An Interview with Zahra Noorbakhsh and Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed
My parents say you’re a bad influence. I heard ‘em talking about the things you do. Why do you do them?”
“I don’t know. See, okay, when I look at myself, I see everything in, like, slow motion, and I think “Something has to happen.” Only it never does. So I have to make it happen.
-Rayanne Graff, “My So-Called Life”
I’m on a conference call to L.A. with podcasters Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh, discussing the success of their new podcast . A debate is raging between the co-hosts about whether actor Ryan Gosling is Muslim.
“He’s not, right? No…no I don’t think so.”
“He supports women, he seems like a feminist.”
“Yeah but he’s not Muslim! He doesn’t even have a beard!”
“Well if a beard was the only qualifier to be Muslim then all of Silver Lake in Portland is Muslim…and Williamsburg.”
Before uniting together in mutual adoration of Gosling, the two women kindled their friendship at a reading of “Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American-Muslim Women”; a book of short stories relating to love and relationships that included both Noorbakhsh and Ahmed’s stories.
Noorbakhsh is a full time actress, performing a one-woman show called “All Atheists are Muslim” in which she narrates her experiences as an Iranian-American woman moving in with her atheist boyfriend, now husband. She’s also performed stand-up with the likes of Maz Jobrani from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour and is about to start her new show called “Hijab and Hammer Pants.”
Ahmed is a writer with her own column called “Radical Love”, and also writes about self-described “Brown” (read: South Asian American) music for the website Mishthi Music . Recently she launched a popular Etsy line of tongue-in-cheek Valentine’s Day cards. Together they form the podcast GoodMuslimBadMuslim: a much-needed dialogue on the issues of race, gender, theology, and what makes a Muslim supposedly “good” or “bad” in the eyes of the media and greater Muslim community.
“Well, the podcast originally started as a joke,” explained Ahmed. “Both of us were sending texts back and forth saying ‘Oh you’re the bad Muslim.’ ‘No, you are’–it just evolved from jokes about one day having a podcast, and we did!”
“We didn’t have a specific catalyst”, insists Noorbakhsh. “It was truly just joking back and forth. Only in the last few years have podcasts become more accessible to people; especially after the popularity of Serial, so it’s taken off.”
“I think we didn’t expect so many non-Muslims to be listening,” chimes in Ahmed. “I honestly didn’t expect such a reach, we definitely have big plans for where we want it to go. The reception has been amazing.”
The two admit reactions to GoodMuslimBadMuslim among actual Muslims has been mixed. Ahmed is unapologetic when she says, “The ones who have issues with us won’t say it outright; we’ll hear it secondhand. White folks have issues? They send you hate mail. Muslims? They’ll talk behind your back.”
“The idea of the Muslim community as this giant monolith is wrong!” declares Noorbakhsh. “We’re just so varied! And for me, my identity it’s all right up front. Who I am as a Muslim is an indelible part of my life and my act. In comedy there’s this default of young, white male humor as representing all humor, and it’s a disservice.”
How has the reception been for the podcast from non-Muslims compared to Muslims?
“There’s a huge learning curve,” says Noorbakhsh. “The learning curve among non-Muslims is so high that so much of what we say in the podcadst for non-Muslims lands as just information…. They’re surprised to hear so much negativity comes our way as “good Muslim” citizens, as though they didn’t expect the trickle down of hate to occur.”
Ahmed adds, “I think we honestly didn’t expect so many non-Muslims [listeners]. I got an email from Portugal the other day…I think there haven’t been many podcasts out there [that showcase] a strong female Muslim voice addressing these topics. I’ve been looking and haven’t found anything.”
In the world of Good Muslims and Bad Muslims, where do you see converts who usually don’t have that radically different a background compared to the average American?
Noorbakhsh responds, “Patricia Dunn wrote in the book “Love, Inshallah” that [becoming a convert is] like “reading the fine print of a religion.” I don’t know what the convert experience is. I can’t speak to it. All I have are questions. Having read Patricia Dunn’s piece, I wonder how it is [for converts] to hear me say I eat pork and drink and still see myself as Muslim after [they’ve] given that up as part of being Muslim.””
“The podcast is going to go in a lot of different directions,” she adds. “It’s not going to focus on just one area. I often get told I exist in loopholes, but I don’t believe in them. I don’t believe there’s one way to be Muslim. I just think that when you have a good story, you tell a good story. It’s universal. The convert story is another part of that.”
There’s laughter and a commotion on the phone as Zahra explains she’s taking the call from the parking lot of a Shell gas station while her father patiently sits in the passenger seat. I use it as a chance to ask about parents.
