By Nargis Rahman, MMNS
Smoke filled the blue skies of New York. Two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, where international businessmen united. Another plane hit the Pentagon, a government building in Washington D.C.
People were running out of crowded exits, covering their mouths from the ash that fell from the sky. Others were jumping from multi-story floors, much like millions on the Great Depression.
Social activist Zain Shamoon had been watching it all on a TV set on September 11, 2001. Others were watching him.
Looking back, the grad student at Michigan State University remembers his then first few days at Novi High School. An upperclassman he had never met, and canâ€™t remember anything about, stuck his foot in Zainâ€™s face as he sat cross-legged in its glossy hallways, waiting for class to admit students.
He was ready to stomp Zainâ€™s face. â€œArab,â€ he muttered to the American-born Pakistani student, as he walked away.
The hardest part is not knowing what would happen next, Zain remembered.
Not knowing, â€œHow your friends will react, how people are; If people are going to back you up, and what can you say and not,â€ he said.
Zain stuck out like a sore thumb in â€œwhite suburbia,â€ with his unruly black hair, scruffy facial hair and brown skin. He could count off those who shared his ethnicity or religion.
â€œIn a weird way 9/11 gave me a space to decide for what Iâ€™m not, who I wanted to be, in terms of my Islamic identity,â€ Zain said nine years later.
With his lean 5â€™9 figure, Zain takes a quick look in the mirror and puts on one of his signature scarves, a self-definition piece, over a casual shirt and dark blue jeans before leaving his shared apartment in East Lansing. On some days, he wears the Palestinian Keffiyah, with its striking white background and outstanding black boxy lines symbolizing Palestinian heritage.
He does not share the tradition but he wears it to contribute to one thing; intolerance for injustice.
Zain grabs his laptop bag and planner to begin his 14-hour shift; bouncing back and forth among research studies, doing therapy as an intern at the Human Development and Family Studies, with a specialty in marriage and family therapy at the university. Last semester he lead and directed meetings for the student organizations, Peace Over Prejudiceâ€™s â€œTunnel of Oppression,â€ and regularly attended the MSU Poetry Slam team he co-founded in 2007 during his undergrad years.
Born in Royal Oak to parents Ulfat Shamoon and Allah Shamoon, Zain is the youngest of three children â€“ with brother Zafar 13 years his senior and sister Sonia, a decade older.
The Shamoonâ€™s moved to Novi while Zain was young, to get away from their South Asian social bubble and mosque politics.
â€œMy dad didnâ€™t want me to be socialized in that environment. He wanted us to get a good education,â€ Zain said, about his workaholic father who does management in social work.
Thatâ€™s exactly what Zain did.
Mother Ulfat said Zain was always a happy baby who loved people and told the truth.
Although Zainâ€™s Pakistani parents spoke Urdu at home and practiced Islam, Ulfat said she never forced religion or culture on her children.
Zain craved to learn Urdu, and Arabic, the tongue of the Quran, more than his siblings.
While the siblings didnâ€™t share a taste for culture, sister Sonia and Zain shared a passion for helping others through psychology.
Sonia, 32, who also graduated from Michigan State University, worked as a social worker in Greater Chicago when Zain called her during his sophomore year, debating whether he could continue studying pre-med.
â€œI canâ€™t do this. I donâ€™t like the classes,â€ said Zain, who was pursuing a psychology degree with a bachelor of science. Zain began taking various classes, including theatre, which would later help him express himself.
His sister convinced him to talk to their dad and change his major.
â€œAbbu is not going to take away your tuition. Why are you even going to school then?â€ Sonia told Zain, he said.
His parents wanted him to be comfortable with his career plans, Zain said.
Ulfat said Zain was reasonable about his career change; he didnâ€™t have a passion for medicine.
â€œSince that day we figured he should do what pleases him,â€ she said.
During junior year in his undergraduate studies, Zainâ€™s grades skyrocketed in theatre and English classes, along with his relationship with his father.
He was starting to become himself.
Zain had a quest, to fight off anything that stopped him from succeeding.
His job entailed reversing the smart brown-kid stereotype and simultaneously putting a halt on the South Asian Muslim communityâ€™s unnatural production of doctors and engineers.
Zain is pursuing a Masters in marriage and family therapy, putting in 300 hours of counseling before he signs up for a PhD in human development in family services and another 700 hours to tackle the Muslim communityâ€™s biggest secret: family problems.
