Q+A with Amena Saad, Aspiring Journalist + Future Tar Heel

Meet Amena Saad, a positive-thinking, energetic and empathetic young woman from Cary, NC. Though we’ve only met virtually, her energy and glow are evident even in this format. Her drive to be her best self is one of the most powerful and inspiring aspects of her approach to life. This future Tar Heel (Go Heels!) is also one of the women behind A Meeting of the Minds, the blog she runs with her mother, Shereen.

If you’re not familiar with the blog, it investigates their experiences being Muslim in America, the unique dynamics of immigrant families, political perspectives on Islam, and even feminism and female empowerment in the Muslim tradition, from both Shereen and Amena’s perspectives. It’s an ongoing, open-ended conversation, imbued with respect and hope. 

This interview is the second in a two-part series; the first part was Shereen’s Q+A yesterday. Today, you’ll hear from Amena about when she feels most herself, her valuable perspective on wearing the hijab, and her hopes for the future. She’s a shining light, and one whose perspective we are so glad to share. 

The Basics

  • Age: 18
  • Location: Cary, North Carolina
  • Education: Currently a senior at Green Hope High School
  • Field of Interest: Journalism
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? I like that I’m not afraid to put myself out there. I’ve never been very shy and find myself reaching out to new people on a daily basis whether to compliment someone’s shirt or just because I’ve seen them around school. I’m grateful for this quality because some of my most meaningful friendships have started with the simplest interactions and if someone’s too shy to start the conversation, I’m happy to give ‘em a nudge.
  • What Inspired You Today? I followed Tedx on Twitter recently and this morning I watched a Ted Talk by Sarah Kay about spoken word poetry. It inspired me because I’ve never seen a spoken word performance, and I found it truly powerful because I could feel the passion in her words, which isn’t something that I experience  often.
  • What Are You Currently Listening To On Repeat? One of my friends made me a finals-themed CD the other day (think best of John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, and Bon Iver) and I haven’t turned the radio on since.
  • What Are You Reading That You Can’t Put Down? The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
  • What Are You Currently Involved In That You’re Really Excited About? One of my mom’s friends organizes a monthly dinner for the homeless in Downtown Raleigh and she hasn’t been feeling well lately so I’m in charge of organizing it this month. Coordinating an event like this is new for me, and I’m excited to see all the little pieces come together (grocery shopping, set-up, seeing who’s bringing what) at the end of month. It’s always rewarding to see everyone’s efforts come together in a  meaningful and productive way, and I’m proud to be able to put myself in a leadership position this time instead of just showing up the day of and helping serve the food.

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Questions + Answers

You’re at such a phenomenal time, in the last semester of high school and about to head into some of the most formative years of your life. What are the joys and challenges you’re experiencing in this moment?

Senior year has been, without a doubt, the most enjoyable year of my high school experience. There’s always something going on, whether it’s a school sports event or a bonfire, and being able to stand front-and-center in the student section is honestly so underrated. Also, I’ve noticed that all of my friend groups have merged together this year so it’s a lot less clique-y and a lot more unified, which I appreciate.

Hearing back from colleges this week has been really exciting, and I’m pumped to officially be able to call myself a Tar Heel! I’m currently experiencing so much secondhand joy watching all my friends get into different schools, but on the downside I’ve been getting pretty sentimental lately. It’s weird to think that we’ve already attended our last school high school football game and that we only have 6 months left of living 5 minutes away from everyone and everything that we’ve grown to know so well; I can literally calculate the time it takes to get from home to school in the morning depending on the weather.

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However, I’m kind of terrified to see what the future holds, and I’m trying really hard not to get overwhelmed. I keep thinking about how college will affect the course of my entire life, from the people I meet to the classes I take and the major I eventually choose, but I’m also incredibly excited for the potential of these upcoming years.

Even though we’ve only connected through writing and on the page, your energy and joyfulness are clear. We at BYOM find that so inspiring – and it’s a quality shared by many of our Muses. What do you think is at the root of this joy?

