Aya Razzaz is an international student who has lived in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Jordan, and most recently, the United States. Her story captures the struggle of navigating American culture as an Arab Muslim woman, and her tenacious resolve to educate, and build bridges between people from all different walks of life. Aya currently studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where she seeks to explore Arab identity and culture through modern dance and activism.
Where are you from originally?
I was born Massachusetts, actually, I was born in Boston because that’s where my parents met, and I was in the States until I was five. Then, we left and I lived in Lebanon for a while, Sri Lanka for a while, and Jordan for a while. I lived in Jordan for, like four years one time, and then I moved back and lived there for two years.
Do you come from a Muslim family?
My Dad is very spiritual, and he does consider himself a Muslim, but he [practices] in the way that makes sense to him. The interesting thing about growing up in the Middle East is that Islam is so integrated with the culture, that at some point you can’t really even tell them apart. Even when I was little and I was going to bed, my Dad would, like, read me verses in the Qur’an to let me sleep better and not have bad dreams–I was scared of monsters and stuff like that. So, [Islam] was just such a big part of my life and it was never imposed on me in any way, but it always felt logical.
Do you identify yourself as a Muslim?
I definitely do. I think that I haven’t had as much formal education; A lot of people who are Muslim, they literally went to a school, or their school taught them about religion and Islam, and what I know about Islam is really just from people I’ve worked with in Jordan, and my Dad. I don’t have as much knowledge as a lot of Muslims do, but I definitely consider myself a Muslim because, like I said, its not only what you believe, its so much in the culture, too.
How do you feel about your relationship to that identity since returning to the U.S.? Has anything changed?
I feel like, if anything, I’ve gotten a lot more connected with the Muslim side of me since I got here [the U.S.], and I think the reason for that, i think, is that when you’re in a place surrounded by other people who are just like you, and then you go somewhere where you’re the only one like you, something weird happens where you become more of yourself than you used to be, and more in-touch with the sides that are different. So, like, I definitely feel more Arab [in the U.S.] than I do in the Middle East, and I definitely feel like since leaving Jordan, I’ve felt more connected with Islam because it isn’t something that’s obvious [here]–it’s something that I have to hold.
What made you want to come back to the United States?
It’s kind of like a combination of circumstance and curiosity. Because I never spent a lot of time in the States, I was always kind of curious to see how I would fit in here. I applied to AUB and LAU in Beirut, and I was pretty ready to go and then it started becoming a little bit more dangerous, and more violent there. More bombings were happening and stuff like that. So my parents just wanted we to go somewhere where they knew that I would be safe, even if it meant I was far away. And because my parents met in Massachusetts, they know a lot of people around here so they felt like I’d be taken care of at least a little bit.
And do you feel safer here?
No, not at all. I feel like now that I’ve found other Muslims and I’ve found a community, I feel safer, but in my first year when I hadn’t connected with that [community] I definitely did not feel safer. I was also in an environment where people didn’t know anything about the Middle East or Jordan, so I felt like I always had to educate them–they didn’t know anything about Islam for the majority of the time either. So that was really difficult, but I feel like finding other people who had similar experiences was really grounding. But its still not like the way I feel in Jordan, or in Lebanon, where there’s, like, a common understanding that can’t really be explained when you’re not a part of it.
What do you feel have been some of your biggest achievements since returning to the U.S.? What are you most proud of?
One thing I’m really proud of is that I wanted to raise awareness about the rest of the world in this college environment–even if it was just a few people–because of how U.S.-Centric activism is here. It doesn’t really consider the rest of the world, and that was a huge problem in my first year, and I was going to transfer because of that. But then I told myself, I can either just leave and give up, or I can try to make Hampshire College a more knowledgeable environment that will benefit other international students, and the community in general. So I created a group called Piece of Peace; the purpose of the group was to promote education and dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I felt like a lot of people were getting involved in activism that they didn’t know anything about, especially when it came to Palestine. That really frustrated me because I would rather someone be pro-Israel having given it some thought, than being pro-Palestine but completely oblivious as to why. We got to talk to a lot of people who didn’t have much of an understanding of the conflict at all, and we got to be on the radio, which was super cool! I’ve also convinced a lot of my friends here–who i don’t think would have left the U.S. otherwise–to come and visit me in Jordan, which is like a very tiny thing, but to me it was a big deal. It was a big deal because I got to share my culture with people who had no concept of where I was from.
How would you describe your identity?
I don’t know…that’s a really hard question, but its definitely one I think of a lot because, especially for third-culture kids nowadays, that’s a really hard question, because we don’t know how to fit everything into one sentence. I usually refer to myself as Arab-American, like a Muslim Arab-American, and if people ask for more, I usually say that my family is in Jordan, my Dad is Syrian and Palestinian, but we’re all just hanging out in Jordan right now. I think the whole idea of how you identify as a Muslim in the States in really interesting because how you identify is not always linked with how you look. It’s complicated because a lot of people (including Muslims) expect a Muslim woman to be wearing a hijab and stuff like that, and it’s also a way to connect with people from that [Muslim] community. So not having that as a Muslim woman is a whole other obstacle.
What would you like to be doing in 5 or 10 years?
I don’t really know. I feel like its really hard to know where this country is going in the next five years, which makes everything really uncertain for me, along with loads of other Muslims in this country [the U.S.]. I’d like to be doing some kind of work with dance, related to some kind of Middle East studies work, if I’m choreographing my own pieces. I would love to be in an international, community-based dance organization in the States–that would be the most ideal for me. I don’t know if such a place exists because that’s the dancer’s struggle: no one is going to pay you to choreograph pieces. So that’s ideally what I would like to be doing because I feel like because I’m half-American I owe it to myself to learn more about this country. Amherst [Massachusetts] is kind of all I know about the U.S. and I’ve been told by so many people that its not an accurate representation of the U.S. at all. So I really want to give it a chance. I really want to explore different parts of the U.S. and see if there’s a part that makes me proud to be half-American.
Interviewer: Andrew McDonald (MALA Spring 2017 Intern)