Journalist Noor Tagouri Wants You To Question Muslim Representation

Photo: courtesy of 77Dead.
When Noor Tagouri logs onto our Zoom meeting a few minutes late, she’s visibly emotional. The 28-year-old award-winning journalist has just gotten off a 20-minute phone call with one of her best friends. Her friend listened to the first episode of Tagouri’s new podcast, Rep, in which Tagouri explores how misrepresentation of Muslims has affected her family personally, and had come to a pretty big realisation: She didn’t really know Tagouri. “I have this idea in my head of what this episode means to the world, but it means that because of what it's done to me personally,” Tagouri tells me. “And then to hear someone else who's seen me through so much say she realised [after listening to the episode that] she didn't know me, and then me realising I didn't know me either, and that we both met me at the same time … it was so transformative.”
It’s an emotional moment and a lot to be processing at 10 a.m. on a Friday, but for Tagouri, it’s only the latest layer of self-discovery during her time researching, writing, and working on Rep. The series is a personal investigation, examining how the misrepresentation of Muslims in U.S. media has impacted American culture — especially Muslim Americans, who’ve internalised Islamophobia — through the lens of politics, pop culture, and public opinion.
The podcast, launching on April 4 from Tagouri’s At Your Service production company in partnership with iHeartMedia, is four years in the making. Tagouri first came up with the idea in 2018, shortly after she finished working on her series Sold In America. She stopped and started trying to work on Rep (which had several other possible titles) two times before finally settling on “the final download,” or vision for the series, on New Year's Day in 2021. That version, compared to the version that it is today, is completely different,” Tagouri says. “But that's what I realised was  really where our journey had to start.” 
It also turned out to be an exploration of Tagouri and her family because they’re inextricably intertwined. While the series features well-known faces — and voices — like Rep. Ilhan Omar, hip-hop artist Brother Ali, and political staffer and close Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin, the first episode is a little closer to home, examining one of the most defining and tragic moments in Tagouri’s family history: the 1986 U.S. air strike on Libya. The event, over 30 years ago, has had immense staying power, as Tagouri explores the way misconceptions about Libyans from this time have impacted her family even until today.
The episode opens with a conversation between Tagouri and her 11-year-old brother, discussing one of the first times he’d seen Libyans referenced in pop culture, from the same era as the air strikes. It was in the 1985 film Back to the Future, and unsurprisingly the Libyans are the bad guys, referred to as “Libyan Nationalists" and depicted as terrorists out to get the beloved Doc. Watching it initially, he didn’t think much of the characterisation, but looking back, it bothered him. “It just really hurt me how they put that,” he tells Tagouri. “I forget stuff quickly in the movie. ... So I would remember the funny part instead of the hard part.”
“It just gave me chills, again,” Tagouri says, reflecting on the moment. Later, Tagouri speaks with her great uncle, an “All-American Libyan cowboy.” He talks about the first time he ever felt represented in American media, but it wasn’t in a film or on a TV show. The first time he felt seen, as he told Tagouri, was watching the same American air strike on Libya on the news. 
These conversations are heartbreaking moments that call into question the very notion and limitations of representation, a term we’ve come to tout around as essential, but often without actually examining what’s behind it. Because what does it mean when the representation we’ve been calling for is ultimately harmful? And do we really know who we truly are independent of these somewhat normalised (but toxic and inaccurate) narratives? As Tagouri states at the end of the first episode, the goal of Rep is to “challenge the concept of the value of representation.” And this is why.
“Representation is important. We can ask for representation all day. But what is representation? What is being represented? Who is being represented if you don't actually know who you are?” Tagouri asks. “We have a lot of work to do on ourselves.”
For Tagouri, whose journalism has often come from a personal place, this was a topic she could only speak to and explore through her own experience. Her hope is that, in following her own curiosity, others will join in the journey of their own self-discovery, peeling back the layers behind these historical misconceptions and misrepresentations to discover who they really are independent of them. 
“I want to know that version of you,” she says. “Once you've peeled back every layer that you could possibly find, questioned your beliefs, your truths [and] where those came from, when you've done that work, I'm ready — let's build.”
Of course, peeling back the layers isn’t always easy. The fact that Tagouri is working from personal experience, living and knowing the effects of misconceptions intimately, can be a positive thing, but it can also cause limitations. The process required her to let go of any preconceived ideas or expectations, and be open to what she found through her reporting, a process that hasn’t necessarily been easy. “Hard is an understatement. Sometimes I describe it as an exorcism,” she says. 
"I had to build this armour,” Tagouri says about delving into such personal — and often traumatic — themes. Throughout the process, Tagouri has tapped into tools to help take care of her mental and physical health: sleeping in, jumping in a freezing pond near her home (to combat brain fog and fatigue), journaling, and taking medication for an immune disorder. “And even with all of that, I am still being knocked out pretty often from this experience.” 
Despite the toll, combating misrepresentation, and telling the story of her family, isn’t only important, but essential. “To me, this isn't work, this is life,” she says. “That's how we investigate things; we look at issues, the things that hurt, and the way things are and then examine what role do we play in all of this? We create environments to give people space to ask all of the questions they've ever thought about. And ask it with no expectation of receiving answers. So this is never not worth it.” And, neither was opening up. "Every time I chose [to be] fully open, things would come together the way that they did. And that's how we got here today.”
Despite the fact that the first episode of the series has premiered, Tagouri — and Rep — are far from reaching any type of firm conclusion when it comes to representation, and we probably shouldn’t expect one. The podcast, like Tagouri herself, is still evolving. And Tagouri hopes it continues to. This series has been a transformative journey for me. But every single person who listens to it is going to have a completely different experience, and that was my intention.”
Rep is available to listen on iHeartMedia and Apple Podcasts.

More from Entertainment

R29 Original Series