How to tell your authentic story (with Noor Tagouri) (Transcript)

How to Be a Better Human
How to tell your authentic story (with Nour Tagouri) (Transcript)
October 17, 2022

[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
You're listening to How to Be a Better Human. I'm your host, Chris Duffy, and on today's episode, we're talking about the importance of being able to own and tell your story in an authentic way. Our guest today, Noor Tagouri tells stories across all different forms of media, whether it's videos, podcasts, writing, or on TV.

And in 2022, Noor launched her investigative series Rep. It's a podcast which starts with her examining the stories from her own Libyan-American family and then expands outward into a constellation of other voices. For Noor, the process of finding her voice and figuring out how to express herself is a process that started at a very early age, and she got her inspiration from a somewhat unexpected mentor. Here's a clip from her TED Talk.

[00:00:47] Noor Tagouri:
So personal legend showed up when I was about eight years old. I would come home from school, toss my book bag on the floor, and rush to the living room to watch Oprah with my mom—4:00 PM sharp every single day.

Now, I know everybody loves Oprah like you, but I really loved Oprah. How she asked questions, how she prompted people to share their most vulnerable stories, and how she made everybody so comfortable in their chair. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be her. I had this fiery passion for asking questions and telling stories.

[00:01:37] Chris Duffy:
We're gonna take a quick break, but when we come back, we are going to dive deep into how Noor was able to take that inspiration and that passion and build a platform dedicated to dismantling misrepresentations of Muslims. And we're gonna talk about how in doing so, she's helping all of us to see a fuller, more complex picture of the United States and the world. We've got a lot to dive into. So don't go anywhere. We'll be right back.


[00:02:09] Chris Duffy:
And we are back. On today's episode, we're talking about representation and how to find your voice. Our guest is Noor Tagouri.

[00:02:17] Noor Tagouri:
Hey y'all. My name is Noor Tagouri. I am a storyteller and investigative journalist.

[00:02:23] Chris Duffy:
So I wonder, how did you think about developing your own personal form of journalism? Because I do think it is a unique form to you.

[00:02:31] Noor Tagouri:
Wow, Chris. What an honor to hear that. Thank you. Because honestly, I wanted to be a journalist since I was a child. There's videos of me doing my news. Putting my fist up to my mouth and reporting my news to my parents when I was in single digits. And so this is all I ever knew I wanted to do. I wanted to ask questions, and it was when I decided to wear the headscarf when I was about 15 or 16 years old, that I was taking a step towards figuring out who I was, but I was putting a lot of pressure on it because I had never seen a Muslim woman wearing a hijab on television, reporting the news. So funny enough, I got the job shortly after I started putting, wearing the hijab. So I started in print and then radio, local television, digital, and so on.

[00:03:27] Noor Tagouri:
And it was in my reporting that I was so strict about, you know, being objective and doing all of the things that my journalism professors told me to do and never including myself in the story almost from this place of and insecurity because I had, I had so many professors or mentors or quote-unquote “mentors” or people tell me, you know, “You can never be objective with that thing on your head.”

You just can't. It, it, it already puts an opinion on the story, and it just never made sense to me, ‘cause I was like, “What is—What I have, what I'm wearing have to do with a story about a water main break? What does that have to do with anything?” I struggled a lot with that. There was this story that I really wanted to tell, which was about an institution that housed people with intellectual disabilities.

[00:04:13] Nour Tagouri:
The case that shut the institution down was still open. So there were people who are now in their eighties and nineties who had been housed in this facility. It was called Forest Haven, who had never received justice. And I really wanted to tell this story because I had trespassed and gone to the facility, and I had found all of these medical records on the ground that had people's names on it, that had their, their bathroom behavior listed out or any, any temper tantrum. Whatever it was, it was listed out, just thrown, discarded for anybody like me to see.

