Home Muslim culture Wajahat Ali’s “Go Back To Where You Came From” is biting, funny and full of heart

Wajahat Ali’s “Go Back To Where You Came From” is biting, funny and full of heart


Memoirs, of course, focus on a writer’s personal journey. But lately, a number of those written by immigrant writers of color — or children of immigrants — have, collectively, contained similar themes.

A common thread is that of being “other”, being told in various ways that they don’t fit in or don’t belong – and that they should return to their place of origin. This endless coming and going of being both “native and foreign”, “citizen and suspect”, “neighbor and invader”, shapes entire lives.

In the first pages of the memoirs of the writer Wajahat Ali, Go back where you came fromhe describes how this experience of being both “us” and “them” directs the trajectory of a life: “The reality is that most people of color learn very early in America that we will have to work two times harder to get half as far, and when we fail, no one will help us fall. [. . .] Immigrants, people of color, and women learn early on that to be successful in Amreeka, you have to be crazy for life. You have to do everything harder, better, faster, stronger and smarter. [. . .] You go twenty feet just to get to ten feet.”

This truth is so well known to minority communities that we don’t even talk about it. We’ve completely internalized this hard lesson, so we’re often even tougher on those in our communities who don’t seem to take it seriously enough. Some of us go even further, as Ali reminds us: “You will feel anxious when another person of color succeeds in your workplace and threatens to strip you of your coveted symbolic status. You will invest in the scarcity narrative and believe that there can be “only one” in your community – you – who can be successful.”

As a Pakistani-American born to immigrant parents, Ali grew up in the Bay Area of ​​the 1980s and 1990s with immigrant family and friends who emulated “whiteness” as part of their “Amreekan Dream” of success. Then September 11 changed everything. Once, Ali was your average bright, fun student at the University of California, Berkeley. Then he was trying to navigate Islamophobia, explain “Muslimism,” and deal with his parents’ incredibly quick incarceration for alleged wire and mail fraud.

Ali’s major breakthrough came when he found his voice as a writer. Ishmael Reed, one of his teachers at Berkeley, encouraged him to write a play because, Reed believed, Ali had a skill for dialogue and character. The play, Reed advised him, should be about ordinary Muslim Pakistani Americans to counter the ugly stereotypes perpetuated in the media. For Ali, the project became an all-consuming mission fueled by the belief that “in America, if you don’t write your story, your story will always be written for you. If you don’t tell your story, your story will always be yours.” said.”

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He hustled for funds and took his coin National Crusaders from a low-cost “dinner-diner” at an Indo-Pak restaurant in the Bay Area to the famous Nuyorican in New York, where even the great Toni Morrison came to catch a show. Along the way, Ali also worked at a solo law firm and wrote essays on politics and popular culture to support her multi-generational family after they were financially devastated due to her parents’ imprisonment. The writing has led to activist speeches and media engagements and even Hollywood connections.

The book begins on a very amusing note in response to Islamophobic hate mail and maintains a biting humorous tone throughout as a fake guide to becoming a true “Amreekan”. Still, Ali’s coming-of-age experiences as a dark-haired Muslim man are anything but hilarious. What emerges from these vulnerable and witty accounts of personal highs and lows is a larger picture of America’s troubled and complex relationship with brown, Muslim and immigrant communities. Ali pulls no punches when venting his just anger at things like the moderate Muslim trope, mass incarceration, systemic racism, socio-economic inequality, and more. Scathing political commentary on Republicans and Democrats is backed up with required data and historical facts. He lifts and seasons it all skillfully with comedy, popular cultural references from the United States and Pakistan, and a deeply warm affection for the family and friends who have always been there for him.

Family and community also largely shape Ali’s thoughtful activism, given the various hardships and tragedies they experience together. Even the aforementioned play that launched Ali’s writing career is about a Pakistani-American family vehemently discussing and trying to come to terms with post-9/11 American politics, racial and religious discrimination, classism, conflict intergenerational relationships, sibling rivalry and a sense of belonging. Ali recounts how, during the years of being broke, facing OCD, facing endless legal proceedings and nearing death, he often felt like a “hidden hand of the ghayb (empty )” invisible always lifted him. to safeguard. That strength, of course, was none other than her family and some members of the community.

Last year, Rafia Zakaria, also a well-known Pakistani writer and activist, gave us the super-smart Against white feminism to “put the fangs back into feminism”. At Wajahat Ali Go back where you came from is equally clever and incisive in its arguments against “whiteness” but perhaps focuses more on hope and the heart. Both call for a more compassionate world through community and solidarity. For Ali, it means “a community of service that looks out for each other and helps those in need”.

About two-thirds into the book, Ali recounts a conversation with an uncle who had initially made fun of his play and, after the race in New York, apologized. This uncle had lived in the United States for 40 years and was a model citizen. He had been desperate to see only Muslim men portrayed as terrorists or taxi drivers in the media. Now, seeing Ali’s writing success, he wishes he had told one of his sons to become a writer. Ali writes that he rejects the nostalgia for the past that people like this uncle often harbor, always praising the likes of Rumi from 700 years ago, and asks them to invest in today’s Rumis who dream of become poets or playwrights and just need a little encouragement. For these budding Rumis – of any age and any shade of brown or black – these memoirs reveal a possible path to their personal version of “Amreekan’s dream”.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, literary critic and host of the Desi Books Podcast.