It was an honor and a pleasure to meet face-to-face with the talented woman whom I’ve admired through social media for years. Umm Juwayriyah (Maryam Sullivan) is an author for whom I’ve held such respect, through her works, her online presence, and the depths of understanding she shares with the world. We even discovered a surprise connection. Not only do we both have children with Autism and seizure disorders, she just so happens to be married to a man whom I grew up with in our Muslim community back in Baltimore so many years ago! Umm Juwayriyah spoke with me all the way from Kuwait and described what it’s like to be an educator who is Black, Muslim and a woman in the middle east, and how growing up #BlackMuslimGirlFly empowered her to do so successfully, despite racial and gender biases. We’re closing out April, Autism Awareness Month, with the wisdom of Umm Juwayriyah. Here’s what she had to say.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is defined as that “it” factor Black Muslim Girls & Women have that makes them amazing, dope, & fresh-to-death awesome. How would you describe your #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Umm Juwayriyah: Self-love, authenticity, appreciation for those who came before me and the doors they opened is my #BlackMuslimGirlFly.
Team BMGFly: How did you grow into your Muslim identity? And, how does being a Black girl impact that? (Or, if you’re bi-racial, or of multi-ethnic heritage, how does that impact your Muslim identity?)
Umm Juwayriyah: I was born and raised Muslim. My parents are from Harlem, New York City. My mother is Trinidadian-American, and my father is African-American, and they left New York. My father was in the military, and traveled around the world and became Muslim. My mother became Muslim in Spain. I’m actually the youngest of five. Alhamdulillah, we were raised Muslim in Massachusetts. They didn’t go back to Harlem. I was raised in Springfield, in a predominately African-American Muslim community. With my parents being connected to New York City, we often traveled to New York, New Jersey, so we had that connection to other predominately African-American Muslim families. So, that’s what I saw, that’s what I knew, that’s what I was around. I grew into myself through seeing others grow into themselves. I had older sisters, and family members, who went through their struggles. They were tried and tested. And, I think that that really allowed me to understand, and to appreciate, our humanness. And, not just see Muslims as one-dimensional, or just see them as Arabs, or see them as Indo-Pakistani. But, to realize that we really are varied. We are beautiful in our strengths, in our weaknesses, and in our faith. Because that’s really what this is all about, developing a love of Allah. Growing in that, and knowing that He’s enough for you, no matter where you are in the journey, in the struggle, in the test; it’s okay, as long as you stay connected to Him.
My mother had a very colorful life because she really grew up in Harlem,137th Street, and she was around all of the West Indian American culture. She ended up losing her parents very early in life, and she was taken in by my father’s aunt; which is how they met each other. So, just growing up with that added extra culture, and experiences, through a different lens of culture adding that to the Islamic fiber that we already had, was a beautiful thing. It just really strengthened me and strengthened my resolve to be who I am. You know sometimes, in so many places in Muslim spaces, we are pushed and egged on to take on other flavors from other people, and not be our authentic self. But, growing up seeing the people that were in my family, and how proud they were… And, I have non-muslim family as well, my grandparents on both sides. The faith that they had really also, (their Christian faith,) played a strong part in allowing me to develop my own faith as a Muslim woman. Faithfulness. No matter what your faith is, we all have tests and trials. And, there are doors that are closed in our faces. Seeing them push through, and to keep believing, and holding on, as we say to “the rope,” allowed me to stand up to some of the other pressure and the erasure that we have in the Muslim community.
Team BMGFly: How do you maneuver your industry as a Black Muslim Woman?
Umm Juwayriyah: I think it’s helpful, and it fortifies you in order to persist. Whether I’m in the Middle East dealing with discrimination here, or I’m in New England, Massachusetts, Connecticut, dealing with some of the discrimination that women of color in education deal with there. Being that I’ve seen it before, I’ve felt it before, I’ve heard stories before from other women, who have experienced trials and discrimination. Blatant, intentional erasure, and testing of your strength, of your ability to overcome situations, the pressure… A lot of times I think as Muslims, you know, you hear there’s a lot of propaganda, “Oh go to a Muslim country, it’ll be easy.” And they don’t understand that you’re still a minority. You’re still going to be up against the majority. You’re still going to be second-guessed. You’re still going to be overlooked. You’re still going to have to prove yourself. So, my background, my upbringing, my faith, allows me, by Allah, to keep moving, to keep pushing. Because I know that the next generation, my daughters, my son; they’re coming after me. I have to keep pushing. Whether it’s in the writing world, whether it’s in academics, whether it’s in my employment. I have to keep pushing forward. I have to keep representing who I am. Because years later there will be another. The goal is that with each generation it will be easier. But, you’ve got to keep pushing, you’ve got to keep representing who we are on a larger platform.
