Nora Sadek - American of Native American and Egyptian Heritage, Student at Duluth Medical School
In my last blog, I introduced the Muslim Experience in Minnesota project. In this entry, I feature the first of the 40 Minnesota Muslims who were interviewed as part of this project. Nora Sadek is a medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus.
Transcript of Nora Sadek's Interview:
My name is Nora Sadek. We are in Duluth, Minnesota. So, the Muslim community in Duluth. we’re a really small group; they’re mostly young families and some people who are working in hospitals. We weren’t gonna have like an organized like Muslim Student Association the first year that I came to Duluth. But I was like, “No, come on, you know, we should have a group” And, you know, so we did form the group even there were about three of us to start [laughs] and now the group I think has about 20 people. Our prayer services are every Friday, so they offer the Friday prayers both at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus and also at the local mosque.
There’s one mosque in the whole Twinports area. So, and we became the official, you know, we were purchasing the building from the Unitarians in Duluth, they had moved to a different building and so they had this one and we were purchasing that building. They finally purchased it last year in September. So, we officially became the only Islamic center throughout the Twinports area. So we have families that come from Superior, Wisconsin, or other parts of Wisconsin and Hibbing and Northern Minnesota, sometimes during the potluck services, during Ramadan, during the monthly fasting, time of fasting, we’ll have community dinners and they’ll come.
My mother is Native American. She is actually Alaska native from Tsimshian tribe. So, it's a royalty tribe in Southeast Alaska and so we're a rare breed. And she was born and raised over there and lived in Seattle, Washington most of her life. My father is Egyptian. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and he was raised there until he went to Britain for a while. And then came to the States back in the early eighties to study and how they got married is a whole different story.
Well, my mother was raised Roman Catholic and she went to Roman Catholic School. And then when she went to college she worked at the international business office and so she got exposed to a lot of Iranian students that their government was sending over to study engineering during the revolution and that was her first exposure to Islam. As a child, when I asked my mom, how she came to Islam and she came to Islam before she married my dad. You know, it's sad sometimes that you always have to reinforce that point. But, because some of the common stereotypes is that, you know, a woman will become Muslim to marry somebody who is Muslim. But that wasn't the case with my mom. And so in college she was first exposed to that. But she had already started this religious soul searching. And she had read about Eastern faith and she was studying to become a Native American education liaison and so, she was investigating like Native American faith and aspects of that culture and nothing was really fitting with her at the time. And so she said one thing that really touched her about Islam is that one of the people that she was working with financial-wise, he was so excited about bringing his wife over the following year and that she had to meet her and that, this was gonna make his studying, you know, worthwhile and everything. My mom said that she had so touched by like how deep the family connection was and so when this person's wife came over, she gave my mom a gift; she gave her like a few small books about Islam and there was not a lot of English material at the time, in the early eighties. And so they did find some English for her and then they give her a nice like prayer shawl and a little gift from Iran.
And so my mom decided to read more and more about Islam and then she became Muslim. She had told her family that she had become Muslim. But her mother and her sisters were somewhat surprised that she had chosen a different faith but the one thing that really bothered my grandmother, at least from what my mom tells me, is that she said, “Okay, you can chose this faith, don't just look like you've chosen this faith. Don't cover, don't wear the headscarf, don’t”, you know, “Don't put that label, it's okay, we can take you as that.” And my mom didn't start covering right away, she didn't. She was very new to Islam, she didn't really know, and so she hadn't started covering. But she had worked her way towards that and after that happened there was some tension ties and family break through; so, my mom was alone.
So, growing up in a bi-cultural home is always interesting. And what is so beautiful is that a lot of Native faith and Native culture is very in tune with Islam as well. It’s very family oriented, it is very cyclical, it is very community yet individual, you know, the individual living in the community. And she would always share that. But my mom would always share with us Native stories, we used to go to Pow Wows and. Those are different because they are more the, what we call the lower 48 Native Americans versus the Alaska Natives. But still my mom wanted us to be exposed to also who we were. So, because I am half Native American, my mother is full blood.
