Sara Deen and Munir Shaikh
DescriptionSara Deen (41) and her friend Munir Shaikh (53) recall their first meeting, and discuss how Muslim-American culture and identity have changed, from their parents' generation, to their own, to their children's.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Sara Deen
- Munir Shaikh
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00:03 Salaam, and hello. My name is Sara Deen. I'm 41 years old today is December 11th 2020 and I'm here in Los Angeles about to chat with a good friend of mine when your shit.
00:20 Hi, I'm munir Shaikh. I am 53 years old today is December 11th 2020. I'm located in Orange County California and I'll be speaking with my friend Sara Deen the who I've known for a number of years as a friend and colleague and looking forward to exploring a couple of things that we talked about before. So Sarah, you know, do you remember the first time that we met?
00:49 I do. Yes, I do that at Camp, right?
00:55 That's right. Super embarrassed about it afterwards. I remember you walking up to the registration table at the Muslim Youth Camp, which is a camp that I've been involved with for many many decades. I went there as a child in the early eighties and throughout my college Years and then I became a counselor at the camp for younger kids and then eventually became part of the the staff for a volunteer staff organizer is a board of director. So I think that year when you came with your friend you would comment had some requests about the facilities or the cabin arrangements and you know where your kids would be situated and I just remember wondering you know, who is this person? She's kind of very forward in terms of some of the requests that she's making that was my first impression.
01:54 I remember was we joined Camp 4 days later 3 days late pain a suggestion by another friend. And so I remember cuz everyone's already been assigned or cabins. So there was that aspect of oh God. We're late. We've missed out on everything but there was something else. I was carrying that day growing up my family never participated in a camp and I was very aware that these camps existed and that they were places for community and I would see like I grew up in the Muslim Pakistani community in the San Francisco Bay area and they were families that would regularly go to one of the two Muslim camps, right? There were two of them in California and you would see how these Camp families when they would come back to you know, our normal day-to-day life in the Bay Area those relationships were there they had this understanding
02:54 From my perspective. I felt like they had each other's back and that they were they were connected in some meaningful way and my family was always on the outside. My mom hates hated. She's grown a little bit. But she used to hate being outdoors. So many times drawing up we'd ask her can we please go to camp and it was because we felt out of place and uncomfortable in our skin and all the spaces. We usually occupied and we had this idea in our mind of this beautiful magnificent place where we could possibly fit and be a part of something. So when I had my own kids and we moved to California and they were old enough to participate meaningfully. I jumped on the opportunity, so I was carrying this
03:41 It wasn't just participating in the new activity, but I was carrying this need to fulfill something deep within my own self. So the thing I remember is I walked up to the registration desk now in Muslim spaces men and women don't usually are in many Muslim spaces men and women don't shake hands. However, as a dentist I have grown accustomed to shaking hands as a way of establishing trust, which is really important in the patient-doctor relationship. So I instinctively cuz I was working at the time put my hand out and you kind of obvious it responded. You didn't reject my hands, but it mediately a district my hand. I felt so horrified that I had committed such a big faux pas in a Muslim space. So I was super embarrassed and didn't want to I contact for a bit.
04:30 Yeah, I didn't know about the backstory in terms of part of what you were bringing in in terms of your own perspective Beyond just you know providing a good week of enjoyment in education for your kids. But me and just kind of in a hard back to these issues of how we grew up in America as as Muslim Americans or as we say South Asian Americans my family's from India. So, you know, obviously there is a dynamic there between India and Pakistan and in our parents generation in particular my dad, you know, it was born in nineteen for a 10-year partition happened and you know the aftermath of that and sort of looking at at least two Nations side-by-side, we're trying to grow into their identities one as a secular Republic at least expensive than the other one as a new Islamic Republic in a time when you know, there was a lot of aspirations for start of a democratic.
