Charlotte Bibby | Tia Abes
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Tia Abes

August 2017

 

Tia is a 20 year old black Muslim revert from the Caribbean who converted to Islam after a long period of questioning various major religions. She’s currently in her third year of BA Photography shooting fashion, social and documentary work in London.

 

 

Instagram: @t13_abes | Website: tiaabes.foliohd.com

 

Click below to scroll through extracts from our interview.

 

I became interested in photography when I was a kid. My dad had a few cameras, my aunt had a polaroid, my mum had a polaroid. I was always interested. My mum would buy me these disposables and we’d just go around the house taking pictures. I didn’t see my dad all the time and so anytime I was with my dad, him and his wife would take pictures because before they had their first kid I was like their kid. Then when I grew up I kind of lost interest in taking pictures because I wanted to be an astronaut and then a physicist and so I studied science for all those years, and then when I came back to England I was like “I don’t wanna do science, let’s be realistic, you’re not going to be a physicist! Choose something that you’re going to like!” I didn’t know what I wanted to do and so I picked photography and history of art and then that grew my interest. I think it’s helped me because when I was younger I had a hard time communicating with my mother, because my mum’s very difficult to get along with and so is my dad, so art especially, I wouldn’t say photography per se, but drawing helped me process a lot of things. Photography came a little bit later because I didn’t have the equipment around me 24/7, but when I did start I was always with a camera around the house taking photos.

I originally wanted to do a big photography series for “Life as a Muslim”, I wanted it to be huge but it ended up just being one person. I had a few people I wanted to take part; reverts and non-Muslims, a range of people. I wanted to do it after I went to the Caribbean because of both the negative and positive feedback I got over there from family and non-family members after my conversion. I thought it would be good to hear other people’s opinions on it. But because of time restraints I only got to fit one person in and that was Lulu. I wanted to hear her feedback on how Islam is to her as a mother, as a teacher, as a wife, as a range of different things because it’s different for all of us. For example I’m a black, female, revert Muslim with my own past, but it’s different for everybody else. I wanted to know her side, because she is a born Muslim, and it’s different from my perception as a Muslim as it is now, so I thought it would be really good to ask her a question. I gave her a blank piece of paper with her name at the top and said “that’s your space, you can do whatever, you can draw on it, you can write on it, write whatever you want”. She wrote down this really cool quote from Malcom X, and a little piece that was how she feels about how he never got to see black Muslim woman as we are now. I can understand that, because the Muslim women before had to go through a struggle, the black women before had to go through a struggle, our ancestors had to go through a struggle, so I suppose it’s kind of like we have it easy. You have to pay homage to them and understand that you have it easy so take advantage of the fact that we have it easy. I just needed to present this for my final college exhibition so at least whoever comes can see that it’s not all bad, most of us are decent. It’s about seeing the depth of a Muslim.

For some people’s their reversion is like their “salvation”. It wasn’t like that for me. For me, when I was growing up in finishing school I went through a troubling time both as a Christian and just as a person in general. I didn’t really bank on religion. I was in a really bad relationship with both my parents and I didn’t really talk to most of my family members, I was in a pretty rough spot, but at that point I didn’t search for anything. I was agnostic for a while and at that point in time I didn’t want a religion to define me. That was just my spiritual journey. I didn’t feel like I needed that at the time because I was already going through so much drama, so much trouble that I just took a break from everything, literally everything. Parents, friends, everything. I was ghosting for a while just to figure myself out. Sometimes you need that. Sometimes I need to be me by myself, alone, to process how I am. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I was asking myself all these questions about my existence, myself, my faith, my strengths, my weaknesses, I literally questioned everything about myself in that one year. Then I studied religious education at finishing school and becae quite interested in the different religions. I knew everything about Christianity already but I looked into Hinduism, I visited mosques and synagogues. I asked a lot of questions. Islam really appealed to me, so I did another year of research and was like “ok so this is why they do this, and this is why this is healthier than this and this is why they fast, and this is why they pray five times a day, and this is why they don’t listen to music”. Being from the Caribbean I grew up with music being a big part of the culture but I understood why in Islam, regardless of where you’re from, music isn’t accepted because it does distract you. There were times when I was going through that challenging time when I just engulfed myself in music because I thought that was a way of processing but it was just avoiding the problems and hiding from what needed to be processed. I asked a lot of questions, but I also did this with other religion. I’d write down some questions and figure out which religion gave me all the answers. One time I asked a priest “why do we come to confess to you instead of praying and confessing to God?” and he didn’t give me a straight answer. That really affected me because I used to go to confessions every 4:30 on a Wednesday, every Wednesday, and I would confess my sins end up continuing to feel bad like I hadn’t been forgiven for it and wondering why I was doing it. In Islam you shouldn’t confess your sins to anybody else, you should process them and ask God for forgiveness, because at the end of the day, it’s only God that’s able to forgive you. It wasn’t only that one priest, though, and it wasn’t only that one question, I went to others with more questions but in the end I gave up. After that process I had to then make a decision about whether or not to convert. Before I converted I wanted to try the hijab to know if I’d have the courage to wear it, because when I do something I want to do it wholeheartedly. I’d only have it on around sisters so I could get a feel for how they do it, and they accepted it. They did my first hijab for me, I didn’t know where the pin went and I kept poking myself in the head. I remember it being such a struggle. And then one day and I asked “guys, what would you think if I was a Muslim” and they hugged me! I got accepted by them really quickly. They were the first people to find out, they knew before my mum. When I sat down and told my mum she walked out the room. She was like that for a while and I spent a whole year breaking her down because if my mum doesn’t accept it, it makes it harder for me to accept because I feel like I’m doing something wrong After a couple of arguments I told her “mum, this is what I want to do, regardless, I know it’s going to be a struggle for me. Can you imagine how I’m going to feel about it?” and then she softened up a little. I used to have to sneak into her room to pray because I live in a tiny room and there’s not always enough space. It caused arguments a couple of times, but eventually she offered to let me use it.

