Decades ago when Mara Ahmed was a young MBA graduate from Pakistan at her first U.S. job, an incident woke her up to a disturbing aspect of life in her adopted homeland. Ahmed was in her twenties, out to lunch with colleagues from work. Most of them were senior to her in the corporate hierarchy. All of them were white men. Somehow the conversation turned to race relations in America. As Ahmed recalls it, one of the men turned to her and said, it’s funny that people talk about racism, because all of us sitting here—and he pointed to the three white men at the table—will soon be outnumbered by people like you. We are the ones who should feel threatened.
Ahmed said nothing. She was shocked. She’d thought she was among colleagues but suddenly found herself set apart. It bothered her for a long time that she didn’t speak up that day.
Her silence is long past. In 2004, disturbed by negative media stereotyping of Muslims after 9/11, Ahmed left her job as the senior financial analyst at a prominent Rochester company to make her first documentary film. “The Muslims I Know,” which premiered at the Dryden Theater in 2008, is an intimate portrait of a community as American as any other; its cast includes Aitezaz Ahmed, Mara’s husband, and a collection of their friends and relatives. Next came “Pakistan One on One,” first seen at The Little Theatre in 2011, followed by “A Thin Wall” in 2015, a film Ahmed co-produced with Indian filmmaker Surbhi Dewan about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.
Ahmed’s films take on broad issues—racism, Islamophobia, geopolitical upheaval—by showing their effects at a human level. She interviews people about what they’ve seen in life, what it’s like to be who they are. In their non-linear narrative approach, the films also weave in art forms such as poetry, painting and dance. Ahmed herself is a collage artist who’s exhibited at Nazareth College. On top of that, she’s perhaps the only Pittsford mother writing articles for Socialist Worker.
“I am attracted to contradictions,” Ahmed says. “With collage, you juxtapose things that might seem incongruent, and it creates something new, perhaps evokes a thought that didn’t exist before. … When you have different points of view, you can learn from one another.”
‘The Injured Body’: exploring the toll of microaggression
Ahmed today is making a new documentary with the working title “The Injured Body.” The film was inspired by the book “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by the poet Claudia Rankine. In a slim volume that itself blends genres—it’s part prose, part poetry, interspersed with photography and visual arts—Rankine illuminates the microaggressions that accumulate like toxins in the lives of people of color in the United States.
A microaggression is an insult aimed at someone based on their membership in a marginalized group: A security guard follows an African-American shopper in a department store. A man makes a sexist joke expecting his female colleague to laugh. A teacher refuses to pronounce an immigrant student’s name properly.
“Microaggression can be related to racism, but it can also be about gender, sexism or class,” Ahmed says. “I wanted to explore all those nuances in the film.”
What makes an aggression “micro” isn’t that it’s trivial but that it’s often fleeting, possibly unintentional—and all too common. Asked if she ever experiences microaggressions, Ahmed says yes, often, and recalls that long-ago lunch with colleagues—although on reflection that strikes her as more blatantly aggressive. Asked if she’s ever committed a microaggression, she says yes, she recently assumed someone’s religion based on his name. Few people are immune from acting out unconscious biases.
It can be hard to identify a microaggression as it occurs, because in the context of the dominant culture the action or comment can seem normal. On the receiving end, the body might react before the brain knows why.
“I blush, my face gets very hot, but I can’t quite put my finger on what happened,” she says. “My mind has to catch up and unpack it. I come back home and discuss it with my husband to figure out what disturbed me.”
Ahmed has been reading Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from Martinique who supported the Algerian war of independence from France. Fanon observed the constricted breathing of prisoners of war and wrote that the constant threat of violence when living under colonization leads to habitually shallow breathing. He called it “combat breathing.” In Ahmed’s own conversations with members of marginalized groups, people describe how their bodies brace and their breath hitches in atmospheres of overt or even hidden hostility. She wonders about the long-term effects of that on health.
For “The Injured Body,” Ahmed is interviewing women of color in Rochester about their experiences of microaggression and their strategies for overcoming its harms. In keeping with her collage-inspired approach to film, she has teamed with the Japanese choreographer and dance artist Mariko Yamada. Because microaggression is an experience of the body, the two reasoned, dance can express both its impact and liberation from it.
