Newsmakers 2011: Mariya Ilyas
BRUNSWICK — From her Bowdoin College dorm room, Mariya Ilyas didn’t know what to make of the news: America’s most wanted terrorist had been killed at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, near her hometown.
Since the age of 8, Ilyas had lived in Alexandria, Va., but she was born and raised in the village of Bandi Dhundan, a 40-minute drive from the city where the high-stakes raid took out the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.
Just weeks later, Ilyas was set to start an English-language summer journalism program in the city at Al-Imtiaz Academy, where she taught during the previous summer. About the trip, Ilyas said she was nervous and scared.
But her fear was, at first, closer to home.
Ilyas had lived only two years in the United States before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Being Muslim in America has mostly been a challenging identity to carry.
As the first in her family to go away to college, on flights between Maine and Virginia, Ilyas said, she is usually the last passenger to get her luggage.
“I always get the little TSA notice that my bag was randomly chosen to search,” Ilyas said. “That happens to me every time I’ve flown.”
Ilyas worried that the raid in Abbottabad could only make things worse.
“If 9/11 changed America for Muslim-Americans, I think (the bin Laden raid) changed it for Pakistani Muslim-Americans,” Ilyas said.
Further strain between the two nations she calls home only makes things more difficult, Ilyas said.
“I’m always ‘the other’ when I’m in the opposite land,” Ilyas said. “I’m more American when I’m in Pakistan and I’m more Pakistani when I’m in America.”
In a blog post from Pakistan on July 6, Ilyas would bemoan missing the family tradition of Fourth of July at the Washington Monument for a second year in a row.
That night, as the news of bin Laden’s death shot around the web, Ilyas’ older sister made a public post to her Facebook wall, identifying Abbottabad as the siblings’ hometown.
“And I went: ‘Delete!’” Ilyas said. “It almost made me wish at the moment that nobody knew I was from that town. I was afraid of the reactions that people would have.”
Ilyas said she expressed few opinions about the event, but her lack of outright enthusiasm about bin Laden’s death raised eyebrows.
“Some friends were questioning my patriotism and questioning me because I wasn’t agreeing with the celebrations (of bin Laden’s death),” Ilyas said. “I felt the moral action of what was happening — that, morally, someone’s death shouldn’t be a celebration.”
That night, Ilyas said, she cried before bed, remembering a feeling following 9/11 that she would have to prepare a defense for her religion and for herself.
“And I wasn’t ready for that,” Ilyas said.
“I was afraid of all the questions, having to justify bin Laden,” Ilyas said. “I shouldn’t have to do that — Muslims shouldn’t have to do that — Pakistani Muslims shouldn’t have to do that.”
For days, Ilyas resisted calling home to Virginia. When she did, she asked cautiously, “Did you hear the news?”
Neither she nor her father, Ilyas said, wanted to mention Abbottabad over the phone. Her father, she said, had also refrained from calling their family back in Pakistan.
“We wanted to call and make sure they were OK,” Ilyas said, but her father was concerned “that it could be seen as — I don’t know — the government might be suspicious of a phone call because of the area codes.”
But Ilyas’ worry, caution, and paranoia in America is only one half of the picture.
In America, Ilyas said, she is made to worry about being perceived as a terrorist; in Pakistan, a spy.
Ilyas said she continued to read all of the news accounts that she could about the event. Her opinions would have to stand the scrutiny of two different audiences.
Leading up to her trip, Ilyas began to worry more for her safety. And her father was worried, too.
So, he took a three-month hiatus from his work as a hotel manager in Washington, D.C., and booked his own flight to join his daughter for a three-month stay with family outside of Abottabad.
Each weekday, Ilyas would make the 40-minute commute into town in a school van, passing within a mile of the compound where bin Laden was captured.
“(My father) felt the need to go with me after all that had happened,” Ilyas said. “Being alone and being a female could have posed greater issues or obstacles that I had probably not foreseen.”
During the summer in Pakistan, Ilyas said, she faced challenges — skepticism about her role there — even from her well-educated peers.
University students she interviewed for a sociology study about perceptions of Pakistani-Americans, Ilyas said, were reluctant to open up to her.
