Christina Safiyyah is a blogger, activist and convert to Islam currently living in New York City. She also has a great love of pierogis. David Levesley went down to the Lower East Side to meet her and talk about her theatrical childhood, love of Pinterest and the trials and tribulations of wearing a white hijab when you love borscht.
So what got you into the whole bodybuilding shebang?
I used to be very overweight. My whole family struggled with weight-related health issues for a very long time. So I started going down that path probably when I was in my early 20s, college, you hear about 'the freshman fifteen' and that was me. And I woke up one day and I just felt uncomfortable in my own body I don't like the way that I feel and I toyed… I was vegan for quite a while and that didn't work out cos I lived in this tiny little town and I started getting sick cos they just didn't have enough options for me to sustain that kind of diet.
So then I started eating dairy and meat again but you know I started gaining more weight over the years. So I just started going to the gym more and trying to eat better and eat healthy and got more and more into it, and I just feel better. I don't do it for other people, it just makes me feel good, it makes me feel confident, it makes me feel strong.
Where was it that you went to school?
It was called DeSales University. It's near Quakertown Pennsylvania, which is near Allentown which is the state capital. It was this itty-bitty podunk school, and I went there for theatre originally. My grandfather is actually a renowned playwright, he's been on Broadway, so he really started that in me. But then I started school and started seeing it from the professional level and like, I really love this but I need to do something where I can put food on the table. (Food arrives.) You're gonna be stuffed!
I'm literally so excited.
I'm also a city girl, you know, I can appreciate the outdoors, I love being in nature but I can't deal with a small town, everybody being in everybody's business. So I eventually transferred to Temple University where I eventually got my undergraduate degree and that was in Spanish. A complete 180. I keep saying 360 and then realising that's a circle.
You said that you lived in England for a bit. Why did you end up going?
It's funny because I tend to have these big moves when there's something going on in my life that I'm not happy with and I'm seeking a change. So I wasn't happy doing theatre and ended up moving to Philadelphia and got into Spanish and I loved it and I did feel more satisfied and worked with human rights violations in Guatemala. I'd always been involved in human rights issues and women's rights issues looking at a global perspective. But then I went into teaching when I graduated because I was trying to figure out ok, I have a degree in Spanish but I can't just go out and speak Spanish and make money-
If only, right? So I got into a teaching program which teaches Spanish in underserved schools in Philadelphia. And there were certain aspects that I loved about teaching. But a lot of things that… I realised teaching isn't for me. I love helping kids, that's what I'm really passionate about, but teaching? That's just not, or at least not what I was doing, wasn't right for me. So you as I mentioned to you there were district cuts and my job was in jeopoardy, there were some things in my personal life that weren't going so well. And then I decided my best friend who was living in Philadelphia decided to move back to England and I decided I'd go visit her, I'd stay two weeks and… I couldn't leave London. I felt like something was trying to keep me there, so in the end of the two weeks came and I said you know what? I can't go back to my life. So I wound up applying to several schools to get a masters in… anything really but mostly anything to do with human rights and global politics, international relationships. That's what I really wanted to do not really teaching- wow this is really good-
So well done. Well done beetroot.
RIGHT? Probably not a good idea wearing a white hijab.
It's fine, it's such a vibrant colour it'll look like an interesting addition.
As long as it splashes on it's fine, but knowing my luck it'll just be a smear.
So anyway I got into Royal Holloway, which is part of University of London, and I got a job and moved to London. It was probably in a matter of a month and a half I came back from London, applied and went back. It was really snappy. I was meant to be there for some reason, and living in London made me come out of my shell. It made me find who I was again. And I met a lot of great people and had a lot of really wonderful experiences, I wound up accepting Islam and it was just the most amazing year of my life. It definitely helped make me who I am today. Again, hat was the reason I was there to find out who I was again.
What were you doing when you were doing theatre?
Mostly acting but I did a bit of costume design. I left high school early so I could do an internship with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival as their costume intern. I just love being creative and looking at different periods and styles of costuming. It was just exciting but I dunno, I just… I needed to take a breather, I'd probably been doing it since I was eight years old and I didn't know anything else other than theatre.
You mentioned field work in Guatemala, what did that involve?