Interviewer: Did you go to Egypt often?
When we were younger, we used to go about every two or three years, especially when my grandparents were alive, my dad’s family. Because all of my dad’s family is over there, my uncles, and their kids, my cousins, they are all overseas. Because my mother almost in a way because choosing Islam, became separated from her family, and a lot of things that were going on with some of the stereotypical assumptions that people attach to being Native, she wanted us to have a family, she wanted us to feel connected, and loved, and to know what family is. And so she really helped and encouraged that as well.
I was raised Muslim all my life, but what’s been really great is, okay so in a lot of the communities that we lived in, the first community that we lived in North Carolina where most of my childhood was a town of 500 people. We didn’t have a zip code, we borrowed it from the neighboring city or town and so we were the only Muslims in the whole community that they had been exposed to. I remember even as early as second grade, I was fasting, but they didn’t know like what to do with you when you’re fasting, you know. And I grew up in the South and so they thought maybe that I was too poor to eat because we lived with a lot of poor families. And so they’d be like, “Oh, it’s okay honey, I’ll buy you lunch, you know, it’s okay honey, you don’t have to “, I’m like, “No, ’I’m fasting”. They’re like, “Oh yeah, we understand, no it’s okay, come on, don’t worry about it.” Because there was a lot of rural community there and so there were children that I went to school with that do not have money to eat. But I said, “No, this is my religion. I’m Muslim” And so I remember even like, fourth grade teachers bringing me to their class then over lunch and, “Okay, tell us what this Ramadan is. Tell us what this fasting is.., tell us what, you know, who you are and what you’re doing.” But I do believe that it was a genuine curiosity as to what Islam was and who I was as this little person, you know, who had this identity already from a spiritual, religious aspect. And I do feel that it was very welcoming, I remember, and it was kind of almost odd that I was in that position, you know. I felt very lucky to be in that position to be able to let people know. I think you always learn more when it’s a peer to a peer than just some adult or a teacher giving you a lecture, you know.
So, then we moved to Byron and we moved to Byron in August. And it was funny because when we moved there, again we were the only Muslims that had ever lived in Byron. And the local newspaper, they came by, it was called “The Byron Review”, and they came by to interview my mom and my dad. And we were on the front page of the newspaper saying “Muslim family moves and finds Byron a friendly town,” you know *chuckles+, we even have the article because. We were at school and they had come and taken pictures of my mom and my dad and, “Oh, how do you like Byron?” and “How do you live?” and “What does it mean to be a Muslim?” and like this was just the coolest thing that ever hit the Byron, you know, this small, like 3500 person town. You know, the highlight was Dairy Queen. You know, if you drive by it, you missed it.
So, I decided to start covering in eighth grade. It was a like a big transition anyway, we were going to high school, and you know, I thought it would be good time to cover as well. It had been something I was thinking about and I discussed like with my mom and things like that. Because, it’s something when you choose to do it, you know, you don’t want to fall back on it. You know, when you choose to cover, you stay covering, you know, throughout its difficulty or throughout its challenges as well. So, it had been something I was thinking about, but I thought it was a good time. And so I remember on the last day of school seventh grade, I was telling my friends, I was like, “Okay, you know, I think I’ve decided to start covering next year.” “Oh, that’s great Nora and, you know, we’ll support you and everything and whatever” And I was like, “Oh, thanks guys, you’re great” you know. And then I remember the first day of eighth grade, and my mom always had like this thing, where like the first day of school, she’d always drop everybody off. So I got dropped off last because now I’m at the high school. And so I remember being dropped off and then I go to the eighth grade wing and it was like Moses and the Red Nile, you know, it just like totally split in half; they didn’t know who this person was and I was just like “Dude, you guys! Just like three months ago, I was the same Nora that you knew, you know, nothing’s changed.” And they, they treated me as if I was a new student, you know. And some of the faculty was not ready with the visual appearance of being Muslim. They had been okay with it before, when I was like say I was Muslim. But it was like, you know, like what my mom described with her mom, you didn’t look Muslim, you know. Now I looked it.