Domestic violence, double-standards against women and misconceptions in the media about Islam are on his list of to-fix.
Muslim people feed into the stereotypes or stay quiet about them, Zain said.
â€œItâ€™s very understandable where they [media] get these misconceptions from,â€ he said.
Zain said there are not enough people speaking out or professionally pursuing these topics.
Friend and former roommate Raheem Hanifa said Zain has a strong personality and he always speaks his mind.
â€œBecause of his passion and concern for social issues, he is going into a field where few Muslims go. He is showing young Muslims that itâ€™s not necessary for them to not go into typical fields such as medicine, engineering to fit in or live up to some false standard, but that you should go into a field because you believe you can make a positive impact on society,â€ Hanifa said.
Ulfat said Zain has had a zeal to overcome injustice since childhood.
â€œHe will either do something or say something against it,â€ she said.
Hanifa said Zain is â€œunafraid to tell the truth and immediately speaks out against any type of hate speech and words demeaning any group of people.â€
When Zain is not doing research, therapy or hanging out with the boys, he is putting together another piece of him: poetry and rap.
Itâ€™s 2 a.m. Zainâ€™s hands begin to twitch, his head is about to explode with ideas. He has to scribble them down before they vanish.
Zain is not a poet who sits for long sessions and writes out his thoughts. For him the thoughts come and go. When a new idea comes, it consumes him and he contemplates how to make it best-fit the situation and environment.
His heart never fails to stop beating at the hatred against injustice, a pain he cannot bear nor holds to himself. Injustice burns his blood. He needs to squeeze it out.
On May 21, 2008 Zain did just that, as he walked up to the black and silver mike, and tugged on his simple black baseball hat, which he wore backwards. His black scarf, green Michigan State T-shirt and light-blue jeans sported his on-the-go look.
He lets the words pump through him. He pauses. He relaxes. His body releases words: â€œExtra extra read all about it, women were disserted, left and oppressed. Islam is what took them out of distressâ€¦and media gives us much deception, if some do wrong and make connection, equate abuse with Islam? They need correction!,â€ he said as his hands waved, his eyes closed as the words escaped him.
â€œSpecial,â€ the tie-breaker poem about womenâ€™s rights, landed him first place in a local poetry competition, â€œVoice For Change,â€ sponsored by the Muslim American Society to encourage youth to listen to and impact positive entertainment.
As Detroitâ€™s winner, he did an opening act in front of thousands for a national tour of Outlandish, a Danish multi-faith pop-culture music group.
Friend Bashir Hakim, 22, said Zain gets emotionally involved in the pieces he does. Hakim, who is the practice dummy before Zainâ€™s performances, has heard most of Zainâ€™s pieces.
â€œA lot of people can relate to the positive things he talks about,â€ Hakim said of the friend heâ€™s known for four years.
â€œHe uses his talent to tackle those issues,â€ he said.
Wayne State grad student, Reem Abou-Samra said Zain is the mastermind behind MAS Detroit Youthâ€™s Expressions group, a faith-based community group which encourages the youth to speak out about their problems. He knows what the youth need, she said.
â€œDuring his performances he fluctuates his voice in all the right places and uses stories people can relate to even if they are not poetically inclined,â€ says Abou-Samra.
Zain says his role models are civil rightsâ€™ leaders Prophet Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Peace Over Prejudice, a coalition of organizations built in response to hate groups on Michigan State Universityâ€™s campus, is another outlet Zain uses to express himself. The group was created to build a positive atmosphere to convey equality among different student groups, what Zain identifies as â€œpromoting love and justice.â€
In the Tunnel of Oppression, an annual show put on by the student group, Zain uses his acting skills to show people in society stereotypes of racial discrimination, homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence and this year â€“ worldwide genocide.
Nada Zohdy, one of the first founders of the group said, Zain gives constructive criticism to uphold the group, which has deteriorated from its core group since its start in 2007.
â€œHe is willing to let people know what he thinks is working and isnâ€™t working, and how we can be more effective in what we can accomplish together,â€ she said.
Zain sees himself working with the youth or teaching in the future.
The grad student hopes to get married while completing his education.
While his parentsâ€™ say he can chose the girl, Zain says the matter is up to Allah.