Human rights has always been my focus. I actually wound up getting an internship with the Guatemalan human rights commission in DC. And they needed people to go on a delegation to do some interviewing, fact finding, just talking to different indigenous parts of communities. There was a massive genocide there in the latter part of the 60s up till the 80s so there's still a lot of rampant impunity, there's no… The system is very corrupt. There's a lot of femicide. Women were getting murdered, really horribly, we're not just talking about getting shot we're talking decapitated, just getting left for dead and nobody was doing anything about it. The police and the justice system is incredibly corrupt.
At the time when I was there actually the UN classified it as the seventh most dangerous country in the world, you know, so… Mum and Dad won't happy about my going there. But it was a wonderful opportunity and a great experience and it was really eye-opening about the sort of things people go through on a daily basis.
We also talked to some indigenous communities who were selling coffee to coffee houses but they were getting pushed out by industries like Starbucks. The whole Fairtrade thing was playing out in real life.
I met a man who… He was an indigenous Mayan man he didn't speak a word of English until he was in his mid-teenage years, didn't learn Spanish till then, and he was a taxi driver and he fought in the civil war and he would just tell stories of what it was like to live through this time and what it was like to see people get killed, the kind of things the paramilitary did to civilians, the tactics they used to intimidate and kill them, it was basically Scorched Earth … It was just, oh my gosh it was insane. Things you can't imagine, cos we're so far away from it, living in New York, living in the rest of the world. Anyway, sorry, that was a trip down memory lane.
It's such a great thing to be doing, going into human rights work. It feels like the sort of thing where it's so important they should just clamour to grab you because people need you. But how is it actually getting into the field and working in human rights?
I'm still trying to get in! I'm unemployed, looking for a job, so-
We'll put the message out.
You start making connections, you know, you express interest. I very much believe you attract things to you that you really desire whether it's consciously or unconsciously, so if it's something you want to pursue, you will have the foresight to say if something's going to be good for you or really bad. I think one things leads to another but definitely having a background in education, internships, volunteer work… That's what helps.
You said in one of your e-mails you spend a lot of time around NYU?
I go there for the Islamic Centre. They have this really, really wonderful community there, it's very open, it's very giving, a lot of really good opportunities and Islamic knowledge. I'm just there a lot, I don't really care for the mosques around where I live. They cater a lot to the immigrant communities round there so a lot of people speak arabic and I don't speak arabic, so…
So having converted in England, and living here, what are the communities around you like and how are they different?
Like you, I grew up in an area where it's very… Cookie cutter. I was raised as a Catholic and then I sort of became agnostic, I sort of developed an aversion to religion. But as I got older I sort of felt like something was missing. And I'd always sort of believed in God but I didn't believe with a lot of religious doctrine in my previous faith. It lead me to explore what is the path that will help me develop a relationship back to God? And so, I'd gone through different phases of looking at different religions, but when I found Islam it made a lot of sense to me in a way that nothing before it had. And I knew it was a way I would be able to develop that connection with God. It held the key for me. So when I accepted Islam and started ingratiating myself into the community in London it was mostly at uni with the ISOCs. It was such a wonderful experience because they're all young girls and they're so lovely and inviting and they'd give me the biggest hugs every time I see them and helping me find resources that were good for me and my development and weren't necessarily too liberal or too extremist, that were just very sound and reputable. And again it was very lovely and accepting and I just felt like I was whole. It's just… This is so cheesy…
I saw a quote online- I'm a Pinterest nut- this quote, I believe it was from one of the companions of the prophet Mohammed, it said that we come to Earth and our souls incline towards people who are of similar nature to our own souls. And that's how I felt with these women, with these girls. And so when I went back to America, and was living in Philly for a little while, and I sort of went through a phase trying to find where the community was and I had a lot of difficulties trying to find it, and when I found them again it was the same. Just wonderful, beautiful people who accepted me with open arms and were very non-judgmental to anyone that came around, not just new Muslims but women of other faiths. Just really lovely people. And then I moved to New York and I don't know… The community is just different here. I'm still trying to figure it out. It's hard for me to place my finger on why it's so different and I wonder if some of it has to do with some of the materialistic lifestyle that is New York City. It exists in any place that you go but I think it's more apparent here because even when I was in London and researching Islam and looking at different resources that were American based they were all based in NY. So I wasn't sure if this is what Islam is or if this is just people or… Who are these New York Muslims, you know? But for the most part you see a lot more disparities here between the way people practice their faith and the way culture intersects with religion. That's a whole big topic in and of itself, we could go on about that for hours and hours.
