GAMA Collective reclaims the Muslim narrative

Zahra Seyed/GAMA Collective/Courtesy

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“If we don’t push Muslim creatives into the space, who’s going to write our story? Are we just going to let someone else write our narrative?” Abbas Mohamed, GAMA (Gathering All Muslim Artists) founding director, asked the sold-out crowd at Alena Museum in Oakland on Saturday evening. “That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time; but we need to change that.”

Like Mohamed, many members of the Muslim community are exasperated by the inaccurate depictions of their religious identity. Drained from constantly having their narratives cultivated by others who are often outside of the community itself, the GAMA Collective hopes to help Muslims reclaim their identities.

With the help of GAMA Collective, young, creative Muslims aim to rewrite their roles in popular culture after years of pushing back against the discrepant notion of Islam serving as a gateway to terrorism. These creatives hope to push the truth forward by celebrating the beauty in their art, music and culture. Muslims are more than the distraught news we see, a point GAMA Collective hopes to highlight.

GAMA Collective is an organization that tackles the misrepresentation of Islam by empowering visual artists, photographers and digital designers in the Muslim community to come forward with their talent and enrich the current, one-sided narrative. They encourage the appreciation and cultivation of art by hosting quarterly events to use creative mediums as tools for outreach. Their most recent event, Building the Muslim Narrative, was a conglomeration of various artists who discussed the implications of being Muslim in America.

With 6-8 weeks of planning, GAMA Collective was able to organize and sell out the event three times, demonstrating not only that there is a large community of creative Muslims but also that there is a demand to see this community embrace its creativity.

The four-hour event felt like a fraction of the time, as the audience was constantly engaged, cheering and applauding throughout the night. In accordance with the venue’s theme, the museum served as a safe space for Black and Brown bodies to discuss the political, racial and social issues they face without any judgement or need to warrant an explanation — there was no sugar-coating or resistance against them. One could tell performers felt comfortable and safe in sharing their experiences, knowing that they will be received with warmth.

Artists such as Sharif Zakout revelled in their heritage with pride. His songs and chants about freeing Palestine filled the room with unapologetic passion. Former UC Berkeley student Aman Falol’s heart-wrenching spoken word performances discussing immigrant tales jerked tears from the crowd. Omar Offendum’s impeccable rapping empowered the audience. Everyone in attendance understood, supported and stood in solidarity. For once, both the artists and the audience were people — not misrepresented tropes of their faith.

Though the event’s purpose and the material discussed was heavy, the deliverance didn’t weigh the audience down. Instead, each performance uplifted the Muslim community’s burden of proving their peace.

Women comedians such as Sana Saeed used humor to discuss the tribulations of following strict dating rules; Hoda Abdolrazek shared the laughable “difficulty” of having a Muslim name; and Sarah Ismail shared a touching anecdote about her young niece’s attempt to be a proud Muslim. They found ways to still leave everyone with smiles by making difficult topics approachable and to discuss incidents many Muslims have experienced but don’t feel comfortable sharing out of fear that they would be misunderstood.

Having a curated space dedicated to healing the wounds and celebrating the beauty of Muslims was a necessity that GAMA Collective graciously provided. As a result of its efforts, members of the Muslim community were finally able to share, reflect and build on the Muslim narrative they hope to command.

Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that Abbas Mohamed is one of several directors of GAMA Collective. In fact, he is the founding director.

Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article stated that the planning process for the event took a month. In fact, the event was organized over the course of 6-8 weeks.