I think the root of my joy is simply being able to recognize how blessed I am. Both of my parents are tremendously supportive of all my endeavors and have always pushed me to take my interests to the next level, regardless of their stages in development.

I’m also grateful for the support system I have in my friends; I don’t know where I’d be without our late-night heart to hearts and the hilarious spontaneity of our weekend plans so, as cliché as it sounds, I can’t imagine life without them next year.

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Being able to identify the kinds of people and experiences in my life that I treasure most reminds me just how much I have to be thankful for, and this year especially, I’ve been able to surround myself with friends who are consistently compassionate and always working to boost each other up and this joyful, familial vibe is what keeps me going.

The other day, while I was waiting for the announcement of an inclement weather cancellation, I realized that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I wouldn’t mind having school over getting a snow day. I think this goes to show how much I value spending time with my friends, even at school, and how hard it’s going to be to let go of this stage of my life.

How did that dinner for the homeless in Raleigh go? Last we talked, in was in the future, and now it’s behind you! What was your favorite moment of that experience?

The homeless dinner went really well! All of the volunteers came through on bringing what they’d signed up for so coordination-wise it was a success, and it was one of the biggest turnouts yet, so I was really pleased. My favorite moment of the experience was actually serving the food.

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It’s ironic to me how homeless citizens have so little yet so often exude positivity and gratitude, and their energy is so effusive and contagious that it’s hard not to enjoy myself while doing something productive, a combination that I don’t come by too often.

We have loved reading the blog created by you and your mother, A Meeting of the Minds. You mention that one of your goals is to help immigrant parents and their children understand that it’s okay to have different views from one another. We’d love to unpack this, so we’ve got a few related questions: In your opinion, why is this so important? Have you heard from any readers that your writing has helped facilitate this dialogue? Was there a moment in your life when you and your mother, Shereen, had to come to this realization?

Without making a conscious effort to develop a relationship with my parents and get to know them beyond the superficial, “how-was-school” level, it becomes easy to get wrapped up in our own personal and social lives and begin to drift apart.

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Building a relationship with parents is difficult whether you belong to an immigrant family or not, but I think immigrant families have it harder because there’s such a stark and recognizable divide between our parents’ belief systems and codes for propriety and what we as the younger, generally more liberal generation deem acceptable. I can’t tell you how often I hear my friends make comments like “my parents don’t know me at all,” or “they wouldn’t get it,” and it’s easy to fall into the mindset where people accept that they’re too different from their parents for there to be any depth to the relationship.

I think a lot of times, immigrant kids also underestimate how understanding or relatable our parents can be. Growing up, both of my parents lived in Egypt where the majority of citizens were Muslim, so it’s easy to assume that they won’t understand what we’re going through when we feel excluded from social activities that, religiously, we can’t take part in, like drinking.

This being said, there are two potential courses of action when it comes to dealing with these issues. We can distance ourselves from our backgrounds and become so assimilated into American culture that spending time with people in an environment that our parents and religious guidelines deem unacceptable is something we consider excusable because, well, this is what’s normal here. And to be honest, for some time, that’s what I did. However, it wasn’t long before I realized that, sure I was Muslim-American, but I was beginning to prioritize American over Muslim when, in my head, I knew it should be the other way around.

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Talking to my parents about the identity crisis I was going through helped me understand that they do know what it’s like, even if they haven’t been in my position first-hand…Being able to start this dialogue and recognize that I’m not the only one making sacrifices is encouraging, and allowed me to gain more respect for my parents and the dedication they have to religious practice.

This brings me to the second potential course of action, which is what I’m working towards right now, and it’s balancing both halves of my identity as a Muslim and as an American.

This is a challenge because there are a lot of events I have to miss out on and it involves a higher level of self-reflection because I have to be able to defend what I choose to do with my time, but in the long run, it’s worthwhile because I’m able to make decisions that I can rationalize for myself when it comes to why I’m skipping out on this party or why I’m holding back from laughing at that joke.

