Muhammad Baqir Muhyedeen recounts how him and his siblings grew up as the ‘first generation’ of immigrants in North America from Iraq, and the subsequent identity crisis he faced due to a clash between the standards imposed on him and his wish for individuality. In his candid story on confronting societal norms, he foremost wants to be recognized as a human being.
This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps at the Arab American National Museum.
“I’ve had one of the biggest struggles personally on Facebook trying to put where home is. So being born as first-generation, son of immigrant family, there’s probably sort of an identity crisis growing up. Growing up, we’d usually be like one Arabic family growing up in the school, one or two. At that time I went by Mohammad. I was at a school where it was my family and then a Palestinian friend’s family. We were the only two in the whole school. So I was the only Muhammad in the whole school. And then high school, I started in Detroit and I wanna say like half the school has the name Mohammad, either in their first name or middle name or last name. So it was very different. Going from the only Mohammad in the school, the only Mo, to a school where you don’t call somebody Mohammad because you call them by their last name because everybody’s Mohammed.
I have this tremendous attachment to human rights. If I was born in the Islamic community there. I really feel like it’s North America that instilled that into my personality. And it’s not Islam. Whether Islam is to blame or Muslims today or just the region, like it doesn’t matter, it’s all irrelevant. The reality is it’s North America that made me connect with people regardless of what their races, what their religion is, what they don’t believe in or anything else. It doesn’t matter. I mean, here the most important thing, I wanna say to the Iraqi community is that their kids say that they’re Muslims, right? And that they don’t drink, they don’t go to nightclubs or whatever.
These are the important things to them in the community. I don’t know if there are bigger problems in the world or not, but. And they avoid drugs. So that’s what the community really cares about. Like these four things that I named. My father has very, very, very, very high standards for us. In his mind, we’re like Queen Elizabeth’s kids, with like let’s say a very strong Middle Eastern. They have kids and those are the only one’s we’re supposed to marry. So those are the standards he has. So maybe he’s on a very high stool or whatever. Regardless, that’s not the reality here in the U.S. You fall in love with someone and you get married. So my sisters, they all picked their spouses and every single one that got married goes through a phase where my father cuts ties and then eventually patches things up. I mean it goes as far as my second oldest sister, she fell in love through Facebook from Palestine that’s the cousin of one of her friends and she went there. She got married without us knowing. She brought him to Canada. Those are my sisters.
So most of the problems, the cut off ties between my father and us was due to their marriages. Islam does not say you need your father’s permission for marriage. It’s in the books, but there is no ground for it. I’m going to speak from a Shiite perspective just because that’s what I’ve read up on most of my life. Shiite perspective puts it as an obligatory precaution. To answer the like identity question, what do I identify myself with first. It’s human. Labels build barriers, so we’re all human. You could take a 70 year old man from Najaf and a 70 year old man from Alabama, where I lived for a couple of years and a 70 year old man from Alberta where I was for the past few years and they all have the same culture with different labels. One’s very heavily invested in religion, treats it the same as the guy who treats his baseball team in the south, the same way that the guy treats his hockey team in the north, northern Canada. So it’s the same mentality. People all have the same exact mentality with just different labels and different parts of the world they’re born in kind of depends which way they’re facing, but we’re all humans so I’d like to leave it with that.”