Thuraya is defined both by a distinct fire and an easy-going grasp of every moment; her eyes bristle with curiosity and determination in between pangs of laughter both on-site and off, and, in her humbleness, she describes her wit and keen eye as merely an attention to common sense. In the field, Thuraya not only employs this “common sense” to come to conclusions as skillfully as the best trained eye, but she is also perfectly able to retain even the passive lessons lent by her teachers—following the movement of their hands, constantly listening to not only what they say but dwelling on how they reach their spoken thoughts so that she is able to both forever follow suit in various contexts and understand the larger picture.
As the senior at the University at Buffalo recounted her pathway to her history degree, this became all the more evident, particularly in her incredibly detailed descriptions of the assignments given to her by her favorite professors at NOVA, Northern Virginia Community College, that attest to her absorption of information, appreciation of knowledge, and impeccable memory. These reminiscences prove that education should not be laborious wading through purposefully incomprehensible articles and questions; just as Thuraya believes is crucial to the dissemination of knowledge of a larger scale in political contexts, her mentors showed her the potential of accessible education, the power of problem solving over rote memorization, and the importance of learning material that challenges the status quo and forces people to encounter the uncomfortable while encouraging them to grow. Her experience with the radically controversial primary documents of her American History course in particular renewed her love of history and her desire to pursue the field in spite of the expected aspirations of her community. In a sense, Thuraya returned to the dreams of her childhood, explaining that “taking those classes solidified [the thought]…’yeah…maybe I can actually do this’”—that she did not have to come as close as possible through the avenue of political science but instead could throw herself into a field she shied from due to monetary concerns. Although those concerns persist in the form of her desire to be self-sufficient and to be able to take care of others, particularly her sisters, she has decided to be easier on herself and more open to the uncertainty of life, work, and education. Since “when [she is] very desperately trying to go after certain things, [she] never get[s] [them],” she has pushed back against familial-born pressure to pursue everything possible; coming face-to-face with the fleetingness of life after a car accident led her to decide “I don’t have time to be that unhappy”—instead learning to relax and to take in the beauty of her surroundings, lessening her concern for what others think and recognizing that academia does not “determine [her] self-worth, which is what [she] thinks is a big issue in academia and in kids…feeling like you’re intrinsically tied to these pieces of paper…[her] life has taught [her] that…no matter what you do you’ll be always more than what someone says you are.”
This authentic nature, however, exist against a complex backdrop of expectation and performance. At only 21 years old, her unique position as an Iranian-American woman and as an active political agent, shadowed constantly by the lived experience of her family’s diaspora and the content of her studies, fosters a perpetual awareness of the current political and social moment. In fact, she has been denied obliviousness from an early age, held in the public eye due to her mother’s prominent position in the Muslim community and in her own saturation of herself in community work, particularly for two Muslim organizations, UMAA, Universal Muslim Association of America, and EmergeUSA (now Emgage)—even winning a scholarship for the latter’s leadership program. Within these communities, Thuraya fostered the diversity of skills that defines her today, editing academic texts, transcribing lectures, collecting data, developing technology, networking, and engaging with Muslims within her home state of Virginia to encourage voter participation and governmental representation. By embodying her self-description as a “renaissance woman,” she likewise reflects how, “in religious communities[,]…you… wear so many different hats.” Further, her work with NWMI, Next Wave Muslim Initiative, exemplifies both her embeddedness in her projects as well as the bricolage of her identity, with this family-run organization not only fostering youth but encouraging an intermixture of participants in religious ceremonies often more esoteric.
Born in Herndon, VA, but incorporating different loci into herself through her connection to family members from all over the world, the multiplicity of languages which she speaks, her detachment for most of her life from the simple stability of a room of her own, her experience as a home-schooled child, and her presence as a Shia in a Sunni mosque when growing up, Thuraya has often felt like an outsider in spaces both new and familiar. She is often reminded of the disconnect of living through unique circumstances and being unable to express them to others, to be aware of the daily news of atrocities and a fraught cultural history and, therefore, embracing the light-hearted, even on the level of friendship. Thuraya appreciates different degrees of interconnection, remaining adaptable and reflecting on both her friends all over the world and her ability to relish in those memories without the need to become wholly intimate with everyone. She finds meaningfulness in these acquaintanceships and the easy-going interests that accompany them and which occupy a prominent spot in her life; for example, her indulgence in the color coordination of the royal family or the activities of the Kardashians does not “negate” her intellectualism or care for the serious occurrences in the world, and her embrace of pop-culture attests to her rejection of performativity. The little girl who loved soccer despite others’ opinions grew into a woman who cherishes her authentic self, choosing her own means of articulating her relationship to God, her own understanding of her religion, as well as fighting the stereotypes and expectations that others impose on her religious and personal relationships. When others tell her that she is not “a real” anything, she forges her own identity, understanding that her existence resides within the cracks of others’ expectations, and knowing her own self with a lack of concern—“my experience and everything is beyond what people could imagine so there’s no point in trying to justify it to people.” Thus, she cuts back against the loneliness of performativity, navigating the communal world by engrossing herself in comedy shows and collective experiences such as sports events where all come together in happiness and excitement, caring deeply as well about every sport’s moving parts. When laughing with strong, brown eyes, a hand thrown lightly in front of her mouth, she told me of “the rush of emotions” that accompanies these moments and how she writes often, even imagining her life as, itself, a dark comedy.
