It was sometime in March 2017 when I realized how sad I was. I felt like I wasn’t doing or accomplishing anything, having graduated from college the year prior and now working a non-fulfilling job. I’m a photographer, and I was working on my craft. But, I was craving something more, and it was brewing inside of me. However, I had other worries. Trump had just been elected and people were being more transparent about their hatred for certain groups. The threat of violence increased across America for people that I felt connected to, in race, in religion, and in gender (I’m a black, Somali, Muslim, woman). It made me less inclined to do things that I wanted to do, freely! I was in constant fear.
I’ve been wearing the hijab, an Islamic headscarf for Muslim women that symbolizes our faith and modesty, for about five years, but it seemed to hold a much bigger threat to society than I imagined. I found that no matter where I went, what I said, or what I did, the topic of conversation would always come back to my hijab. I didn’t mind talking about my hijab and my religion one bit, but I realized that those topics could easily go sideways. I found myself being quizzed on feminism two seconds after kind hellos were exchanged. I felt backed into a corner with loaded questions regarding women’s rights, and day after day of watching the media, I felt exhausted. In the outside world, I feared walking to my car alone late at night. The words “hate crime” were quite common around me, and weekend after weekend, there were rallies and meetings addressing Islamophobia.
Fast forward to October 2017, at the moment depicted above, when I was in pure bliss. Giddy and content at this moment, I naively forgot all of my problems, all of the world’s problems.
But let me back up. My ultimate dream in life was to go on a road trip alone and see how much I could rely on myself. However, who was going to encourage me to do that? Culturally, Somalis are known as “nomadic” people. I believe my instinct to travel is genetic; my extended family lives all across the globe and continuously travels. However, in my family, the idea of a woman traveling alone is unheard of. A small local trip requires months of begging for me to get my parents to agree. And in my Muslim community, I came across the sentiment “you need a man to travel” so many times that I was ready to rent one out! I knew I was going to come across these hesitations as I began thinking of a long trip to another country, but something deep inside me knew I could find the support I needed. My community was starting to move past the fear we have always imposed upon ourselves. And I wanted to prove to them and myself that it would all be okay and that I could face those fears and still thrive.
After months of begging, subliminal hints about the fact I had already bought tickets, and putting my foot down, my parents started to cheer me on. I had planned a trip that would take close to two months and take me to many countries. A week before the trip, I recall reminding my mom my trip wasn’t a week or two, but much longer. At that point she seemed ready to let me do this thing I needed to do.
One of the places I decided to go was Iceland. This is a photo of Reykjavik. This small country has a population of a little over 330,000 residents, with about six tourists per resident yearly. Reykjavik was an odd city to me; I always was ready to leave and run into the mountains and beauty that lies beyond it. It became clear to me that the locals view the capital as functional, and the real Iceland is what you experience beyond it.
The people are a unique level of kind and accommodating. Considering this was the first country I was traveling to with no one anywhere nearby that I knew, I would say I was on guard and hesitant. However, that quickly faded away.
To explain, my first experience on my trip was a food tour group where I toured with about ten people, most of whom were either East Asian or American like me. I was the only person of color with dark skin, only solo traveler, and only Muslim. As expected, pork was one of the things offered to eat on the tour. I gathered my energy to deliver my speech on why I must decline as it is not part of my religious diet and then to explain why that is. But instead, the host said, “I assume you don’t eat pork, so we have a vegetarian alternative if you’d like to try that.” I was stunned. I swallowed my speech along with the alternative vegetarian soup and was relieved that for once, I didn’t have to explain myself.
The rest of the trip carried on in much the same. During my time I learned that Iceland has been primarily Christian throughout its history, but throughout the last century there has been a rise in diverse religions and unaffiliated people. What I found, is that people treated me as a solo traveler who was bravely driving around Iceland alone, rather than focusing on the other parts of my identity. They were more interested in what apps I was using, which secret locations I knew about, and how I was going to survive the windstorm, than the fact that I was Muslim.
