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New 'Tell Them, I Am' Podcast Explores Lives Of Muslims Through Small Defining Moments

NPR
Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

This Ramadan, Misha Euceph, host of Tell Them, I Am podcast, focuses on small defining moments and characteristics that make 22 different Muslims who they are.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're in the second week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and a new podcast from KPCC is trying to expand people's understanding of what it means to be Muslim in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TELL THEM, I AM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll just tell you a story.

AMIRAH SACKETT: (Laughter) I was in the bee's home, and they were clearly, like, get out, and I didn't see the signs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So I'm like, I think I snapped my back in half.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Kind of eat, breathe, sleep, dream, drink - everything was about skating, you know?

MISHA EUCEPH: I don't really fit what a lot of people think a Muslim is supposed to look like and act like and live like, which makes sense because the only time Muslims are ever on TV or in the news, we're asked about Islamophobia or terrorism or our headscarves or praying five times a day.

SHAPIRO: That last voice is the host, Misha Euceph. Her podcast is called "Tell Them, I Am." She explains that name in the first episode when religious scholar Reza Aslan retells the story of Moses and the burning bush. The voice of God tells Moses to go back to his people in Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TELL THEM, I AM")

REZA ASLAN: The voice quite famously says...

EUCEPH: It says something really unexpected.

ASLAN: You can tell them that I am I am.

EUCEPH: It says Yahweh.

ASLAN: That's just a Hebrew word that means I am, I was, I will be.

EUCEPH: Yahweh is not a name.

ASLAN: The deity didn't say, tell them I am Yahweh. That's not what he said. He said, tell them I am.

SHAPIRO: How did you turn that into a kind of mission statement for this podcast?

EUCEPH: So I read this passage of the Bible when I was 16. I remember reading it and just being so surprised and struck by that line and the fact that God, an entity that we're constantly trying to define and understand, refuses to be categorized. And it kind of gave me permission as a human being to also let go of labels and to transcend category. And when I walked into KPCC, I pitched this idea to my boss, Arwen Nicks, and I told her that I wanted the podcast to be called "I Am." And as we started discussing the idea, we kind of came to the conclusion that it should actually be that whole phrase, tell them I am, because it embodies the struggle of being a person who is constantly being categorized and who is desperately trying to take control of their own narrative.

SHAPIRO: And I think everybody deals with this to some extent, but for Muslims who are portrayed in a particular way in the public eye, in the news, in TV and movies all the time, it's even more acute.

EUCEPH: Yeah. I mean, you know, I have this unique perspective of having grown up in Pakistan and been in a Muslim-majority country. And so being Muslim wasn't a defining aspect of my identity for the first half of my life. And then I moved to the United States, and all of a sudden, you know, this was post 9/11 - 2003. It was as though the moment I would say I was Muslim, it was the only thing I could be. And I saw this over and over again where Muslims were limited to just being one-dimensional rather than multidimensional, multifaceted human beings.

SHAPIRO: And so these are stories that people who all happen to be Muslim but the stories may not have anything to do with religion. Like, in one of the earliest episodes, Tan France, the style guy from the Netflix show "Queer Eye," talks about how he inherited the trait from his mother of always saying, I told you so.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TELL THEM, I AM")

TAN FRANCE: My mom was always - she was like any good Asian mom. She was constantly scolding us for something, and she would always say, well, don't do that because this is going to happen and don't do this because this is going to happen. And it would inevitably happen. And then she would very calmly look at us and say, told you it was going to happen.

SHAPIRO: And he mentions in passing that his family is from Pakistan, but that's not even a major element of the story at all.

EUCEPH: Yeah. And that was really important to us when talking to each one of our guests is to let them know that they could choose a defining characteristic or moment in their life and then go from there to tell us what the story behind it was rather than asking them, so you're Muslim or you're gay and Muslim.

SHAPIRO: What does that feel like (laughter) or how does that define you? Yeah.

EUCEPH: Yeah, exactly. And we were really clear that every single guest on the show was Muslim and that we really wanted to give everyone an opportunity to talk about something other than that if they wanted to. That said, a lot of guests have talked about their spirituality or their relationship to religion in some way or in some way related to that defining moment or defining characteristic that they talk about in the podcast.

SHAPIRO: Some of the stories are set in the context of a Muslim community with a focus that we don't often hear from stories set in a mosque. Like, there's a woman named Najma Sharif who describes being this boy crazy teenager in Rochester, Minn., daughter of Somali parents. And during Ramadan, she would go to the mosque basically to meet boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TELL THEM, I AM")

EUCEPH: So she always shows up to the mosque looking really good.

NAJMA SHARIF: Wing liner, blush - just all that. To the mosque. For who? Obviously, it's not for God. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Misha, we live in this moment of, like, hypersaturated content. How is it still possible that we so rarely hear these kinds of stories?

EUCEPH: I think because not enough Muslim people are telling their own stories. And that was really important to me with this show is as a culturally Muslim person to finally come out and own that aspect of my identity and tell this complicated, messy, nuanced idea of what it means to be me and someone like me, there have been so many barriers to entry for people like me to be able to tell their own stories.

SHAPIRO: How much of this is something that has been kind of itching ever since you came to the United States in 2003?

EUCEPH: I think all of it. All of it. I think (laughter) - I mean, when I moved here, so much of my first few years were spent, you know, whitewashing myself and trying to rid myself of my immigrant identity and figuring out how to assimilate and fit into mainstream America, which meant a middle school in Palos Verdes, Los Angeles. And as I grew older, I started to realize that there was value in my cultural heritage. And there was also value in the unique way in which my parents had brought me up and in maybe this cultural Muslim perspective. And I started to see that those stories weren't represented. And when I would have discussions with my peers, a lot of times I felt like, you know, there was a need for a new level of honesty. And as I've come more to terms with my own identity, it's become easier to talk about these things.

SHAPIRO: So what do you hope this podcast accomplishes?

EUCEPH: I hope people feel something. I think each one of these guests are lovely people, and their stories are hilarious and touching and relatable. And I hope that people who are like me are less scared to share their stories because for so long, I was so scared of the judgment from my own community for what it would mean if I were to share the different aspects of who I am and how I choose to live and who I love. So I hope somebody like me somewhere here in the United States or abroad is more excited about sharing their story and a little bit more emboldened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Misha Euceph hosts the podcast "Tell Them, I Am" from KPCC. They're releasing a new episode every weekday of the month of Ramadan. Misha, thanks so much for talking with us about it.

EUCEPH: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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