In the realm of academia, this authenticity persists. As is evident in her careful observation of those whom she respects, Thuraya’s unrelentless desire to learn and adaptability are circumscribed by her personal situation in community, stating: “I always care deeply about how I interact with people on so many levels…because I’m not going to be anyone other than who I authentically am, and that translates into any work that I do, too, because there’s no point in pretending that I’m something I’m not.” For this oldest child who has clung tightly to a sense of self in the face of change, academia’s culture of performance, forced pretending of certainty, fosters imposter syndrome and severs a sense of belonging. In her embrace of the unsureness of knowledge, Thuraya asserted that “it’s totally fine to be wrong…it’s not okay to be rude”—a paradigm which encourages the health of the setting of knowledge-acquisition itself. Unlike those who continue to allow falsehood to fester, Thuraya’s spirituality has kept her humble and away from pretense, recognizing everyone’s various strengths and respecting the gaps in her knowledge so that she may fill them unashamedly. The Prophet said to “’seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’…you’re always learning, you’re always striving, and you do it until the very end”; yet, the need to move forward that saturates Muslim identity is not a solo venture but one defined by a respect of things larger than oneself. Thuraya described this as a recognition of the “divine existence” that must be acknowledged to avoid failure, an encompassing force that expresses itself on the level of human interaction: “If you can’t be humble before people, no matter who you are…how can you humble yourself before God.”
Thus, Thuraya burns with passion and ambition while finding peace in the vastness of the world around her. In line with her defiance, independence, and complex identity, she hopes to study Iran and the diaspora, particularly Iran’s unique place in the Middle East, the return of the Shah, the country’s nationalization of its oil, and its resistance to Western Imperialism—not only to understand her heritage but to comprehend “authentic revolution” and to ethically contextualize contemporary conflict. In fact, for Thuraya, being a “good historian” is defined by looking to the causes of others’ actions and acknowledging the chasm between the researcher and the lived, generational experience of the countries studied. This position is a part of her challenging of narratives, her desire to uncover every end of a question and to see it in its entirety, and to do the subjects of her research the honor of encompassing their truth; further, it is also a position of reclamation since she believes that “it’s now time for the kids of immigrants or the grandchildren of immigrants to invest back into studying colonialism and imperialism in our countries because we’ll never understand why our countries are the way they are now if we can’t understand how it got there.” At the same time, despite the pressing nature of this study, Thuraya is moved by the peace of being present. She finds it in reciting the Quran and feeling comfortable and at home in her religion; she feels it in “the Potomac River and the falls…all the parks…I just hike and then go sit…hear the birds, hear the wind…placing yourself in the context of where you are,” saying, as she closed her eyes and extended her hands, how she loves to take those moments in and just “shhh,” reflecting on her miniscule size under the vast sky. For Thuraya, trying “to stay as present as possible” is a counter to the anxiety that always threatens to thrust her “into the past or future”; simultaneously, self-care, both for her body in cleanliness and calm as well as through personal responsibility, reminds her that “it’s not the end of the world, nothing is the end of the world.” She sheds the worries that she knows will not matter in five years; she reminds herself that she inhabits “’those happy days’” so that she does not appreciate them only after the fact.
Through Archaeology, her determination and her calm find unity: “[excavation] is providing that wonderful balance” that often becomes one-sided when studying alone instead of also having the time to work with your hands; “you can quiet your mind a little bit and just work,” watching the tangible progress of the labor while delving into the ancient history and beliefs of the past that she has always adored. On site, Thuraya’s presence encourages within us all the motivation, peace, and ethical considerations that she strives for. Whether she sits alone for a moment to reflect under over-hanging trees or looks to those she loves with eyes full of kindness, one can always feel her striving, arms extended upward, breathing in the present and exhaling a better future.
Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes
Photo by: Emma Ramacciotti