I'm trying to think how to articulate this. When I was in London I saw Islam and I saw Muslims fresh, like, Muslims could do no wrong, all of them strove to follow the faith as best as they possibly could, and this is my naive thinking. But now that I've calmed down I definitely recognise that there are differences between how people practice, how they identify themselves, how they articulate it. So it's become less of this 'oooh happy hearts and stars! Muslims are all kind of happy little fluffy bunnies', and now it's more, you know, ok,there are differences, there are discrepancies, etc. etc. I don't know if that makes sense.
No it does, you witness a group of people for the first time and they appear as that group, whatever your perspective of that group is, but there are people in that group and everybody has autonomous thoughts. Whether that be an autonomous development of a particular way of thinking or just human personality. There are dimensions within every individual.
Definitely. Can you write that as my answer? That was so much more clearly articulated than what I said.
I'll take that compliment.
It sounds so much better than 'happy hearts and bunny Muslims'.
We'll just put that as the name of the article.
Just that. 'Happy bunny Muslims.'
I always knew we got the wrong website name.
There we go! Don't ever say I never gave you nothin'.
So, your husband, how did you meet?
How did we meet… The thing that I really love is that even the global Muslim community… Everyone is very connected. Anywhere we go we have brothers and sisters who will be there for you. He's from New York, born and bred New Yorker, and I'm from Philadelphia, and we met through mutual friends because our friends know each other, they go back and forth, etc. etc. and we started talking and yeah, it was pretty awesome. So that's how we met. When we started talking we just sort of felt like everything was going really easily, like it was meant to be because the more and more we'd share things about our lives we'd find more and more friends who knew each other, you know, "I know so and so!" "Oh, I know them too!" It was kind of crazy but a really good sign. So actually we met in March of last year and we got married in June.
A lot of people are like 'that's is too soon, what are you thinking, you don't know each other' and then you have the really conservative Islamic view that, you know you're not supposed to date before getting married so there's nothing wrong with just meeting each other and getting married. I don't know. It's really extraordinary to meet someone with similar views that you do.
He's very similar, he's studied abroad, he lived abroad for several years, so we both have this love for travel and exploring different cultures and becoming more knowledgable about the world around us … I don't know. We just sort of… Click. That's the only way to describe it.
It's nice to hear a story that sounds so ineffable. It's cool, it works.
Yeah, I mean, we were at a point in our lives where we were ready to get married, and I think we had tried to get married before, had experiences with navigating the whole marriage circuit. But I think when it was time and the right person came along we would make a good match and you know… It has been. I don't know, it's weird, 'why are we a good match?' I don't know, we just are, we just fit together.
For other people moving to New York, who need life hacks and useful hints of where to go, what do you wish you had known when you had arrived in the city or any useful shops or restaurants you've found? Or places?
Definitely NYU. There are so many different opportunities to develop your knowledge and grow spiritually as well. It's just a really nice community, it's just very welcoming- it's for NYU students but they welcome everybody.
Restaurants… Everyone knows Fatima's Halal Kitchen which is a chinese restaurant in Queens which is really, really good but kind of a pain to get to if you live in Brooklyn like me. If you can picture this: during Ramadan, you're fasting from before sunrise to sundown- nothing to eat, nothing to drink. We went from Bay Ridge Brooklyn to Fatima's Halal Kitchen while we were fasting which took two hours each way so we spent four hours of our day to get Fatima's Halal Kitchen just to bring it back and eat it because it was too early to eat it there. It's that good. But I'm still pretty new to the city.
Also I'm a bit of an Interfaith activist so I do a lot of work with different communities both online and offline to help Interfaith dialogue. There's actually the Interfaith Council of New York City and it's really good. They do a lot of anti-bullying workshops, they do a debate for high school kids, a lot of training and workshops etc. etc. for all the different faith communities. That's a really good resource if you want to explore your neighbourhood ties, because you know, we don't live in this insulated little bubble, I mean look at all the people sat in this restaurant there are so many nationalities, so many different faiths, we're so diverse, we can't wrap ourselves up, so that's a really good place for resources.
Christina's fantastic blog can be read by clicking here.