In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.
“What will he become?”
by Sher Afgan Tareen
On most afternoons in West Windsor New Jersey where my aunt resides, apart from grabbing a pear from the kitchen table or scanning all the family pictures in the sunroom for one more time, there usually is not all that much to do. A decade ago, the usual placidity turned tense when my grandmother broached my brother’s career. It had been few months since my brother had informed us that he will apply for graduate school in religious studies and forego his earlier plan of pursuing a career in law or finance. No one raised any concerns. But the silence from our end bespoke a curiosity that had swiftly grown into an unbearably annoying question: “What will he become?” My brother was perturbed. He beseeched everyone to stop bothering him. Back then, I sympathized with him. But as I recollect that afternoon right now, I also erred from blaming my grandmother for causing unnecessary grief. We had not really learned how to react when a college educated boy from Pakistan does not utter Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer or even Cricket player as the career he wishes to pursue. Sure, my grandmother always sounded like an inquisitor when she questioned someone but in that particular moment, she was a hiker who feared getting lost on the trail.
My grandmother had been the one who taught us how to pray and reminded us to fear pork and sexual intimacy. But she belonged to an upper middle class family. Studying religion is not a task expected from folks like us. Our study of religion consists of memorizing the Quran at home with the aid of a poor chap who enjoys the free tea and biscuits he receives in return. In addition, we also take Islamiyat, a class on Islam that elite Pakistanis only mention while recounting the number of A’s they scored in the O’Levels examination. My brother had also been one of those who aced Islamiyaat. But at Macalester College he had enrolled in an Introduction to Islam course, hoping to ameliorate the stress of taking multiple econ courses by balancing them off with a course promising an easy A. But once the semester concluded, an unfamiliar humility subdued his desire to see his grade point average closer to 4.0 than 3.0. He realized that growing up a Muslim does not guarantee an easier route to success in a class on Islam. He gained interest in theory and method of religion and the debates over normative practice of Islam in India during the colonial era. That he could authoritatively describe his research interests however did not parry the question “what will he become?”
My grandmother left us the day he had become. Nowadays, lots of brown folks study and teach Islam. Heck, even Hamza Ali Abassi, a famous actor, hosted a Ramadan television show in which he broached the question of whether a secular state may classify what counts as religion. Someone inform Talal Asad please, if he does not know it yet.
But whereas my brother had to convince his family to remain at ease over a future unknown, I caused unease by resisting the future they have inferred about me.
“A family of PhDs! Wow,” or “So it must run in the family” are phrases I have frequently heard on disparate occasions from people unknown to one another. They deduce the success my brother has had as a scholar of religion as my future. Why wouldn’t they? We share a common past; we are graduates from Macalester College who pursued graduate studies in Religion. Although I have followed his steps, I have felt differently walking on those steps.
Unlike my brother, I did not necessarily pursue a career as a scholar of religion. I was somewhat reminded of having pursued a career as a scholar of religion. During the first week of college, my brother instructed me to take religion courses in a manner as if he was asking me to walk inside a home he once used to live in. He was being nostalgic; I all of a sudden had multiple religion courses on my class shopping list. A year later, I registered for a course titled The Study of Religion or something very generic that I can not recall right now. I attended the first day of class and along my classmates proposed a research topic for the final paper. Later that day, one of my other professors approached me and very nicely suggested I delay taking that class. Only then I realized I had been sitting next to senior year religion majors who were preparing to write their capstone papers, not any final paper. The epiphany embarrassed me; how haughty my professors will think I am! That said, having taken five classes already, I had also secured a minor in religion. That I did not know beforehand either! Upon graduating, I had completed 17 religion courses, falling one short I suppose of a double major in Religion and Religion.
I then applied for a Masters in religion to various schools because applying to schools was the only kind of application letter I knew how to fill out. Two years later I applied for a PhD in religion to various schools because I had not learned how to apply for actual jobs as a Masters in religion either. My cover letter was excellent. I wrote what I wanted to study but did not belabor the specifics because I did not really want to study what I wrote I wanted to study. I did not want to do much at all. I was enjoying playing cricket and was content doing more of that, not contemplating why Harvard Divinity School paid me a monthly stipend.
Conceit, as in I was cocksure one of these programs will surely want me, and an uncontrolled libido, as in I had yet to and therefore really wanted to witness the America they represented in American Pie 2, led me to Florida State University. During the summer between Harvard and Florida State, I did nothing except play more cricket and meet a girl who I wished I had known longer. When I arrived in Tallahassee, I started sleeping on the dining room couch until my roommate grew tired of reminding me I had a room to myself and needed to purchase a bed. I saw in real life the kinds of girls they showed in American Pie 2, but I thought mostly of the olive skinned black haired girl I had met during the summer. The next semester I left school, returned to D.C, dated her, landed a gig as a supporting actor for a Pakistani drama serial, lost it because being two inches taller than the female protagonist was not masculine enough. Six months later, I returned to school. My academic career restarted. My relationship ended. I experienced acute depression and anger. I had started losing myself. I had left my body and my body was searching for me. But religious studies never escaped my grasp. If my arrogance irks people who would in such conditions struggle academically, it should. There is something not on when you do pretty well at something but you are mentally somewhere else.
Nick Kyrgios recently conceded “I don’t love the sport” despite attaining his best ATP ranking. His serve demands attention: seriously fast, but somehow so effortless and unhurried. He also plays video games before a match and once took a power nap between sets at the US Open. Over the years, his mercurial behavior has attracted tremendous criticism. Mark Philippoussis, a retired fellow Australian tennis player, suggested that Kyrgios should forsake his career if he truly does not love the sport. But Kyrgios also stated “I do not really know what else to do without it.” How do you keep doing something you do not love? You ask what else could I really do? If you are Kyrgios, you realize you cannot play for the Boston Celtics and emulate your idol Kevin Garnett. I realized I could not be a Pakistani actor, at least not yet.
Kyrgios and I go about doing what we do but we perpetually get distracted by something completely unrelated to our career and/or something threatening to unravel our careers. We display signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What will we become?
Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.