Team BMGFly: What made you decide to take that leap of faith and write books?
Umm Juwayriyah: I’m an avid reader, I love to read. Growing up I didn’t go to a Muslim School. My husband was fortunate enough to be in a community where there was a Muslim school, that was affordable, and things of that nature. We didn’t have one, we just didn’t have one. It wasn’t even one for miles and miles, probably not even in Connecticut when I was young. So, I went to public school. I went to public school my whole life. And, being a Muslim girl, just even my name, having to correct people pronouncing my name. I remember one of my teachers saying, once I corrected her, “It’s not “Mary Ann it’s Maryam,” she said, “Oh, your parents were just being difficult.” And, I said, “No, they weren’t. That’s the real name. It’s a real name.” And, she said, “No, it’s Mary Ann.” She went back and forth with me. So, I would go to the library just to be alone, to get away from it. And, I started working at the library. And, that was it. I loved to read. But, like you said, “Where was the representation?” Of course, early on it was the Judy Blumes. Later on, it was the Terry McMillans. Omar Tyree, during high school, early college, when urban fiction was booming and all over the place. But, even in the urban fiction, there were no Muslim girls. They had names like Latifah. they had names like Malika, but they weren’t Muslim. So, I asked, “Where are we?” So, in high school, I just started writing. Before, I just started with urban, contemporary realist fiction. But, nobody in my family, in my inner family, is named Tanisha, or Shaneequa, or those things. So I realized that I really do have to start writing our tales. And, when I would share them with my classmates, they would say they could identify with that because they know Muslim girls, they know what they’re going through. So, it was really my non-Muslim friends in high school and college who said, “I get it.” They pushed me on and said that’s what I should do. That was during the Love Jones era, spoken word, slamming was really popular in the inner cities. And, going into those spaces, and sharing my stories, allowed them to understand me a little bit better. But, also getting the reception that I got, they’d say ‘we see Muslims, they’re in our neighborhoods in the inner cities, they’re a part of our families.’ You know, it’s one in four. We work with them, and we see them. And that’s the interesting part, with this whole erasure of Black Muslims. If you go into any major city, the Muslims that you see are people of color. And, most likely indigenous that are interacting with people on a daily basis. You don’t just walk down the street and meet a Saudi. You don’t see Kuwaitis.
Team BMGFly: What were the steps you took to complete your first book?
Umm Juwayriyah: I started writing my first novel when I was overseas. I was overseas in Sudan, actually. That experience, going to Africa for the first time, traveling through Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, and seeing their culture, and how they love themselves! You understand? The Moroccans love the way Moroccans speak Arabic! It’s an appreciation of themselves, and their cultural dress, and who they are. And, I thought ‘I really need to sit down and start talking about this urban Muslim fiction.’ That’s when I really started saying that term. It was 2002, and I started using this term “urban Muslim fiction.” I joined a writers group, the Islamic Writers Alliance, that was started by Widad Delgado, a Muslim, retired police sergeant from Arizona. And, I built their first website for them. From there, she was reading my stories while I was overseas, and I was doing a lot of editing for her. Then she said, “We’ve got to get this published. I’ve never read any type of story like this. There’s nothing out there like this.” It was called The Size of A Mustard Seed, about a Black Muslim family post 9/11. The main protagonist was a hairstylist, and her family wanted her to get married for her own protection.
Team BMGFly: How do you keep aware of what you deliver, and what you have that separates you from others in your industry?
Umm Juwayriyah: I always give a shout out to Umm Zakiyyah. I actually read her first novel my last year of high school, If I Should Speak. She did Muslim fiction, and that was my first time ever, at eighteen, that I’d read a novel by a Black Muslim woman who was talking about Muslim things and Muslimness. If I Should Speak is a story a Muslim woman who converts to Islam later in life. Whereas, my stories deal with urban Muslim fiction. I deal a lot with the inner city. I use a lot of ebonics. I talk about head wrapping and colorful dresses, and all the Muslim stylists and fashion shows. And, I really try to flesh out our lives, and our culture from an indigenous born American Muslim vantage point. Making it seen really as a part of the American fabric. We are descendants of slaves, and we have that determination. We have that creativity. We have that in our culture. The way that we make up words, and we use them. The way that we make meals, and foods, and bean pies. That’s a part of us. We’re not going to be eating curry every day in Ramadan. We don’t do that. But, you will have some black-eyed peas, and some collard greens, and you’ll have a bean pie for dessert. And, I mention those things because That’s who we are. That’s why I call it urban Muslim fiction. I have a book coming out in Ramadan, a new children’s book, Yasin’s Big Dream. That will be my fifth book, and then I’m finishing up a novel right now, inshaAllah, slated for 2019. It’s mostly children’s fiction, again representation like we said. Growing up Muslim, and not seeing those characters, not seeing the seeing the representation at the library; I do it for that. I want our youth to be able to go to the library and find books of themselves; to see their names, to see their families, to see their traditions, and, to recognize that they are important, that they are loved that they are special and that they can dream big.
