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2005 Writers Forum
Maliha Masood ~ with curator John Mifsud

Maliha Masood is a writer, traveler and activist. Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, she has lived in Paris, Rome, Cairo, Damascus and Beirut, while considering Seattle, WA home since 1982. Her forthcoming travelogue, In the Middle of the East: A Muslim-American Woman's Odyssey from Cairo to
Istanbul will be published by Cune Press in 2005. Maliha is also the co-producer of Nazrah, a documentary film exploring the perspectives about American-Muslim women from the Pacific Northwest (www.nazrah.org). She is currently in the process of establishing Diwan: Dialogue on Islam, a Seattle based cultural institute. The organization aims to engage interactions between Muslims and Americans through radio and TV talk shows. Maliha has a Master's Degree in International Affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She frequently writes essays and commentaries on Islam, gender and culture. Her languages include French, Arabic and Urdu.
Maliha Masood photo
photo credit:
dean wong
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Women/Gender
JM


I'm in the studio today with Maliha Masood. Thank you so much for being with us, Maliha. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you start, what's your background?
MM














Well, I was born in Pakistan, and grew up in Pakistan and India until I was twelve years old, and then my family immigrated to the States and we came to Seattle, 1982. So, I pretty much grew up here. I started out in the seventh grade, and spent my whole adolescence, college years in Seattle. But, I always felt like I was straddling East and West from a very early age. I never had as much conflict with it as a lot of my peers, it was always just something that was natural to me, to be in this kind of limbo, and negotiate it as it came. Basically, I've been in Seattle for a long time, and every time I've traveled, it's like I've escaped it, or I have had a need to flee or run away, knowing that "Oh, it's your home base, and you can always come back." But it's always been that kind of feeling where you feel rooted yet you have this need to escape and expand. And I've been having this kind of tug and pull issue with Seattle for a long time.
JM


Well, it's really interesting, since you lived in Karachi and Paris, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Istanbul. How does the Pacific Northwest compare?
MM








I've always had an awareness of geography, just because we are sort of perched on the edge, so, it's always kind of been like a frontier, or a threshold. And I've often had the need to stretch that or expand that, and that's where my travels come in. Like this whole trip to the Middle East, I had no idea that I was going to go. I literally just bought a one-way ticket from Seattle to Paris, and quit my job and cleaned out all my savings, and told my parents, "Hey, I have to go, I have to take off." Seattle is something that encouraged me always to explore those frontiers.
Place

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JM

So, the writing that you submitted is about your travels through the Middle East. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
MM
















Well, it was a very unplanned, uncharted kind of a journey. It was just something I had to do, it's not even something I could control. I started out in Europe and backpacked through France, Italy, Spain, for six months, and then, I had this feeling that the journey wasn't over, that I had to keep going, and so I bought another one-way ticket from Rome to Cairo, and ended up in Egypt. And I didn't know anyone there, I couldn't speak a word of Arabic, but again I was very, very sure of this, it was the only time in my life that I felt my head and my heart were united, in a sense, and there was no conflict. So I got myself an apartment in Cairo, and started learning Arabic, and just started understanding the culture, exploring the culture. And it was hard in the beginning, because everything was suddenly so unstructured, and you had this huge amount of freedom, you don't quite know what to do with that. But I think that's actually one of the best things about travel-it forces you to rely on yourself, and just take it as it comes.
JM



I know that you've got a book coming up for publication, In the Middle of the East: A Muslim American Woman's One-Year Odyssey from Cairo to Istanbul. Tell us more about your publication process.
MM
















The book's been simmering for three or four years, but I really just started writing it in the last year. And I knew in the very beginning that I wanted to have it come out with a small press. And I thought it would be better to focus on the Middle East, something more of a niche publication. But the hardest thing was just to keep motivated in terms of writing every single day, and sometimes not getting a lot of feedback, and also reflecting. I'm writing about it now five years afterwards, so immersing yourself in that time, and just being there-it was hard sometimes. I don't think you forget-the memories are so sharp, and it's all part of you, it's all inside you-but it was almost a painful process in some ways, to go back and relive that, because it was so precious, and so much changed after I came back. There was 9/11, and suddenly Islam and the Muslim world is in the limelight, and there was this sense of responsibility that I had to speak out, I had to say something, and I wanted to use the journey as that tool to communicate.
Current Project

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JM




One of the things that I found really fascinating was the woman's perspective. Can you say more about that, what it meant to have, sort of, come of age in the Unites States, and then what it meant to be traveling in other cultures as a woman on her own?
MM



























