Eman Cheema- Youth Muslimah

There are days I am hyper-aware of my homelandlessness. Essentially, I am a third-culture kid. I am torn two ways, and both ways, they tell me, “You do not belong here.” But I do believe I have a duty to both. I owe my being and my efforts to both.



Who are you?

My answer is neither simple, nor precise. I was raised in Ontario, but I did a lot of growing in Lahore. I belong to both Canada and Pakistan, but also neither. There are days I am hyper-aware of my homelandlessness. Essentially, I am a third-culture kid. I am torn two ways, and both ways, they tell me, “You do not belong here.” But I do believe I have a duty to both. I owe my being and my efforts to both.

I write from time to time, but I do not consider myself a writer. I sing, paint, take photos and cook, as well, but I do not consider myself a singer, painter, photographer or chef, either.

I study Ethics, Society and Law over at University of Toronto. I also work with the Social Justice Office of St. Michael’s College as an Events Co-ordinator; my job is to design, plan, organize and host events for students in order to create safe spaces that are conducive to discussions on topics that are generally considered taboo. It is an initiative in socio-political awareness and involvement.


Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:

My favorite quotation is from a Punjabi song. I have it written down in nearly all my journals and notepads, but ritualistically, not for memory.

“Maahi ve, maahi ve arz karaa’n, meinu vi aasmaani fitrat de. Wadda mein ho ke vi jhukkeya rawaa’n, dola ve, dola ve, himmat de.”

‘Maahi’ can mean a number of different things. In Urdu, it means “fish.” Some Indian poets say it is used to refer to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) out of love, while others argue it means Earth Goddess in Sanskrit. In Punjabi, it is a term of endearment, the closest translation of it in English would be “lover” or, “loved one.”

‘Dola’ is another word used to refer to someone out of love.

The song is in Punjabi. The poet is referring to a loved one, requesting to be granted the nature of the clouds; their height, their greatness, their span of influence. To be big, but all the while maintaining the capacity and will to submit to what is bigger, greater, taller: the loved one being referred to. At the end of the verse, he requests for the strength to be successful in this endeavor.

The clouds and their nature are a metaphor for ethereal wisdom and grace. Submission to a loved one, The Loved One, is faith in Allah, which is symbolic of humility. The poet is having a conversation with Allah, asking for the strength to be wise and humble, all at once.

It is my favorite verse because it is not only poetry, but also prayer. It is magnificent because it is simple, clear.


Islamic Perspective:

What Ayah of the Quran do you hold close to your heart? Why?
This might seem unconventional or odd, even controversial, but my Islamic identity comes from Punjabi folk songs and Sufi poetry, passed on down by word of mouth, by recitation, for either the entertainment of caravans or the education of villagers. The songs and poetry lead me into believing in compassion, kindness, justice, sacrifice, understanding, and the unending quest to find oneself, in order to find Allah. The journey is my Faith. To grow, to become better, to refine the nafs to such a degree that one becomes a model Creation by the Creator.
The script of the Punjabi folk songs and Sufi poetry is what made me fall in love with these verses from Surah Al-Alaq of the Quran:

“Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1) He created man from a clot. (96.2) Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable, (96.3) who taught with the pen, (96.4) taught man what he did not know.” (96.5)

It has instilled within me my love for reading, writing, learning and growing; it feeds my need to seek Knowledge, to Understand.


The “Ten”:

1. What is your favorite book?
A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews. It is about Home, and things that relate to Home always get to me. Set in Canada, written by a Canadian author, A Complicated Kindness is a brilliant coming-of-age story, it captures beautifully all the confusion that comes with puberty, distant mothers and Love that fails due to a lack of communication.

2. Who inspires/inspired you?
In terms of public figures, Bulleh Shah and Amrita Pritam have carved into me a Punjabi identity that I was afraid of belonging to, but I am now incredibly proud of. Spiritually, intellectually, politically and emotionally, I have come to know my religion and my heritage on my own terms.
On a stronger and much more personal level, my best friend and teacher, Zaid, inspires me most. He reminds me that Home is not a place; but a term with a fluid definition consisting of everything that has made me more of myself.

3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
To Love fiercely; be it a passion, a person or a place, belong to yourself and what you Love fearlessly.

4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
You will learn to be grateful for all that ails you. You will grow from all that ails you. You will be better because of all that ails you.

5. What are your hopes for your daughter(s) and/or son(s)?
I hope they trust that they have a Home to always come back to, even if they wander, that breaking is not the worst thing that can happen to the human heart, that it is better to embrace ambiguity than to denounce it, because we were not created to be absolute. I hope they enjoy Punjabi folk songs and Sufi poetry as much as I do, I hope they take more from it than I have. I hope they choose to be kind over being popular. I hope they understand what it means to respect others and what it means to garner respect for yourself. I hope they are never afraid of taking risks.

There is a prayer by a General Douglas MacArthur for his son, and I love it so much that when I can, I do recite it for myself, should I ever be blessed with children:

Build me a child, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak; and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat and humble and gentle in victory. Build me a child whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a child who will know Thee — and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge. Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. There, let him learn to stand up in the storm; there let him learn compassion for those who fail. Build me a child whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a child who will master himself before he seeks to master other men, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.
And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the meekness of true strength.

Then I will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain!”

6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
An illness, and the loss of two of my closest friends. All around the same time. It taught me to be grateful, to have faith. It all eventually makes sense. Eventually.

7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
None, alhamdullilah.

8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
I keep listening to the Punjabi folk songs and reading the Sufi poetry that made me who I am today. I constantly ask myself the difficult, existential questions that help me determine what is important to me.

9. How do you bring about real change?
I start with myself. If there is something I do not like, I work to make sure I do not perpetuate it with my actions. I stay patient; someone eventually notices and begins to do the same. Start small. Positivity will gain momentum so long as you are committed to it and consistent with your effort.

10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
For the way I made people feel.


Message from Eman:

My message comes in parts. Here they are:

1. Be ambitious. But ensure that your ambition contributes to the betterment of society. Ambition without contribution is without significance.

2. Invest your all into education; for yourself and for those around you. Not only through conventional, formal mediums like classes and seminars, but also through unconventional, informal mediums like conversations over dinner, leisure reading, etc. Make learning a priority. Motivate others to do the same. It not only garners community, but improves the quality of life.

3. Promote respect. For yourself and for others. Towards yourself and towards others.

4. “The time has come for woman
To plunge into battle
To fight bravely
To think of nothing else.
Not mother, or house—nor husband and children
The cause is but one: liberty or death.”

*From the collection of partisan songs entitled To Adartiko kai Epanastatiko Tragoudi (Partisan and revolutionary songs).


More About Eman:

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Note: We’re celebrating Muslim youth this month! Tune in on Twitter to join the #MYRising conversations and check out Love, InshallahComing of Faithand Muslim ARC for more #MYRising features.