It’s a Friday evening, and Sarah Dolaty’s addressing about a hundred people packed into a small Boston University lecture hall.
“Muslim Writers Collective is a platform for Muslim story telling,” she says. “Our goal is to create a diverse, safe space for Muslim Americans to share their experiences.”
The audience is made up of Muslims who dress differently, have different interpretations of the faith, and different skin tones. They’re here for the first monthly open-mic held by the new Boston chapter of the national Muslim Writers Collective, a national movement in the Muslim community has reached Boston. Young Muslims are creating non-religious spaces where they can share their experiences and their writing.
The idea is that speakers who step onstage to perform can tell their individual stories and give their perspectives without worrying that someone will see them as representative of all Muslim Americans. BU art history student Cassie Villarreal performed a piece about backlash after the Paris terrorist attacks.
“They make it just halfway to their final destination only to be approached with a man with an unknown occupation,” she says. “’You were there to bomb Paris, and now look at you -- ready to bomb Boston – away, away with you two!’ A little American girl now barely able to speak. Tries to hide her emotions, trying to make them discreet. “
One by one performers take the stage, talking about everything from dating to profiling. Nabeel Ali is a medical student.
“First time in the area people looking at him like he’s in a zoo. He’s used to this, just more of the same. As usual brushes the situation off as lame. … Leaves the store, at this point he’s got Kanye playing loud,” Ali raps. “Hears an authoritative voice tingle from his spine to his toes. ‘Excuse me young man, did you pay for those?’”
Nuzhet Khan, who works in the corporate world by day, performs a piece about being in New York on September 11th..
“2001. Standing there between Tower Two and One. Not knowing what’s happening. Not realizing what’s begun. Concrete tumbling all around. Someone jumped and crashed to the ground. His body, now a mangled mound,” she says.
The audience was rapt as Khan recounted running from the collapsing twin towers, her father fighting through traffic to pick her up, and how he called her every Sept 11th thereafter to remind her how grateful he was she was alive. They last spoke on Sept 11, 2013 – days before her father died.
“So I have this weird tie to the day,” Khan says, speaking after the show. “I went into a grief spiral and then when I finally decided I didn’t want to feel like that anymore, came out of it in 2016. And I was like you know what this year it’s going to be no fear. So I signed up and then I totally panicked after I signed up.”
But Khan found performing a cathartic release. And that’s the point of the open mics, says organizer Dolaty, who’s day job is in clinical social work. These gatherings are meant to be non-religious and non-judgemental, she says.
“I think when you create a religious space, it comes with a stigma and certain perceptions of what religion is and how a person needs to be religious. And if we went in with the idea that it had to be a religious space, I think a lot of people would be deterred,” she says. “But in this setting here with all these Muslim americans, you find people that create home within this setting together.”
People lingered long after the open mic was over, talking to friends and meeting new ones... until, unexpected, Hamdan Azhar arrived to a rock star’s welcome. Without Azhar the Muslim Writers Collective wouldn’t exist. He created it two years ago in New York and it spread mostly through Facebook to eight other states.
“There really are no other spaces like this. In the mosques we have a lot of young professional organizations in the Muslim community, and everyone’s networking and trying to climb the ladder, and they all have their elevator pitch,” he says. “I couldn’t connect with them… It was really awkward. So I thought why not find people like me?”
And he did. That’s what Muslim Writer’s Collective is about, Azhar says – creating another kind of American community for Muslims – not to show the rest of the world, including followers of Donald Trump, he says, that Muslims are normal people too.
“It can never be like, ‘oh my God, people think Muslims are terrorists, Donald Trump is going to be president, let’s hang out and do poetry circles so people think we’re cool people,” Azhar says Like, that’s not the point of this.”
The point, Azhar says, is for American Muslims to have a place to come together as people with multiple identities and multiple facets, to express themselves.
Video of a performance by Eman Abdelhadi at Muslim Writers Collective in NYC, March 30 2014