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“I grew up with my identity in crisis” Muslim stories about belonging

Man Holding Orange Fabric

Nadir Nahdi pieces together fragments of identity spanning three continents and three generations in Finding Nenek: The Girl in the Batik Dress, while Ali Ben Mohamed negotiates a very different journey of identity and belonging in The Stranger.

Nadir Nahdi was born and raised in London. His grandmother, or ‘nenek’, died when he was three or four and all he knew about her was that she was an Indonesian who had migrated to Kenya as a teenager. His parents had in turn migrated from Kenya to the UK and their heritage was mixed. As well as Indonesia, Nadir’s father was also of Yemeni and Kenyan heritage and Nadir’s mother was Pakistani. This wasn’t easy for Nadir: “I grew up with my identity in crisis,” he says. “A London boy who has never been enough of anything to be anything. I’m not Western enough to be Western, Eastern enough to be Eastern. I grew up yearning for a sense of belonging, searching for somewhere to feel home.” 

He found many of his generation were constrained by this dynamic and by the labels constantly attached to them by others. Both had a negative impact on their confidence and ingenuity, and this inspired Nadir to set up BENI, an online storytelling platform where young people can engage, collaborate and define themselves through creativity. It is global and is part of a generational shift to those who grew up with social media and fully embrace the enormous potential of collective and creative technologies.

As well as being the founder of this creative enterprise, Nadir is a producer with a huge presence on social media as an influencer and change-maker. However, he is featured on Alchemiya as a filmmaker and his short film, Finding Nenek: The Girl in the Batik Dress, tells a very personal story about a trip to Indonesia to find out more about his paternal grandmother.

Finding Nenek The Girl In The Batik Dress

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Before Nadir sets off on his trip, he talks to his father who expresses his own sadness that he never knew much about his Indonesian mother’s early life. However, he notes that it was not something she ever talked about herself and so it did not occur to him to ask her about it. This means that Nadir starts his journey with just a few photos of his grandmother including one in which she is wearing the batik printed dress of the title. This dress is the first piece of the puzzle, and he meets batik craftsman who he hopes will be able to give him some clues about his grandmother just from what she is wearing. Batik is not just a printed pattern on fabric. It can contain specific designs and motifs that are also identifiers of regions, origins and social status.

 As Nadir takes us through Indonesia, we are following both the family story and being intimately immersed in the richness, beauty and sound of Indonesian landscape, culture and people. The film is also an emotional journey and one in which questions and doubts about identity, discovery and belonging inevitably weave in and out of the action as events rapidly unfold. This makes the film not only very moving but also relevant to anyone who embodies multiple cultures and the complexity and often dissonance that can accompany that. Navigating such a path is not easy and what this film does is highlight the importance of knowing about the lives of those who precede you. Their stories can help create a stable foundation on which your own disparate identities can co-exist, hopefully enabling you to feel at home with yourself regardless of where you are.

For this and other reasons, the film was massively important to Nadir’s entire family. In an interview in 2018, he said that watching the film for the first time as a family was hugely cathartic. He continues:

“It felt like a therapy session and that was really amazing because I think a lot of this unknowing, ambiguity of our heritage is quite damaging to our mental health. It’s really traumatic. In that moment, when certain questions were answered, we were coming together over someone my dad loved.”

The film ends with as many questions as it answers but Nadir has since found out a little more about his grandmother, why she left Indonesia and the story of meeting his grandfather. So, hopefully there will be a sequel but, in the meantime, look out for #followingnenek.

The Stranger

Watch now on Alchemiya

Another documentary that gives a very personal take on identity is The Stranger. The story is told by Ali Ben Mohamed, a young Tunisian living in Italy. Although born in Saudi Arabia where his father was working at the time, Ali spent his childhood in his home country of Tunisia. His father was a known critic of President Ben Ali at a time when any expression of political dissent in Tunisia was dangerous. As a consequence Ali felt he was treated slightly differently at school by both teachers and pupils and so he became aware of a sense of ‘outsiderness’ from a very young age. His father moved frequently for his own safety and Ali didn’t properly meet him until he had secured political asylum in Italy and arranged for the family to leave Tunisia and join him there.

In this heartfelt film Ali sheds light on his experience of these particular family circumstances and the impact of childhood exile. His father also briefly contributes to the film and we get a sense of his life as a Muslim in Rome where he serves as an imam. Ali is disarmingly honest about the tensions of being an imam’s son, feeling that his already precarious identity became completely subsumed by his father’s. He also talks about the difficulties he had as a teenager stretched between two cultures, where friends were mostly non-Muslim Italians but his life was lived in the context of family and community. He could not find any common ground between these two worlds and kept them completely separated.

After an erratic and unproductive school life, he began taking evening classes. Inspired by the films of Spike Lee, especially Malcolm X, he was reminded of his teenage ambition to be a film director so he studied cinema at university. In the process of studying something he loved, he finally began to feel more integrated into Italian society. After the fall of President Ben Ali in 2011, he was also able to visit Tunisia.

Although there are always renewed negotiations to be had with identity, his understanding of the issues and his ability to better bridge his two worlds gives him a mission in his work. He concludes:

“The value I would like to add through my work in cinema is to present the circumstances of young people like me. Showing them as protagonist in front of the screen and not just behind it and for it to become natural on the Italian screen to see white, black, Muslim and Jewish people.”

Research: BENI / Buah Zine / Mula Zine

'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.
'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.

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