The Ma’ati illustration by Taj Francis

The Ma’Ati illustration by Taj Francis

One of the neat things about publishing on the internet is that there’s so much opportunity for unique perspectives and unusual content structures. This is an asset Shamira Muhammad takes advantage of with her newest project, The Ma’Ati, an online hybrid of a novel and a travel magazine. Shamira also plays with truth and fiction: the novel follows a character named Shamira, whose travels and history are based on the author’s own life, embellished by her imagination and descended from a fictional nomadic tribe. The magazine portion of the project hooks into the storyline and offers real and useful travel advice for the places Shamira visits along the way. With the webzine, Shamira seeks to fill a gap in travel sites: a publication that veers away from the overly-touristy in favor of hip, hidden gems, and which touches on considerations useful to travelers of color.

The Kickstarter campaign page goes into excellent detail about what will be covered in the novel and the webzine—and teases future destinations, as well. Intrigued by this original project, I spoke with Shamira a little bit more about the process behind the scenes, and about her travels:

Hostility towards people of color is a globalized issue that we see from LA to India to Australia. But that does not mean that we should avoid any particular place.

BALC: Part of the inspiration behind this project is the lack of travel sites catering to people of color. How do you plan on communicating which destinations are friendly to POC? Is this aspect something you would explicitly review, or would you only include cities you found to be receptive?

Shamira: Many thanks for asking me this. It was odd of me to say that the Ma’Ati would help indicate which destinations around the world are “people of color friendly.” Truthfully, that doesn’t exist anywhere. Hostility towards people of color is a globalized issue that we see from LA to India to Australia. But that does not mean that we should avoid any particular place. What I am hoping the Ma’Ati Magazine will help achieve is a registry of experiences from myself and contributors about what they encountered in different places and the best methods of handling situations as they arise. On the corporate level, I am also hoping to showcase companies that are awesome towards travelers of color and which ones need work. But most importantly, it’s a guide to having the dopest time ever in cities and secret places around the world.

The Ma'ati illustration by Taj Francis

The Ma’Ati illustration by Taj Francis

The illustrations you’ve commissioned to accompany The Ma’Ati are beautiful. How did you choose who to work with? What does that collaborative relationship look like?

I was following both Taj Francis, who illustrated the ‘Origins’ chapter and Paul Davey, who created the illustration of me, on social media for some time before I reached out to them. Taj and Paul are very masterful in their depiction of powerful women. In Paul’s work, old classmates, neighbors and lovers become the central heroines of his work. I think people of color deserve to choose who their heroes are. Taj has an amazing ability to capture the soul of his subjects. He creates a mystical world that we know with elements that are new and exciting. I contacted both Taj and Paul through social media and was elated that they were receptive to working with me. I have been waitressing and substitute teaching to cover the costs of launching the Ma’Ati, so I was really proud to pay both of them for their work. I can’t wait to collaborate with a female visual artist. There are some I am following on Instagram I can’t wait to reach out to.

Every time I felt fear, I tried to teach myself that it was a moment to be creative.

What has been the most difficult part of this project so far, and how did you work through it?

I know one of the hardest challenges all artists face is being taken seriously. I recently had a male editor tell me that I would be making myself redundant by launching my own magazine and that it would be best if I worked for him.

But the biggest challenge for me was working through fear. I was encouraged many times by those around me to quit developing the Ma’Ati. A month after I moved back from Paris to the US, my grandfather had a stroke. Helping to care for him and also sometimes helping out my grandmother gave me the time to daydream and explore my imagination. But all of my job applications went mostly unanswered. I became obsessed with becoming self-sustaining so that I could have my own place again, and a bed and a place to travel from. Balancing those wants with the patience needed to allow the Ma’Ati to reveal itself was the best journey I had to take. Every time I felt fear, I tried to teach myself that it was a moment to be creative.

Was there something that turned out to be easier than you expected?

I thought it would be difficult to find ways to weave different places together through one story. But it’s been pretty easy. All places around the world are connected in the most fantastic ways. There are hints of people like the Ma’Ati in all types of global folklore and when you’re on the road, new characters just come to you from all over.

Shamira in Paris

Shamira in Paris

You identify as somewhat of a nomad, but are there any places where you feel most at home, or most connected to humanity?

Cuba changed my life. I visited the island in December and had a harrowing and ultimately beautiful experience there. The people I met in Havana treated me with such kindness and sincerity and humor that it was hard to leave. Otherwise, Paris would often feel like home because of the family I made there. But Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans and Accra, Ghana have holds on me. Kingston is known as being gritty and hard and it is. But there are absolutely wonderful souls there. New Orleans reminds me of my father’s mother, who I never met. She was so beautiful and always grabbing the most she could out of each day. Accra smells like home to me. It’s a familiarity that my blood memory knows.

Habana Vieja, Cuba. Taken December 2014 by Shamira Muhammad

Habana Vieja, Cuba. Taken December 2014 by Shamira Muhammad

As you say, travel is full of risks. Have you had any stressful experiences that have led to positive memories or happy accidents?

Cuba was amazing and life changing. I went to Havana in December, two days after Obama announced that American relations with the island were softening. I had been invited by a slightly older guy I was casually seeing. He is wealthy, and thought it would be a fun trip, knowing that I was always wanting to travel for the Ma’Ati. My mother did not want me to go to Cuba with him, it was for two weeks over the holidays, but I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Three days after we arrived, unfortunately, this man grew irritated with me and I began to understand that he thought he’d have a lot more control over what I did and saw. I had a really scary experience in which I had to sleep in a bathroom and ask for help from my new acquaintances in Havana. I wanted to stay in another hostel but my new friend’s were adamant I stay with them. Cuban immigration allowed me to stay with them for the rest of my trip and I was folded into the life of a multi-generational Cuban family. Spending Christmas and New Years with them was powerful. Because they are Afro-Cuban, their perspective on America and the impact of the border openings was a rare thing to hear and experience. I was this family’s very first overnight visitor.

Adventures happen when things go awry, not perfectly.

If you could give new travelers only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t panic. Things happen when you travel but I’ve found it so important to believe that things will be ok. Adventures happen when things go awry, not perfectly.

 

Cherry Blossom festival in Washington, DC by Shamira Muhammad

Cherry Blossom festival in Washington, DC by Shamira Muhammad

Favorite…

  • Food you’ve eaten “abroad”: This past New Year’s Eve, I thoroughly enjoyed what I believed to be chicken until my hosts asked if I wanted more pork.
  • Way to pass the time while flying: I love reading on planes. Lately I’ve been rereading a lot of Octavia Butler and most recently, The Hidden Treasure of the Absolute by Srimad Bhagavad-Gita. I also love journaling the weird, random conversations I can overhear on a plane.
  • Method of travel: Flying is my favorite. I just love the anxiety of getting to the airport and catching a flight.
  • Natural space or landmark: The Blue Mountains in Jamaica are so stunning. They host everything from camping spots to weekly reggae parties. On a clear day, you can see Cuba from the top of the mountain. The beaches of Mombasa, Kenya were spectacular. Some wonderful friends and I went camping there, and when you wake up in the morning, the ocean has receded a mile back. Women from nearby towns and villages come and find food to sell and eat in the shallow water. Monkeys also hover around the campgrounds checking everything out.
  • Type of travel companion: My parents. The adventurous side of my mother explodes from her when she’s on a trip. She’s down for anything. My Dad is as well. They both have an amazing ability to behave spontaneously.
  • Way to relax after a good trip: I love riding my bike after a long trip and spending a few hours checking in with friends who I haven’t seen in a while. But sleeping is a fave.

Interviewing Shamira was such a joy; she answers every question with so much spirit and honesty that I think we can expect many great things from this project. If you’re a current or aspiring world traveler or simply wish to have this resource exist for those who would venture out, take a gander at her Kickstarter campaign, which closes this Thursday, and at time of writing is nearly funded!