05:30 Muslim society and you know we've seen that in various places around the world and unfortunately the relationship between those two countries has always been, you know, very fraught with tension. And so the immigrants have come from those places and settled here in the United States have had an interesting Dynamic, you know, hopefully if everyone for the most part but definitely there's some nationalist sentiments that surface from time to time but but in our family, you know, we you know how to help the pride in our Indian identity and I would say, you know growing up in the younger years. It was you no combination of the Muslim Ness and the and the Indian nest and then the emerging American Nest that were at play in our household. Obviously, you know, the language spoken at home tended to be a mix of English and Gujarati in our case and you know, the dinner table was, you know, RR
06:30 Local Indian food which you know is not the food that you would get at a typical Indian restaurant, but it was a more kind of earthy, you know, mostly vegetarian kind of diet of a very traditional home cooked meals and dentist sort of you know, me and my siblings siblings and then later on my cousin's my father sponsored a number of his brothers and sisters to come to the United States and settle so we had a growing extended family. So we were always kind of straddling these identities. How was it like for you?
07:07 What I want to ask you one question and then I'd love to share my perspective. Did you feel Indian growing up? Did you identify with it?
07:20 I don't think so. Not not so strongly I mean and I'm not sure.
07:25 You know, I felt very plain in a way. I mean, I grew up in Hawthorne which is closer to where you live now and it was you know, sort of the epicenter of the Aerospace industry in the start of the Heyday of all these corporations that were building, you know, well 747 jets would also in a military planes and things like that. So, you know was a vibrant industry in my father being an engineer was able to you know, be hired as soon as he completed his his master's degree at Berkeley and then, you know came to Los Angeles and settled and I actually was born in India and I came as a baby as a one-and-a-half-year-old to Los Angeles once my dad had, you know security position in Los Angeles and growing up though, you know was a very well Suburban essentially white middle-class neighborhood that I grew up in and I didn't really realize I was Indian for sale.
08:25 How many my interactions with my peers at that time my in my school age friends, you know, I had mostly white friends, but there were some, you know people of other backgrounds as well if you block friends and maybe one or two Hispanic friends and that's continued to change over the years. So by the time I got to high school the ethnic mix and the composition of Hawthorne and the surrounding cities in the South Bay, you know, where was really shifting but I don't think I really felt Indian percent. I didn't even feel particularly Muslim other than the fact that we would go to the mosque in Inglewood. That was really the only Moss. There was one in Los Angeles as well. We would go and we would do things that we you know, pray and fast and things like that, but I think that dispense of being Muslim in America really emerged in high school for me when start of the global geopolitical scene also started to shift and people I think generally in American society began to
09:25 Have a certain view of a slime which obviously was problematic but that's really went sort of that Dynamic of trying to find your place in society as a Muslim secondarily as an Indian. I don't think that was such an issue except in the sense of competition with fellow Indian Indians, you know, this this notion of upward social Mobility that we have the, you know, in our family and that sort of aspiration of the American dream, you know, again, you know years later we have one might have a different perspective on what that means and you know how that was constructed but at that time growing up and it was more about doing the traditional conventional sense and to that extent the Indian has came out only in relation to you know, the competition start of the sense of prestige or you know status within the Indian American community.
10:26 Interesting for me. I feel like my experience was very different and I'm kind of thinking it might have to do with the nationalistic framework that Pakistani Americans brought with them or Pakistani emigrants cuz growing up. I was very acutely aware that I was Pakistani and that was a big part of who I was growing up. I used to keep the flag. I used to Green used to be my favorite ironic. I'm wearing green today, but he was a big part of our family culture.
11:05 And and I cuz I kind of mentioned I feel like for my own self even at a very young age. I remember feeling like I didn't fit I couldn't find a space where I could fit whether it was in school or it was out in the grocery store and I couldn't put a finger on it. Right like when your 5 for you don't understand race, you don't understand religious divide. You don't understand identity. You're just a kid and you are kind of learning things about yourself like who you are and what that means to everyone through interactions, right? And so I think through observation of my parents and how they interacted with other people. I became acutely aware that I couldn't fit in with the broader community at school, I think about I have memories in my mind of watching my mom at the
12:04 Peeing at a store at the interacting with the cashier and my mom went to college and Pakistan not here. So English is definitely a second language, although she went to an English medium School in Pakistan. The fluency wasn't there and the cultural competency wasn't there and I remember standing next to my mom and her if there was a disagreement, or she needed to ask a question with the cashier the fear in her eyes and how she would shrink into herself and she would say, I remember many times my mom saying to herself and almost a self-deprecating way. I don't know what happens to me. I just forget all my English when I feel pressure, and I and I remember growing up watching my dad. My dad is also an engineer. We talked about this. My dad went to Berkeley to I can't remember if we were talking.