My mom and I haven’t really heard that this blog is helping facilitate this dialogue but I do think it’s helping to pave the way. Some of her friends read my perspective compared to hers and comment on how they think it’s pertinent to their kids and that they imagine their kids feel the same way, but I think the actual confrontational, face-to-face conversations that we are trying to enable are still a work in progress. We’re still hopeful though, especially considering how our blog is still in its beginning stages.

You’ve written eloquently about your sense of female empowerment and passion for adventure, as well as your identity as a young Muslim woman. Although it may be rooted in a reductive understanding, for many, those ideas may seem to be at odds. Could you explain how your faith, culture, and and sense of empowerment are related?

Wearing the hijab serves as a constant reminder of my commitment to Islam, but I don’t think it should hold me back from pursuing my passions; if anything, it should propel me to embrace them wholeheartedly in effort to break people’s misconceptions about how Muslim women are submissive or compliant and tend to stay in the house.

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I think the part I cherish most about wearing the hijab is the look on people’s faces when they see me doing something they wouldn’t necessarily expect a young, conservative Muslim woman to do, like leading cheers at a school football game, for example.

Wearing the hijab also gives me something to stand for. When I read negative comments or articles about Islam in the media, it empowers me to act as the face of my faith and work to prove them wrong. I want to show people that Muslims can be just as pleasant, relatable, and fun to be around as anyone else, and I think that having such a clear physical distinction allows me to be recognized as Muslim in everything I do.

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This encourages me to put my best foot forward in all my efforts, whether it means working as a productive team member for a school project or just smiling to random passersby while running. I believe that, however small, these actions help to facilitate a change in people’s perspectives regarding who Muslims are and what exactly they stand for, and hopefully encourage them to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt and make an effort to get to know us before simply adopting whatever inaccuracies are being presented to them without question.

You’ve also shared essential perspectives on how it feels to be a Muslim in America, feeling isolated and judged for your faith. Even if we don’t want to acknowledge that this kind of sentiment still exists, the fact is, it does. As we also asked Shereen, how can we challenge these small-minded notions, and how do you personally stay strong and loving?

I choose to challenge these small-minded notions through action and service. Confronting the media’s inaccurate representation of Muslims head-on is the only effective way to challenge or change them, and I try to let this negativity build me up rather than discourage me. Events like providing food for the homeless or working on the blog with my mom are, what I find to be powerful and energizing. The blog allows me to combine my passions for writing and public service, and produce a concrete product that I consider an effective way to combat misconceptions. Additionally, writing serves as a way for me to organize and develop my thoughts so that, when people ask me questions about my faith in effort to better understand it, I’m ready to answer them thoroughly and effectively.

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I try to stay compassionate and strong by recognizing that, although there is a lot of hatred out there, there’s also a lot of love.

Personally, I’ve been exposed to a lot more love and support from those around me than the opposite. This is a reality that I’m incredibly blessed and grateful for; no matter how much destructive, hate-filled propaganda politicians release, those will always be those who continue to stand by me and the Muslim community as a whole, and I find their support especially heartening and uplifting.

When do you feel the most you, the most comfortable in your own skin or the most at-peace?

I feel the most at-peace when I’m running. I try to run on a daily basis, and running gives me time to separate myself from life’s constant, sometimes overwhelming pace, and reflect on whatever’s on my mind.

Who inspires you?

One of my classmates, Camryn Diagonale, started a blog last year where she shares her writing (usually poetry) and I’ve found that every post of hers is incredibly insightful and emotional, and she is really good at evoking deep thought and truly moving her readers. She’s one of the most talented and humble people I have ever met, and is incredibly down-to-earth and has such a peaceful presence. I truly respect her and appreciate how kindhearted and hardworking she is.

My sister, Aisha Saad, is also a huge inspiration to me. Aisha is a very genuine person, and constantly works to make all those around her feel comfortable, supported, and loved. I cannot think of a time when she hasn’t pushed me to reach my full potential, and she’s always willing to put the needs of others before those of her own.

+ Don’t you just love Amena’s positive approach to life and desire to be her best self? Share your comments below! 
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