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Interview with Amir Ahmad Nasr on My Isl@m and The Sudanese Thinker – Based on a heavily edited transcript of a Skype audio interview.

I recently discovered the delightfully sinful hobby of online book shopping (to the dismay of my bank account) and one of the first books I bought was “My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole my Mind – and Doubt Freed my Soul” by Amir Ahmad Nasr. Amir is known to many as the Twitter persona @SudaneseThinker behind the famous (or infamous) blogby the same title.

The book is an instant page turner.

I finished it one lazy weekend, taking notes on my phone, ear-marking pages to return to and then I realized I have a lot of questions. Uncertain of the outcome, I went ahead and put a request through Amir’s new personal website. Amir’s quick response didn’t disappoint my techie impression of him. In two one hour long interviews I probed and indulged in details not shared in the book (or blog or tweets).

Amir’s personal journey of inquiry in realms rarely visited by others; Muslims, Arabs and Sudanese and especially of this generation, is invigorating and every reader will relate to in some aspect or another. The book features a rare biographical storytelling narrative that we’re not used to finding in Sudanese writers’ work, both past and present. Amir’s inquisitive nature is revealed from personal anecdotes shared with his family and friends; fragments of conversations and intimate brain squeezing activities.

The book features current regionally and locally relevant topics such as the Arab uprisings, imperialism, zionism, and the Sudanese expatriate identity debate of this generation. Oh, and Islam; the religion, the identity, the spirituality, the expectations, philosophy and a lot more. Amir’s easy manner makes him a friendly protagonist, someone you’d have the entire book as a conversation with, over coffee, or his self-proclaimed addictions – hookah and hummus. You’ll envision him gesturing with his hands, sighing, taking dramatic pauses and it will make you laugh, wonder and most importantly, question. And read; Amir will get you on a reading high with all the titles he recommends.

In a two part series, I’ll share my conversation with Amir about his book, his blogging days, and a whole lot in between.

Part I: My Isl@m

Omnia Shawkat: A lot has been happening since the book was conceptualized and written, can you tell us more about the journey?

Amir Ahmad Nasr: I never intended to write a book. I started my blog when I was 19, in April 2006. My English sucked and I wasn’t by any means a good writer. But I kept writing, and by 2007 I was blogging almost every day – maybe missing 10-15 days in total since I started the blog.

I kept a daily rhythm and my blogging style evolved. I realized that when I shared personal anecdotes, more people commented and engaged. I even felt better after sharing them, because I wasn’t just venting or giving my analysis on a situation, I was speaking more from the heart and it felt better – but I didn’t understand it at the time.

In late 2007, I was in Washington for a conference and met the controversial author Irshad Manji and we debated a few things we disagree on. I jokingly said to her “maybe one day I’ll write a book about it” and she looked at me in all seriousness and said “do it, start now, why do you have to wait?”

I was 21 at the time and thought “what do I know, I’m just a young guy” to which she replied “so what, I hosted a TV show when I was young.”

Her intense seriousness and belief in me inspired my own confidence that I can do it. So I started writing drafts and the next thing I knew I had a lot written down and when put together, a book started to form.

What kept me going was that I was pretty pissed off at the time; too much of it unfortunately, so my writing was tainted with hatred. Anger is a very powerful emotion and it resulted in my first drafts being very polemical. Gradually, I started talking about my childhood, my relationship with Islam from a more personal place, and the betrayals that I felt had happened.

By that point I had gained the confidence to write a solid book and started asking writers for feedback on my drafts and received input and some coaching to improve my skills. Soon, my writing improved dramatically.

When I finally sat down to write the version of the book that would be published, I made the decision that I’m going to write first and foremost from a place of love and acceptance of the other – even if the other is supposedly my enemy. I sought to express my anger at the situation itself and own it without projecting or dehumanizing someone in the process.

OS: What was the influence of the editor on writing My Isl@m?

AAN: Before I secured my publishing deal and found an agent after numerous rejections, I hired a publishing consultant. I wanted to write a book that if I died right after it, I’d leave something awesome. My coach read my first draft and saw a lot of potential and told me something that resonated loudly. She pointed out that the more personal dimensions of the writing had more power and greater potential.

She then revealed what I didn’t realize at the time; that writing memoirs was an actual form of therapy, an emotional detox of sorts, because as one writes, one re-experiences the trauma and heals by facing it, reflecting, and then dealing with it, rather than continuing to avoid it.

