Interview with Saffron Mustafa

Interview with Saffron Mustafa

After spending the morning in class I was able to catch up with art student, Saffron Mustafa, who’s now in her third year of studies at Camberwell College of arts. I must admit, when I first heard her name, I pictured someone completely different to the blue-eyed, freckled-faced girl with short hair who I was talking to. But, after our introductions I discovered the idiom there’s more than meets the eye perfectly reflects Saffron unique perspective. Born and raised by her parents who are both white British Muslim converts, she describes her relationship with Islam strange. I would, however, describe it as more or less, unconventional. As we delved into her early childhood memories of being raised as Muslim, I become more and more intrigued by her self-described dilemma of being caught in this weird space of being between multiple cultures.

So your family are Muslim, are you Muslim yourself?

I was brought up Muslim but I’m a bit further from that now, I have a strange relationship with it now I guess.

Would you like to tell me more about that?

So both my parents are white British and they are Muslim converts.

What made your parents want to convert to Islam?

My Dad was studying religion in Glasgow and I guess he was having a weird time at uni and struggling with western ideology. So I think it really appealed to them at the time as a way to escape these ways of thinking. So they kind of came to it like that I think.

Are they still Muslim?

Yes they are still Muslim.

Did they find it difficult being white British people entering into Islam that is a predominantly Asian religion?

Yes, I think so, it’s weird because of them being converts and so young and easily influenced at the time they would pick up these teachings from Muslims around them. Islam spans so many different places and cultures so there’s obviously so many different nuances and understandings, so they’d pick up teachings and traditions more particular to maybe Pakistani Muslims, for example

So we had like all these different influences because obviously Islam isn’t like an old family thing and there were so many different people around us all from like five different places. I dunno it was kind of weird and then also just like, we moved to Saudi Arabia for a bit and when we came back my mum found it really difficult to wear hijab and stuff because we would be in the supermarket or something and people would be like oh my god where are you from? Just because she’s got this headdress on which is a religious choice she made and the assumption that if you’ve got that on then you’re from somewhere else. My Dad found it really difficult finding a job because he had changed his name when he was young and impressionable and first converted and he has a beard because the prophet Mohammed had a beard and he was just trying to be a good Muslim and it was stopping him from getting a job.

Interesting, has that made him look at Islam in a different way?

I don’t know, I guess I would have to ask him chuckles I don’t think so, I mean he just had to change his name it’s just crazy how far islamophobia reaches. You would think as they come from a white background and this islamophobia reaches so far, it’s really difficult.

So despite him being white British, him being a Muslim was an issue?

Yeah, he’s got a beard and it was a problem. And just not being allowed to pray and stuff, it’s just crazy.

You mentioned you moved to Saudi Arabia for a bit, what was that like?

Yes, I was raised Muslim until … so we moved back from Saudi Arabia where we lived for like two years, we lived near Mecca in the mountains which is interesting I think. It’s quite an intense place. So that was a really amazing experience everyone was really helpful and we had Qur’an and Arabic lessons. Everyone would really help us out, everyone was really kind and amazed that these westerners had converted to Islam and we moved to Saudi Arabia and it was like woahh!

It must have been a huge culture shock for you, how old were you when you moved there?  

I was quite young at the time. I was like eleven or twelve. I was actually more culture shocked when I got back and so were my parents! They had like a spiritual crisis…

That’s interesting what’s a spiritual crisis?

So my dad was a peace worker for The Christian Muslim Forum at the time we moved back and he got baptised into the Russian Orthodox church, it’s like quite an intense form of Christianity. Then my mum started going to yoga and went down this really spiritual path and I was still praying five times a day and wearing a hijab and then my parents came in one day and were like oh hey we’re having a spiritual crisis, we’re actually not praying at the moment and then I had a crisis and stopped praying and that was when I was 13 or 14 maybe.. but now they’ve come back to Islam.

So where are you now? Are you still religious or more spiritual?

I feel like I’m probably more spiritual, I’m quite into Sufism now which is something I can share with my parents.

What’s Sufism?

It’s like a more spiritual or mystical conception of Islam, have you heard of Rumi the poet?

Yes, I have

He’s a really cool Sufi guy who wrote poetry but I kind of feel like some of his poems that are more popular are also the kind of thing a white hippie would quote giggles but I like this! So it kind of makes me cringe a bit but I feel like it’s something I can live my life and sort of hold onto a part of Islam.

Did you ever come across a lot of white British Muslims or were you the only one?

It’s not something that I’ve come across that often… there was a family when I was younger who we were close with. My parents recently moved to Norfolk and I met these sisters and their parents are white converts but they’d all really stayed with Islam which feels different to me. I’ve found it really difficult just trying to figure out where I stand and they were all just really comfortable with Islam and living that way.

When you were a Muslim could you relate more to the Asian community rather than the white British community seeing as Islam is predominately Asian?   That’s what I was surrounded by and so that’s what I was comfortable with and had an understanding of.

I know there are different subgroups in Islam, which group did you and your family connect with the most? Sunni Islam. My parents actually named me Sunni when I was born, my mum was reading some Islamic text and she was like oh Sunni, thinking it was pronounced like sunny, that’s nice!

Did you change your name then? Or were you born with a different name?

No, no I was born Sunni Mustafa and Saffron is actually my middle name at the moment. I had this thing on 9/11 where obviously I was like really small but I came running downstairs like oh my god it wasn’t me! because they were like mentioning Sunni Muslim’s on the news and I thought they were blaming me! I was always really interested in changing my name growing up and decided to get a middle name, which I prefer to be called by, as of a few years ago.

So you were homeschooled for most of your childhood and then went to sixth form, how did you find that?

I really struggled with the drinking culture and stuff like that, it was really weird adjusting to that and people’s families being so liberal. Like really liberal, like oh yeah I’ll buy you a bottle of wine and a packet of fags! I found it really weird

So your degree is in painting, from your experience with Islam does that inspire or influence your artwork in any way at all?

Uhm.. probably…

Do you feel like religion increases creativity or decreases it?

Mmm.. it’s kind of a weird one…because my mum was actually an art student just before she converted and because she was so impressionable at that time in terms of her faith and some people were telling her she shouldn’t recreate God’s creation, so she didn’t take pictures and she stopped drawing. So in her situation then it definitely decreased the ways she was used to expressing her creativity, I guess because she was maybe trying to do something to please someone else as well as God. But I feel like if you’re religious in a way where you’re really conscious of how you feel and what you need and the ways you might need to express yourself then faith can be really helpful and increase your creativity on even just a personal level.

So for you personally would you say it has increased or decreased your creativity?

I think it has increased my creativity because I just think about beliefs all the time and stuff like that really influences my creative practice. A lot of my dissertation is coming down to writing about belief systems. Maybe we can go back to your previous question about my artwork and in answer yes I’m really interested in beliefs and mythologies and symbolism and these things feeding into my work, which I guess would link up to Islam and ideas around religion and faith.

So, what’s your overall opinion of religion as a whole?

Uhmm.. I’m not sure … I find it really so fascinating that people have so much faith and all these different beliefs, it can tear people apart and also can bring people together in such a beautiful way.