What makes you different?

Maheen:
[00:00:00] Imagine you’re hanging out with a group of friends. You just wrapped up eating dinner and are walking to your car and your friend’s phone rings.

[00:00:25] It’s the Adhan, your friends gather on the sidewalk and pray as a group in public, in the middle of America. I can’t tell you how life-changing this event was for me, never before have I met a group of people, so confident in their faith, so fearless in their belief. So unfazed by what other people think it was incredibly beautiful and inspiring.

[00:00:50] That day. I decided these are the values I want to hold, too. If you didn’t already know Muslims, pray five times a day. It’s our way of staying connected to our faith. A lot of Muslims, I know don’t pray five times a day. We use the excuse of work being too busy or being on the go as a reason to get out of it.

[00:01:10] But for people who truly see the value in these prayers, they don’t let these excuses get in the way. And today’s guest who I’ll tell you more about later has a really funny story of how she gets these prayers in. This is a weird question, but do you remember the first time you prayed outside in public?

Laila:
[00:01:31] so my go-to is like the dressing room. That’s less public. I wouldn’t say the first time, but I do remember just trying to find one item to try on and like a Nordstrom dressing room and praying in the dressing room, but the doors don’t actually touch the ground. And so I remember making subdued where your foreheads such as the floor being like, are people gonna think that I’m like, Dealing in the weirdest way possible, like a shoving it all down my shirt.

[00:02:00] So that used to be my go-to. Cause I didn’t feel comfortable doing it like on the street. I think it wasn’t until I have done it a few times with like other people and that’s felt more comfortable. And then I started doing it alone. Like I did it just last week. Like I remember it so vividly because I was at Zarins in the Bay area and it was horrible.

[00:02:20] And I was like, About to miss it. And I like went to my car and I was like, Oh, I could pray in my car. But then I realized like, why not just pray on the sidewalk? And so I prayed on the sidewalk and it was fine. 

Maheen:
[00:02:35] So I grew up in a household that really values both Islam and Fox Cindi culture. For me, growing up, religion and culture were really intertwined.

[00:02:43] And this led to a lot of confusing things. For example, I saw people claiming to be Muslims, but were really awful people. Or I saw people claiming to be boxed Dani, but there were way more westernized. And even the people I had met in the West, I heard people use religion as a way to criticize everything and shower judgment upon others.

[00:03:02] These people never really signified what it meant to be a good Muslim or be a good box, Dani. But I was too young, too naive to realize that the flawed actions of people around me and the blurry lines between culture and religion were negatively affecting how I viewed religion until I met a group of like-minded people in the Bay area that really changed my perspective.

[00:03:25] All of a sudden I started seeing the beauty in religion, religion isn’t restrictive. It’s empowering. Faith can be your super power if you let it be. I remember the first time I met Layla ASEAN and how she instantly inspired me. Her fashion game was on point. She was ambitious in many ways. Apart from working full-time at Facebook, she was also a yoga instructor and she radiated her mannerisms, her ethics, the way she talked about things or people, everything was so positive and pure.

[00:03:59] And as I got to know her better. I realized that a lot of it stemmed from how she led her life with her faith and religion at the forefront. This balance is something I’ve struggled with my entire life meeting Layla and her group of friends really changed my perspective on faith and how to be yourself. So for fake ID, I wanted to bring on Layla to learn more about her journey. 

Laila:
[00:04:22] My name is Laila Zayan or Laae-la Zayan as my coworkers call me, I am Muslim American. Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and recently moved to the Bay area about two and a half years ago. I work in tech am a yoga instructor, but I would say out of all of the things that I’ve listed, that identity that I feel most connected to is the fact that I’m Muslim and that kind of is what drives my day-to-day life.

[00:04:53] People wouldn’t assume that when they first meet me or look at me, or when I speak, I would say it’s even more unexpected, I think, from the Muslim community, because I think most often they like have a certain vision of what, like a pious Muslim female looks like and acts like. And I wouldn’t say like, Totally fit the mold on that.

[00:05:14] I would definitely lean on like the fact that I’m a daughter of a single mother who immigrated here and raised me and my brother on her own. I would just say that I’m definitely like my identity ties so much to being. Her daughter. 

Maheen:
[00:05:33] That’s interesting. What have you learned from your mom in that sense time?

Laila:
[00:05:37] When she was raising me and my brother, like divorce was not common in the Egyptian community, Muslim community at all. And she was able to raise us with a lot of really important and like solid values and almost do it in a way that. It was interesting. Like she wasn’t around a lot, but we just felt her presence always.

[00:06:00] I don’t remember her teaching us things. Like she never sat us down and showed us the way, whether it was religion or other kind of lessons and stories. We just always saw her hustle and saw her struggle and saw her like patience and grit. So I have always just seen like her as just that role model and then.