It made me think and suspect that our tribal orientation from previous generations continues to influence our culture of expression. I think we have to open a more active dialogue about shame and honor around certain issues, because I feel that they continue to repress us in unhealthy ways. Yes we respect our elders and heritage, but we have to provoke and not be timid and cower under traditional beliefs.

When the book deal was eventually secured, I flew to New York to meet my editor in person and ensure there would not be any changes to the content. I’m proud to say that the final product had no editing that impacted the content’s subject matter. None whatsoever – only editing for typos and some grammatical mistakes of course.

OS: Few Sudanese authors share personal notions in their work. Do you think the younger generation is able to pursue the storytelling method, given our immense exposure to social media and the resulting comfort with expressions of individuality? 

AAN: Social media is definitely making us more expressive, but not necessarily better at storytelling. I noticed that people stick to the intellectual style of writing, even on social media. I’d like to see more vulnerability that subverts the honor and shame notions in our culture among writers in our generation.

The culture of intellectuality still permeates although we also have a culture of sensuality from our past, which to a large extent has been lost. Both forms of expressions were confined, but had their own engines of dissemination.  For example, the community made space for the bridal dance, the existence of certain poetry and music supported these events. In the same way, intellectuals had a lively domain for self-expression and growth at the University of Khartoum.

There are definitely elements in some authors’ works, such as El Tayib Salih, that give the impression of having personal hints underlying the fictional narrative. Yet, the majority of older generation authors reflected intellectual and heavy grey matter narratives.

OS: What is different about criticism in your blogging days versus now with a published book?

AAN: The quality is definitely different. As a blogger I strongly stated things that I was still learning about. Looking back I know I was sometimes naive, and on a few occasions rather ignorant and inaccurate. Still, I was asking questions and trying to start a discussion, sometimes I couldn’t articulate myself well. As a result I received some angry e-mails and all sorts of people would harshly comment; from American right wing bloggers, Israelis and Jews or British (during the teddy bear incident). However, I was committed to listening to everyone whatever their inclination; Salafi, atheist, queer etc. I got critiqued by many groups, but I also got a lot of support from a wide readership.

With the book, I’m a lot more wiser and mature. I understand now that words have power, so I don’t want to be timid, but I also want to be sensitive to people’s feelings. I knew if I wanted to influence people’s minds I had to touch their hearts, and if the latter isn’t open then the mind won’t be receptive.

OS: In the book you spoke about hoping to inspire more Sudanese people to blog, do you hope to create the same ripple effect with the book?

AAN: Absolutely, but not just for publishing, but more widely in the arts. There are inspiring young people producing wonderful art and influencing their own circles, the way I wished to do early on in the social media and blogosphere. It makes me happy watching this. If I have a role, it’s to help curate and aggregate the efforts and reconcile between the different factions with the notion that we all have to defend the right of each other to express and engage in a lively, provocative, civil and honest discussion.

OS: What was the feedback you received from Sudanese people about My Isl@m?

AAN: It’s been largely very positive compared to the blog days. Even when people criticized, they would compliment something before advising me to reconsider one stance or read a certain book that offers a different perspective. It’s great, because it means something touched or inspired them, and their anger is because, from their perspective, they want me to come to the supposed “righteous path” and avoid damnation.

OS: In retrospect, would you remove anything from the book?

AAN: Absolutely not. I actually think I should have shared more and pushed the envelope further.


Part II: The Sudanese Thinker

In the second part of my interview with Amir Ahmad Nasr, the Sudanese Thinker who wrote “My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole my Mind- and Doubt Freed my Soul” andblogged since 2006, we delved deeper into the social media world and its impact in the region and Sudan.

Omnia Shawkat: Did your blogging help you in the book writing process?

Amir Ahmad Nasr: Absolutely. We’re conditioned from an early age to ask for permission to speak up; blogging ultimately helped me reclaim my voice. When aspiring to become a writer, I think one has to first reclaim their voice. I wrote with a simple rule of a minimum of two crappy pages a day- regardless of the so-called writers block. It’s surprising how much discipline and commitment can push you. Every time I would read pages tainted with hatred I would delete and start over again. I really wanted this to be the kind of book that if I died immediately after publishing it, I’d have a smile on my face knowing this is my legacy and it’s positive, affirms justice, stands for something and can have a profound meaning for someone. Blogging also helped me dispel the timidity out of my writing.

