Not an Expert, Not Oppressed by Medeia Sharif
Medeia Sharif is a Kurdish-American writer who was born in New York City. She currently lives in Miami Beach, Florida, where she works as a high school English teacher. Her debut novel BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. will be published by Flux in July 2011.
Visit her website at http://www.sharifwrites.com
“When I was in middle and high school, I usually was the only person of Middle Eastern descent in my class. I’ll never forget how certain teachers put me on the spot by asking me questions about the Middle East, as if I was some sort of expert due to my appearance and name. “Medeia, tell us about the agriculture…colleges…city life….” Sometimes I shared things my parents told me—which is far more reliable than anything I have to say about the region since they grew up there—but most of the time I told them the truth. “I’ve never been there.” It’s true, not even for a vacation.
I was born in the United States. I grew up with pop music and fast food. My upbringing doesn’t exactly match my friends’ since I grew up in an immigrant household, but I still consider myself an all-American type of person. So it irked me when people assumed I knew everything about the Middle East. And they also thought I would be oppressed. “You’re allowed to do that?” someone would ask after I talked about doing some mundane, everyday thing. Yes, I led a normal life and I was able to fulfill my goals. In college and as an adult, I didn’t receive this spotlight that my teachers and classmates used to set upon me. Well, actually, there was this one time…
In a critique group years ago one of the members made his distaste towards my writing obvious. After I read a light-hearted, humorous chapter about a Muslim teenager doing teenage-y stuff in Miami he proclaimed that I must change my style completely. He said I should use Leila Ahmed’s A BORDER PASSAGE as a model for my writing. I read that book in college, so I was familiar with it. It’s a memoir of life in Cairo in the 40s and 50s, with the author emigrating to the States in the 60s. My debut novel and a few of my works-in-progress are fictional accounts of American girls of Middle Eastern descent in the modern age. It was like comparing apples and oranges.
My manuscript wasn’t Middle Eastern enough for this person’s liking. He wanted politics, law, history, colonialism, the whole shebang. And from his tone and choice of words, I also had an uneasy feeling—something that was also palpable from the pesky questioners of my school age years—that perhaps he wanted to read about the hardships of being a Muslim woman, that we are all oppressed by our men and religion. Meanwhile, my main characters aren’t oppressed or unhappy. I didn’t match the stereotypes floating in this person’s mind.
I’ve been thinking about this issue as my debut date nears. BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. will be published in July. It may not meet everyone’s expectations. Some people may even have a problem with me, the author. Maybe I’m not knowledgeable enough to have written the novel since—confession time here—I’ve never fasted for Ramadan. I had to do research for this book and my other works because, you guessed it, I’m not an expert on all things Middle Eastern and Muslim. And when there are books out there about oppressed Muslim women—and I don’t deny they exist—I don’t care to write about that side of life. Muslim women are not all unhappy and restricted. I create characters who are jovial and feisty.
Despite people’s expectations of me and my characters, I’m comfortable writing novels about the American-Muslim-Middle-Eastern experience. I may not be an authority figure, but I know I can write about that experience with a vision and authenticity that other writers may not have. Also, I hope that people who read my work will look past any stereotypes and assumptions they have and learn something new about Middle Eastern culture and religion.”