Definitely my American upbringing gave me this tremendous sense of independence and freedom. You know, you can just do anything that you want, and that's ultimately the passion that fueled it. I had this urge to go travel, and I didn't see what was wrong with going by myself. I didn't feel like I needed a chaperone or needed permission. I think maybe having grown up here gave me that sense of independence, and I took that with me to the Middle East, where a lot of people wouldn't just go for soul-searching. You could go to a nice Buddhist shrine in Thailand, or, you could go to Hawaii, there's a lot of better places to go. But to me it was natural: "Oh, you have to go to the Middle East, that's where you're going to find this sense of peace and whatever you're looking for." At the same time, I knew it was going to be hard, because women don't travel there by themselves, especially when they have no official mandate to go. A lot of times, women who do go, they're journalists or they're political analysts, but they definitely have some sort of official reason to go. But someone who just wants to backpack out of sheer curiosity and enthusiasm is more unusual. When I got there I found that it was a mixed bag, that I wasn't perceived completely as an American, because I'm a Muslim, yet being alone you're already breaking a lot of stereotypes that people have of Muslim women, especially in the Arab world. So you were constantly in this "no woman's land" where you couldn't belong in either one. But it was very, very interesting, and it changed my perceptions of what a woman means to Middle East culture. It's certainly not the stereotypes that I see in the media here, there's a lot more layers to it.
Women/
Gender


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JM


So in order to find some sense of inner peace, you travel to the Middle East. Which historically has been one of the more conflicted areas in the world. Say more about that.
MM






















There were two things, I think, driving this. It was my love of adventure and travel. Ever since I was little I used to play this game with my father where, I would memorize these world capitols and he would pretend to be like Alex Trebek, and we would play like Jeopardy. And he would ask me, "What's the capitol of Tanzania?" or Ethiopia, or Kenya. And I would just rattle them off, because I used to memorize it. I used to draw maps of different countries by myself. So I was drawn to the world and felt like I had to go explore it in order to understand it. That traveler in me was something I think that was handed down from my father. Growing up in Karachi, my dad used to work at Swiss Air, and I used to literally just hang out at the airport and watch planes taking off and landing. So travel was almost something that was in my blood. And I don't know why, but for some reason I gravitate to Islamic countries. They're not easy places to travel to, certainly the concept of a backpacker hasn't caught on. I always used to go around telling people, "I'm kind of like a Muslim woman Jack Kerouac backpacker." But to me, it was like the challenge and the quest that made it more intriguing. And I got it into my head that I wanted to see for myself if these stereotypes are real or not, and then try to break as many as I can. For myself and for them. And it was just the thrill of doing that, that made it fun.
JM So who's publishing you?
MM


I'm being published by a Seattle grassroots publisher called Cune Press. And the publication date is in July, this summer, so I'm really looking forward to that.
JM

Sounds wonderful, will you share a little bit of your writing for us?
MM Sure.
<reading>
JM


I am curious [about] the reference that you have there about the media, because I know that you've been involved in a documentary. Can you tell us some about that?
MM

























The documentary is called "Nasra," and it's an Arabic word for perspective. And it came about, right in the shadows of 9/11, when Islam was suddenly in the global spotlight, and suddenly everyone was interested in it. So, a group of friends and I here in Seattle wanted to make a film. And none of us had any background in film, we were all amateurs, but there was this sort of burning desire to understand our cultural, religious identity. And we decided to focus on women, because they've always been marginalized when it comes to hearing their viewpoints. So we got together a group of American Muslim women in the Northwest, and decided to just ask them a lot of tough questions, you know, things that people don't talk about, but they're important. We wanted to break down the taboos and also just sort of be more critical of our own religion and faith. And having this kind of introspective point of view is very important, because a lot of Muslims know when they speak out they're either defensive, they're ignoring the problems that we have in Islam, or they're apologizing for the issues or justifying them. And then you have the progressives who are genuinely trying to engage in a dialog and trying to communicate, and airing out differences is very important. Nasra is about a 60-minute documentary, basically a collage of women talking about identity, sexuality, politics. A lot of issues that I think are very universal, that everyone asks at some point or another. And it's played in film festivals a lot, in Seattle as well as other parts of the world.
JM Does it have a distributor?
MM


It's distributed by Arab Film Distribution, which is based in Seattle, and it's one of the largest distributors of Arab Films. So, we've been very, very successful with that.
JM


You talk about a burning desire that motivated the documentary and its production. How does that burning desire fit in with your creative process as a writer?
MM
