So I remember there was one teacher, he would pick on me all the time anything like, “Oh, your scarf is on the wrong way” And you know you’re in high school, So your looks are like totally important and you’re like, “Oh my God, what?” or he would try to make a comment about something in class. I always felt like I was singled out whether it was because he was uncomfortable with me being Muslim or what, I don’t know. But so there were things like that. So what became interesting is that in Byron some of its teachers were starting to do their masters in teaching. And so they had to find a person, a student of diversity to interview. So everybody was like, “Nora, Nora, Nora” you know, so I was like the only speck of diversity. We didn’t have any Hispanic families, we didn’t have Chinese families, we didn’t have any African American families. We’re very, you know, Norwegian, Minnesota small town, you know, school. And so, when the teachers had to do their diversity project, Nora was the, the girl to interview, so. And I didn’t realize what some of my teachers thought of me until that interview. And some were like, “Oh, you’re doing this because, ‘you are doing this’ meaning covering because your dad is making you do this, right?” I was like, “No, I’m choosing to do this. ‘Oh, you know, like because guys can marry like four wives or something like that, you’re not as important,’” or you know things that were in the back waters of this whole time that I was in high school that my teachers were thinking of me. And so it was a real eye opening experience for both of us, I think. As the teachers interviewing me, and as me speaking with them, one of the teachers said, “Yeah, I didn’t know that you spoke English.” I was like, “Oh, it’s my first language,” you know. That would be 2000, 2001 right before September 11.
I remember September 11. And so I remember going home that day and my mom said that she had visited all the schools. Because one of the first reports was that they were blaming Al Qaeda and some Muslim fundamentalist group for doing this. We were just in shock as everybody else and Muslims had died at the World Trade Center as well. And so my mom had gone to the principals of the schools. And she’s like, you know, “I just wanted to let you all know that I spoke to your principals”; we say inshaAllah, like “God willing” nothing’s gonna happen, but just so you know. So, we’re like, ‘Okay, why, what are we expecting to happen? you know. We didn’t get it, I didn’t get it until I got shoved in a locker. And people told me to go back home, they told me, you know, to go back where I came from. And then I used to walk home which was like maybe like a twenty minute walk or something like that from the high school. And I remember walking home one time and people were throwing beer bottles at me, you know, saying that, you know, that I was some like evil spirited person and then of course, beautiful four letter words and birdies flying out the window. And I’m scared to death because I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening’, I don’t, you know, I didn’t do, I didn’t have anything to do with this. I was born in America, I was raised in America, and I am an American. I’ve been going to Byron High School with you since you started Byron in High School, you know. So I don’t see, but there was a huge dichotomy that happened between understanding me as the person. It was kind of like that first day of eighth grade when I started covering. It’s like, “Oh my God, who are you anymore?” And so, it was rough for a while until people understood and then I had to explain like, this is not Islam, this is not Muslims, this is not. And I didn’t have any vindictive feelings against anybody. I’ve always respected you as a person and we have to have like this dialog, but it was almost I had to volunteer the dialog. Because it wasn’t gonna happen unless I made the effort to reach out and be like, “Okay, I think we need to understand what is going on and how it’s affecting everybody. It’s affecting me just as much as it’s affecting you. This is my country and I grew up here and I used to live in New York. I remember the World Trade Center.
So, so I became the first Muslim woman to ever graduate from Byron High School. And I became again first Muslim woman to graduate with a Biology degree at St. Mary’s University. And we were the, me and my sister and my brother were the only three Muslims on campus. I’m actually the first Muslim woman to enter the history of this medical school as well. So, I will be the first one to graduate from the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.
Interviewer: So tell me about that. Is that exciting because you feel like you’re pioneering? Is it annoying because you feel like you’re under a microscope? What is that like?