After I took this shot on the top of Hallgrímskirkja, I took a break on a bench while I looked for someplace that served hot pasta. I picked a place next to two girls in the midst of a photoshoot. I felt gross and in need of sleep and a long bath when suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. A girl of East Asian descent smiled largely at me and asked me for a photo. Assuming she wanted a photo of her and her friend, I asked for her camera when she shook her head “no” and pointed at me.
“No, you!” She threw her arm over me and smiled with all her teeth and a few clicks later she bowed a few times and said thanks. This took me back to when a friend talked about the same experience she’s had in various countries and it occurred to me that maybe I’m the first Muslim she’s seen? Maybe the first person of African descent? Truthfully, I will never know but it didn’t bother me. If being different called for a quick photoshoot, I’ll take it.
Iceland is known for the number of beautiful waterfalls it has. I always was obsessed with waterfalls, but never saw one, until this moment. I found a random spot that wasn’t marked on any “to visit” list. I parked about a quarter mile away and realized I had to follow a dark charcoal path straight ahead. When I got to the end, I didn’t see anything but heard a soft, rushing noise. I walked off the trail until I saw this glorious waterfall emerge, and I felt the first rush of amazement that defined the rest of my trip. I felt exhilarated at the fact I found this on my own, my own little secret, and nothing could have prevented me from enjoying such a beautiful and freeing moment.
Now, less than a year later, this moment makes me think about the freedom I felt on my travels. When I was born in 1993, my parents left Somalia in the midst of the Somali Civil War. They moved to Yemen where my dad got a teaching job. After that, we moved to Tunisia, and shortly after that came to America to chase the “American Dream.” We became citizens and now hold a valuable paper book that lets us travel where we please and return home when we want.
While traveling, it was hard for me not to think of the “Muslim ban,” which bans Somalia, Yemen, Syria, North Korea, Chad, Libya, Iran, and partially Venezuela, devastates me. It forces me to take a close look at my own privilege. It made my fairy tale world of traveling a bit dimmer and more realistic, and now energies me to pay attention to the ways I can give back, fight, or support the things I believe in. And sadly, in the back of my mind, it also alerts me to the fact that as a Muslim identifying woman with a birthplace of Yemen and Somali parents, I must also always be prepared for the worst.
The thing I loved about Iceland was how often you could pull over and just enjoy the view. Out in the country, you’ll only see about one car driving by every ten minutes if you’re lucky. The feeling of isolation can be daunting, but there’s nothing more freeing!
I realized how small and tiny I was. But also, my presence in that desolate spot reminded me how I have the capacity to impact the world around me. You play a vital role in the communities you belong to. You alone or you among many can make a change, a choice, a decision that could shift the course of the world. It’s a special role we humans play, and it’s something that we have to treasure and make the most of.
I remember this night as the night I accepted my new fate.
I remember when I first decided to add Iceland to my trip, my one and only wish would be to see the Northern Lights. This was before I renewed my passport, this was before I even checked flight tickets, definitely before I asked my family if I could even go. I daydreamed about this moment for days and weeks and I obsessively researched and updated my camera gear. This was the one moment, I truly wanted.
The night of this photo was in the middle of a major cold windstorm that was crossing Europe. I spent the night in my car for the second time in the row because the idea of a flying tent was not appealing. The night was dark and I had no idea what time the Northern Lights would even start. I sat staring out the window, shivering, and whispering every prayer I knew with the Skógafoss waterfalls showering down endlessly behind me. I was begging and pleading for the lights to make a small appearance. I can happily say within a few hours, I was not disappointed.
Finally falling asleep after a magical show, I promised myself I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me I can’t. I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me I shouldn’t. I wasn’t going to let anyone judge me for what they see, but rather what I say. My whole life, I wanted moments like this – once in a lifetime moments – but fear always held me back. Back in the States, I find it harder and harder to find this feeling. It’s hard to be happily and unapologetically yourself, without questioning how much of yourself will be accepted. But this trip helped me to overcome my fears. I now strive to live a life where the things that move me and shape me are the things I believe in. Not what other people believe about me.