And so I followed. I wanted to follow that story and find the people that I had read about. And my news director at the time did not feel comfortable with me covering the story, and I just quit because I decided, “This is why I got into journalism.” I don't want to ask people how they feel after they lost their house to a fire or just read off press releases from the police telling us about a, a a a crime. I want to go and do the investigating.

And so I self-produced this documentary. And I didn't have anybody tell me, “Oh no, you can't wear that color head scarf”, or “You can't report it this way”, or “You need to do…” I just intuitively began to report. I intuitively found myself making the intention that the story that I was going to produce was going to be a form of justice for these people. So it was with that documentary that really everything changed.

[00:05:51] Chris Duffy:
You know, it's interesting ‘cause I've heard you say many times that you grew up loving Oprah and really like wanting to, to emulate Oprah. And I think that one of the, the things that Oprah certainly did and continues to do is, is bring herself to journalism and to, and to asking questions, right?

‘Cause we, we know who she is. She's not just like a blank slate that then the other person is reflected on, but she also gets really revealing answers out of people by bringing herself.

[00:06:17] Noor Tagouri:
It was also a part of Oprah's experience that I remember hearing about that helped me make sense of what it was I was trying to do, because she worked as a local news reporter at a Baltimore station. I'm from Maryland, so immediately there's that connection. And she was covering a fire, and she brought blankets to the family whose house burnt down and they, that, that had lost their house and she got in trouble for it by, I believe, the news director who was saying like, “That's not our job as journalists.”

And she was like, “Well, If I'm not allowed to bring blankets to a family that just lost their house, then why am I doing this?” And that always stuck with me because as somebody who wants people to connect with the story, it disconnects me from the story. It disconnects me from people. We are not talking heads and we are not robots.

[00:07:10] Nour Tagouri:
That’s why I really worked very hard to not have a traditional reporting voice because I found myself tuning out when people were speaking when I was watching the news because I caught onto their cadence. So I was listening to their cadence more than I was listening to their words.

And for me, I felt like it was really important that I connect with a, a viewer, or a listener, or a person because I have something really important to share with you. I have a story I really think that you need to hear, and I'm going to be as open and as raw as I possibly can be so that you can connect with something that's going to be so powerful, and not only your connection be of service to the people that we're talking to, but also to you. Because that's what connection does, is it allows us to expand our own worldview that we have so that we can live with less fear, really.

[00:08:13] Chris Duffy:
One of the reasons why I wanted to start by kind of talking about the idea of objectivity and subjectivity in journalism is because there's this like really, I think, fascinating and beautiful moment in the first episode of your podcast, Rep, where you have a debate in the show, basically with your dad.

Yeah. And your dad is kind of on the side of like, “Our story shouldn't be in here because it limits the ability to tell an objective story about these important events.” And you, I think, make a really compelling case to him that, like, by people knowing you and me and what we've gone through and our family history, it makes it so that this story is actually much more relatable and will get out to people in a different way.

[00:08:56] Noor Tagouri:
You know, my dad, did not say yes to doing that interview at first for that reason. Like that's how much he, he, he cares about objectivity. He takes the news very, very seriously. Now that I think about it, he also may be why I struggled with that in my own coming-of-age journalism story. Because, because I really did think about how people would speak to sticking to the facts.

But what are the facts? I believe in using fact I, I think it's really, really important for us to have the time and the place and the why, the, the who, what win, where, why, and how. Those things are really important, and I believe that we are in a time where so many people have gotten used to suppressing their own truths because we have been told that there's a motive behind their truth. That there's a motive behind the story, that it immediately creates a bias. But in order for there to be a bias in how we decide what stories are important to tell, there needs to be a default.

[00:10:14] Noor Tagouri:
And that default has traditionally been cishet white Christian male. That is typically the default. That's that. That is who my journalism professors were. That's who I was learning about objectivity from. So if I was to tell them, you know, I really think that this is an important story to to cover, and it was a story that was happening in my community and I remember this happening—I’m just realizing this—when it was like a Muslim or Arab related story that did not have to do with national security, with terrorism, or with fear, the story was seen as not important. I don't think our viewers are, or our listeners would want to hear that.

