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  • Writer's pictureAppalachian Retelling

Navigating Identity as a Muslim Appalachian

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

From her backyard in South Williamson, KY, Harvard graduate student and Policy and Programming Coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council Iman Ali talks about growing up as a Muslim woman of color in Appalachia and how she hopes to improve the community she loves so much.


Full video transcript:

Kentucky has always been home for us, you know? I have two younger sisters who were both born in Kentucky. I went to high school here, elementary school. This is, like, my home. This is my house. This is when the world is burning or the great is a fail or the boyfriend breaks up with you, this is where I want to be.

[Speaking in Urdu]

My mom and my dad were born in Pakistan. My father is a medical doctor here in South Williamson, Kentucky. It's so funny. Anytime we go to Wal-Mart or a football game or anywhere, I mean, even to our front yard, it's not even, "Hi, Mr. Ali," "Hi, Iman's dad," "Hi, Ashen." It's, "Hey, Doc. Hey, Doc." It's funny because there's so many doctors in our hometown, but he's just the known kind of "Doc" in town.

Now, my mom, she is like another character in herself. She's just one of my favorite people in the world. And she, I think, is a huge reason why I am on the path that I'm in in my life. I think she did a really great job of, like, never making me feel othered, you know. I was never embarrassed to wear my traditional Pakistani clothes. I mean, I think every elementary school picture that I have, I'm wearing shalwar kameez. My mom wore a hijab, and I was never embarrassed of it. I was never like, oh, the other moms aren't wearing it kind of thing. She made us really, really proud of who it is that we are without making us sacrifice parts of our identity.

Now, in high school, I went to a school that was 30 miles away from home because my parents really stressed education. In my class, I was the only Muslim student and I was one of two, I believe, women of color in my whole class. And I wish that I wish that I could, like, genuinely just describe how -and I'm not going to say this right - how un-special I felt, almost, you know. I didn't feel like the kid who could speak a different language, I didn't feel like the kid whose mom wore headscarf or the one who brought ethnic food to lunch. I felt so a part of my group, my friends, that I don't know, maybe it's that Southern hospitality that we hear about or I just had a really, really great class. But there was never a moment where I was like, I feel like I'm being cheated out of something, or I feel like something isn't being met to a certain standard because of the background that I am or the beliefs that I have.

If we want to paint eastern Kentucky as this, like, whatever the media does, you know, uneducated, whatever kind of people, I don't think that it's fair to do that because I think ninety nine percent of people are really, really great. And like, all are welcome in these mountains, honestly. You come in and like, of course, we have our crazy cousins. Like, we can get to that. You can read about them in the history books. They're there. But I would definitely say that when you come to a Kentucky Thanksgiving or Kentucky football game, the majority of people that you're going to meet are some of the greatest, most hardworking, most empathetic people ever.

I've heard this phrase that Appalachia is not a monolith. We aren't all white. We are all Christian. And as much as I want to say, you know, like, absolutely, we're not a monolith. Like, look at me. I'm Appalachian and I'm neither one of those things. Sometimes it's really hard to believe that. Sometimes when I walk outside and I look to my left and I look to my right, or I go to Wal-Mart and there's a hundred people who are all a certain race or all, you know, a certain look, it's hard to think that, is there anybody else like me besides the four people that live in my house?

I moved back home in March because of Covid-19. And I was very eager to take on my next project, which I have had the same bubblegum pink wallpaper in my room since we moved into this house. I went to the store to buy paint. I had this headscarf on, actually, and I overhear a gentleman and a Wal-Mart employee walking together. And this gentleman is very upset. You can hear it in his tone that he's super aggravated. And what I heard was that this gentleman was so peeved that he had to shop at Wal-Mart because everything from Walmart came from China. And China is the cause of Covid-19, and everything bad in the world is their fault, right? As the conversation progressed, you know, he's walking right past my cart and he looks to the Wal-Mart employee and says, I effing hate foreigners.

And, you know, like, I came home that day and it was almost, like, four hours before I, like, told my parents what happened because I felt ashamed. I was so sad that someone could say something like that, you know? Being told that someone effing hates something that I'm not even, that really stung me. I think to who the foreigners, quote unquote, are in my life. They're my mom or my dad. They're my grandma. They're some of my classmates. My father has been a physician in this town, I mean, literally since I've been born. Growing up, I could count how many soccer games, how many academic meets, how many PTA meetings he was able to go to. And honest to God, it was zero. He never was able to come to stuff. He was taking extra E.R. shifts. He was working night and day in the clinic. He opened a Suboxone clinic to help the opioid epidemic in Kentucky. And these are the people that you effing hate, the people that are trying to keep you alive day and night. My mom, who works at a food shelter every single week, providing meals, you know, providing company. These are the people that you hate?

So even though I wanted to say literally, like, a million things to that guy, I learned from this. I learned that there are people who think like that. And for me, it's not so much that I want to shame people like that. It's trying to help educate the people who are willing to change, who are willing to learn. For me, when Kentucky or the South is painted as only white, I feel so erased. I feel as if the contributions that my parents have made to our small community go unnoticed. You are silencing an entire community that's very happy here. That's very accepted here. That would love to raise their children here and their grandchildren here kind of thing. Of course, there's a majority. There always is. But we have to challenge ourselves to be more curious. We should want to learn about who is there that I'm not thinking of.

I have a very long term goal of wanting to run for office. And it's only because I know my hometown, and I know my state, and I know that it deserves better. We have to make our neighbors our priority. Not only did my parents teach me to care, not only does my faith teach me to take a stand, but my heart tells me that this is just the right thing to do. And so for me to serve in any capacity, especially Kentucky, would be the honor of my life. It is the place that I want to be. It is the place I want to stay. But it is the place I want to make better. Absolutely.

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