Nomani, students describe dual lives led by South Asians in U.S.

Friday, November 4, 2005

South Asians in the United States have to transcend their identities as members of two vastly different and often clashing cultures, former Wall Street Journal correspondent Asra Nomani said during a lecture in List 120 Thursday night.

Nomani was the keynote speaker in the opening convocation of the South Asian Identity Series.

She was joined by alumni speaker Shilpi Gupta ’99, who showed clips from her documentary “When the Storm Came” – based on her travels to Kashmir – and participated in a question-and-answer session with the audience. The campus group Brown Badmaash gave a South Asian fusion dance performance between the speeches.

Thursday night’s convocation was the first event in the Identity Series, which will span two weeks and include a roundtable dinner discussion, cricket game on Lincoln Field, Bollywood movie night and “Realities of Relief Operations in Pakistan,” a speech by a relief worker from the International Rescue Com-mittee.

“How many of us have beliefs that fundamentally conflict with those of our parents?” asked Sanaa Rahman ’08 in her opening remarks, which she gave with fellow series organizer Priya Pingali ’08. “How many of us can truly say we are the same people at Brown that we are at home?”

Nomani’s remarks echoed these questions, born in India, she came to the United States when she was four years old and has been trying to reconcile the two different cultures ever since.

She spoke of leading a “double life” growing up in New Jersey with stereotypically “dweeby Indian parents,” and the rush she felt partaking in things that they would never condone, like wearing a sleeveless cross country uniform for the first time or having a crush on a Catholic boy named Michael.

“Indian parents are the only ones to whom you can say, ‘I’m going to the library’ on a Friday night – and they believe you,” Nomani joked.

But Nomani said this dual identity is impossible to uphold, a fact she learned when she was stationed in Pakistan after Sept. 11 and her Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl went missing in 2002. Pearl was murdered by Muslim extremists less than a month later.

The two had commiserated in the past about their strict religious family ties – hers Muslim, his Jewish – but he was the one who had been true to himself, marrying a woman who was far from the “good Jewish girl” his parents had hoped for.

In the month before Pearl’s death was confirmed and the American media seized upon pictures of him with a gun being held to his head by his captors, Nomani took to heart the example he had set for her in his own life. When she learned she was pregnant (and not married – ostensibly, something that would diminish her value as a woman in her culture for the rest of her life, she said) she told her parents and came home to the United States to have her baby.

Though terrifying, Nomani said that what she learned about her parents’ love was worth it. She encouraged her audience not to deny their true selves.

“Transcend identity,” No-mani said. “Challenge the script you were meant to follow.”

Nomani is now the founder of the Muslim Women’s Free-dom Tour and was the lead organizer of a female-led Mus-lim prayer group in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in March, a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The South Asian Identity Series continues at 6 p.m. Friday with Mehndhi Night in the Memorial Room of Faunce House, where the South Asian tradition of henna will be celebrated and refreshments will be served.