“The Holy (And Sinful) Careers of South Asian Americans” by Farah Akbar


Amrik Singh, 60 could not bear the thought of his children turning into anything other than doctors.  God forbid they turn into teachers or gasp, social workers – like him.   Coming from a family of farmers, he immigrated to the United States from India almost 4 decades ago.  Today he beams with pride when he says that all three of his children are now doctors.

“If you are a doctor, right away you become a great achievement in both American society and Indian society,” he says confidently.  He does not pretend that it is all about social status either though.  The money that doctors earn in the United States is just too darn good.  “You don’t know. There is economics here,” he insists.  Singh is firm in his belief that a relatively high income is necessary to have “made it” in the United States.  “The idea for coming here was to be economically successful. There is no point in living hand to mouth,” he insists.

Numbering at about 2.7 million, South Asians living in the United States hail from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. South Asians, and Indian Americans in particular, continue to fill many important positions in science and technology.  Indians, who make up less than two percent of the American population, today make up five percent of all  doctors and account for ten percent of all medical school students.  There are also thousands of Pakistani Americans practicing medicine.  Indians are three percent of the nation’s engineers and seven percent of its IT workers.

Many children of South Asian parents deal with what the say is an unrelenting familial pressure to pursue only certain careers, like medicine and engineering.  These days, law and finance seem to be making  the cut as well.  What results for some of these children in their adulthood is a lack of job satisfaction and a frustration of not having pursued their passions.

These days, more South-Asian Americans are defying tradition and are taking their chances in careers that would cause Amrik Singh and others of his generation nightmares.  They are becoming writers, designers and activists to name a few.  They do so despite the criticisms they face from their communities, the relative lack of job safety for some occupations and the cut in pay.

“There is a construction of a cliche of what success is,” says Dr. Vijay Prashad.  Dr.  Prashad, professor of international relations at Trinity College says that it is no accident that so many young South Asians find themselves working in math and science fields.    According to his book, “The Karma of Brown Folk,” the governmental policies of India have much to do this phenomenon.  In 1947, Jawarharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India said that the “new India” would be “closely linked to science” and made it a priority to create state-funded learning institutions devoted to science.  The trend has not changed even today.

The institutions created a generation of skilled workers mostly from the middle class, many of whom would make their way into the United States via the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.  Between 1966 and 1977, thousands of scientists with PhDs, engineers, and doctors came from India alone. The majority of Pakistani immigrants who arrived between 1965 and the early 1980s also came as skilled migrants.

Dr. Prashad argues that children tend to follow the career paths of their parents which he claims also contributes to the large numbers of young South doctors and engineers.

Despite these impressive accomplishments, are young South Asian doctors, engineers, pharmacists and the like happy in their careers?  From a financial perspective, probably.  Such careers continue to fetch more money than most other fields.

For some though, the money does not make up for everything.  Always very close to her parents, Dr. Alka Chandna would have no contact with her’s for two months after she announced to them that she was leaving her job as a software developer to work with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) full time. Her voice still breaks as she recalls the day she told them about her decision. “They thought I was entering a black hole, a world they didn’t understand,” she says softly.  “I’ve blocked the conversation from my mind,” says Chandna, who lives in Washington D.C.

Like many South Asians, Chandna was encouraged to pursue medicine but refused,  believing that it was morally wrong to use animals for dissections in medical school.  While her two sisters would go on to become physicians (and her brother an engineer)  Chandna went on to get a PhD in mathematics, just like her father (her mother also has a PhD).

She understands why her parents wanted her to pursue a career in science.  Chandna grew up in Canada experiencing racism; she remembers having her house spray painted and having eggs thrown at it.  “Going the profession route was the path out of that life,” she says.

Today she is PETA’s Laboratory Oversight Specialist where she studies the regulations and guidelines that govern the use of animals in laboratory settings.  Her relationship has improved with her parents since that fateful day ten years ago.  “It wasn’t as horrible as they were worried it was,” she says.  “They’ve come to a place where they are very pleased.”

