“I was trying to think of some talking points for this, but usually the things I say are so vulgar I would never want them in print!” Iqraz Nanji, CC ’18, jokes shortly after we meet at the Hungarian Pastry Shop one almost-warm afternoon. Between bites of bright yellow lemon cake, Nanji explains that his most outlandish comments are usually reserved for the “safe space” of The Federalist, a non-partisan, satirical newspaper on campus for which Nanji was managing editor his sophomore and junior years.
Although Nanji insists that he was “a very serious, studious kid, only involved with the books” and “was not at all funny in high school,” he is certainly funny and fun to talk to now. We had just met, yet Nanji spoke with an ease, eloquence, and refreshing openness that made me want to know more about him.
Illustration by Julia Flasphaler
As a Muslim growing up in a “very conservative, very white environment” in Kansas City, Missouri, Nanji came to Columbia with social activism in mind. However, when better acquainted with the social activist communities and clubs on campus, Nanji attests to being a bit disillusioned. “I’m very theoretically supportive of things like social activism and what-not. I support a lot of movements. But I don’t feel like the communities on campus are effective, as in having actual efficacy in changing people’s lives, or creating a dialogue rather than just people speaking past each other.”
While Nanji chose to forgo joining established social activist groups on campus, he has found other means to channel his beliefs. Satire, for Nanji, has proven to be an unconventional yet productive way to think and speak critically about social issues. The Federalist provides “space for me and others to examine what is happening around us,” Nanji says. “While we do have a taste in humor, expressed in what we select, we’ve never put restrictions on ourselves, like ‘we won’t talk about this topic or that.’”
Nanji has, for example, pitched many pieces concerning suicide—a subject that is undoubtedly pertinent at Columbia given the staggeringly high number of suicides in last two years, but that is widely left undiscussed. “That’s how you open spaces to talk about these things,” Nanji explains. “Like you’ve identified a problem, you’ve identified a topic that you think is worth commenting on, and the next step after that is to determine how to engage that problem.”
In addition to coaching his high school debate team during their annual national tournaments, Nanji remotely teaches his sect of Islam, Shia Ismaili Islam, to eleventh graders across the country who generally do not have access to religious schools or centers. “Like me, a lot the kids I teach are from places where they feel like outsiders,” he says. “So, we’re able to have discussions about Muslim identity in this country, and how to engage with Drumpf’s presidency and what-not. Like, how can we talk about Islam in a community that mostly voted for Drumpf?”
While Nanji has fulfilled the requirements to be pre-med, he’s majoring in Anthropology, a discipline he stumbled upon, then fell in love with after taking a class with Professor Marilyn Ivy, who focuses on Japan, technology, and Postmodernism. After graduation this May, Nanji is unsure what he will do, but he doubts that he will jump into medical school just yet. “I want to do research that is related to these interests that I have in psychiatry, and health, and social justice, or in the social—whatever the hell that is!” Nanji laughs. “Maybe a PhD in Medical Anthropology at some point later on, but right now I’m just going to graduate!”
— Miya Lee