Well, I see myself as a bridge, somebody who literally straddles East and West, and I feel like it's my duty to communicate to both sides, perceptions that we have of one another. And I feel that as a Muslim American who grew up in Pakistan, yet also grew up in Seattle, I really see both sides, and I can communicate in different languages to different audiences. And my whole burning desire, basically, after September 11th, was to humanize the Muslim, the Arab world, a region that is so demonized in the media. I'm not saying those are not true, they are true to some extent. But they're negative images and they lead people to believe that that's all there is when it comes to perceiving Muslims, that they're all terrorists, or all women are oppressed. It tends to lead into certain stereotypes, and the media adds to it, or they don't balance it with more positive images. So my whole thing, and this is where I see myself coming in, is to level the playing field a little bit, and say, "Hey, this so-called 'other' is not as different as you think. They're very similar people to your next-door neighbors, they're worrying about job security, and their children's education, or their health, just like Americans do here." So, the fact that I've traveled to these places and I've seen for myself what the regions and the people are like, I think, makes it more of a from-the-ground perspective. And it's not even a political exercise. I just want to share a piece of the world that I was very, very close to at one point.
JM That's an admirable task.
MM




It's difficult, too. A lot of people tell me it's a losing battle, because you really cannot change people's minds and tell them 'this is how it is.' But it's like a light, adding a perspective that you don't often see, and it's up to people whether they want to believe it or not. But putting it out there, I think, is important.
JM

Are there other subjects that engage you, that are maybe saying "write about me next"?
MM







Well, once the book is out I'll be doing a lot to promote it, going to do readings all over the country and that kind of thing. But I will keep writing, and it seems like travel writing seems to be a specialty of mine that I will keep engaging in. But I do want to continue this quest of building bridges between cultures, especially Islam and America. I wouldn't say "the West," but I think living in this country I almost feel a sense of obligation to keep communicating and to keep enlarging perspectives.
JM




I see here that you've earned a master's degree in international affairs from Tufts University. And you've also done some graduate studies at Harvard University's JFK School of Government, focusing on public policy. I assume that this has to do with your human rights activist work in Pakistan?
MM





















In the summer of 2003, when I was between my first and second year of graduate school, I went back to Pakistan. I hadn't been back in the whole time that I'd been here. And, that was a very different type of a journey because it was more planned out, and I knew I had to come back, I couldn't just buy a one-way ticket this time. But, I went there to see what this "home" was like, or see if I would relate to it anymore, how it would respond to me. And also I wanted to work in the field in international development, so I did an internship with an NGO called International Crisis Group, and did a lot of research and analysis on different issues of local government. And I worked at the Human Rights Commission, which is in Pakistan, and I did some independent research on laws that discriminate against women there-very important to bring that out into the open and then spread awareness about that. But I did end up having adventures, even in Pakistan I ended up traveling a lot. I went into the tribal areas, and people used to kid me that I might've walked past Osama bin Laden. I was literally the only woman, the only foreigner in those areas at that time. And it was an amazing experience, but very different from the Arab world. In a sense I felt more of a stranger in my own country than I did over there.
JM








It's interesting having roots in another country, and not just heritage, but being born and having crossed the ocean at some point to live in the land of opportunity and to a new world. Somehow your existence hovers above the ocean between the two. Not just reaching back to your parents, but your own beginnings. I understand that, being a first-generation immigrant myself. So in closing, I want to invite you to say whatever else is left that might be unsaid, that you'd like for our listening audience to either know about you or your writing.
MM




























Well, I'm a big believer in travel as a means of self-exploration. And I feel that now, as the world seems to have shrunk, it's also created more boundaries. People are more afraid to travel, especially to the Middle East, especially to Muslim countries. There are two opposing trends: people are a lot more open now, more curious to learn about Islam and Muslim countries; but at the same time, there's a lot of prejudice and biases that are fed by the media and through different experiences that people have had. And if you really are curious and you want to stretch your horizons, just let go of those fears and explore and travel. To me, two years of graduate studies in Boston were not as fulfilling as that one year in the Middle East. You cannot just learn from books, you ultimately have to go and experience the world up close, and make it very personal. And I would say you can travel in your own backyard, too. Now that I've come back to Seattle after almost four years, I'm almost rediscovering it, and I'm always trying to have that sense of curiosity and adventure that I had in all those other countries, and still try to find something new and different in Seattle. I think travel is both external and internal, it's like a process we go through, we shed different lives, and we have different chapters that we live out. And I would tell people to not be afraid of taking those detours, and not have a need to always know what's going to happen, and somehow just surrender to the unknowns that we encounter. You have to let go of that sense of control. That's ultimately what I did, and I don't think I'll ever have that kind of power again, that sense that everything you're doing is absolutely right. I think when you trust your instincts you can never go wrong.
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