“Everyone was scared and had heard so many stories about different spies,” Ilyas said. “I think they were a little terrified about the concept of an American coming back because, for all they knew, I could be a part of the CIA.”
In Pakistan and the U.S., Ilyas said, she has seen much misunderstanding fueling fear and stereotypes.
“When I was in Pakistan talking with students and colleagues and family members, I found myself defending America because they had all the facts wrong,” Ilyas said.
And debating over those facts on either side doesn’t help to make friends, Ilyas said, especially with family in Pakistan.
“Here, I am defending America and that’s seen as very unpatriotic and disloyal toward Pakistan,” Ilyas said. “But I couldn’t do anything about that and I wasn’t willing to change or amend my views — to change myself — to be accepted, and that’s true of both societies.”
With her students, Ilyas said, more personal time helped them to gain trust.
“It took a lot of personal interaction — not to convince them — but to let them know that I’m here to do journalism and have no ulterior motives,” Ilyas said.
Three days after Ilyas arrived in Pakistan, an enterprising Pakistani reporter for the English-language Asia Times Online, Saleem Shazad, was found dead.
The New York Times reported that U.S. officials believe Pakistan’s top intelligence agency had some hand in the killing that took place just days after Shazad had reported about connections between that agency and the al-Qaida terrorist network.
“It was such a scary message for all journalists there,” Ilyas said, “and it makes you nervous.”
Ilyas was on the eve of starting a high school journalism program in a country that the international Committee to Protect Journalists had named the most deadly for reporters. In 2011, five reporters were murdered there, according to the CPJ.
Ilyas said those facts posed a challenge to teaching her students about ethical, fair, truthful journalism and also to a broader hope for understanding between the two cultures she shares.
“If practiced ethically in both societies, I think journalism has the ability to amend relations with Pakistan and the U.S.,” Ilyas said. On the other hand, she said, “unethical journalism can be the source of conflict between the two countries.”
That, Ilyas said, was the basis of her $10,000 grant from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace program: a free press as a path to a more peaceful society.
From the outside, Ilyas said, Pakistan’s English-language papers report truthfully, but Ilyas said those papers “only serve the elite and educated population.”
“It completely leaves the majority of the country out of the loop to ‘the truth’ because the news they may be getting may be censored or not as good,” Ilyas said. “If one picks up a newspaper written in Urdu, it’s from a different perspective. It’s amazing how different they are.”
Ilyas said that the first edition of the Imtiazian seemed a far cry from the nation’s top English papers, but in a country where less than half of the children between 5 and 19 are in any type of school, the paper’s production is no small feat.
And that feat — with student articles addressing the bin Laden raid and Shazad’s death — did not go unnoticed.
“Once I left, they were adamant about reprinting the paper,” Ilyas said. “I thought they wouldn’t do it because that’s not ethical, but it was out of my control.”
Mostly, administrators were concerned about smaller details and how the paper reflected upon the school, but Ilyas said that the scrutiny sent the wrong signal to her students.
“I was concerned about the message that the program was sending to students who had just learned about all of these ideals of journalism,” Ilyas said.
At the time that administrators pulled her aside to discuss a reprint, she had only one day until her flight back home.
“I couldn’t do anything to stop them from what happened after I left,” Ilyas said.
However, Ilyas said she still keeps in touch with some of the school’s 32 summer journalism students and her research into her own identity continues.
“After being so conflicted about my own identity and where I belong, I want to look at what Pakistani university students think about Pakistani Americans,” Ilyas said.
Ilyas said she is still collecting data for an independent study she will start in the spring.
¦ THE ANNUAL NEWSMAKERS SERIES profiles local individuals whose circumstances reflect major stories of the year. In the wake of the highest profile American military operation to come after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bowdoin College junior Mariya Ilyas was faced with unexpected challenges on a trip to her native town, just outside of Abbottabad, Pakistan. To her, the city had been home, but the international attention that came from America’s most wanted terrorist being captured and killed there changed her relationship to the place where she was set to start a summer journalism program for high school students just weeks later.