Chandna enjoys working with PETA even though she is making about half of what she was making in Silicon Valley. “Working for PETA makes the world a kinder place,” she says.

Husna Butt, a 24 year old Pakistani-American from Chicago felt that she was “living a lie” while a student in medical school a few years ago.    She decided to quit medical school about 20 minutes after taking a makeup exam for classes she failed in the previous semester.  “I was not new to failure, that’s not what bothered me,” she says.  “What bothered me was that I did not want to make the effort anymore.”

An artist at heart, she loved drawing portraits as a child.  She remembers her father, an engineer, telling her and her two sisters that they should become doctors when they got older.  Feeling “lost” as an undergrad and yearning for independence from her parents, she gave medical school a chance.  “I enjoyed every second of it, especially in the beginning,” she says.    “But I was not serious about any of it and I realize now that’s because I was not passionate about medicine itself.”

Today Butt is pursuing a career in graphic design and completed a certificate in fashion design.  Her parents are supportive.  “I think they worry about me though but I also think that’s normal,” she says.  Her two sisters, meanwhile, are both physicians.

Farhana Huda Islam, 29, from Queens, New York was also a budding artist as a child.  She started a magazine in college that continues to be published after her graduation.  She expressed her desire to become an English teacher to her Bangladeshi parents but was met with swift disapproval. “They thought it was not prestigious,” she says.  “That I would not make much money.”  She was encouraged to pursue pharmacy, like her father.

At St. John’s University’s pharmacy program, she found many South Asian students, some of whom were just as upset about their predicament as she was.  A whopping 62 percent of the students in Islam’s pharmacy program today are of Asian origin.

She felt frustrated with having to follow a curriculum that was, not surprisingly, largely science based and left little room for her to take liberal arts courses.   At one point she created a Facebook page called “I Hate Pharmacy! My Dad Made Me Do It!” attracting others who could resonate with its message.

Islam eventually graduated from her pharmacy program and has been a pharmacist for the past five years.  She says that her experience has not been all that bad.  “I have a passion for people, making a difference in their lives.”

But the writing bug has not gone away, and the mother of two wants to go back to school to get a Masters in Fine Arts someday.

“I always wonder what would have happened to my potential if I were in classes that sparked my interest,” she says.  “I still want to write.”

Wajahat Ali, 31 wants to see more South Asians take their chances in the liberal arts and he is quick to explain that he is not trying to bash doctors and engineers.  “If that’s your passion, talent and choice, go for it,” he says.  “But we kind of already have enough engineers and doctors.”

Born and raised in California, his family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan.  He remembers when he wrote his first story at the age of ten.  “I brought it home and my father said you should be a writer. My mother overheard it and she said ‘yea but first become a doctor.”

Ali went to law school (“I missed the doctor boat,” he says) though he admits that he did not have an extreme passion for the subject.

After being unemployed for months following his graduation,  Ali embarked on his “unorthodox” career as a new media journalist.  He developed a following with his blog, Goatmilk.com where he wrote essays about politics, Islam and contemporary affairs with a humorous spin.  In the midst of his unorthodox career, he also briefly practiced law, work he found rewarding.

Today, he has nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter and his play, The Domestic Crusaders, has been published into a book.  In addition, his essays frequently appear in the Guardian, The Washington Post and Salon.com amongst other leading publications.  He recently edited a book about prominent Muslims in America and is currently writing a TV pilot with Dave Eggers for HBO about a Muslim American cop in the Bay Area.  He is also a consultant on issues related to Muslims and civil rights.

But getting to this point was not easy.  Members of the Pakistani community mocked his efforts while he built his career. Women initially ignored him too. (However, he  is now happily married.)

Ali says that he could be making more money as an attorney but is sticking to his “unorthodox” career for the time. “You learn to live lean if you pursue this career,” he says.  He worries about the future sometimes though and wonders about money and how he will take care of his parents when they get older.

