“Birds that are born in a cage, think it is a crime to fly”
These were the words of my art facilitator in one of the creative camps I attended recently. I take a look back and see how much that sentence applies to me and my surroundings.
I grew up in one of the famous cities in Nigeria. Very early in life I learned that people had special abilities. Some people would slam two objects together and create a catchy rhythm, some people were extraordinarily flexible and were able to move their body in different ways. Others had melodious voices and some had the ability to paint and create images. The list was endless as to what some people could do with ease and others couldn’t. Later, I was told it is called “having a talent or gift. I grew up believing that Allah bestowed these gifts to humans in order of his preference and for some purpose to be used on earth. I believed that, over time, we could all find our own talent or gift and most importantly: the purpose which we were given.
I come from an environment with mixed cultures and religions, so I never quite understood the agony of being talented or gifted in my early days. I attended a mixed primary school. That gave birth to the discovery of what I called “the acting me”. There was almost no school drama in which I didn’t take part. This went on until high school, where I discovered I could write: I wanted to tell everything in words. There, I joined a literary and debating club, of which I soon became the first Muslim president. Sadly enough, these were things my parents never cared about because they were considered some of the school’s extra-curricular activities.
Until I created a group of young girls who were interested in acting. I would write the script and after some practice we would go for auditions and take part in shows. My parents kept saying I just couldn’t do it. They said that this wasn’t going to be my career. However, other girls’ parents supported them and gave their consent because they were all non-Muslims. I began to ask myself: “Why? Is it because am an African child or because am a Muslim? Or is it because people believe everything related to the media or the arts is evil?”
I gained admission to study accounting because that was what was expected of me, not what I wanted to do. It was what was left to do when the society and my home had made it evident that you cannot be both Muslim and social. I begin to question and read more from the Quran hoping to see where this was written. I got so confused because I knew that if the media existed during the time of the Prophet, he might have had something to say or do about it.
I went to school in another state, so it gave me room to meet different people. I’ve met Muslims who excelled in all forms of art, who were not practicing or showcasing their art. When I asked them why some said their parents didn’t support them either, others said they were told that it was unislamic to sing, act, dance, drum, etc. People had different reasons as to why they should consider their given talent as useless. My roommate in school was a childhood friend who was also a Muslim. She could sing and act but was always very reserved, unhappy, and shy. When I asked why she would say: “I always want to express myself in the art. I can perform, but Islam doesn’t give me room to do so.” At first I didn’t understand until one day several months later, when she started going to church with some girls at the dormitory. She joined the choir and the church drama group. All of a sudden she became a happy and lively person. When I tried talking to her about it she said it was a conversion done from her heart. She felt she could express herself more by doing what she loves.
My heart ached as I watch and imagine how many society has implanted its cultural or personal beliefs into Islam and has killed the dreams of young people in the process. I began to ask myself: “Didn’t Allah bestow gifts and talents?” If He had made some people more favoured in one way than others, then He must have had His reasons to. Why then do we let these people carry their gifts to the graveyard instead of using them to help mankind? I continued acting, performed as a master of ceremonies for events on campus and kept writing. My parents didn’t know most of it. Most people didn’t get to know I was Muslim either, until I used an Islamic word or when they saw me praying. I remembered going for interviews for jobs and getting more questions than others, because I was a Muslim. Does being a Muslim make me less human or social? Or does observing salat or reading the Quran make me less creative? Does it make me unable to do what others do? These were questions I asked myself and didn’t get an answer to. I thought a gift ought to be a tool for change, a means of communication and information, a form of expression, or at least an act of problem solving.
Allah had given gifts to people not regarding their race, religion, or nationality. If he did, he could have given the Americans good voices and the Africans bad ones, he might have given the Arabs the ability to think but leave the Asians with nothing. But then, somewhere in the heart of Africa a young child has either stopped dreaming or has been brainwashed into believing that nothing artistic can be done by them in the name of religion. I’d have gotten accustomed to the pain that comes with the usual questions after a fan discovers that I am a Muslim: “Are you sure you are a Muslim? You don’t talk, think, or act like one. With so much skills, were you truly groomed to go to the mosque?” For a long time I felt so bad about these thoughts that it had become a norm. My number of questions only increased: “Does being a Muslim make you unable to think or be creative? Is there a limitation to the level of smartness one should possess as a Muslim woman?” My society has presented me with so many questions and yet so little answers.
I remember meeting a Muslim body expression artist. I was shocked myself to discover he was a Muslim and I asked him how he could cope with combining his work and his religion. He told me several stories I was familiar with and how he didn’t get support from even people close to him. Regardless of that, he was determined to pass a message through body language and dance. But then he said: “Mariam, you have to learn to differentiate your talent from your religion.” This was to be a satisfactory answer but it wasn’t for me. My religion is part of who I am and my talent is part of who I am. When I am on stage I can portray what the script says but when I leave that stage I want to be seen as a talented Muslim woman. I want to be accepted as such. You cannot hate my religion and love my gift or hate my gift and love my religion. Because as much as we try to differentiate them, they are still all a part of one person. My society hasn’t helped solve the issues. We are to learn the Quran, learn Arabic, and learn Western culture but we weren’t taught to develop our given talent because it felt as if Muslims don’t possess any gifts or talents. Or maybe they are accustomed to us dying with the gift without a chance to unleash it.
So this is for the innocent Muslims all around the globe, who die in silence of being unable to express themselves because the society has told them not to.
My name is Mariam, I express my feelings and experience about issues through writing, speaking, and acting, so that people would relate to it and learn from it. I am a Muslim and I am not afraid to show my talent to the world.
– A talented Muslimah