Team BMGFly: You recently published the book Hind’s Hands. What inspired you to write and publish it?
Umm Juwayriyah: It wasn’t published by me. None of my books are published by me, I’ve been signed since, 2006. Hind’s Hands came out in 2012. In 2006, my second daughter was born, and about eight months later she was diagnosed with epilepsy, a very rare form of epilepsy, infantile spasms. As I was learning about that, and researching that, and struggling through that, and trying to get control of the seizures.Then they gave her the other diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is another word for Autism. In 2012, by that time she was about six years old, I saw her character developing. I also learned about other things, being stigmatized as a mother of a child with a special need, in our community. Trying to bring my daughter to Jumuah, or any event with Muslims, and them not being aware. There were other Muslim families in the communities with children with special needs, but they often stayed home or took turns coming out. And, I was just there. I wasn’t going to stop and change that part of my life. But, it was draining, and it was another form of discrimination.
Team BMGFly: How did you come up with the title Hind’s Hands, and what’s the story behind it?
Umm Juwayriyah: I have two girls and one boy, sixteen, eleven, and five. My middle daughter, Hind, is Autistic and Epileptic, and that’s what prompted the story. Because I was homeschooling her, it really folded right into our lessons. It took us no more than a month to write the story. She helped me to edit, and we used that as a lesson to re-read our stuff. You know drafting, first draft, second draft, third draft, and then I polished it. And, off it went to the publisher. By the end of the year, it was in the market.
Team BMGFly: When did you realize you definitely wanted to publish this book? What made you take that big step forward to make it happen?
Umm Juwayriyah: Having an older daughter, and trying to explain to her, she’d ask me, “Momma why are they staring at us? Why are they staring at Hindi?” And, having to explain to her and at the same time, how she could stand up and advocate for her sister. So, we sat down as a lesson, because I homeschooled my children, we sat down and we wrote that together; with my oldest daughter. It was very healing for us. She was eleven. Another young artist, Emma Apple, from Michigan, illustrated the book. We connected through the Islamic Writers Alliance. She’s an in-house illustrator. She started “Blue Hijab Day.” She also has a daughter named Hind, and both her daughter and her son have Autism. Autism was becoming a buzzword at that time and was gaining more traction. Autism Speaks had started by then. And she said this makes sense. Sister Emma and I partnered up through “Blue Hijab Day,” and pushed it through that organization. We reached out to a lot of different local organizations, and libraries. And, that’s where we got most of our traction, through the Library Association of America, and getting it into libraries. That started my crusade for Muslim fiction in the libraries, once I saw how easy it was to connect with librarians and to get your books ordered into the library instead of just knocking on the door of every Masjid and every Muslim home. Get your books into the libraries, because there are city libraries in every state and they are most effective in reaching out to other partners, into schools, into organizations, associations, and things like that. So, that’s when I really started to work with different libraries, and do book signings with libraries, and school libraries. It’s really important to work with libraries, The Library Association of America.
Team BMGFly: What’s the number one thing you hope people will gain from reading it?
Umm Juwayriyah: Well, it’s about family. It’s a family book. It’s geared toward children, trying to speak to children about acceptance and awareness, and acton. The sister in the story deals with her younger sister’s behaviors, whether it’s stimming, or falling out. And, how young children can deal with those behaviors when they’re so young. And, giving them the tools and the language to express themselves and their feelings. And, growing into loving that person, accepting what Allah has given you. This is your sibling, or this is your family member, or this is your community member, and this is who they are. This is who they are, and it’s okay. The book, Yasin’s Dream is all about dreaming big. He loves to dream, he loves to help his community. He dreams that he is President for the day. You don’t have to say, “I’m Muslim.” We show that through our actions. We give, we help, we bring people together, we talk about our problems. We show people through our actions that “I’m a good person. And, I’m a good person because this is who Allah has designed me to be.” I’m really pushing through that story for Muslim youth to dream big. You can do whatever you want to do. Whatever space you want to go into, you can go into and be okay, whether it’s the White House, or a school, or a university or a boardroom, you belong there. You belong there.
Team BMGFly: Who did you look up to while growing up? Who inspires you now?