Dr. Prashad encourages South Asians to become more adventurous in their career pursuits.   “There is a need to venture out.  We are human beings, with imaginations,” he says.  “It is an incredibly healthy thing to promote a variety of occupations.”  He discusses exciting prospects of careers that weave science and the arts, such as software design and  computer animation.

“These days, South Asians are actually making waves in the world of arts and humanities,” says Prashad.

Ali says that the initial disdain he received from his community has been replaced by a realization that more people like him are needed.  “Some old school uncles are now saying ‘No one is telling our stories, what you’re doing is valuable and important.”

And the compulsion to create remains strong for him, despite the challenges.  “There’s a joy there.  There is hard work.  Yes it’s brutal.  But it’s fulfilling.”

Farah Akbar is a freelance writer from Queens, New York.  She has written for Salon.com, The Gotham Gazette, City Limits and CNN.com.  She graduated from Baruch College.  

Nasruddin’s Coat, thoughts on ‘Muslim Art’ and why you should support Lena Khan and Ridwan Adhami

Nasruddin’s Coat, thoughts on ‘Muslim Art’ and why you should support Lena Khan and Ridwan Adhami

Bilal Hassam 02/08/13

“Hodja Effendi,” the classic short tale begins, “last night I was passing by your house and I heard a lot of commotion. What was all that racket?”

“Nothing serious. My wife just threw my coat down the stairs,” the wise man replied.

“But Effendi, how could a coat falling down the stairs make that much noise?”

“Ahh. You see… at the time, I happened to be in it!”

The gregarious tales of the legendary Nasruddin Hodga have engaged and amused people for centuries. Beneath the mystical slapstick and mischievous satire, however, bubbles timeless wisdom. I’ve often chuckled at this short story without giving it much thought. But just what is Nasruddin telling us? What is all the noise and commotion? What does the coat represent?

A couple weeks ago, The Leaf Network co-hosted American playwright, author and commentator Wajahat Ali and renaissance man, actor, musician and activist Riz ‘MC’ Ahmed (star of Four Lions and upcoming Hollywood film adaptation of the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist) for a provocative and interactive exploration of the power of storytelling. The second event of our Staging the Ummah series, a collaborative effort between The Leaf Network and Radical Middle Way, began with live unplugged storytelling, with the audience enjoying comic, theatrical, poetic and occasionally sombre offerings. For the second half of the evening, we moved on to an intimate discussion with Wajahat, Riz and the audience in our absolutely packed-out venue — we’ll have the video up on YouTube soon.

Wajahat spoke about empowering Muslim writers, producers and others working in the arts, imploring Muslims to be the protagonists of their own stories; to write more instead of just being written about. He shared his personal struggles of seeking validation within his own community and made some jovial comments about moving career aspirations of the Muslim community beyond the usual suspects (such as medicine, engineering or accounting). Riz highlighted the challenges of imbuing emerging artists with the confidence and determination to succeed. He spoke of working towards a normalisation of Muslims within television and cinema – both in front of and behind the camera – when someone being a Muslim would be simply coincidental rather than overtly defining.

What followed in the conversation with the audience was a deep sense of frustration with how Muslims are depicted in film and the media in general. “It’s one thing having Muslims portrayed as dangerous foreign terrorists, but it’s another when Muslims themselves take on these roles… It’s counterproductive,” one person remarked. Another member of the audience spoke about the lack of women playing positive roles, and the real difficulty of Muslim women breaking through multiple layers of the proverbial glass ceiling, first and foremost within their own communities and later within the arts industry itself. We noted how the “otherisation” of Muslims in film perpetuates the false notion that Muslims are foreign, disloyal or a burden to society. Furthermore, it tells Muslims that they are not welcome and permits a culture of prejudice, flaming the fires of anti-Muslim sentiment already rampant through society. A brilliant article entitled “Hollywood Loses the Plot” by Professor Hamid Dabashi on the Al-Jazeera website takes this further, as he considers the dangerous political ramifications of the culture industry, particularly the role of Hollywood.

