Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American writer, speaker and interfaith activist. She is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a literary magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. Her short-story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan depicts Muslims and Pakistanis in fresh ways.
I was born in Karachi, the city of lights, the most modern and liberal of all Pakistani cities. My family was Muslim but more so culturally than devout. If Islamic Studies hadn’t been compulsory all throughout school and college, I would probably not have known much about the faith I was born into.
Karachi was then known as a safe and trendy city. My father would take my sisters and me to the theater to watch American movies, and our family ate out at many restaurants featuring various western cuisines. Women wore jeans with dupattas; there was a whole dating scene at university; and our cultural life was hip and nonchalant. At the same time there were other areas in the country where Islamic organizations reigned supreme, and state-run television spewed hatred and incited violence.
Thus I grew up amidst this clash of modernization versus conservatism, old versus new, religion verses ego. It was a great education, to be honest, much more so than anything I could have learned in school. My parents were highly educated and they asked only one thing of their children: study hard and have careers. It was exciting, motivating, and I lived my life oblivious to the pain of my fellow Pakistani women who didn’t have the benefits of education or freedom.
In university I became more devout, although how that exactly occurred remains a mystery to me. I began praying more, wondering about my life and what I saw around me. I started wearing the hijab, which didn’t please my liberal family one bit. I think back now and wonder if my sudden religiosity was due to rebellion, teenage angst, or something else. But it stuck with me and I became a practicing Muslim.
Fast forward to my early twenties when I got married and moved to the United States. Almost immediately the 9/11 terror attacks happened, and I found myself caught in the middle of another perceived clash: America versus Islam, or perhaps Americans versus Muslims. I began organizing interfaith events with my friends, neighbors, and even strangers as a way to address about my faith. I started writing articles about the Muslim experience. At the time, in the raw period after the attacks, it felt as if few Muslim Americans were speaking out.
A few years ago, as a continuation of my interfaith programs, I was called by the Houston Police Department to train their officers in cultural sensitivity. I had the opportunity to teach more than 5,000 officers and jailors in the basics of Islam. I stood in an auditorium before an audience of nearly a hundred type-A personalities gathered for a single training session. Many officers were resistant, many wanted to argue and prove me wrong. A few would sit at the back of the class and shout, “Go back to your country!” But some were amazing. They were the ones who were veterans and had settled into the police force after leaving the army. I quickly found that the ones who had come back from Iraq and Afghanistan were the most appreciative of my training. They used to tell me it was very much needed — and that encouraged me like nothing else.
My presentations taught me much about my fellow Americans, about myself, and about the world we live in today. I was frequently asked questions not only about Islam but also about Pakistan, and I realized that a very stereotypical image of bearded men and burqa-clad women existed in peoples’ minds. I wanted to dispel those ugly images and replace them with the beauty and complexity of Pakistani culture, but at first could not figure out how.
One day my seven year old son was writing a social studies assignment about a country he had visited. His sentence: “I have visited Pakistan many times but I don’t want to do that anymore because people try to kill you over there.” Hearing that from the mouth of an innocent boy, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Suddenly it dawned on me: I would write fiction to appeal to young and old alike.
My short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan debuted in June 2015 to positive reviews. Almost every day I receive an email, direct message or tweet from someone whose perception of Pakistan and Muslims has been changed by the book. Alhamdolillah!