Muslim-American Undergraduate In the Spotlight

In most respects, Shaymaa Mahmoud is your typical UC Berkeley junior.  She grew up in the Los Angeles area, came to Berkeley as a transfer student for the Fall 2009 semester and is majoring in English.  Like many English majors, she feels the burden of a heavy reading load but enjoys the way the major puts her in touch with telling stories and the intricacies of the imagination.

At the same time, however, Shaymaa stands out from the rest of the students shuffling in and out of Wheeler since she wears a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.  And she was recently a part of a photo essay by Justin Sullivan called “Muslim-Americans Balance Faith, Culture And Face Increased Bias.” Following the Ft. Hood shooting in November 2009, Muslims in America feared a backlash reminiscent of the one that followed the September 11 attacks in 2001.  The picture below is part of that essay and shows Shaymaa discussing John Donne’s poem “Go and catch a falling star” with Professor David Landreth, who was her instructor for ENG 45A this past fall. //

Shaymaa was raised in a kind of hybrid family: her mother is American and her father is Egyptian.  Unexpectedly, they met on a train in Germany when her father was traveling for a volleyball tournament.  Her mother converted to Islam and is now a practicing Muslim.  Shaymaa recalls how, as a young child, she was schooled almost exclusively by other Muslims, until she went to a public high school in 9th grade.  Her experience there was positive however, as she found the new school very different but also very tolerant.  She remembers one particular moment as representative: a few days before the winter break one year, a substitute teacher handed out an activity that revolved around identifying various Christmas carols from various literal-minded descriptions.  When the substitute gave Shaymaa the handout and noticed her headscarf, she immediately and somewhat anxiously announced that “not everyone had to participate in the activity if they didn’t want to or weren’t able to.”  Shaymaa chuckled when she recalled this since, she says, things like Christmas carols are so much a part of the dominant culture that she was more than familiar with their titles.

The fact, however, that Islam is not a major part of the dominant culture is all the more reason for Shaymaa to wear a headscarf and be involved in the Muslim Student Association.  She wants to promote awareness of what Muslims are “actually like,” which is also a motivating factor behind Justin Sullivan’s photo essay project.  Like many American Muslims, Shaymaa does not see her religious background as being mutually exclusive with her national identity.  She welcomed the opportunity to have Sullivan follow her and her family around Berkeley for the Muslim holiday Eid.  When they visited a mosque in San Francisco to celebrate the holiday, she was able to explain certain religious and cultural practices to him.

For Shaymaa, the study of English contributes to this kind of cultural exchange since it puts her in touch with a variety of modes of communication and imaginative exercise.  In reference to a heavily Christian poet like John Donne, she says that she has been able, on the one hand, to relate many of the Christian ideas to similar idea in Islam or, on the other, to view the Christian background with the critical eye of someone on the outside.  This semester she is taking a course in Puritan literature and is finding the “fire and brimstone” nature of the rhetoric particularly fascinating, if sometimes a bit heavy.  It is the hope that pieces like the photo essay will perform a similar educational function for those who view it.