named after Prince Muffakham Jah. I have been told that my ancestors were of Turkish and Arab descent and that they had settled in India for economic reasons. Family lore has it that one of my ancestors was a soldier in the Ottoman army. Because he was offered a parcel of uninhabited land on which to settle, he migrated to Hyderabad. My native tongue, Hyderabadi Urdu, is a distinct Dekhani language that fuses Turkish, Arabic, and Persian with the native languages of Marathi and Telegu.
My family was not directly impacted by the India-Pakistan partition, which initiated the largest human migration in all of recorded human history. While Hyderabad was violently annexed to the Dominion of India, with the loss of an estimated 200,000 lives, many members of my family made the unusual choice to remain in India. I am not really sure as to their reasons but I can only imagine that they believed it was a safer, more stable option than crossing the Indian-Pakistani border at a time of great political and social turmoil. My grandmother used to tell me stories of the communal uprisings against the “Angrez” (the British) and her childhood memories watching people leave to join militias to fight for Indian independence. My father’s side of my family is said to have come to Hyderabad from Sindh, which is in modern-day Pakistan.
Upon the British’s departure from India, it gave all of the princely states, including Hyderabad, the choice to join either Pakistan or India. The Nizam of Hyderabad at that time stubbornly refused to join either state, instead desiring political autonomy. Political and military mobilization of people along religious lines occurred which exacerbated Hindu-Muslim violence. The Hindu majority of Hyderabad opted to join the newly created Indian state. In 1947, the Indian government conquered Hyderabad, much to the chagrin and dismay of the Muslims. The subsequent “Fall of Hyderabad” resulted in the loss of privileged status for many Muslims and led to the migration of thousands of Hyderabadi Muslims to neighboring Pakistan. It is no wonder that there is another city called “Hyderabad” in Pakistan. At that time, many Hyderabadi refugees dreamed that Pakistan would be the ideal “Islamic state” with progressive values. Most unfortunately, that dream has yet to come true because Pakistan is rife with political corruption, extremism, poverty, and sectarian violence, which is sadly the case for many postcolonial nation-states. Pakistan is one of many Muslim-majority countries that was once at the height of civilization but is now in a visible state of decay.
At the time of my birth, rapid changes were taking place throughout Hyderabad and my own family. Hyderabad was industrializing and was quickly transitioning into a global hub for IT and the telecommunications industries. The Old City is now mostly a residential location with a few tourist attractions, like the Golkanda fort and the Faluknama Palace, all relics of the Mughal Empire. The Old City’s dusty streets are dilapidated and its infrastructure requires extensive improvement. In direct contrast, the “New City” boasts of technological advancement and innovation as it is home to India’s “Genome Valley” and reputable transnational companies like Dell. Due to a severe shortage in economic and educational opportunities for Muslims in Hyderabad and the growing disparity in living conditions between Hindus and Muslims, many of my family members decided to immigrate to Western countries or Arab Gulf states.
Our circumstances have made us a part of the Hyderabadi Muslim diaspora. One of my uncles immigrated to Saudi Arabia in search of a secure, comfortable lifestyle with a steady job. He works for Saudi Aramco, which is often referred to as the world’s most lucrative and valuable company. My other uncle travelled from India to Saudi Arabia and then again to Canada with the hope of providing his four children with better educational opportunities. With a few extended family members living in Australia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Holland, and the United Kingdom, I can say that it is a truly transcontinental experience connecting and communicating with family all over the world. I still have relatives who reside in India, but I have a harder time communicating with them because of the language barrier. I can speak Urdu, but I have an American accent.
My father immigrated to the United States in the 1980s because of economic need. My grandfather supported his decision to leave the country because my father had four daughters to provide for and had no sons. In India, it is not easy to raise daughters in a very patriarchal society. My father had pursued graduate degrees in both mathematics and Arabic but found it extremely difficult to make a living despite his academic credentials.
I grew up in the Bronx, connected to Hyderabad, and exposed to a rich variety of other cultures and religions. As a child, I learned how to dance to hip-hop music with the companionship of many of my black and Hispanic friends. I had very few Caucasian friends growing up but that changed when I attended an all-girls Catholic school. I joined the chorus – becoming one of the lead soloists – as well as both the basketball and robotics teams, all while wearing salwar kameez at home and listening to South Asian ghazals on the television. My parents would speak to me in Urdu at home and I would regularly see my mother poring over Siasat and The Daily News for news updates in Hyderabad and New York City. During college, I lived a few blocks away from an Afro-Caribbean community and an Orthodox Jewish community in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Jewish section was one of my favorite places to stroll at night because of its quaint and suburban atmosphere.
While “muhajir” is a term that is often used to refer to the Indian Muslim refugees who fled to Pakistan after the partition, I would argue that my family and I are “muhajirs” to the Gulf States and the Western world. We were left with very few options but to leave our ancestral home and to adopt many aspects of the culture and language of our new homes. Once we all finally finish school, my sisters and I will all be doctors and lawyers. Two of my sisters and I are passionate about health disparities and my eldest sister has done a lot of international human rights work. I do not think this is a coincidence.
Presently, some of my Indian and Saudi family members are looking into immigrating to the United States for graduate study and permanent residence. They tremendously respect my parents and sisters for having made it so far in life, comparatively speaking. I cannot stress how grateful I am to my parents for choosing to come to this country. I know that I would not have had the same opportunities if I were back in India or anywhere else.