OS: You’re evidently well connected with a large network of Arab bloggers, are you also well connected with African bloggers?

AAN: It’s obvious that Sudan is more politically oriented towards to Arab world. I’ve interacted with Nigerian and Ethiopian bloggers, but back in the day there weren’t many African bloggers that I came across. It could also be attributed to my upbringing in Qatar, whereas I was more interested in the Arab issues, thus the Arab bloggers who spoke about them.

OS: In the last few years, we’ve seen various types of changes in the Middle East and North Africa and the role of the digital environment has been acknowledged, not just regionally but worldwide. What is your perception of the Sudanese digital scene?

AAN: I think digital activism in Sudan has evolved so much and sprung into many different directions; Facebook, Twitter, Rakoba, Hurrieyat and it’s difficult to read it at the moment. However, it has two benefits: it influences minds and awakens people and secondly; you can rally people for a specific cause or event. Perhaps in Sudan the tools weren’t widely spread until very recently, thus although both benefits are underway, they are very limited.

OS: As a Sudanese who has lived abroad most of your life, a third culture kid; how do you grapple with the various layers of your identity?

AAN: I think this would be the next phase of my exploration. I settled the debate about my relationship with religion and found ways to conceptualize my spirituality. I’ve come a long way with my identity, especially after the publishing of the book. I absolutely hold true what I wrote in the book; that being Sudanese is core to who I am, but that’s not the full picture. Sudanism is part of who I am; it doesn’t define me, yet it influences aspects of my identity. The interplay between the Malaysian, African, Qatari, and Middle Eastern Amir all shape my identity. There will always be a traditional Sudanese boy, no matter how old I get, or what cultures I assimilate to or where my culture reorients itself. This boy used to sit with his grandfather and play chess under the lemon tree and play soccer with the neighborhood boys. That boy in me will always be my guiding compass, and in that sense I’ll always be Sudanese and happily so.

I’ve kept many values from this younger me, and let go of many other values that I felt were not serving me. I still believe in the deep true authentic Sudanese values of courage, kind heartedness, loving others which were passed on to me by my elders whom you have come across a lot in the book.

I hold on to these values, but I’m cautious about how the world sees me within the limits of these values of the “Sudanese guy”. I understand that when I’m interacting with Sudanese people, I’m doing so in my capacity as a Sudanese, but that’s within my own definition and terms of what it means to be Sudanese.

OS: What are the challenges of cherry picking values for third culture kids, from the plethora of familial and societal influences? 

AAN: I think cherry picking has a negative connotation; perceived as taking whatever one prefers rather than backing a choice based on reasoning.  Values and morality have to have a framework; they have to maximize the well being of a person. I wouldn’t apply cherry picking to myself, because I went through a deliberate and systematic examination of belief and value systems. Of course personal preference has to do with what one eventually picks, but the choices have to be valid. What usually happens with cherry picking is one chooses different values with no validated reasoning and they end up very confused or torn when they are unable to reconcile them.

OS: As a published writer and blogger, what was the price you paid for your freedom of expression?

AAN: Well, let’s just say I’ve chosen to look at what I gained. I see challenges as opportunities for growth; that’s how I make sense of life and of events. One can’t control what happens or is done to them, but one has full control of how they interpret and respond to a certain issue and forge meaning out of it.

OS: What are your future plans?

AAN: My most immediate focus is to get more into growing certain entrepreneurial efforts I’ve been pursuing; because writing and activism alone don’t pay the bills! I spent a lot of time putting effort into the latter, and it’s been very fulfilling, but I am scaling back for now. I plan to continue writing about politics and Sudan. By next year I would ideally like to build a media portal for the young, progressive, Sudanese diaspora and hire someone full time to keep it running. Think of it as a Sudanese Upworthy with a marketing budget. Also, in the coming year or so, there will hopefully be a second book and there’s a novel in the making too. On the side, I will enroll in acting classes. That’s really it for now, for the next two years or so. Beyond that, I have some ideas, but we’ll see. 

Omnia Shawkat

Omnia is an outdoors creature, a traveler and avid reader. She’s interested in technological solutions for everyday problems and strives to bring people together to create things; meaningful artful things.  She can be reached on Twitter @OmniaShawkat