Yamada was excited to work on the project both because the subject resonated for her and because the medium of film can zoom in on facial expression and subtle movements of musculature in ways that cannot be done onstage. The film is expected to be two years in the making. Talking to Ahmed about including a sense of seasonal change, Yamada had a vision of dancers in snow.
That’s where the seemingly endless winter of 2018 paid off. Having a busy project team all in the same place at the same time is a scheduling feat, so when it occurred at the Rochester Community TV studio one snowy April morning, everyone piled into a car and drove to Highland Park: Ahmed, Yamada, dancer Joyce Edwards and cinematographer Rajesh Barnabas. With a wet slush soaking through shoes, the group found its way to a field at the park’s highest point. Yamada and Edwards peeled off their parkas and, dressed in thin sleeveless costumes, tucked themselves amid the drooping branches of a weeping beech tree. As wind whipped around them, they stood on the white ground and performed a dance of almost sculptural stillness. Every time Barnabas stopped filming for a moment, Yamada and Edwards broke their pose, jumped up and down briskly, and rubbed their hands together to raise a bit of heat.
“I thought we were going to get sick,” Yamada later laughs, “but we didn’t.”
Yamada is enjoying the collaboration because of its creative possibilities and because the film is outspoken in a new way for her. She grew up in Japan, she says, where the value placed on harmony, while a cultural strength, also can hinder assertive expression.
“Mara and I care about the same issues, but the approach is different,” Yamada says. “She’s more of an obvious activist.”
The journey from Lahore to Rochester
Ahmed didn’t start out as a social firebrand. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she grew up mostly in Brussels, Belgium, where her family settled. French was one of her primary languages; she also speaks English as well as Urdu/Hindi and has studied Dutch, Latin and Farsi at different times in her life. Ahmed’s parents both held master’s degrees in English literature; they’d met and fallen in love as classmates, before her father went on to a career in civil service and her mother devoted herself to raising their children. Ahmed’s father, Saleem Murtza, was the family disciplinarian; to please him, everything had to be just so. Her mother, Nilofer Saleem, softened the atmosphere with attention and unwavering support. Mara was the eldest of four, including two sisters. She’d spend hours telling her mother the story of every book she read. Her father was not so patient. But he did, unlike many Pakistani men of his generation, believe in girls’ education; he wanted his daughters empowered to pursue careers. Ahmed recalls moping around one day avoiding the books for a math test she was sure she’d fail. Her father laid out the plan: Mara would go take a nap. While she slept, he’d prepare her favorite meal. Then he’d wake her up, she’d eat dinner, and after dinner, she’d study.
Ahmed got a 100 on that test—and later earned an MBA from the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi in Pakistan and a second master’s degree, in economics, from the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Both of her sisters are doctors.
Ahmed’s husband is a rheumatologist and has his own practice in Brighton. The couple married in 1993 and Mara moved to Connecticut, where Aitezaz had a fellowship at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Mara completed her master’s in economics and worked in corporate finance. The couple had two children and moved to Rochester in 2003. Their son Gibran, 23, works in New York City. Their daughter, Mimi, 18, is a student at Fordham University.
“I love Rochester,” Mara Ahmed says. “Rochester is the city where I’ve lived the longest in my entire life. I feel really rooted here and I love the people.”
In 2004, when her children were young, Ahmed had what she describes as an epiphany. She was working at the Sentry Group in Rochester, designing mathematical models for business analysis. Ahmed enjoyed the job and was good at it, but it had her working nights and some weekends. She’d find out about her children’s day from their nanny. Sometimes, her husband would take over from the nanny and she wouldn’t see Gibran and Nermeen until they were asleep. It was exhausting.
“I remember sitting in my office one night and thinking, ‘I give the best of me—my physical energy, my emotional energy and my mental sharpness—to this company. Is it worth it? Or should I be giving the best of me to my family and my community?’ That was the day I decided to resign.”
