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New Westport Author Struggles With Latino-Muslim Identities—And Space Demons

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Ana Espinola/The Eye at Columbia University
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Haris Durrani is a Dominican-Pakistani Muslim from Westport, Connecticut. Durrani co-founded the Muslim Protagonist Symposium at Columbia University to showcase stories by Muslims in a post-9/11 world. At his parents home in Westport, Durrani told WSHU's Cassandra Basler about his event and the Muslim protagonist of his debut book, Technologies of the Self.

Durrani's main character goes by Joe. His real name is Jihad--Arabic for struggle. The story follows Joe as he listens to his misfit Dominican uncle tell stories about battling a space demon named Santiago.

DURRANI: When I first wrote I said okay, I’m writing this story about my uncle, and there might be a time traveling space knight, but I’m not quite sure.

Joe is fighting his own demons, figuring out who he is. Joe is also a Dominican-Pakistani Muslim guy who went to Columbia University in New York.

DURRANI: As I kept writing, I realized that it was also about myself. I mean it’s a work of fiction, but it’s inspired by real experiences.

 

BASLER: How has all of this been sort of influenced by your experience growing up in Westport, Connecticut? Here we are.

DURRANI: [laughter] Yes, I mean Westport is a very very white town. Um so it was very difficult for me. I feel like Westport was a good for me in the same way that they say that you know the baby should get a little bit burned in the fire so you know not to go back. But living in Westport really taught me about how power operates.

Like while reading Othello in his high school English class.

DURRANI: We’d have so many of these stories we’d learn in class, but the conversation was always whether it was a legitimate work of art, but not whether it’s racist or whether it’s promoting these stereotypes that are these age old stereotypes that we still see in the media today. But at the same time I think the best response is to write your own story.

BASLER: And so, did that sentiment also lead you to create this Muslim Protagonist Symposium?

DURRANI: Yes, so the Muslim Protagonist...is something I started with myself and my fellow Barnard alumna, Mirzya Syed. This was also something we started right after the AP released its Pulitzer Prize winning report on the NYPD profiling of Muslim students in the New York City Area. And Columbia’s MSA (Muslim Students Association) website was listed on there.

And we had had some, not at Columbia, but near Columbia, there had been some events where later we had figured out that there were informants. And so this was a really big struggle in our community.

There are so many ways to address this problem. But for us, we thought supporting Muslim stories and other allied stories was perhaps an even more powerful way to address these issues. Because really, political change, legal change, they are all from the heart I think. And stories are a way to that.

Durrani is presenting at the Muslim Protagonist Symposium on Saturday, April 16th—this time, as a published author.

DURRANI: I’m really excited this year because I’m one among three speakers who are part of the Latino-Muslim experience. So for me, that’s exciting because I don’t think you’ll go to any event anywhere where you’ll have that many Latino-Muslim people present!

BASLER: Yeah and like you had mentioned, your high school wasn’t that diverse. So coming to Columbia, was there more a sense of belonging, even?

DURRANI: Yeah there definitely is. Being a person of color and a Muslim with the NYPD thing happening and the constant Islamophobia is just so stressful. It is nice to have those people with you, but at the same time it is so stressful. And I brought this out a little bit in this book and I hope in future works I can talk about that. Because I think that’s you know, when you really talk about the struggles that Muslims in America are facing, it’s not just about transgressing what my parents are telling me or what my tradition’s telling me, it’s also dealing with these really real things in the world.

Durrani said even with the divisive hate speech circulating this election season, what scares him most is apathy.

This article has been updated to identify the co-founder of Muslim Protagonist Symposium as Mirzya Syed.

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