What was interesting for me was the sense of healing that took place simply by providing that safe, alternative space to candidly explore and share reflections on the state of ‘Muslim art’. Much of the framing of this conversation was inspired by the likes of Usama Canon, whose pioneering work with the Ta’leef Collective in California has brought to life the power of the third space. It was as if the questions from the audience, particularly those involved in the creative industry, unearthed the bruises they had taken as the Muslim narrative itself had been battered on the big screen.

I then recalled Nassrudin’s coat. The story suddenly made sense.

It would seem the Muslim community at large has, for so long and for so many different reasons (some almost justifiably so), disregarded the critical importance and power of the arts. Just like Nassrudin’s coat, we carelessly throw our ‘art’ down the stairs without much thought — even if it is by our inaction alone. Our concept of art is cheap and unsophisticated. We’d rather not pay for it, let alone value its production or nurture emerging artistic or create talent. ‘Islamic’ art is reduced to beautiful Arabic inscriptions made out of plastic and run off a production line in China.

This is where Muslim community institutions, movers and ‘Sheikh-ers’ can play a critical role. The Muslim narrative is battered, bruised and lies there almost lifeless at the bottom of the stairs, sometimes humiliated, and exposed for all to see.

The truth is that we’re all guilty of this. I recall spending some time driving Isam Bachiri, lead singer of the Danish band Outlandish, around London a few years ago. As we spoke casually, he sifted through my CD collection and with tongue-in-cheek grace, he asked, “What’s this, bro?” He was holding up a pirated CD of his latest album, with the words “Outlandish – new stuff” scrawled on the bottom. You can imagine how embarrassed I was, so I’m glad he laughed it off, but I see now how damaging this behaviour is.

Nietzsche wrote, “We have art so that we may not perish by the truth.”

Art is so powerful because it is able to articulate something deep inside of us, concealed truths, better than we could ever express ourselves. It is beauty and majesty manifested. It shapes the way we think, sense and perceive the world. It is all around us. In becoming producers of art, and not just being consumers, we can learn more about ourselves and our stories. We can be honest about our past, realistic about our present and hopeful about our future trajectory.

“Copy a movie give it a twist and we call it our own” raps Pakistani-Danish Waqas Qadiri, raps Pakistani-Danish Waqas Qadiri, another of the Outlandish trio. Waqas here sheds light on the culture of imitation and plagiarism that is ironically rife in much of the creative industry; Muslim creativity sadly falls prey to this time and time again. This is evident beyond the arts and culture world, and is even present in our religious programming and teaching. There is a great brilliance in authentic expression; during our event, Wajahat powerfully remarked that in being true to your story you allow others to feel safe to authentically express their stories too. In the words of Marianne Williamson, “…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same” — but I digress.

Time and time again, we fail, as a community, to nurture our artists. We reduce them to merely entertainment addendums. Singer songwriter Dawud Wharsnby Ali tackles this beautifully: “I’d like to think there’s more to be than just a human MP3. More to see and more to do than offer up a song or two.” Canadian duo, The Sound of Reason, lament on another reality that faces so many Muslim artists, as they open a track on their new album with the words: “I’m so down and tired, I wonder if it’s worth our time. It’s kinda hard to get by getting paid in smiles…” Thankfully they go on to sing about why their art is so important to them. As a community, we owe it to ourselves to serve our artists better.

Where is that spirit that inspired Rumi, who, even seven hundred years after his passing, remains America’s bestselling poet? Where are the minds that made the majestic Alhambra Europe’s greatest tourist attraction? In every capital city you will find museums in which ‘Islamic Art’ enjoys a high status, yet almost all of it is historical. The beauty and transcendence that we have given the world through our art remains one of Islam’s greatest legacies, but can we harness this spirit to make our art a living legacy for all to experience and enjoy?

So what now? What needs to be done? Well, there is good news: there’s something you and only you can do, and so I hope you’ll indulge me. American curator Thelma Golden asks us in a TED talk entitled “How Art gives Shape to Cultural Change” to:

“…think about artists not just as content providers, though they can be brilliant at that, but as real catalysts… not always just simply about the aesthetic innovation that their minds imagine, that their visions create and put out there in the world, but more, perhaps, importantly, through the excitement of the community that they create as important voices that would allow us right now to understand our situation, as well as in the future.”