[00:06:21] Also her independence and just to her ability to let go completely against the grain in terms of what her peers were doing has been a huge factor in how I live my life now, I think 

Maheen:
[00:06:33] You grew in Seattle. Right. So did you grow up in like an Egyptian community or like

Laila:
[00:06:37] I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, like the Redmond Kirkland area and was not raised at all with any egyptian or even Arab culture. I grew up in a pretty like Caucasian, non Muslim community. And Islam was always something that I saw my mom practice and had a lot of respect for. And. It was something I believed, but again, I wasn’t taught the religion much. When I got to college, I attempted to join the MSA, like the Muslim student association and just felt like it didn’t fit, not necessarily from a religious standpoint, but.

[00:07:17] Honestly, just like from a social standpoint, like, I, it was not community that I had a lot in common with, but I think it was because it was like my first attempt at making Muslim friends or even Arab friends. And it just didn’t feel natural. I felt like the only thing we had in common was a slam, which is great.

[00:07:34] And I think there’s a lot of value in that, but I think when you’re in college, you’re looking for a little bit more when you’re trying to build a community. And so that was a failed attempt. And then when I thought. Into kind of like the professional world. I started my career at Boeing, which is very different than where I’m at now.

[00:07:52] It’s much more what I would call like an old traditional boys’ club. So I wasn’t as comfortable sharing that I was Muslim, frankly. And then the first Ramadan came around and I was fasting and I actually didn’t share that with my team until I like had to go to a meeting that, um, Was like a lunch meeting.

[00:08:12] And then that’s when I shared a couple of weeks into the month of Ramadan, I was like, by the way, I have not been eating during the day for the past couple of weeks and explained it. And then through that, like I realized my team was like so accepting. And it was actually very cool because I felt for the first time that I could explain the religion through my lens.

[00:08:31] And it was the first time my coworkers were interacting with a Muslim person, believe it or not. And. I felt really empowered by being able to share my version of the religion, because I think so many people get a different version of it. Again, I would say at that time I still didn’t have a Muslim or Arab community around me.

[00:08:54] Fast forward to my move to the Bay area, which is when I met other Arab Muslim friends. And I was very cautious of trying to build a community because it just didn’t work in the past. I got very lucky because the Bay area just happened to have so many Muslim women that were absolute badass as working and just like representing the religion in a way that felt true to them. And, also just super accepting of me and my story. And I felt like we all didn’t have to have the same version of a son, but somehow we all had a lot of respect for one another and had these key things that were in common that like really bonded us in a level that I’d never experienced before. 

Maheen:
[00:09:40] I’m curious. What are those other parts of you that you had a hard time connecting with people on? And did you find those parts in other types of communities?

Laila:
[00:09:48] I think the other parts of myself that I never felt comfortable with were just being like any other white American that I was basically raised with. I liked to camp. I like to hike. I. Like to do yoga and work out. And I felt like those were things that the Arab community was not used to. And I had always had to like explain that that’s something that I actually deeply enjoy. And I just think the fact that I was raised with so many of my white friends and frankly spent weeks at a time in their house, I just felt so much more connected to that culture at the time. And so disconnected from the Arab culture. Because my mom is also very much connected to the religion and not the Arab cultures. 

Maheen:
[00:10:38] I think that’s a problem in most countries as they lead with culture rather than religion. And even in my household. It’s so confusing. What’s religion versus culture. Were there ever parts of your identity that felt that conflict growing up?

Laila:
[00:10:51] Yeah, I think when I was younger, like all the time from like having a boyfriend and dating and going to like school dances too, like. Then when kids started to drink and like party more, I actually felt like I did a pretty decent job of blending in and not like drawing attention to the fact that I was at like a bar, not drinking and times like that, I felt more like connected to my religion because I was.

[00:11:17] Making like a very concerted effort to not do something that obviously is like tempting and everyone’s doing, but I’m like avoiding the peer pressure, which I think is good. It’s like testing your faith in a way. 

 Maheen:
[00:11:29] It’s incredible that you didn’t have a strong Muslim community around you, but you were able to like, keep your faith so strong, I guess, growing up, you would say your mom was your main role model when it came to this stuff.

Laila:
[00:11:43] Yeah, I would say so I also think, like, as I’m thinking about it, I had a white boyfriend, like an American, non Muslim boyfriend very early on in life. So like high school, college times. And that was the time where I felt, and I think it’s common for most where they feel like. Either they’re going to disconnect from their religion or, uh, stay connected in their faith.

[00:12:07] And I had always known that, like I wanted to marry someone that has the same values as me that has the same like religion. And when I started dating this person who is not Muslim, it didn’t feel good. Something deep down didn’t feel right. And so it was actually great because I felt like I was. Very open about my religion and about the importance it played in my life.

[00:12:32] And I was not making it up as I go, but I was like almost learning about the faith through him. I do think it takes someone asking you these questions, that challenge your beliefs to confirm your faith in certain things. And he was that person for me. And I felt like. Well, he’d ask me questions and I’d be like, Oh shoot.