12:57 So Daddy was a mild-mannered, you know of engineer personality as well and and he's not particularly tall and in Western Society or height matter your size the size you occupied and how you carry it matters. And so I remember lots of times of my dad and the body language of watching him interact with other people and maybe with my personality but that one my parents kind of inculcated that we were something else at home not in an antagonistic way. It wasn't like we are Pakistani, we're better or anyting just that this is part of who we are and I couldn't align that with something on the outside and then coupled with these interactions where I could palpate my parents discomfort. I think really led to a feeling of not fitting in so I feel like for myself
13:57 I was thinking about this at a younger age. Although not with the awareness that one thing I'll say is it when your dad is totally cool with him and we've been fortunate to travel together at 9. So, you know, I think you know where you are today and your family. I mean, I I think you guys are just a wonderful Testament to you know, just a solid grounded family has the right kind of priorities and a loving environment course every every family and we all have our Dynamics in challenges, you know personalities and you know that we all have as individuals that no just every family has to deal with but I was letting you know when you were talking and made me think about this idea of how you know, the level of comfort that one might have and I know that you know our conversations growing up when some
14:57 Thing was not lights. It would be you know Americans do that those Americans do that. And then what we're like we're American are we American were indian-american or a Muslim American? We didn't necessarily hyphenated terms, but we were definitely trying to be long in some fashion, you know, and I think the cultural competency that maybe our parents struggled with in some respects. At least. I perceive that growing up, you know, I thought I was all that in the sense that yeah. I know. What's up. I know what's going on. I'm American, you know, and but again, it was still a very narrow kind of modality of being American it was not that sensitive to the experiences that other Americans were having and it had been having until the present day, you know, unfortunately,
15:57 That's you know entrance of the history of the Native Americans and how we've been treated and marginalized and not been you know, those issues haven't been really address to rectified. And then of course the African-American community and then let me know immigrants and people of color from around the world who had to struggle, you know, and this notion of the American dream that is continues to kind of occlude so many infrastructural are structural or institutional and justices that really don't provide for a Level Playing Field or equal opportunity as you know, it's made out to be made out to be Austin.
16:38 So that's something that I've had you not to grow in my understanding about that on the one hand. Yes, you know, there's I do feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunities that my parents had and given us and but also a recognition of a certain sense of privilege that was not necessarily acquired through marriage acquired through sort of the historical and political environment of America.
17:14 Yeah, and you just said something really interesting a minute ago. We had to pick up the hyphens kind of post 911 right when all of a sudden we have to articulate what are all the parts of me at have identify those in these ways whereas went and now I think what I'm also doing is back projecting into my childhood how I've been articulating through this framework that kind of forced upon us today. So I recognize that too because of course these weren't the conversations that I wasn't having this conversation as as a kid that you just touched up on something. I know you and I have talked about
17:56 Figuring out how we fit in.
18:00 Growing up and then and then also Reckoning with how we fit relative to other communities. So one thing I've been really thinking about is like my family back in Pakistan was really politically and civically engaged when my parents when my grandparents saw something like my grandfather was really involved in this Anisha battles where he lived but he was a staunch proponent of pearl pluralism and physically put his body on the line numerous times and I would hear the stories that were told with pride and then we come back to home in California where we were
18:45 Complacent keeping our head down and I've gone through a few phases like first I was frustrated that why were you teaching me to shrink myself to keep my voice down to make other people feel comfortable to evolve and I understand now that my parents to like in those first 15 to 20 years. They weren't sure this experiment of theirs was going to work. Would there be a place for them would they be able to support a family so I can get that but I also see the Lost opportunity cuz I think of my parents who immigrated here without any understanding of the racial landscape in this country, right? So they didn't know anything about slavery segregation of Civil War Jim Crow segregation. They do nothing of that right? So they're Landing here concerned. Are we going to fit are we going to be able to float and then they're picking up on the cues that are coming through media?
