Pen's Pals: Living Rent-Free in Kuwait

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Aïdah Rasheed sits on a set of steps while posing for a photo.

When photographer and filmmaker Aïdah Aaliyah Rasheed left her Northern California home in 2019, she knew that she had a job and housing awaiting her in the country of Kuwait.

Rasheed and her husband, Stephen Jamal Leeper, took contracts working at a school, and as a part of their employment, the married couple and their children were given complimentary housing.

“What’s nice about not having to think about that,” says Rasheed of living rent-free, “is that you can think about other things, you know.” Her family invests their money in other experiences, like traveling.

Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed and family during a trip to Spain in December of 2019.
Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed and family during a trip to Spain in December of 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed)

Since moving, they’ve visited a number of countries in the region, and no longer have to consider the high cost of housing in the Bay Area. But living on the other side of the globe hasn’t stopped Rasheed from keeping tabs on the U.S. through check-ins with extended family, conversations with community and her side gig– a project that she’s been working on for over a year.

When she’s not making media or leading classroom projects about how society is designed, Rasheed is working as a curator for Sapelo Square, a publication focused on highlighting stories of Black Muslims in the U.S. and throughout the diaspora.

This week, Rasheed shares with us the importance of using media to tell real stories of the Black Muslim diaspora, the beauty of the daily calls to prayer in Kuwait, and what she misses about home– evidently, there’s no shea butter like the kind you find at the Berkeley flea market.

Read the transcript

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Aïdah Rasheed

HARSHAW: I’m excited to learn about where you are, what you’re doing, and how you experience this thing called life. Where are you exactly ?

RASHEED: So right now I’m in Kuwait. We moved here back in August of 2019. We were really struggling in the bay. It was really hard for us to feel like we had some calm in our lives, some peace. We were working a lot and we just didn’t feel well-rested and our mental health really was suffering. So we needed a reset and then this opportunity came about to teach overseas.

We teach at a high school here, a private high school.They pay for our housing and our health care. The environment that we live in, it’s pretty peaceful .

HARSHAW: What do you teach specifically?

RASHEED: I teach design to high school students and it’s a problem solving course. The students are presented with a situation and then they have to solve a real world problem within their community.

The students are learning a lot about empathy, compassion, care, and not just what they think is best, but understanding that in order to create a design solution for someone, you really need to do research. You need to listen, need to understand what are the needs of the folks that you’re designing for, versus just coming up with whatever idea you think is best.

HARSHAW: You and your family practice Islam and I wanted to know, how has your experience been with religion in Kuwait?

RASHEED: Kuwait, it’s a Muslim country, so the times of prayer, when you hear the Adhan being called, are just a reminder to stop and to pray and to be still and just take that time to reflect.

There’s always a place to pray, even in restaurants. I really respect it and I really appreciate it because when it’s time to pray, you stop and say your prayer and keep it moving. So it’s nice to go into a mall and there’s a prayer area, go into a restaurant, there’s a place to pray. There’s a place to just stop everything, to just be in remembrance of the Divine Creator. That is something that I love, and I just deeply cherish that.

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