With the belief that Muslims cannot expect an accurate representation of themselves in media without truly understanding their past, Noor Tagouri has launched a new podcast titled Rep. The Libyan-American journalist and producer—whose work in amplifying the voices of the marginalized often stems from her own experiences—will do a deep dive into her family’s past in the very first episode of the series. It features Tagouri in conversation with her 11-year-brother and great uncle to better understand the effect of the 1986 US airstrike on Libya on her family, followed by other episodes joined by known names including Ilhan Omar, Hasan Minhaj, Brother Ali, Huma Abedin, and Ilyasah Shabazz.
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While working on the series has aided Tagouri in her own self-discovery, she hopes to provide the same to its listeners, with its timely launch during Ramadan and Arab American History Month. “I wanted this show to be a companion during Ramadan as it is a soul-searching experience,” she wrote on Instagram. When asked about Rep‘s target audience, the 28-year-old says, “[It is] people who are curious, who enjoy hearing stories, who crave openness and change, and who are okay with being uncomfortable.” She adds, “My hope is that listeners come to Rep with an open heart and mind and that they leave curious about themselves. After each episode, I hope they go to their dinner table or group chat and ask their family and friends about their history —and build their stories together.”
Vogue Arabia caught up with Tagouri over e-mail to discuss the series created by her production company At Your Service in partnership with iHeartMedia. From Rep‘s inception and challenges to her advice for an accurate representation of Muslims, find out more below.
1. How did you come to the realization that in order to understand the present and change the future of Muslim representation, you must examine what happened in the past?
In my journey as a storyteller, one thing that I’ve learned over and over again is that in order to understand our worldview and the perspectives that we hold, we need to know who we are and where we come from. Knowing our history is a requirement to be true to ourselves. It’s a requirement so we can truly understand the role that these stories play in our present and how we can shape our future. The stories of our history are still evolving and they’re still alive. I learned very clearly in the first episode of Rep that my family’s stories that were previously told to me aren’t finished, and stories from the past somehow became timely still today. Our history is still relevant every day.
2. Some may argue that the portrayal of Muslims has come a long way from years ago. Why does it still seem important, in 2022, to continue exploring the misrepresentation of Muslims in media and its impact?
Stories are constantly evolving. It’s important for us to continuously explore and examine the way that communities and people are represented. Proper representation starts with each of us being able to properly represent ourselves—knowing who we are, and knowing why we are the way we are.
As an Arab Muslim American, I struggled a lot with my identity, and as I evolved over the last 10 years, I thought I knew who I was. The journey of Rep put that to the test. I challenged some of the strongest beliefs I had and reevaluated what I believe to be true. When you’re born into a faith community, often it is the religion that you practice for your entire life. But I wanted to ask myself, why do I really believe these things? Where do these things come from? My faith is rooted in intention, and a relationship with intention is what gave me space for this transformation.
I share this to show that we should consistently check in with ourselves, our stories, and our beliefs because this is an important way we further avenues of representation. As we are evolving as individuals, the community and world evolve as a whole.
3. As a woman, what factors related to the representation of Muslim women, in particular, do you think are most troubling, and need to be addressed on a global scale?
This comes back to the power of choice, and it doesn’t just have to be for women, but for people in general. But I do think, especially with Muslim women, the narrative is often written outside of the parameters of choice. Choice as a concept is really important for us to be able to recognize that we choose to believe the things that we believe, that we choose what to wear. In Islam, everything comes down to ‘niyah’ or intention, which is a deeply personal thing. And so, if the way that you manifest or the way that you practice who you are is done intentionally, then everything is an intentional choice.
4. Tell us more about the creative process of the podcast—why did you select the people that you did to interview?
The creative process of the podcast began with me planning the whole series from episode one to 10. In the beginning, I knew what every single interview was going to be and with who. I was confident I knew what the story was going to be. But as we continued through the production, it wasn’t working. The interviews weren’t lining up like the story. Nothing was fitting, and I realized it was because I wasn’t open to changing what I originally thought the series was.