Well, if we're considering what they want to hear now and we are constantly bombarding them with these stories that are rooted in fear, then we really have to ask about, like, what our intentions are. Because if I'm presenting to you just good stories that happen to be stories that would humanize the people that have been dehumanized and to you, that humanization is a bias, then you're looking at me as a side and not a person, and that's the problem.

[00:11:27] Noor Tagouri:
Like that, I just wrote about this in a story that I'm feeling pretty nervous about because it's, it's about public opinion, but the approach to it is the creation of the Middle Easterner. This concept of the middle easterner and all—and specifically my experience and the experience of others in how we have self-censored when talking about Palestine specifically.

That story, like growing up, was a story that I always heard people say: “Don’t talk about that at work. Don't talk about that at school. Don't talk about that here. Don't talk about… if you wanna keep it. Don't talk about…” To the point where like, I had seen fellow journalists or colleagues lose their job for, for saying anything, them being Palestinian themselves. So they were just talking about their family's stories and people tell me that they, they were only given the job because they essentially agreed to never talk about it. And it was this weird thing ‘cause it never made sense to me. And I realized, “Okay, what are the questions that I've been too afraid to ask?”

‘Cause every time you ask the question that scares you, no matter what the response or the results to that question is, even if it feels not great, it will only propel you closer to a more authentic version of yourself to a more truthful, open life. And if that's what you want, then go down that road. And if you want to feel safe and afraid, and controlled, then look the other way.

[00:13:13] Chris Duffy:
Well, if you're comfortable, I, I'd love to know what one of those questions that you've been afraid to ask that then has led to that more fully realized version of yourself?

[00:13:21] Noor Tagouri:
So one of the questions that I asked of myself early on that was hard, that led me to where I am today, and I would say early on in rep, is “Why do… why do I feel like the stories that I share about myself need to be framed from a victim perspective in order for them to be worthy?” Because I literally was told, unless the story is about terrorism or national security or whatever, this, this, and this, like it's not… we don't need to hear it. So that was already ingrained in my mind. So I had to ask myself, “What, what role do I play in that?”

And if the stories that I share about myself also echo a victim mindset, then I'm doing exactly what I claim to hate. I'm misrepresenting myself without even realizing it, because maybe I did see myself that way, and now I'm seeing myself as someone who is free and has made choices. And those choices have led them to being able to tell stories in a brave way.

[00:14:38] Chris Duffy:
We're gonna take a quick break, but when we come back, we will hear more from no about how the stories we tell ourselves impact what we believe to be true and what it is we can do to help shift those internal narratives. Don't go anywhere.


[00:14:57] Chris Duffy:
And we are back. So on today's episode, we're talking with Noor Tagouri about representation and being your authentic self. And as Noor has gotten a larger platform and more visibility, she's often talked about the responsibility she feels now to dispel harmful stereotypes and lift up the truth. Here's another clip from Nour’s TED Talk.

[00:15:18] Noor Tagouri (TED Talk):
I really understood that my job and duty as a Muslim Arab-American journalist goes far beyond correcting the pronunciations of Middle Eastern names. I am the voice that explains my religion, that clarifies the context of cultural nuances, and that makes sure that when we are reporting stories regarding terrorist groups like ISIS, that we are reporting it in a way that does not generalize the Muslim population and put them in any association with these awful groups. And that, especially, that this scarf on me does not mean that I am submissive, or that I am being oppressed. In fact, it empowers me in demystifying the stigma that surrounds Muslim women.

[00:16:05] Chris Duffy:
So for those people who haven't already heard, can you just give us a quick overview of what the podcast, Rep, is about?

[00:16:12] Noor Tagouri:
So the podcast Rep started as a question, which was, “How has the misrepresentation of Muslims and Arabs in American media impacted our culture and society as a whole?” And then, when I committed to being open throughout this journey, that question became too small because it wasn't about how the misrepresentation of one person and one group impacted all of us.