The choice was possible because of her husband’s earnings as a doctor—many mothers don’t have the option to quit a paying job, Ahmed notes. But still, the adjustment was difficult. The worst part was letting go the nanny, even though Ahmed’s children were thrilled to have more of their mother’s attention. Also hard was that her husband, at first, did not understand why she would upend their lives that way.
“He was a little bit in shock when I left my job,” she recalls. “When I’d taken career breaks before, after having the children, I’d always wanted to go back to work. Now I wanted to create disruption again. … My income was gone, but it was more than that. For a while, it was like the system we had set up, the way our family worked, was broken.
Ultimately, her husband adjusted. “I’m in a marriage in which I’m deeply in love,” Ahmed says. “(Aitezaz’s) support and kindness have allowed me to blossom in incredible ways, and I always have him at my side when I premiere a film.”
Left turn at the light
That is not the only change that rocked the family’s world. When they’d first moved to the United States, Ahmed’s husband especially was a romantic believer in the American Dream; he’d read the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights more closely than most Americans probably ever will. Ahmed had been schooled in free-market economics and was a rising star of the corporate world. But her politics began to change when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. She joined an anti-war group. She made posters for rallies. She started reading writers like Naomi Klein, about the downsides of corporate globalization. Economics began to look less like a science to her and more like a political ideology justifying environmental devastation, and oppression of brown and black people all over the world.
“I got in touch with the activist community in Rochester,” she says. “It’s funny that although I’m from the Global South, my anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist politics were developed in the belly of the beast, inside the empire.”
After she quit her corporate job in 2004, Ahmed took an art class at Nazareth. She began film training at Visual Studies Workshop and continued at Rochester Institute of Technology. “The Muslims I Know” was made mostly as a class project in RIT professor Cat Ashworth’s Documentary Workshop.
“(S)he was a fully formed artist who had a clear vision of what she wanted to say. What she wanted to say was unique, fresh and real,” recalls Ashworth, a professor at RIT’s School of Film and Animation. “She had been shooting video footage for “The Muslims I Know,” and wanted to learn how to structure a documentary. … I urged her to make it a first-personal documentary, and use her own voice and unique perspective.”
The film asks Pakistani Americans of Ahmed’s acquaintance questions framed by non-Muslim Americans. One could call it hopeful, in its premise that the way to fight prejudice is to get to know one another as people. Her next film, “Pakistan One on One,” explores what the man or woman on the streets of Lahore thinks about America.
“She produced these films at a time when Muslims felt the pressure of 9/11 and were living in fear,” says Muhammad Shafiq, professor and executive director of the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College, and former Imam of the Islamic Center of Rochester. “Her films did their best to remove some of the misunderstandings.”
Film critic Jack Garner calls the films well made, with a strong and commendable point of view in the post-9/11 era. “I like her montage, multipart approach,” he says. “They aren’t designed as classic narratives, nor should they be. They ask important questions about identity and prejudices, and then seek answers.”
Ahmed’s production company, Neelum Films, is named after her mother’s nickname. In addition to self-financing her projects, she raised some crowdfunding dollars for post-production work on “A Thin Wall,” and the Dryden premiere of “The Muslims I Know” was co-sponsored by New York Women in Film and Television Rochester.
“A Thin Wall” focuses on family stories passed down through the generations about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. During that time, Ahmed’s Muslim family had fled from India to Pakistan—some of them in a train still stained with the blood of a recent massacre. At RIT, she met Dewan, whose Hindu family had moved in the opposite direction. Their film tells both sides of the story.
During the chaos after Britain’s hasty departure from colonial rule, an estimated 10 million people were displaced and a million died in flareups of communal violence. The bifurcated Punjab region was especially hard hit.
“The border that mutilated the Punjab doesn’t make sense,” Ahmed says. “There are people on both sides of the Punjabi border who speak the same language, read the same literature, eat the same food, and connect to one another on a very visceral level. To separate them based on religion is a joke. … In the same way, the Durand Line that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan in the north doesn’t make sense. There are Pashtun families on both sides of that border. Again, that line was drawn by the British. It’s arbitrary.”