Umm Juwayriyah: My parents, alhamdulillah they were hard-working people, alhamdulillah. The elders, man, they do so much. They did so much. I don’t know how they did it. Building communities, building schools, writing books, community iftars, putting Ramadan together, cooking food, paying the rent on the Masjid, keeping the lights on. We’re so scattered, we just kind of blend into communities, and we go places where we’re not always accepted. They didn’t do that. They started their own, and they kept it going. They built institutions, and it still blows my mind. And, the sisters in the community, the young girls who came before me. I can’t stress enough, how important it is that we keep our communities together. So many of us, we go to school and we want the big job, and we want to move out of the community. We want to keep “movin’ on up,” and movin’ on out. But, that isolation comes with a price. When you grow up around other Muslims’ diversity, and you see Muslims who look like you doing all sorts of things, it gives you courage. It gives you an understanding. It gives you patience, it gives you appreciation. And, it allows you to see yourself in a variety of ways. When you’re by yourself, and you’re alone, it’s not a good feeling. It’s not a good feeling. So, definitely when I was in high school, in ninth grade, I had the sisters in eleventh and twelfth grade, and they were doing it big with their door knocker earrings, and their hijabs to the back, and their Reeboks. So, I didn’t feel so alone walking through that halls. I think that’s important. I love that I had that, and I always tell them ‘I’m glad that I saw you and that you supported me, and that we had each other; and, that I wasn’t alone.’ I may have been alone in some classes. But, lunchtime it was on and poppin’ because we were together!
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt defeated, and how did you overcome that?
Umm Juwayriyah: Everyday here. Every single day. There are small victories, but there are a lot of battles that I lose. I came overseas with a mission. I definitely wanted to represent Black Muslim women on an international level to bring our “FLY,” and our dedication, and our love of learning and education to Muslim girls in this part of the world. I know that just by showing up everyday, my girls and my boys are getting something. But, on the back end, dealing with the system, in the Muslim world, it’s sad. It saddens me to see where we are as an international community, as an Ummah. Because education and learning is so integral to our deen, but then you have parents buying grades, and going to administrators, pressuring us to cheat on a daily basis. It’s hard, it’s a hard, hard pill to swallow. When a child learns to read, and the parents don’t clap for them, and are not proud of that small gift that Allah has given them. They’re just worried about the next project, the next “A.” The fight for real education here, is almost a losing battle. So, I pray, get up, and put my armor on. I try to everyday reach the kids; whispering those positive affirmations to the next generation. “You’re enough.” I try to touch their lives.
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt like you defied odds or broke barriers?
Umm Juwayriyah: When I first got here, you know the school is segregated, so the girls usually have one side of the campus, the boys on the other. I started teaching ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade. There were no female teachers on the boys side, high school. They said, “You don’t want to go over there. They’re wild, they’re crazy. They can’t learn.” Everything negative, and, I said, “Yeah, I’m going over there. Give me my keys to my classroom.” Alhamdulillah, my boys are graduating this year, and some of them could not write a sentence in English, or a sentence in Arabic. Just with positive affirmations, trying to and re-establishing what learning was, and the progress inch by inch, level by level, and building up their self-esteem. And, they needed some tough love. The whole culture here is that women take care of me, and I came in the room demanding respect. From pre-k on up, the kids call the teacher’s by their first name. It wasn’t “Miss Maryam,” it’s Ms. Sullivan. Just going back to the basics. We learned those things in our community. You excuse yourself when you want to talk to an adult, you don’ bust into a conversation. Establishing respect, establishing boundaries, and at the same time, showing them love. I can teach you just like Aisha (RA) taught men; during her husband’s life and after his death. You can interact with me respectfully.
Team BMGFly: What would you cite as the foundation of your success?
Umm Juwayriyah: Allah. Persistence, faith, and knowing that you’re greater than the struggle. Everybody is tested, everybody is tried. And, my tests are not like somebody else’s, but we’re all being tested with something. The whole point is to push through, and to have faith.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is an empowerment brand created to uplift and remind Black girls that they are FLY in many ways. What advice would you give all the Black Muslim girls out there, worldwide, to cultivate their own individual #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Umm Juwayriyah: You are enough. You are special. You are unique. You are chosen. You were chosen by the divine, for a divine purpose. So, go out and make your path. Don’t want to be like anybody else. Be yourself. Aspire, and dream, and love. Fall down, scrape your knees, dust your knees, get back up, and do it again.
Team BMGFly: What’s something you haven’t done yet, but would like to do next?
Umm Juwayriyah: We’ve got to film, inshaAllah! I’m coming home to film. That’s what I want to do. I’ll call you inshaAllah! I’m coming home for good. I want a group of Muslim women, like you‘re doing already, you’re breaking so many boundaries, alhamdulillah! I want to be amongst Muslim women who are breaking boundaries and pushing forward, especially in the artists’ community; who understand the importance of art, and the importance of creativity to our community. That’s another thing that we have to break down and challenge, and champion in our community. The importance of arts, the importance of creativity, the importance of expressing ourselves in different platforms and in different ways, and embracing that, and embracing that expression of self-love. I’m going to start on the script, inshaAllah.
Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible.