By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In a perfectly ordered world, Mirza Baig goes off to medical school, gets a good practice somewhere in the suburbs, settles down with a girl in a nice, arranged marriage and lives placidly ever after.
"Within our culture, the South Asian, Indian subcontinent culture, it's very -- you're very coerced into and you're styled into certain careers in your life," Baig says. "It's either technical or medical that you go into, and these were kind of predestined for you and decided at the age of seven or eight and it was in my mind."
His parents' closest friends had three children who all became doctors. Eight of his 14 first cousins went through med school. If you count his second cousins, the number of MDs goes up exponentially. At the northside mosque where he grew up, no one should ever worry about having a heart attack and hearing a pin drop when the imam calls out, "Is there a doctor in the house?" Friday jummah might be better staffed than some area hospitals.
Yet at Klein Forest High School in the early '90s, Baig knew what he liked. The native Houstonian lettered in debate ("I look back on it, man, it sounds so nerdy"), attended public-speaking tournaments just about every weekend and took on roles in drama productions and comedy routines like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?"
Language, performance and promotion were his passions, but a "huge barrier of repression" stood in the way: that insurmountable social inertia that shepherds young Indian kids into sensible professions and steady success.
"Back then, ten years ago, if I were to have free will, I would definitely pursue the avenues of acting, advertising -- somewhere where I can outlet my creativity," he says.
Halfway through his senior year, when the oil market tanked, his father, a petroleum geologist who had emigrated to Houston from Hyderabad, took a job as a civil engineer in Chicago. The family moved and Baig started at a junior college there, on track for premed. After three years, as Baig was carving up cadavers and prepping for the MCAT, he realized there was a class clown trapped inside him, straitjacketed by a lab coat and badly needing to get out and moon the test proctor.
"It was just that doctors think based on objectives, based on empirical data and information," says Baig. "I couldn't see myself in that. I just didn't want to become like that. And there was that apparent fear that I may one day lose everything and lose my personality."
So in college, Mirza Baig, with the help of a few friends, launched Islamica (www.islamicaweb.com), an online humor company that sells apparel, publishes spoof articles and maintains a vibrant message board. In fall 1998, it began with the following:
Islamica Finally Reveals Secret!
SCHAUMBURG, IL - Feeling under pressure from the public and parents alike, the boys at Islamica revealed the source for their creative, yet controversial ideas. At a news conference held in a Suburban Chicago garage last Friday, company CEO Mirza Baig told all about the longtime coveted issue
"The real source for our ideas is the devil." Baig went on to explain that the company hired the devil at its inception, and has been enjoying his input since
The news did not come as a shock to many, and simply reaffirmed the older generation's longtime suspicion.
"I knew them boys were up to no good," said 58 year old Sartaj Farooqui
Company CIO and Webmaster Azher Ahmed was all compliments toward their evil associate. "The devil is a genius when it comes to graphic arts," Ahmed raved. "Whenever we work together, I just give him the mouse and watch in awe. I love that little guy."
-- Islamica News, Issue 1
When Muslim parents logged on to the Islamica News Web site and read accounts of this fictitious event, some, no doubt, recoiled in horror. Their children, on the other hand, many of them born in the United States and versed in The Onion, got the joke.
Like many of these young Muslims, Mirza Baig grew up on a cultural divide. He was Islamic, but not an immigrant; American, but not secular. And he was starving for a pop culture outlet as hip, creative and witty as he aspired to be.
That fusion came to be known as Islamica, a unique "identity-centric" hybrid drawing thousands of young members and millions of page-views. At a time when most media images uniformly cast Islam in somber, angry tones, the cheerful lunacy of Baig and his conspirators might be the lone voice of reason.
So, did you hear the one about the funny Muslim?
16 Hour Drive Looms Ahead For Rejected Bachelor, Family
"I can't believe this crap," lamented Farouq. "She didn't even say one word to me "
The Bashir's can find comfort in the fact that their Nissan Maxima (above) gets excellent fuel economy.
-- Islamica News, Issue 6
On a pleasant spring afternoon, Mirza Baig, now 27, pulls into the masjid parking lot and steps out of the car. Dressed in a black and gray Islamica shirt and prefaded blue jeans, he slips off his Ralph Lauren sunglasses and tucks them into his shirt collar, revealing dark brown eyes to match his mocha five-o'clock shadow and black tangle of gelled hair.