Oh my goodness. It’s the whole spectrum. You know, some days it’s tough, you know, and some days you feel a lot of pressure. Because some days, you don’t get an off day, you know. Because somebody might attribute that to your faith, somebody may attribute that to what it means to be a Muslim. So, sometimes there’s extra pressure and sometimes I can’t say that all the experiences have been grand, you know. When people are faced with something that’s totally different from how they’re raised or how their world view is, it takes maybe a different type of approach and appreciation of that to be able to be welcomed in that environment. But it’s also an amazing learning experience for everyone. I learned so much from my peers and from all the students and faculty and staff that I’ve been at in different institutions. And they’ve helped me to grow in many ways as a person as I hope I have helped them to grow.
You know, I’m not here to tell you your faith is right and your faith is wrong and this is that and this is not this; that’s not my job is and that’s not what Islam teaches us, you know. So, it’s always been really great because in some ways, you know, to be a pioneer is always great, but it’s always hard too on the pioneer. Sometimes it’s really hard because, you know, like you want to be the best example you can and you want to show the best you can, but you are human in a way too, so you are gonna make mistakes. But to know that these mistakes are because you are human just like everybody else. You know, they are not because of your faith and they are not because you are Muslim and they are not because you are different. But, and also sometimes it’s hard, because you know, like when you have those off days or, you know, sometimes you’re just like every waking moment you feel like, “I have to explain myself”, you know because this is something so new to them, maybe you just want one day off; you know. You’ll be like, ”Somebody knows why I praying, why I fast, why I’m doing this, why I’m saying that”
I was just overseas this summer, so before the whole revolution and everything. And I’ve always loved Egypt, you know. Egypt is a beautiful place, it’s a beautiful country, it’s rich with history, the culture, and the people. I really felt when I was there this summer that people have forgotten the beauty of what it means to be Egyptian. You know, they, you speak to my cousins, they would be like, no hope of attaining anything in their life, getting married, getting a job, getting a good education. And people were so oppressed by corruption and by abuse of power that I told them, I was like, “something is gonna puff”, you know, and when I came home, I was like, ‘Something, there is something gonna happen’, but what’s so unique is that Egyptians are usually like very passive aggressive people, you know, as revolutionists.
But for them to reach the point that they were going to unify for one goal in that to stop corruption and to be remembered as human, you know, and human beings, is very incredible. And I mean I feel lucky to be living through history and hopefully I hope to go back sometime and do some international work and work with the medical care system. That was part of why I was going back in the summer as well to make some connections in some hospitals and free clinics that I hope to contribute to in the future. It is very much like, my mom always tells us, like a part of Native faith, you give back to your community. I feel so lucky that I’ve had opportunities throughout my life, I got to visit Egypt a lot, and have fun there, and enjoy all its greatness. So I should try to contribute and give something back to honor that.
What I’ve really love about Minnesota and Minnesotans is that they are very curious. But I know that hard core Norwegian, you know, kinda like, “We don’t wanna be offensive, we don’t wanna like push on anybody’s toes”, that sometimes we miss asking the questions or I think we miss some of the dialogs that we should be having. Because we are trying to be overly polite and, you know, that “Minnesota nice.” Also I feel that because like how I describe Minnesota is like, you know, we have to love each other, we really do. Because when you’re out and you’re stuck in a ditch somewhere, you better help a brother out, you know [laughs].
So, we have, Minnesotans have that wonderful connection with each other because of the environment that we live in. And we know how it is to struggle, you know, way more than the other states. You know, like when I go out in the South, it’s like, “Oh, wow! Car broke down, it’s sunny, I’ll just walk to the gas station”. It’s not like forty below and you have like hurricane force winds blowing you over. And so we have like that deeper appreciation of like human struggle and to be different sometimes is a struggle. But it’s also a gift and, and we’re only gonna appreciate those gifts that we all can offer if we have these dialogs and if we start seeing that, you know, just because I’m Muslim doesn’t mean I’m living like a totally different life, even in Minnesota. You know, I’m doing the same thing, I bring out my boots, I shovel the driveway, I got to scrape my car, you know, we’re all doing the same thing, we all appreciate the same things. But maybe my daily practice of how I’m expressing those thoughts and ideologies is different.
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