Luqman Ali, playwright, poet and founding artistic director of the UK-based Khayaal Theatre Group, delved into the subject in an address to Muslim leaders at a Forum in Italy in late 2012. He said, “The greatest asset we must liquefy to forge engagement with the world today is in our art. It is this soft and subtle power that is the perfect antidote to all the hard and cold power we see on our televisions and in our politics. It may be subtle, but it is powerful. Communicating through the prism of art and culture is higher than any other discourse; when you speak to people through a discourse of dogma you automatically create a dichotomy; us and them. When you communicate through story you transcend this dichotomy, your audience has no choice but to live some aspect of your story. The Arabic word ‘Qasa’ for story means to follow in the one’s footsteps, so to engage in story is to invite people to experience your very footsteps… We have plenty of people spewing dogma unless we balance this equation we will find ourselves continually complaining about stories that our antagonistic to the spirit of our faith… We must empower and support our artists; believe me, this is what the world is waiting for.”

His words ring true in so many ways. Just a couple weeks ago, it was announced that Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) will be making key contributions to the soundtrack of the forthcoming biopic starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, the founder of technology giant Apple.

Muhammad Ali, after giving a lecture at Harvard University one evening, was famously asked to give an impromptu poem. He paused for a second and then replied, “Me. We.” A simple but profound sentiment: the individual is inextricably tied to the wider community, and when the ’we’ is suffering, it’s time for all the ‘me’s to step up. The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, likened his community to a body — when one part aches, the whole body aches. There is a great wisdom in this. The question is, what can we do?

I’d like to put forward two brilliant projects that are seeking support from the wider community. Your support may be minimal but you could really make a massive difference. Truly, every little helps, and I’d like you to consider these two initiatives as communal projects for the benefit of all.

First is Lena Khan’s film “The Tiger Hunter.” Set in the 1970s, this story features a clever young man who comes to America on a quest for success and love in a hilarious story of ambition, failure and misfit friends. Lena has spent almost a decade working tirelessly on this film, and after raising several hundreds of thousands of dollars, she needs your support to cover that final stretch. Your investment is crucial and her Kickstarter page allows you to see exactly how your pledge will be used to turn this unique film into a reality. Please visit her site and make a contribution: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/879784241/the-tiger-hunter-a-feature-film Little or large, you can be a part of the Tiger Hunter story that is, God willing, coming to a cinema near you soon.

The second project is Ridwan Adhami’s “366* Photos a Day Limited Edition Art Book.” In an artistic struggle spanning a whole year, photographer and creative director Ridwan, who works under the name ‘RidzDesign’, took one photo every day during 2012. He now wants to create a coffee table art book to share the images and stories. I’ve been following Ridwan online since he began the project at the beginning of 2012; it really gave me a newfound appreciation for the intricacy and beauty of photography. Ridwan is not trying to make money. He simply wants to share his art, and I really hope you can help turn that dream into a reality. Just $40 gets you this hardcover 12×9-inch-high quality case-bound colour print book. There are just hours left to support the project and get your hands on this one-of-a-kind unique initiative. Don’t delay, pledge today! Here’s the site: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ridzdesign/ridzdesign-366-a-photo-a-day-2012-limited-edition For those who can give more, Ridwan has put up some great incentives. Check out and share the page, and most importantly, buy the book!

Just like Lena and Ridwan, there are so many artists around the world striving to remedy the state of Muslim art. They are essentially picking up the dusty, tattered coat and marching on with pride. Muslim artists both local and international, need your support. It may start with a ‘Like’ on Facebook, a re-tweet, a Kickstarter pledge (seriously, support Lena and Ridwan now!) and a song download, but if we are to truly realise the potential we have as a dynamic global community raised to serve the world, then each and every one of us must critically engage with, in some way or form, the wondrous world of art.