[00:12:53] I have no idea. And then I would have to figure it out or look it up. I wouldn’t say that he was necessarily a role model, but he was definitely one of those key people in my life at a young age that made me like. Reconnect with the religion.

Maheen:
[00:13:12] I think it’s really beautiful that Layla, his own perspective of Islam grew stronger as a result of interacting with people around her, that weren’t of the same faith. And as a result, her actions also educated others. I have always admired people who value religion as part of their identity, because there’s always something.

[00:13:31] A sense of responsibility that they need to carry with them. The responsibility that every small action of theirs reflects their community around the world. And in the case of Muslims, that’s a 1.9 billion people. And I’ve noticed this with my friends and family members who, especially where the hijab, that responsibility is huge.

[00:13:53] And Layla showcases his responsibility, not just in front of her coworkers, but also as a yoga instructor.

Laila:
[00:14:04] So I kind of fell in love with yoga in high school and just fitness in general. Like I had always been pretty athletic and played tennis track cross country, but then. Finding yoga is like a different type of exercise that I really loved because there’s a mental component to it. And I think, um, it was the right fit for me.

[00:14:27] I became a yoga instructor about two and a half years ago, and just fell in love with the studio for one, the community that I built. And then also just the skills that you gain from being an instructor have helped me so much. I felt like. That process really empowered me, which I’ve always felt like I was one of the few Muslim girls that were working out just to be quite frankly, I don’t think it’s like a common thing or something that like, people love doing.

[00:14:59] And I’ve loved working out for a long time. I’m one of the weird ones that actually enjoy it. And so I’ve always wanted to figure out how to merge the two things that are super important in my life, which is like religion and then health and wellbeing, ideally like through yoga. So I’ve thought about different ways to incorporate the two right now.

[00:15:19] It’s really just like getting my Muslim friends to come to the yoga studio. And I actually think that that’s been amazing and I’ve had a lot of like my friends here in the Bay come to my classes and I. Would say that they were people that never have tried yoga, maybe not even worked out much at all and have fell in love with it.

Maheen:
[00:15:38] I think what you just said about blending, the two parts of your life that are important to you as one thing, that’s what I really love that honestly, that’s the goal of this podcast too. And that’s what gravitated me towards you guys. And most other people in my life is okay. It is their uniqueness that makes them incredible, like the fact that you lean so heavily into your Muslim identity, but also you don’t sacrifice your athletic identity and that you are willing to make the compromises that comes with it, which is what society thinks to make it work for you. So bad-ass! 

Laila:
[00:16:11] Thank you. I. Also think of any of my like Muslim friends that are wearing a hijab, for example, or like wear modest clothes, don’t feel comfortable coming to a studio. And then when they find out that I teach at a yoga studio, they’re much more inclined to actually come because they feel. Like they’re welcomed in a way. Yeah. And there’s someone like them in the room and I think that’s like a beautiful thing. And I think like that needs to happen more. 

Maheen:
[00:16:38] I’m sure. It wasn’t easy. Like even going to being, even being a yoga instructor, that’s like. Fully closed and loose clothing is unheard of, or just, I’ve never seen that until I came to your class. And I thought it was incredible. 

Laila:
[00:16:51] I don’t want to say that it was easy, cause it absolutely wasn’t. But I think I always grounded myself in the why behind all of the choices that I made and that made me feel so much. Better. Like, I think that you grow in hard times and it sounds so cliche, but I do truly believe that.

[00:17:11] And I think that’s what has gotten me through so many of those like uncomfortable scenarios, like wearing a long sleeve shirt when everyone’s wearing like a sports bra and people calling me out on it and asking why, and me being able to explain it. Oh, yeah. They’re like, aren’t you hot? It’s like, I think you’re hot as well.

[00:17:31] It’s a hot yoga studio. It’s just that I happened to be wearing one more layer than you, but yeah, I think it gets brought to my attention constantly. I just think it’s now something I’m way more equipped to answer. And again, if you’re able to. Have enough competence to answer these questions in a way that feels like right and authentic and potentially like educational and like debunking some of the myths that exist around Islam than I do feel like. It becomes way more natural and you’re able to do it without even thinking about it. And it doesn’t really affect your psyche as much

Maheen:
[00:18:07] Being different requires strength because when you stand out like sore thumb, whether you’re the tallest person in the room, the only colored person, or the only woman in the room, Or even being the most closed person in a hot yoga studio being different requires a lot of strength. 

[00:18:29] Unfortunately, I do not have that kind of strength. And I think that is what has always caused me to be influenced by the thoughts of those around me, constantly trying to blend in wherever I go. But then I meet people like Layla and other guests that you’ll hear from in the season. And I realize that it is only when you lean into your differences. Do you truly become comfortable with your identity. It is these differences that make you shine.

[00:19:00] Thank you for listening to fake ID. If you know someone who has an interesting story to share about identity, please reach out to us on Instagram and Twitter at fake ID podcast.

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