I’ve experienced challenges both as a Muslim and as a black woman. One time after my conversation we were having a debate about xionists and my teacher picked me out first, out of everybody in the room, and was like “oh yeah, this one. What’s your feedback on this?” I was the only Muslim in the class but there was also a girl there who believed in old Hebrew texts from before Judaism, a gay 47 year old Christian and a woman who believed in God, but not the religion. Unsurprisingly I don’t agree with it and she knew I didn’t agree with it, so why confront us about it? I just wanted to shout at her for it, but in Islam it teaches you to keep your head cool, so I just answered the question. I don’t know if it was ignorance but it was really hard because I’m normally a big fan of her, I just didn’t expect that I would be the first person to be called up.

 

Before that I had an issue with my art teacher. I did a lot of provocative work that pushed boundaries in my second year of art and she didn’t expect it from me. I was the only one that was ballsy enough to do it. One time I heard her speaking with two other teachers saying, “I don’t like the stuff that she’s doing, she’s going to have to change it, I don’t know if she’s looking for attention or what, but she knows she can’t do this in the college.” So because there were 16 to 18 year olds at the college, I was deemed as over-sexualising or over-doing the work, but that was the whole point of it. In the end I only got a section of my work back because she threw the rest out. She really didn’t like me at all.

 

There are other instances of institutional racism that I’ve been through, as a black girl when I was growing up none of our teachers believed us because we were black and we were always made out to be the trouble makers. When there were fights at my secondary school we were always made out to be the bad ones.

 

What was worse than the struggles I went through as a black girl, though, was the struggles I faced when I became Muslim both because of the way my family received me and the challenge of having to cut friends off because they were leading very different kind of lifestyles; going out to parties and smoking and drinking. But I got to meet new friends so, when one door closes another one opens.

Faith is a big thing in the Caribbean. Most of the people on the island are Christian; Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, the whole spectrum. If you name a type of faith that’s under Christianity, we’ve got it, but Islam isn’t common there. We do have a mosque, though, it’s relatively new as there are less than 100 Muslims on the island, but we do have one.

 

When I went back after converting everyone just stared at me a lot. When I was entering through customs after getting off the plane, I noticed a lady I recognised looking at me. I couldn’t remember her name, but I knew she was from my part of the island, we used to go to school together but I just didn’t remember her name. I said “hi” anyway and the first thing she says, not even “hi” was “Tia, Tia, you’re a Muslim?! What are you wearing this scarf for? You and me used to go to church on Sunday!” And that was it. In the Caribbean if there’s gossip it’s almost guaranteed that when the conversation is finished, when she’s on her break, she’s going to call one of her cousins, my neighbour, and be like “guess who’s back and Muslim”, so by the time I reached there, everybody already knew.

 

I didn’t go to that part of the island for a few days, though, because I was there to plan a funeral. My cousin who was 37 died in her first year of marriage. She hadn’t had any kids yet, and a lot of her family weren’t able to make it so I was there as a representation of everyone from England. She got a good send off, but it was hard watching her brother go through that and it was also hard Islamically. In the Caribbean we have this thing where we sing at the grave site as a send off, so it’s not worship but we say a little prayer and we pray for the deceased, but music isn’t something that’s square in Islam unlike Christianity where you’d sing in church. Then we had wailing and crying at a grave site which is another things you shouldn’t be doing in Islam. So it was awkward for me but I had to stand there, because that was my part as a Caribbean woman. It was really hard. I was also the only Muslim in the church and I had the priest staring straight at me the entire time. I used to go to his church every Sunday when I stayed over there. Half way through the service he said “we all need to find our own faith, sometimes we are lead down the wrong path” whilst looking square at me. I felt defensive but then I was like I knew I wasn’t going to see him again and just left.