Student Journalist Spotlight: Amina Elahi, Northwestern

In fourth grade, Amina Elahi’s teacher gave her a journal and told her simply, “You write very barebones. You need to learn how to write.” More than a decade later, the current Northwestern University senior is a writer, editor, and designer extraordinaire, overseeing a prominent magazine aimed at highlighting contemporary trends and issues impacting the Muslim community- from the student perspective.

As an NU sophomore, Elahi helped transform Al Bayan– moving it from a newsletter of sorts to a true journalistic force within the university and the U.S. The latest issue recently premiered in print and online.  “It’s not enough to say we’re not terrorists,” Elahi writes in her current editor’s note, in reference to stereotypes of modern Muslims. “Most educated people already know that. We need to tell them– and show them– how good we are as a people, and how normal. We need to highlight our achievements and acknowledge our faults. Most of all we, need to talk about these things.”

In a recent chat with CMM, Elahi talked about Al Bayan‘s journalistic evolution and the ups and downs of her personal experience with the influential campus pub.  (If interested, check out the Al Bayan Twitter and Facebook pages.)  Excerpts from the conversation are below.

What is Al Bayan‘s uniqueness, significance?

I’ve always been interested in journalism and I’ve always read a lot and my perception of the portrayal of Muslims in the media [growing up] was just always so negative. . . . I think student publications, at least at Northwestern, try to talk about Muslim events and stuff, but they don’t really talk about issues. So I think what Al Bayan does is it looks at it from students’ perspective. I mean, an adult can look at Islamophobia and talk about it on a widespread level, but a student can look at it and say, “This is how I see it in my classes. This is how I see it on campus.” I think it’s a matter of perspective.

I open the pages of Al Bayan. What will I find?

We are the generation growing up after 9/11, so we didn’t want to come out as this hugely political or seemingly biased publication. We didn’t want to put out propaganda. What we decided to do is to have one kind of social issue or political issue or something like that as our cover story for each issue. The first year it was about Muslims voting in the presidential election. Last year it was about the Gaza mess. This year it’s about converts to Islam finding love, how did they get married, what challenges do they face. And then we’ve got a mix.  Usually we have a fashion piece, a food piece, a movie review, a book review. We try to include current events and issues touching on dimensions of Islam from news sources.

What were the challenges you faced starting Al Bayan?

One of the major issues we ran into was funding. We are still running mostly off of donations. That’s one of those things I wish we could have improved in the last couple of years but it’s really hard to do when you’re putting out an annual publication. . . . It came down to us begging our friends, [in mock pity-inducing voice] “Put in $20 please.” We did have a lot of help though from various departments and schools who were interested in our project that chipped in a bit. That was really great. . . .

We also had an issue getting other people involved. Not that they weren’t interested, but getting them to be as loyal to it as [the founders] when they didn’t know what we were offering was really tough.  So to ask someone, “Will you write a 1,000 word article for us?” They were kind of like, “Why should I take up my time working for something that’s never existed before?” . . . In terms of the actual production, I think we missed every single one of our deadlines that first year. We tried really, really hard but it ended up being the last week of the quarter when we came out. We were OK with it because we ended up pulling it off in the end. But it definitely wasn’t the smoothest ride ever. [Laughs]

What is your advice for students who want to start a similar niche campus publication?

If you are on a campus that has departments or schools that are willing to fund you in any way, kind of build a rapport with them. Become friends with them. Drop off copies of your magazine and get them interested in you. That’s what we’ve done and we’ve gotten a good response from people. In terms of the actual publication, my favorite thing about Al Bayan is that we don’t limit the staff to only Muslim students. I think that really not only diversifies us but it also just gives us a great perspective on things we wouldn’t have realized otherwise. Just because you’re a niche publication doesn’t mean you have to have a niche staff.

Al Bayan‘s lasting personal impact.

In terms of what I feel is kind of my mark on campus, this has been the defining feature of my college experience. I mean, any job interview I’ve had or any random conversation I’ve had where a person says, “So tell me more about yourself,” this is the thing that I would be talking to them about for half an hour and I think it’s because I’m so invested in it and so proud of it. It’s worth the exhaustion and it’s worth being up at 3 a.m. sitting in front of my computer and really needing more coffee. No, I wouldn’t change it, for sure.

2 Responses to “Student Journalist Spotlight: Amina Elahi, Northwestern”
  1. Sarah says:

    In my 4 years at Northwestern, the Muslim-cultural Students Association was a huge part of my life. For members like myself, it was a tight-knit social network, a spiritual outlet, and a source of cultural activities. For non-Muslim Northwestern students, the quarterly speaker events were always enlightening and interesting.

    But what Al Bayan has managed to do with its past 3 editions is engage the entire campus in the discussion of a wide variety of issues relating to Islam and Muslims that were previously not being explored. Reaching out to and dialoguing with fellow students in this way used to only be a major McSA undertaking during one week of the year, but Al Bayan has taken the spirit of Islam Awareness Week and channeled it into the trendy aesthetic of a thought-provoking and high-quality magazine publication.

    As an alumnus, it’s great to see how things progress after you’ve left. There are many reasons to be proud of Amina, her co-editors Nadine and Noreen, and all of the contributors. From someone who feels a little bit like a proud mother, hats off and mashaAllah to the whole Al Bayan staff!

  2. Sarah says:

    P.S. If you haven’t time for anything else, at least pick up a copy of Al Bayan to read Amina’s editor’s note. The girl has wisdom beyond her years.

    P.P.S. Hewwo shmoopie! (Had to do it.)