19:44 And through the news and so for my my mom, for example, a lot of her cultural competency and language competency came from Oprah the Oprah Winfrey show was pivotal. It was instrumental in her adjusting to American life and I think about how that so you have Oprah who I think is kind of showing people like my mom. What a good black person is right? Here's a good black person who is acting a certain way, right?
20:16 In contrast to when we're driving through Oakland everybody saying lock the doors Oakland is a place where nobody says it out loud growing up but understanding that this is where black people live. This is not safe, right? And again, we weren't having explicit conversations of race. I don't think my parents knew the landscape. Thankfully we've come a long way. We started having these conversations, but they were picking up on subtle cues that oh, there must be something dark wrong inappropriate. We need to protect ourselves. We're not racist because like Oprah's cool embrace the Paradigm that's provided.
21:00 Yeah, and only until 9 if it's so unfortunate that it took 9/11 for us to really question. These Frameworks at weed absorbed and implemented right the good black bad Blackberry Easley has become the good Muslim bad Muslim, right and whatever space we go into using the way, you know, and I learned that has a dentist. I knew that when I walked into the operatory the way I spoke to the patient if I could accentuate my american-ness basically embody. What a white male dentist looks like I'm going to find the Comfort it's like, you know, so they won't figuratively cross the street, you know to get away from you as the the Muslim light in unfortunately mean even now with covid-19. Oh, I read recently that, you know, some of the patients who end up getting in the ICU or are being treated long-term in the hospital.
22:00 Some of them do not want to be treated or seen by a Physicians of color or nursing staff of color in such a shame that we have so much so far yet to go, you know and sometimes we have this notion that year after year by year. We're progressing as a society were improving in our understanding in our humility in our Humanity, but it's clear that it takes energy. It takes effort that has to be invested into creating a culture of pluralism in a culture of mutual respect is not something that just happens on its own through some kind of inertia or some Manifest Destiny make a newsletter.
22:49 Munir I'd love to ask you about something so, you know, we've talked about how in the past growing up I went and then we both went to public school in California. Right and I think we've talked about how through the literature you read drawing up or the science textbook social studies, whatever they're always centered on the white European experience. Right and we're somewhere out here which leads to the bias that you're talking about in the hospital's which goes both ways. You'll have I have many times her doctor say, oh it's a black patient. They complain excessively orta Jewish patient digs. I've heard all of these and end like what you said the opposite. I was wondering cuz I know you've worked on this pluralism in our education a lot of pluralism work or diversity inclusion work looks like holding
23:49 Workshop once in a year or something where you're teaching people that there are other people not like yourself and love your neighbor that sort of a thing and it's kind of the unit you're given that doesn't it's not integrated into the way we learn and understand the world. Can you tell me a little bit about what you understand of our education system and how pluralism could be lifted up or implemented more meaningfully years ago. And at that time, you know, there were these kind of debates of how to incorporate different cultures within the mainstream Public School curriculum, and there was always pushed back to that because you know, the critique was that if this is kind of an artificial insertion, just do you know kind of have representation that was an acronym stick or really?