The idea that nation states are integral to human civilization is mistaken, Ahmed believes. In fact, nation states are a more recent historic development, with their borders often drawn by colonizers without thought of or consultation with indigenous peoples. Colonizers also tend to maintain power by emphasizing and exploiting divisions in the populations they control; it wasn’t until a 19th century British census, she says, that people of the Indian subcontinent—who until then had identified themselves mainly by region as Punjabis, Bengalis, and such—were asked to identify themselves by religion. By the time of independence, religious identity had taken a central role, as a vantage point from which not to interact with others but to exclude them.
“The entire justification for creating a nation state is that there should be some kind of religious or ethnic homogeneity within that nation state,” Ahmed says. “And that creates these very toxic forms of nationalism. A country is never completely homogeneous. There’s always difference, there are always minorities in every country. What’s going to happen to those minorities when you have this nationalistic discourse? We see that in Pakistan and we see that in India. And we see it all over the world. We see it in this country as well.”
The issue remains profoundly relevant, she adds, as the United States faces critical decisions regarding immigration and national identity.
“What does it mean to be an American? Who fits and who doesn’t? If an American is someone who’s white, then what do we do with all the black and brown people in this country? How do we control that flow of population? Do we use travel bans?”
Ahmed’s answer is to take a lesson from biology: Diversity is the wellspring of adaptability. Ever immersing herself in the literature of her chosen themes, she has been reading the Martinician writers Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau on the poetics of diversity—the search for a way to talk intelligently about the subject. Diversity isn’t a melting pot or a salad of mixed ingredients, Ahmed says; it’s a dynamic process always moving toward unknown outcomes—and that makes it a vital source of adaptive strength.
“Every time you’re encountering difference, you’re renegotiating, you’re adjusting, changing,” she says. “That’s the beauty of diversity, and that’s what makes it such a life force.”
Ahmed says this at the dining room table of her home in one of Rochester’s leafiest neighborhoods. Asked to evaluate how Rochester is living up to the value of its own diversity, she says: “Rochester is probably one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. … We’re sitting in Pittsford right now, in the suburbs. … There’s immense poverty in certain parts of Rochester, (but) those parts are completely invisible to the people who live here. They don’t even have to see it, they don’t have to encounter it.”
Redlining created ghettos in American cities by starving them of investment and services, she says. That makes it imperative now to institute more equity, for all people, in every aspect of life—including housing, education, employment and health care. “The segregation that we see is not natural or organic. It is the result of deliberate racist policies that need to be reversed.”
Ahmed serves as a member of the Truth Commission of the Poor People’s Campaign in Rochester. Built on actions organized by Martin Luther King Jr., the Rochester campaign today focuses on issues of racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation. “These things are completely interconnected,” Ahmed says, adding that she once stopped working with a local organization that would not include militarism and Islamophobia—even after the election of President Donald Trump—in what was supposed to define an umbrella agenda for progressive local groups. She remains interested in issues including anti-Muslim racism, police accountability, immigrant rights, indigenous rights and mass incarceration.
“She is extremely active in human rights issues, and I always enjoy her point of view, which is informed, intelligent and relevant,” says RIT Professor Ashworth. “Mara has opened up a dialogue in Rochester, on how to see people for ‘who they are at their core.’”
Film critic Garner notes that the social impact of documentaries can be difficult to assess, since the films typically don’t reach broad audiences, and when shown at film festivals and community events there might be a good deal of ‘preaching to the choir.’ Still, the conviction and strength in Ahmed’s films are persuasive, he says.
Ahmed’s films continue to be screened at college campuses, film forums and community centers internationally. Shafiq says that twice they have shown at Nazareth, with Q&A discussions afterwards raising audience awareness.
The post-screening Q&A sessions can move participants to stronger mutual understanding, Ahmed says. In Oakland, Ca., recently, an audience member asked about the hijab. Ahmed, who doesn’t herself cover her head, said she knows many young women, whose mothers and grandmothers never wore the hijab, who wear them today as a way to assert pride in their Muslim identity. Then a young, hijab-wearing woman stood up and confirmed that this was exactly so for her. Communication happened. “It was one of the most beautiful experiences,” Ahmed says, adding that this screening of “A Thin Wall” followed the opening of her art exhibit “This Heirloom” at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center—an event accompanied by Afghan food, Palestinian ghoraybe cookies, Mirza Ghalib’s poetry sung by Jagjit Singh, and beautiful photographs of South Asian life prior to the partition. “It was a most moving experience, an attentively curated exhibition,” she says.
