Bay Area Native Humorously Recounts American Muslim Experience in ‘Go Back Where You Came From’

Wajahat Ali, author of the new memoir “Go Back Where You Came From: And Other Useful Recommendations on How to Become an American.” Photo: courtesy of Wajahat Ali/Huffington Post

“Terrorist.” “Parasite.” “Race primer.”

Wajahat Ali has been called so many offensive insults during his career as a journalist, playwright, lawyer and political commentator, he can see the lack of originality and even the absurd dark humor rooted in the instinctive Islamophobia of his attackers. . But after decades of resisting insults, Ali decided to reuse the most common rude directive as the title of his new memoir.

“Go Back Where You Came From: And Other Useful Recommendations on How to Become an American” is Ali’s insightful, thoughtful and utterly engaging exploration of his own family history – including a dark chapter in which his parents were jailed for their alleged role. in a mail and wire fraud scheme and the “perpetual tug of war” he felt, like so many Muslim Americans, “between xenophobia and acceptance.”

“The title helped me evoke laughter and a punch in the gut at the same time,” Ali, the Fremont-raised son of Pakistani immigrants, told The Chronicle via video call from his home in Alexandria. in Virginia.

The New Memoirs of Wajahat Ali. Photo: provided by Wajahat Ali

Ali, who wrote “The Domestic Crusaders” (the first major American Muslim post-9/11 play, staged at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2005) and is a frequent commentator on CNN and MSNBC, uses wry humor and what he calls ‘trapping’ stereotypes to investigate the controversial history of America’s relationship with Muslims, immigrants and people of color.

He recalled his political awakening the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which struck while he was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. In an instant, Ali was “transformed into an accidental activist”, he writes. His loyalty was questioned and his citizenship suddenly felt conditional.

Ali is extremely proud of his Bay Area roots (he kept his 510 phone number) but admits California broke his heart. It was not only there that he experienced 9/11 and family trauma, but also that he came to terms with the realization that “I will never, ever be ‘moderate’ enough,” he writes, “because despite everything, we (Muslim Americans) are still considered suspects and not as complex, diverse, strange, funny and hypocritical human beings”.

Novelist Dave Eggers has been friends with Ali for more than 10 years, ever since Ali wrote an article for McSweeney’s about his legal work on behalf of families caught up in mortgage loan scams. “Every time I’ve been furious about a new outrage, Wajahat finds a way to satirize it, and somehow that makes it easier to take it,” said Eggers. “And the more personal struggles he faces, the funnier he gets.”

Ali and Eggers are due to appear in a City Arts & Lectures webcast chat on Feb. 1 to discuss Ali’s new book, which will be released on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

Q: In your book, you express frustration and anger, but you’re also hopeful and really funny. Did anyone feel the strongest while you were writing?

A: I didn’t want the book to be just one thing, which makes sense because growing up I never wanted to be just one thing.

When you’re a child of immigrants, there’s often a success checklist that says, “Do this, and that’s the label you’ll get and the category you’ll fill.” And I thought, “What if I want to get out of this box?” What if I want to write plays but also be a professional, be silly and creative? This frustration and stubbornness lasted a long time in my career.

Q: What inspired you to write this book now?

A: I think the pandemic prompted me to finally do it. Surviving the pandemic, surviving cancer from Nusayba (5 year old girl) and having the mileage of 40 years to watch what was happening in the country. In Islam, wisdom is supposed to come down to 40 years. In my case, while I didn’t see the wisdom descend, I thought my very personal story could be used as a Trojan Horse for my commentary on America and where it has been and where it is. Go.

I have a unique panoramic perspective because I am able to occupy and understand so many different cultural spaces. I can tell you as a journalist and playwright, as a Muslim student, as a son of incarcerated people, what this thing called America is. I went from Santa Rita Penitentiary to Aspen billionaires. Few people have set foot on these two very different islands from the American experience.

Q: Did you feel a greater urgency to write the book because of Trump’s rise?

A: Everything I mention in the book, we’ve been saying for years and no one has taken it seriously. There was something about Trump and the rise of Trumpism, and the January 6 uprising, that finally woke a lot of people up. Same with George Floyd, when a lot of people were finally able to say, “This (racism) really exists. It’s true.”

I say this ironically, but Trump’s overt Islamophobia was somehow good for Muslims, because everything we complained about was now out in the open. Once you heard “Muslim ban”, you knew we didn’t mention it.

Q: How was 9/11 a turning point in your life?

A: 9/11 was my total political awakening. For my generation, there was a pre-9/11 and a post-9/11, and it was totally exhausting. I was 20 and suddenly expected to be the expert on all things Muslim, the walking Muslim Wikipedia, a global representative of 1.8 billion people.

People forget that anyone who looked Muslim was immediately assaulted. The first hate crime (after 9/11) was against Balbir Singh, a Sikh. It was such a scary time in America that American born and raised hijabi women were afraid to go to school. This country has gone mad. They banned John Lennon’s “Imagine”. They renamed the fries “freedom fries”!

Wajahat Ali in 2013 on the first night of Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream,” “praying to God that I don’t mess up co-hosting a live show for the first time,” he said declared. Photo: provided by Wajahat Ali

Q: The poet and activist Ishmael Reed, who was one of your university professors, encouraged you to write your play after 9/11, didn’t he?

A: Yeah, that was like my “Sliding Doors” moment. I thought he was going to yell at me for missing three weeks of school, and instead he said that the dialogue and the characters were my strengths, and they would shine better in a play. He said to me, “As a black man, I know you (Muslims) are going to get screwed and confused for the next 10 years. I can see him. But the way to fight back is through art, culture and storytelling.

Q: Do you still receive hate messages, especially after appearing on a major network like CNN?

A: Oh, yes, I get it every day. I think in a weird way a barometer of success is the level of hate you get.

The funny thing is that the hateful chorus never changes. It’s always “Go back, fucking Arab”. N-word. “F— a camel.” “F— a goat.” It is this formidable American reflex: “Go back”. The Irish have been there, the Jews have been there, and now it’s like, “Tag! It’s you.

“Go Back Where You Came From: And Other Useful Recommendations on How to Become an American”
By Wajahat Ali
(WW Norton & Co.; 272 pages; $26.95)

City Arts & Lectures presents Wajahat Ali in conversation with Dave Eggers: Virtual event. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 1. $36. Customers will receive the webcast link via email from City Arts & Lectures 72 hours prior to the event.