Beyond Storytelling

Beyond Storytelling

Earlier last year, on a quiet February morning, my husband Martin and I welcomed our daughter, Maryam Ella, into this world. Like many soon to be parents we wondered what she would be like, quiet and shy or bold and witty. Would she look more like her Hoosier Pakistani mother or her Virginia raised Vietnamese father? As we introduce Maryam Ella to friends and family, after the usual questions of gender, age, name, people comment on how she is the perfect mix of the two of us, half Vietnamese, half Pakistani. Though, in our eyes she’s American through and through.


As friends and family lovingly adore Maryam’s wonderful Viet-nistani features I can’t help but wonder if she’ll receive that same question I have heard for so many years, “so, where are you from?” I haven’t seen Karachi in over 15 years and Martin has never been to Vietnam. I fear she will receive this question because she looks different from the default.

I want Maryam Ella and any future children to know that they are American and that they unquestioningly belong here. I want them to know that to be “American” can be many things, and that it is complex and nuanced. I want her to know that her cultural heritage reaches beyond the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It surpasses the revolution that granted us independence from British authority, and even extends beyond the Africans brought here against their will. Her American-ness is sown well into the history of those that first cultivated its soil. For her, American-ness is to accept all the moments of glory along with all the moments of darkness. The history that Martin and I share with her, our own lives, as American Muslims of foreign heritage will undoubtedly follow her.

Sadly, Martin and I will have little to offer when it comes to stories of Karachi or Saigon, our children will have to turn to their grandparents for those tales. What we will be able to offer is the harrowing struggles of Malcolm X in the face of oppression, and of the peaceful community established around Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in Philadelphia. We’ll share the tales of Alexander Russell Web, a prominent early white convert in American history, and Abdu-l-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, an African prince sold into slavery. We’ll take them to the Nation of Islam Muhammad Mosque No. 7 in Harlem and then to the historic Malcolm Shabazz mosque a few blocks south. We’ll walk down 125th street in Harlem and tell them about the Bengali merchants that jumped ship in the late 1800s and made a home for themselves in Manhattan and New Orleans. We’ll visit Powers Street in Brooklyn and tell them about New York’s oldest running mosque founded by Tatars. These are the stories I want my children to know. I want them to know that despite those pestering questions that Muslims have been here in the United States for a long time.

At times I wonder if Maryam Ella (or any future child) will be as interested in history as I am. I wonder if they will sift through dusty archival folders trying to uncover some mystery. Will his heart race when he holds photographs of Elijah Muhammad? Will she wonder what life was like for her dear old parents when the World Trade Center came down? How did their honorary aunties and uncles respond when the eyes of the world were on them? If my kids comb through newspaper articles they will uncover someone else’s narrative. They will discover a story written by a hurried journalist interpreting and speaking on behalf of someone else. They will not discover my voice in those archives or in those newspapers. They may see the rote, formulaic responses issued by leading Muslim organizations. But they will not find the tales of personal endurance in those acid free folders, they will not see the years of civil protests and marches, the stream of Twitter hash tags and YouTube campaigns simply because we neglected to archive the stories we told in our own words.

Since graduating with a Masters degree in Library and Information Science, I’ve become aware of the strikingly large void in the collective history of Islam in America. There exist only a modest smattering of documents scattered between archives in the United States. An archive is a repository meant to hold the lived history of an individual, an organization, institution, faith tradition, or social movement. It holds materials of enduring value. Archives exist because we as humans have a compulsion to share our experiences. The materials in an archive can range from personal papers such as letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs to organizational records such as press releases and meeting minutes. Each of these pieces paints a unique picture of life as it was lived and experienced. Through them, we’re offered an intimate connection to a person or an organization from the past.

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The National Archives based in Washington, D.C. is the largest network of archives and collects nearly everything. Most importantly though, the National Archives is the main repository for governmental and presidential records, it is our nation’s historical repository.  Institutional archives are those that usually serve clients within their organization, such as a university, business, religious organization, or cultural organization. Collecting institutions such as libraries, historical societies, and special collections usually serve historians, genealogists, and newsagents. There is only one archive dedicated to collecting the history of Islam and Muslims in the United States and that is the Islamic Studies archive at DePaul University founded by Dr. Aminah McCloud in 1993. This archive consists of three main collections: Islam in America, Muslim Students Association, and Amina Wadud. The first two collections consist primarily of brochures, pamphlets, and newsletters, while the last collection gathers the personal papers of Amina Wadud. While this archive is an admirable endeavor by Dr. McCloud and the archivists at DePaul, the materials are sporadic. There are bursts of documents spanning short time frames. There is a lack of consistency. The gaps in the collection make it clear that this is the effort of just a handful of people struggling to piece together a long and complex history. It is humbling to see the history of Islam in the United States represented in just a few boxes. It is disheartening to think of everything that is not in those boxes.

Arguably, there are more materials on American Muslims elsewhere like at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, the Arab American National Museum Dearborn, Michigan, and the Bentley Historical Library which is the campus archive for the University of Michigan. But even accounting for these collections as well, they still offer fleeting glimpses into a much richer past. Compounding the challenge, these collected materials are often difficult to locate and search simply because they haven’t been categorized in a way that would identify them as being “Muslim” or “Islamic.” More often than not, researchers have to stumble upon unique collections by chance. Furthermore, there is little on the history of Islam in America that is unfolding before us. In these few archives the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) barely exists and Zaytuna (now the first accredited Islamic college in America) is just a foggy dream. All the inspiring scholars, writers, and intellectuals that are held in such high esteem disappear from history when we turn to our extant archives, and this is on a national level. The everyday struggles of individuals to persevere are nonexistent. Quite simply, when we fail to preserve history our collective human memory risks fading away.


I hear time and again the call for writing a narrative that Muslims stories ought to be written and told by Muslim voices. What I do not hear is the call to save and archive that very narrative. A voice calling out in an instant is only alive for that moment, but archives exist so that these voices can endure. Deciding what to save can be confusing and daunting and is the most theoretically challenging aspect of archiving. You as an individual or an institution need to decide what holds value. This is not an easy question to answer. Everything has the potential to be valuable. Realistically though we are faced with constraints on our time, energy, space, and funding.

For an organization or an institution the archive will likely be an “institutional archive” meaning its primary purpose is to serve individuals within the organization. The best method for determining what items to save for the archive would be to look at the organization’s records retention schedule. The New York State Archives offers a primer on creating and implementing a records retention schedule: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/a/records/mr_retention.shtml

From the records retention schedule it is easier to identify the materials required for legal and economic reasons, and materials that should eventually be discarded because of liability issues, such as employee personnel records. Documents that illustrate the goals and mission of an organization, however, should be saved. These materials include annual reports, press releases, newsletters, mailings, posters, and photographs. That seemingly mundane and disposable flyer may hold more value than you think.

For a personal collection or a family archive it is equally important to determine why one is collecting. Most often families collect so that they can share their history with future generations. Save items you feel have enduring value for your family, items that tell a story. Consider archiving items like journals, letters, emails, ticket stubs, photographs, posters, and postcards.

The most impactful archival collections are those that can illustrate a progression, so that several individual documents when presented together illustrate the depth and complexity of the collection. For example, a complete collection of sequential newsletters would be better than a single newsletter. Similarly, posters, program books, and handouts from a conference would be better than a single advertisement. In short, collect consistently. Additionally, organize the materials in a way that makes sense to you and to your organization. It helps to think about how the materials will be used and by whom. It might make sense to organize materials by department or family member.

Over the years Martin and I have slowly amassed a collection of materials from events, mosques and Muslim third spaces. We now have a small collection of Zaytuna publications ranging from 2000 to 2014. From these we’ve been able to track the trajectory Zaytuna took from its humble beginnings in Hayward, CA to its current incarnation as Zaytuna College. Through these publications we see name changes and various side projects that have split off into their own organizations. What we have are primary source documents that give us an uninterrupted glimpse into the organizational transformation of Zaytuna. In our family archive, we have photographs and newspaper clippings featuring Martin’s mother as a newly arrived refugee in Massachusetts. These are materials that found their way to us by chance. Distance and access prevent us from collecting consistently.

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You’re probably wondering, “can’t I just digitize all this?” Allow me to discuss some of the shortcomings and benefits of both print and digital archives. Paper as a medium does not change or require special equipment to access. A piece of paper, properly preserved, can be accessed today or hundreds of years from now. A document written and saved in Microsoft Word, however, will be much harder to retrieve a century from now. A Microsoft Word document requires a computer and the proper software to accesses the document. In order to access a Microsoft Word document an archive would have to maintain a computer and the software to open that document or consistently update the document to maintain its accessibility well into the future. This obviously can be costly and time consuming. Technology changes rapidly and mediums for saving and housing documents change quickly. Computers with disk drives are a rarity. The very computer I am typing on does not have an optical drive. The challenge is even greater with born digital content, such as emails, blogs, and websites that are constantly changing and being updated. Further, born digital content can just as easily and quickly vanish and leave no trace. However, despite its limitations, if properly maintained, digital documents do not lose their integrity. Digital documents do not fade the way paper does. Further, producing multiple digital copies does not diminish the integrity of the original document. These are some points to keep in mind. We live in a world where digital and paper content coexist. It’s best to be aware of these caveats when archiving digital and paper content.

Now that we have decided to collect consistently and diligently, what’s next? It depends. As I mentioned before an operational organization should house the materials in their own institutional archive. For students active within a campus MSA, donate those materials to the university archive. It is the university archive’s goal to preserve student life on campus. For personal papers, hang onto them for future generations or donate them to an archive with which you’ve developed a relationship. I understand this sounds lack luster. With so much effort invested into collecting and organization it seems undignified closing up all the years of memorabilia, notes, memos, and diaries into cold lifeless boxes. I believe the next step is to create a centralized repository or a series of repositories dedicated to the task of collecting American Muslim history specifically. Like the many ethnic groups and faith communities that have preceded Muslims in this task of archiving, Muslims need a Center for Muslim American History.

Libraries and archives are poorly funded; this comes as no surprise. They seemingly inhale money and offer no tangible output. The value we receive from these institutions is difficult to quantify. Finding the time and energy to fill empty boxes with annual reports is just not a high priority. I believe, however, that we have already fallen behind and those that will suffer most are from our negligence are the generations that follow, those that have diminishing ties to a homeland on another continent. At the very least, we should begin collecting now with an aim for a centralized repository in the future. I see Maryam years from now, Insha Allah, a smart, witty, energetic girl. I see her face go blank when a strangers press, “No, no, I mean where are you really from?” She’s confused because there is no further answer needed. She’s from Connecticut, from New England. She’s from the United States of America. This is her home, and she carries our American stories.


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