My process of creating this docuseries has been broken open over and over again. As someone who tries to be so intentional about telling the story openly and letting it reveal itself, I realized that I cannot control this story. It has really been an individual transformation for me—of being open to the journey and seeing where that took me.
In the first episode of Rep, I start with my own family. I took a story that was told in my household growing up that felt most untrue—something I never believed could have happened. Then I saw where questioning that story took me. And every step of the way after that, I paid attention to the questions that arose in me. What story do I feel drawn to now?
The people and places that take us throughout the series will connect people from all over the world. And the beauty of this process is that it is available to anyone, anywhere. It starts with open curiosity.
5. How did your personal experiences help you in putting together this series? What things came easy and what were some of the challenges you faced?
When we started pre-production, I said to my husband Adam, who is also my business partner and executive producer on the podcast, that access was going to be the easiest part of the show because I personally know most of the people who I’m interviewing. I thought the hard part was going to be processing the information, and at the time I meant processing the information of the series. But really, what I didn’t know was that the hardest part was processing the information about myself and going on this journey.
The hardest episode was the first one titled Vanished, and sometimes you have to go through the hardest part first to realize there is power in our struggle and in our story. We actually have the capability to use stories as a form of justice. After completing the first episode, it felt like a form of justice for what happened to our family. That story was only supposed to be a small story in the first episode, and then it was supposed to go in a different direction.
But then I had a very vivid dream about my family. I was in their apartment during the bombing, and I felt everything. I saw them and experienced their experience. I woke up and realized that they were waiting for the story to be told. That’s when I knew the opening of the series had to be examining something that is deeply rooted in me and my family, and in the story of us. And if we can start there, then who knows where this can take us?
6. According to you, what are the key factors in ensuring an accurate representation of Muslims in media?
Pillars Fund, Riz Ahmed, and others put together an incredible document called The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion that has suggestions for representation in film. For media outlets more broadly, Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research at ISPU, and one of our key experts on Rep said in our interview: “Use the language that you know.” When it comes to stories about Muslims, oftentimes people who don’t speak Arabic use Arabic terms, and that has led to their weaponization—words like ‘sharia’ or ‘jihad’. One way to ensure proper representation is to stick to the language you know. Some other factors include checking your own biases. If you are telling the story about a community that wasn’t Muslim, would any of it sound different or be written differently?
Additionally, look at who’s telling the story, and ask what work did they do in building trust with the community. The closer the story is to the sources, the better. I always ask myself, is the way that I cover this story going to impact the people or communities I’m talking about?
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7. While working on this series, were there any surprising statistics you discovered that have stayed with you?
The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding created a measurement called the ‘Islamophobia Index’, measuring the Islamophobia of different groups in America. One of their findings that I found fascinating was data on internalized Islamophobia of American Muslims themselves. It gave me clarity and language to describe what I felt like my own shame around my identity really was.
8. Over the years, mindsets around the Muslim community have opened up in a promising way. What’s been the most heartfelt change you have noticed?
The most heartfelt change that I’ve noticed is that there’s a desire for us to be more open and understanding—to learn more and to be more curious about one another. I think many of us are really tired. When you are showing up in the world as a masked version of yourself, or a different version of yourself, that’s what you believe other people want you to be. That’s really exhausting. It’s really beautiful to see people show up as truly themselves, and then to see other people loving, welcoming, accepting, and connecting them.
Overall what I’ve learned throughout this process of creating Rep is that each of our stories is connected to one another. We can put the puzzle together any which way we’d like, but it’s there and it’s true. There’s always a way that we can find, what I like to call, a least common denominator, with someone else. I look forward to doing that over and over again with each At Your Service production. I look forward to seeing how each listener of Rep goes on their own self-discovery journey after listening. It’s a fantastic experience to witness and meet yourself, all while hearing the stories that make you, you and us, us.
As a storyteller, I will continue to be at your service.