Gladtidings to the Strangers -- Dania Alkhouli
Dania is a Syrian American Muslim Writer, poet, activist and runs the non-profit A Country called Syria. What better way to get to know someone then to interview!
Salam Dania! Let everyone know your full name, Age, and professional title and any other identifiers?
Hey, y’all. My name is Dania Ayah Alkhouli. I am a 31 year old Syrian Muslim writer, editor, poet,
and community organizer hailing from sunny Southern California. I am also the author of three poetry books that focus on the intersection of a Muslim woman’s life experiences—from
relationships to identity to domestic violence/sexual assault to religion to politics. In 2012, I was
blessed with the opportunity to co-found a nonprofit traveling exhibition on the history, culture,
and stories of Syria with my mom. Currently, alongside this work, I curate and manage events as
well as the social media marketing for a local press. Unknowingly, life kind of made me a jack of all trades, but it’s been a fun adventure to explore and thrive in so many different fields and I'm curious to see where else it will take me.
You are very vocal on social justice issues and social issues, What made you go into writing and poetry?
If I try and remember the first time writing came to me, I’d say it was simply remembering the joy I
had anytime we were given a writing assignment in school. Whether it was a structured essay or a
free write, I got enthusiastic because it was the realest form of expression for me. For the longest
time I kept my writings private—be it prose or poetry or thoughts. Eventually, I found it both
therapeutic and a beneficial tool for change when shared. For women, especially women in
marginalized communities, sometimes our written words are heard the loudest, and I mean that in
both a positive and negative way. To speak up about topics society calls “sensitive” (but in reality are
necessary conversations) is not always easy for women. We immediately become targets of fixation
and backlash. It’s not always the “talking about them” that’s difficult, rather how reprimanded we
are for possessing the courage to work towards change through our words. It's never stopped me
though. Once I recognized the significance of what I say and how much it has offered support and
empowerment to others, I knew this was the path that Allah (swt) created for me. And what a gift it
is to find your passion and your work braided together.
Was there a moment in time you realized you were different because of your visibly Muslim identifiers such as your hijab? How did you change in that moment?
Being Muslim American means inevitably experiencing different moments in life where we feel
visibly different or some sense of otherness. Honestly, the simplest example is how after 31 years,
born and raised in this country, people still can’t get my name right. Looking back at my life, there
was always something that existed or happened to give me some sense of otherness. I have been
wearing hijab since I was seven so it’s both been a defining element to my visibility but also just a
fusion of my identity that even in my visible difference I feel oblivious to it. People stare at me ALL
THE TIME but it stopped bothering me a long time ago. I take it as perspective. Not every defining
experience is negative. Some people realized they were staring at me and came over to tell me it
was because they loved my shoes or had a question about where I got my scarf. However, this isn’t to
say every experience was positive.
Most probably all Muslims will confess that 9/11 changed our feeling of belonging immensely, but I think that was the starting point. I felt like with every terrorist attack anywhere in the world, Muslims were reminded to walk on eggshells somehow, and it only gets worse with each year. The most vivid of moments for me was actually the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. I was working about 15 minutes away from there and it felt like the whole county’s vibe shifted. I didn’t get lunch from any local places or stop at any groceries until I got closer to home. A man even tried to ram into me on the freeway during my commute and flipped me off when I switched lanes to get away from him. That was also the FIRST time my family suggested I wear a hat to hide my scarf until I arrived safely into the office and then back home. I cried at the office that day because it was surreal to realize that my family, the place where we all found the faith and strength to hold on, was now cracked enough by fear. Then came 2016 and now
2020 and it just feels like a mountain of reminders that we are “others” but it also feels like a new
sense of deeper solidarity has been built between so many marginalized communities. I refused to
wear a hat and hide my hijab and Inshallah will always find that. With every hardship came a
moment of faith that reminded me a breakthrough will come. To see so many communities fed up
with the oppression and speaking out is empowering and that's a big calling for us as Muslims,
especially those of us who have found ourselves at the core of social justice and activism.
Poetry is and has always been a strong tool in sharing a message, even during the Prophet Mohamed's time, he utilized poetry in the form of “poetry battles” but they had the message of Islam. How has poetry empowered you?
This fact has always been so interesting to me, specifically because the least amount of support I
get is from the Muslim community. I do have a handful of incredibly loving Muslim friends who’ve
been cheerleading my work and my words, but overall, it’s been looked down on. Seen as more of a
hobby that shouldn’t be as “loud” and as bold as I make it. It’s ironic that this is the case when the
first verse revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) was “Read” and another entire surah is named “Al-Qalam”
(The Pen). Poetry empowers me by its embodiment of words, knowledge, and influence. To me it’s
more of a science than it is an art. How a word can bend in various ways to hit a point harder than
regular conversations can. Sometimes, poetry is also a revolutionary way to share secret truths. It
reveals things to those who pay attention to what's being said not only in the lines but between
them too. That’s what drew me to it in the first place. I found that I could talk about sensitive
subjects indirectly direct (if that makes sense) like abuse, sexism, racism, religion, and more. I am
really glad to see that poetry is starting to gain traction and support in the newer generations and I
hope that continues.
Do you have any advice to Muslims, particularly Muslim women in the west, who find it hard to
comfortably be Muslim in this society?
It is very easy for us to forget that this life is not free from challenges. I remember one Ramadan, I
was washing the dishes after iftar and my mom had Quran playing behind us, and the reader read
verse 2 from Surat Al-A’nkaboot (The Spider). I have read the Quran numerous times but you know
how, Subhanallah, some times things hit you differently? I almost dropped the glass I was cleaning
and I turned around like I was going to face the one giving me this epiphany, and I smiled. The
verse says, “Do people think that they will be left alone to say, “We believe,” and not be tested?”
From that Ramadan on, every single time I face something heavy (and let me tell you, these past
three years have been the hardest on me personally) I turn to this verse. Allah (swt) gave it to me as
a reminder back then when I absentmindedly lived without it and I hold on to it. There will be so
many challenges we face, whether it is identity or spirituality or socially or financially—it literally
comes with the territory of life—but the important thing is to remember your purpose. My dad
passed away last year and the way it all happened was so painfully unexpected and traumatizing.
He didn't make it to his 61st birthday and so many people kept telling us, “Oh wow, he died so
young, too soon.” People don't always know how to talk to those grieving (I have a whole series on
my blog about this because wow, did my family and I endure a lot of unsolicited words) but this one
was of the few that disappointed me. Who are we to decide what is young and what is too soon in
God’s plan? Everyone was created for a certain purpose, to fulfill a certain mission, for a specific
period of time. I wholeheartedly believe my dad must have accomplished everything Allah (swt)
brought him here to do or else he wouldn’t be with his creator now. My advice is seek out your
purpose and make that your focal point. Let it guide you through hardships and through blessed
times. I face challenges daily from both inside my Muslim community and outside and really most
days, I feel like I only fit in with my cats—and that’s if they're feeling affectionate in the moment.
When your environments don't always feel welcoming or accepting, be sure to take a step back and
assess whether or not you are accepting yourself. And this isn’t an easy task. I have to remind myself
of this everyday when I produce new work, attend new spaces, log on to social media. I attended a
leadership convention a few years ago and one of the women said that when you’re doing the work
of social justice, when you’re doing something right, you will often find yourself walking this path
alone. I know what she meant and on almost every level she is right, but when we learn to trust who
we are, it becomes easier to find where we belong, and Inshallah the right people will follow.