Responding to her critics
Sometimes, though, the Q&As draw vituperative criticism. After one screening a year ago, Ahmed says, a viewer stood up to rail against the threat of sharia law taking over America. Ahmed tried to stay calm and referred the audience to the American Civil Liberties Union report “Nothing to Fear: Debunking the Mythical ‘Sharia Threat’ to Our Judicial System.” Another time, someone took the floor to declare that the people of Iraq are grateful for U.S. intervention. Thinking of the death toll and devastation in Iraq, Ahmed said she couldn’t even debate the question at that level. She told the woman to go read some newspapers. But then the wife of a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq stood up to say that from everything she hears from her husband in the field, the woman had it wrong. “The wife of a U.S. soldier actually stood up and supported me,” Ahmed says.
To Ahmed’s surprise, some of her worst Q&A experiences have been with liberal activist organizations. After one in Rochester, she says, a viewer sent emails telling her how she should have made her film.
“‘Next time you’d better do this and next time I strongly recommend that you do that, and next time, don’t say this,’ Ahmed recounts. “And I said wow, that’s such a perfect example of mansplaining. You as a white man, telling me, a woman of color, who made her own film, who financed the whole film—the money came out of our savings account—you are telling me what I should say about my life, my community, and other people like me.”
Ahmed says she works at being patient but it’s not a natural part of her constitution. In social situations, when someone says something troublesome—perhaps disparaging a minority group—her husband can confront the comment in a friendly, conversational way. Her hackles tend to rise. “I feel I can be abrasive at times, especially when talking politics,” she says. “I wish I could be more charming about it.”
As a physician, Ahmed’s husband advises her that it’s OK to skip the stress of Q&As following screenings of “The Muslims I Know.” “They take a personal toll,” she says. “But I keep doing them because I feel like if not me, then who?”
Where Ahmed perhaps is most blunt is in her writing. As much as she abhors the actions and attitudes of Trump, she remains proud of a pre-election 2016 Socialist Worker article she published, “Time to boycott the Democrats.” In it, she argues against backing Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq War and spearheaded the military campaign against Libya. The pressure to choose the lesser of two evils, she writes, does not represent a real choice.
“The Democratic Party doesn’t care about liberal concerns,” she wrote. “They sabotaged Sanders, their own candidate, because he was not properly aligned with neoliberal values. … They should not be able to count on our votes, come what may, every four years.”
Since “The Muslims I Know” first screened, the sensitivity around 9/11 might have faded but the Islamophobia industry has grown even more virulent, Ahmed says. For more information, she guides people to publications such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” Her current project, “The Injured Body,” is taking up where her previous films left off to confront issues of racism and social change.
By popular demand
On another stormy April day in Rochester, with newscasters broadcasting dire warnings of an ice storm, Ahmed and Barnabas gathered to interview Tonya Noel, co-founder of the Flower City Noire Collective, which seeks to elevate women of color in their communities through such activities as urban gardening, a book club and reproductive health classes. The meeting took place in the 19th Ward home of Noel’s grandmother, who stood outside as visitors approached and made sure the front steps were generously salted so no one would get hurt.
Once inside, Ahmed and Barnabas picked a good spot to film, between the dining room and a living room decorated with ceramic elephants, African-themed figurines and a large family photo. Noel wore a T-shirt with the words “Black by popular demand” written across the front. Ahmed wore dark clothes and an orange-flecked shawl draped over one shoulder. Barnabas set up his equipment, tracked down and disconnected a beeping smoke detector battery in the recesses of the house, and reminded Ahmed not to throw back her long hair during filming because the mic would pick up the swooshing sound. So, Ahmed confined herself to nodding her head as Noel spoke of her life, her experiences and the five generations of her Rochester family.
At one point, Ahmed posed a question that grew out of this conversation—and perhaps out of all her work to date:
“In the world of activism,” she asked, “what does love mean?”