A few weeks ago, Faaiza and I went to the Islamic Arts Museum. Wandering into the architecture exhibit, I found myself looking at the 3D model of Masjid al-Haram, the mosque in Mecca. Looking at it and reading about its history, I started thinking about how much I’ve learned about Islam since coming to Malaysia and working at MSRI. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have understood the power of such a place, the meaning it holds in so many hearts, or the sheer number of people who hope to depart on their holy pilgrimage, the hajj, to see it. 

While I stood there thinking, a woman in a scarf came up to me. She put her hand over her heart, gestured to the model, and started to tell me about how this was her home, how she hopes to make it there in person someday. It was beautiful to see how she wanted me to understand, to see such devotion. I could see it in her eyes, in the way her expression softened to match the warmth in her heart. She then asked me if I was Christian. I said no. Naturally, she asked me then, what I was. I paused, stumbled over my words, frantically searching for what to say. After such a beautiful declaration of faith on her part, I seemed to forget what I was. My lifelong lack of faith no longer seemed a possibility. Searching and searching, all I could find was, “nothing.” 

As I walked down the steps to the next exhibit and away from the interaction, a fleeting feeling of emptiness came over me. I felt at that moment that there is nothing in my life as meaningful to me as Allah is to her. And that was fascinating—the depth to which I felt this in my heart. Like there was this void inside me. For a moment, it was like despite all my love for life, for people, and for myself, I had never truly loved anything. Not in the way this woman had.

My favorite painting in the Islamic Arts Museum:

Jose Benlliure Y Gil (Spain, 1855-1937)
Inside a Coffee House, Tunis | Di Dalam Kedai Kopi, Tunis
“Although the musicians are center stage, the star of Benlliure’s painting is the venue and variety of humanity contained within the well-worn splendor of a North African interior. The canvas breathes life. There is the widest selection of hospitality, with chibook smokers sharing space with drinkers of steaming-hot coffee. It is as genial a setting as any artist could hope for.”

I want to share this story because it symbolizes a greater part of my experience here so far. Not only religion, but I have found that growing up, culture did not play a role in my life the way it does for so many of the people and families I am surrounded by here. In faith, customs, traditional foods, traditional clothes, I am immersed in a new world. 

There is a part of our identity that is rooted in our history. It’s much deeper than the town we grew up in, the family we’re shaped by, and the world we’re exposed to. Increasingly, I’m realizing that despite this truth, my awareness of my own identity only reaches these superficial levels. 

Since coming here, I have consistently found that I am often the least interesting person in the room. This is not to demean myself, but rather to reflect on not really knowing who I am. Knowing who you are involves knowing those who came before you. It is important to know where you come from: What dishes did my ancestors cook? What were the songs and dances they felt connected to? What did they believe? I believe a big part of what makes a person interesting is what they have to share that can’t be found elsewhere. I have a long list of topics I’m knowledgeable about. However, most of it can be learned elsewhere too. Here, what I’m realizing is that I don’t have a lot to offer in terms of my own personal history, cultural customs, or family traditions. My life is marked by broader societal values, not personal cultural and religious traditions. 

In my studies in Environmental Studies and Geography at UVic, we place a lot of emphasis on preserving cultural heritage. Here, I feel like I am firsthand witnessing the power of cultural heritage to keep you connected to yourself. In the class I teach, most of my students are from Afghanistan. They love to share their culture with me, especially when it comes to food recommendations and songs they like to dance to (next on my list to try is Bulani and Mantu). I love it. “Tell me more,” I think. “More, more, more.” It feels so special to listen, to take part in this cultural exchange. I want to share too, but I’m not sure how. I don’t know what to share. To such a culturally diverse group of students, I am faced with the reality that I don’t know much about my own.

At least, reflecting on how my interaction with that woman made me feel, these are the conclusions I’m coming to. That emptiness I felt traces back to a lack of awareness of my own identity or the roots that ground me.

I feel it necessary to listen to how I felt that day. Because in my life, I would never think to describe myself as someone without passion or love. In fact, I would describe myself as someone who feels things intensely and loves passionately; my emotions run deep. So why, then, did I feel so empty after speaking with this woman? Reflecting on this interaction is providing lots of insight into who I am and what identity means to me. Part of what my experience here is teaching me is that it is powerful to come from roots. Immersing myself in a new environment filled with different cultures is helping me to understand the power of faith, culture, customs, and traditions—not in the theoretical way I’ve always “understood,” but in this deeply personal and intimate way through interacting with my community. I feel proud that these interactions are pushing me to reflect on my own life and upbringing as well as helping me understand different perspectives and ways of being. And of course, excited to continue diving into these emotions and this learning 🙂 

This is my Muay Thai gym! I try to make it here 3-4 nights of the week.
Our rental car for spending a weekend on Langkawi Island! I drove on the left side of the road for the first time (and also scraped a curb for the first time…).
Crazy Southeast Asia rain!!!
A day in the life at work – transporting food boxes.
Faaiza and I after walking around the city.
Super sick limestone rock on Langkawi!!!
These are the books I’ve read since arrival. Currently working my way through the top one, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami. Stay tuned for a blog post on how books have shaped my insights and reflections on my time here!