24:49 Infant the story at that particular moment in time and I think that you know that is something to do to take into consideration by the same time. It's so obvious that the general narrative that has been present is a very eurocentric narrative. That in itself is a distortion the world historical exchange of ideas and influencers in in a more complex kind of image of what medieval or in a pre modern societies look like there was a tremendous diversity. There was tremendous interaction. Yes, it's easy to sort of puts things into containers like your of Africa Asia and Latin America and of artificial
25:36 Divisions because you know in human history, we see so much interaction, you know through true travel and trade another thing in terms of what happened in the curriculum, you know, I think scholars in Academia are producing a lot of new knowledge about that complex World leading up to the present and the challenge is getting the scholarship to be packaged in a way that works at a different grade levels and the different subject areas and and that's a long process but I think a lot of new content is available at new understandings is available. Then we get into the political realm of you know contestation about what should be accepted. What should not be like, you know, Jefferson had slaves. Is that something that should appear in the book or not? You know what it what are the implications is that the sun was spread by the sword or
26:36 No, obviously the scholarship indicates that that's not the story, you know that you know, all kinds of social processes were taking place over many centuries and that does now appear in the text books to some degree. It's an ongoing process, it needs more effort and energy and I would say that it's like in in the situation was told that you know, follow the science and you know that might take awhile, you know, we need to find what the results are. We're going to shift because you know, we now understood that this reaction take place or this treatment works or you know, that's not something you can do in one week's time. It's something that you have to give time for it to play out. So in a similar way, I think Transformations and curricula why there's an urgency on in some areas. There's a tremendous urgency to rectify problems that are out right, you know, he sensually historical lies or fiction vs.
27:36 Introducing more nuanced introducing a different Focus area, you know looking at the lives of women in history, for example, you know, they're hardly any representation even presently, you know, it's limited but that's an area of scholar scholarly work that's being done in the more material that can be utilized transmitted or integrated into the narratives that are available to our our schoolchildren. I think that process is happening. Sometimes we may not be satisfied with the pace of it. But I think that generally speaking the the scholars and Educators in public education have their hearts and Minds in the right place and sometimes there are other obstacles that prevent or more radical.
28:29 Transformation of the story still of course, that's the problem for us as parents. For example, because you know, we want our children to know certain things, you know, you know, whether Howard Zinn people's History of the United States vs the standard narrative or anyone in world history something similar we have to do the work to sort of tell the story from different Vantage points. I'm hopeful that you know, as as a society as the country that does have the resources to tell the story in a more nuanced and just fashion it will happen and but it you know, it requires us a free Society in a way for for us to be able to allow professionals, you know to carry the ball further down the field.
29:19 Really? It's a really interesting parallel to draw with covid-19.
30:19 Why they wrote it who paid for it what it's golden aims are and then making sure that you're thinking about which voice is missing which perspective is missing instead of saying there's like a right way to understand something in a wrong way to understand something. Oh my God. He says there's 10 minutes. Now, you're absolutely right. I think, you know encouraging all of us. I mean our kids but even ourselves how to interpret information and and wait give it is appropriate weight in a relative to other pieces of information. I think, you know, we seen this with the fake news era and sort of just the explosion of opinions that are out there and you know, it's a challenge to sift through material. I see people, you know, accusing quote the other side of
31:19 Relying on accurate information. I think you know that that cold kind of both sides can wield it against the another or any site will it against another unless it's an unfortunate commentary I think about where we're at currently has a society in terms of the loss of confidence in information, but that of course is connected to the lack of ability to engage, you know materials and and and do what you're suggesting in terms of thinking about who's riding it why when and you know what the audience is, what's the secondary audience? Whatever maybe you know some of the motivations behind it.
31:59 19 feel fortunate to have a friend like yourself lose, you know, so multifaceted you you know, obviously you two professional life for. Of time not that you have any stop that mean, you know, you're you're doing so many things you're politically engaged in terms of trying to raise awareness about important issues of the day, you know that affect all of us your, you know, obviously attending to the educational needs of your children in a more Hands-On way than many of us, you know have opted to do and obviously there are trade-offs that happened with all of these decisions, but you know, I really appreciate how
32:47 Conscientious you've been about you know adaptability in your life to different circumstances been different priorities. I think it's a great lesson for myself. And the people that I am engaging in my own family. I appreciate everything that you said deeply when are but I think people like you and I we need each other when I think about what I do and I think your work we might operate in different spaces, but I think we have a lot of shared experiences. Sometimes when I explain to people what I do, I'll say something like and it sounds so terrible and it's like simultaneously what I do is simultaneously terrible and beautiful. So like when I'm organizing a Muslim space, I am trying to unpack the biases and shake the status quo. So you have to be prepared. I have to receive the
33:47 Ire of whoever determines what is muscle nice and who who gets to occupy her speak for Muslims or what? It means to be Muslim. Right? And then the other part of my work is working in the wider Community the Interfaith Community the Civic engagement Community again doing the same thing trying to find information shake the status quo and then the same thing you don't belong or your voice isn't valid and then somehow and two like you're simultaneously I tell people I have moments where I simultaneously feel like I'm doing something incredible and amazing.