What are your parents’ views on your Good Muslim/Bad Muslim podcast?
“Mostly my Dad is always just worried for me and my big mouth,” Noorbakhsh laughs. I get my confidence in my spirituality from my Dad, so the podcast is not a source of friction. He taught me that no person has a right to stand between you and God…nobody has the right to judge you.”
The phone crackles. “Oh this is astonishing!” she narrates. “Do you know what he’s doing? He went across the street to the international store!” Both Ahmed and I listen with interest. “He’s…he’s buying dates!”
“It’s not even Ramadan!” laughs Ahmed.
If you could each choose one Muslim woman who personifies the right amount of good and bad, who would it be and why?
Noorbakhsh: “Can we convert Scarlett Johansson?”
Ahmed: “No! She supports Soda Stream!”
Noorbakhsh: “Is it too last century to go with Madonna?”
Ahmed: “Isn’t she Jewish?”
Noorbakhsh: “Just give her a little while, she’ll cycle around to Muslim”
Ahmed: “Then who’s a bad Muslim? We give out a Good Muslim award. Maybe we should give out a bad Muslim award?”
Noorbakhsh: “I never thought about who is bad…let’s give a bad Muslim award to Pamela Gellar!”
Ahmed: “She’s not Muslim!”
Noorbakhsh: “Well she’s devoted so much of her life to Islam, I think she gets to be Muslim…a bad one. [Anyhow} the person I most admire is my cohost, Taz”
Ahmed: “I was going to say Obama.”
Noorbakhsh: “How about Ryan Gosling?”
Noorbakhsh: “Sending your wife to Saudi Arabia is pretty Muslim. A good trifecta, Dad, Obama, and Ryan Gosling!”
Interviewing Ahmed and Noorbakhsh is like my fifteen-year-old self getting to talk to two real life versions of Rayanne Graff. Graff is a character from “My So-Called Life”; a nineties high school drama that launched the acting careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto. Rayanne Graff was bold, artsy, wore the trendiest of fashion (black lipstick, Doc Martens, triple-pierced ears), and from her perch on the school bathroom radiator dispensed wisdom for every occasion, from losing your virginity to the first time you dyed your hair.
To be Rayanne Graff was to be so cool that you genuinely didn’t care what people thought of you. I’m thirty-three and irrationally want the both of them to ask me to cut class and loiter in the school parking lot.
Which male Muslim do you feel is a strong feminist ally who is speaking out on behalf of Muslim women?
“My Dad!” Noorbakhsh exclaims.
“Her Dad!” echoes Ahmed.
I wonder if Dad is listening or engrossed in noshing on his dates. I ask Ahmed why her friend’s father is so great.
“He lets Zahra say whatever she wants!”
Noorbakhsh laughs. “My Dad was the first feminist I knew, actually…”
Taz Ahmed has been in the news lately for her new line of Valentine’s Day cards designed with an irreverent nod to Islamic stereotypes. Each card is printed in shades of pink and red, with bon mots declaring “You’ve hijacked my heart”, “Women aren’t always property but be mine”, and “The only entrapment is how I’m captivated by your love.”
Taz, have you received more positive or negative messages for your Valentine’s Day cards?
“I receive only positive comments, but I just think the people who don’t like them don’t tell me, but [as long as] I don’t hear it, it doesn’t exist!” she laughs. “They developed because I started a hashtag on Twitter, just a pushback on Islamophobia. [The cards were conceived] fully because I received so much positive feedback.
Do you think the cards could ever go mainstream in an edgy store like Urban Outfitters, and do you want your art re-produced in this way?
“I think they make mainstream people too uncomfortable honestly [who] don’t know if they should be offended or not. I actually I think they confuse Muslims too…they confuse everyone!” Ahmed laughs. “Isn’t Urban Outfitters owned by Republicans? I don’t think they’d pick them up anyway.”
In spite of the controversy surrounding Ahmed and Noorbakhsh’s art, the same way Rayanne Graff resonated with young women because of her equal parts toughness and vulnerability, fans of the hosts appreciate the unapologetic honesty of these women when they discuss real issues facing the Muslim community.
“The issue of representation came up with “Love, Inshallah,” says Ahmed. “We are both really only trying to speak for ourselves.”
“If I could speak for all two billion Muslims I would!” declares Noorbahksh. “And I think I would do a great job.”
The next episode of the GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast will air on February 10th.
Leanne Scorzoni is a licensed ESL teacher and a freelance writer from Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo Source: Leanne Scorzoni