Najah is a writer, a poet, and a performer from Staten Island. From her early education in an Islamic school, to her development and progress as a poet, Najah’s journey is rooted in the struggle of self-representation, and risk-taking. Through it all, Najah has remained tenacious, and unwilling to compromise her authenticity for anybody. This story was recorded and produced through a community partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“Growing up for me has been… an assortment of things, I guess I could say. I went to an Islamic school all the way up until the fourth grade, which was a relatively good experience, except I had some issues with bullying, so that kind of threw me off a little bit–I had a lot of support from my family, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I would say that my best memories of all my childhood (because I still consider myself slightly a child, because I’m only twenty-one), it would probably be when I actually started writing poetry more, and I actually started being more involved with my creative part of myself.
The first time I performed poetry live was–I believe it was my freshman year or sophomore year–and I actually did it originally for my job; I was interning at the Staten Island Children’s Museum, and they had us do this open-mic at this cafe on Staten Island called “Everything Goes Book Cafe.” At first, I was like, “I’m just going to be here and work and help out,” but I was like, “oh, I can actually perform,” so I was like, “let me try this out, and see out this goes–If it goes terribly, I’m just going to take a little hiatus.” (laughs) So I went up there, and I actually performed the poem that I did in the fifth grade, because I was like, “well, this got into a book so I’m sure people will like it.” (laughs)
At first I was extremely nervous because I’ve never performed in front of anyone ever; (this was my first time performing anything really, except for, like, little plays in middle school and stuff. But once I got on stage, the crowd was really nice, they were like, “you can do this, don’t be shy!” and I was like, “thanks guys, because I’m totally shy right now!” And then once I started all of the nervousness and all of the fear I had just kind of dissipated, and I felt even more confident in myself and in my ability to write because I was like, “I wrote this in the fifth grade and you guys like this, I’m pretty sure you’re going to like my stuff now.” I did another poem, I think it was about, like, disappointment and basically how certain things in your life can be disappointing but not to let it get you down. And everyone, like snapped, because with poetry you snap, and there were a whole bunch of snaps in the room, and I was like, “thank you guys so much!” And then as I was getting off stage I tripped, but it was okay because I laughed with everybody; it was just really nice.
‘Hijab’ has changed what it means to me as I grow up and learn more about it and more about what’s important in my life, but as of right now hijab is really important to me because it’s most definitely a part of my identity. Like, walking around everybody already knows, like hey, she’s Muslim, okay. So it’s definitely a major part of my identity and how I represent myself. I do like representing myself this way, like I do like representing myself as someone who’s a part of something greater than me and to represent it in the most positive way, especially with how media can be–perception of my religion and stuff like that. So for me, it’s more-so empowering because I get to choose who sees certain parts of myself.
Just be yourselves, guys. Time is too short to be fake, like that’s so much energy. When I think about people being fake (and I’ve tried to be fake, like as an experiment), it’s so much energy because I have to, like, stop being part of myself, I have to try to be somebody else, I have to remember how to be that fake person that’s not real, and it’s just so unnecessary. I’m like, this is too much brainpower for me (laughs). Just be yourself, and do what you love and what makes you happy. As long as what makes you happy doesn’t hurt other people, it shouldn’t matter what it is; especially if it’s making the world better. Don’t worry about what other people have to say. Only care about what matters most to you.”