34:28 Completely 50% of my heart feels that way in 50% of my heart feels like I'm such a hot mess. I don't know what I'm doing, and I know you have also done you and I both have different styles. I think you have the professor real approach to things, but I know you are in a lot of spaces as well trying to
34:50 Agitate people into rethinking their bias. He's our presumptions and the status quo. And I really respect and admire that that's why I think we'd like to collaborate solutely. I'm definitely happy to be in similar circles with you and overlapping circles from time to time, but it's also just on a personal level and have been a joy to spend time with you and your husband and your kids and you know, we travel to Malaysia we've been in Bosnia together. I see you've got the commemoration of the scrubber Anika tragedy there and you know, we've also Been to Spain and hopefully will travel some more together but more importantly I think, you know traveling along this journey of life and self-discovery and
35:42 Do you know seeking ways to be of service to humanity and to create more Harmony and peace where it's possible? You know, I think that in our own ways we've been trying to do that and I think that stems from really are are our core values and what our face, you know inspires in us and
36:06 You know, I think it's a beautiful thing that even though there are tremendous challenges, you know for Muslims in America just in terms of you know that constant.
36:18 Negotiation or a discussion with others who don't see Islam as an American faith and as well as internally, you know in terms of just the the opportunity of the pluralism of American Islam, but also the challenges of not having sufficient cultural awareness or historical awareness and you know having to be mindful of not well, you know, nothing is the Necessities kind of staying in one's Lane and not you know, speaking on behalf of various groups of Muslims. I think everyone needs to have a voice in a place at the table and no one group of Muslims should sort of exclude, you know, or cause the exclusion of another group. So I think we internally are grappling with those issues of you know, very conservative Muslims on the one hand and white liberal my sons on the other hand and you know, what does that mean for Muslims in America going for?
37:18 Forward and do you know how do we fit within the two Trends in the changes are happening society-wide culturally speaking.
37:27 I think one of the reasons why you and I have been such good partners in travel, whether it's physically traveling or whether it's through work and engage, you know, intellectual engagement. I think we share an understanding of our faith and that our faith calls us to be unconditionally loving of human beings and the Very human experiences not having to quantify qualify that and then approaching things with curiosity, right? So when you enter a conversation, I see you embody this and I tried to do the same and out of admiration that if you are sincere about seeking the truth or better understanding Humanity than every conversation you enter every trip you go on your you're entering it knowing that you might not be in the same place. You were at the beginning that that conversation. Travel is going to change you and some very deep meaningful way and I think that's why our family has enjoyed traveling with you so much.
38:27 It's really we've changed we've changed just seeing the stories of human beings through time and varied backgrounds and places it strange that we understand ourselves and understand other so I'm really grateful. I'm grateful we got to do this together today when you I really appreciate you inviting me. Thank you for being part of this and let's hope that our star little exchange and in our life stories are just a little window into you know, what America can be as it continues to evolve and grapple with you know, the many tensions that we see in our society, but you know, they're there is something special I think about America the very fact that this recording is going to be archived potentially and serve as a as a statement of time and thought in our time for posterity. I think it is it is a great signal that you know, there is there can be potentially
39:27 Better times ahead for us as a collective society. And we as Muslims from all over the world and those who are born here and who have a different history and Heritage, but are are American Muslims, you know, we're part of that story and that fabric.
39:45 Yeah, and you're absolutely right.
39:49 We're wrapping up there.