The quest led to the question of: how does our relationship with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves impact what we believe to be true, what we believe to be fiction, and our relationship with our politics, our pop culture, and the opinions we contribute to the public? Because that was essentially the dynamic that we were looking at from the beginning of Rep until the end.

What is the dynamic between what we're calling the three Ps—politics, pop culture, and public opinion? And how can we use this tool? How can we use that tool to decode the power dynamics in our own stories? Because if you want to investigate something, the fastest way to revelation, in my opinion, is investigating your personal role in that first, and that's why when it came to representation, the story that I had to start with first was the story in my own family that felt the most untrue.

[00:17:46] Chris Duffy:
What was that family story that felt the most untrue? So the

[00:17:49] Noor Tagouri:
So family story goes like this. In 1986, the United States conducted an airstrike in Libya, which is where my family is from, in an attempt to assassinate the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. And the air strike ended up hitting a civilian apartment complex that killed five of our family members, and the way my family found out was my great-uncle who is obsessed with watching the news was watching the 7:00 PM news on a two-inch portable television that he got from New York. He was watching it in Tulsa, Oklahoma during his son's baseball game, and he saw that the French embassy had been hit in the air raid.

And so he called his sister, who was sleeping, ‘cause it was in the middle of the night and he told her, “Go to our family's house that was half a mile away and go check on them.” She said, “Why? Why? What's going on?” He said, “Did you hear anything?” And she said “The windows… something exploded. The windows in our house all shattered.”

[00:19:15] Noor Tagouri:
And then he said, “I’m, I'm afraid that your family has vanished.” That was a story that I had heard my whole life, ’cause it only happened 36 years ago. And one of our favorite childhood films as a family is Back to the Future. And then Back to the Future... the opening scene is Doc and Marty running from Libyan terrorists.

So out of curiosity, when I heard that my little brother watched it for like the ninth time, I decided to check what year that film came out. It had come out less than a year before the air strike. And so that's what led to me trying to start piecing things together and realizing, “Oh, I think we can do this with all of our stories.”

I think when there are certain points of trauma in our lives, we can… We can try to find connections between what was going on in politics and pop culture, what the people were already thinking, and see how those powers influenced the stories, our stories, and in turn, influenced us as people.

[00:19:52] Chris Duffy:
Well, I'm curious, since you have done this work and you've done it in a very public way, if someone is listening and is thinking like, “Wow, I need to think about the stories that my family tells or that is told—are told about me, and whatever the representation that they're, they're trying to challenge?” What advice do you have for them on how they can change those stories, both on the societal level and on the very personal level?

[00:20:13] Noor Tagouri:
Well first is to buckle up because it is not easy. I mean, the amount of, I just started calling them breakthroughs, but formerly known as breakdowns. But I had a lot of breakthroughs in this and that, and now my breakthroughs come like every day, because what I realized is when you start on this quest of questions, you're becoming a clear enough vessel so that you're able to receive your breakthroughs or your downloads or whatever you wanna call them in a much more fluid way.

So the first thing that I would say is to really sit with yourself and sit in silence. I spend a lot of time—like most of Rep is actually done out of my cabin that has no internet. I'm usually painting. I know that people can't see it, but I'm working on my finale, and this is what I painted yesterday. I just paint like a stream of—what is it called?

[00:21:10] Chris Duffy:
Stream of consciousness?

[00:21:10] Noor Tagouri:
Stream of consciousness. I paint my stream of consciousness. And yesterday, after meditating, the first thing that came to mind was: what has rep taught me about being alive? And so I write questions are quests that lead to more questions, that lead to stories that populate our worldview.

Questions promise nothing but good trouble. You want to know how I am in my fullest purpose? When a question leads to “I've never shared that before.” To share is to breathe oxygen into your stories and to keep them alive, and you are infinitely alive. And that is the breakthrough that I keep coming back to, which is when you sit with yourself, when you let yourself write what you need to write, when you cry it out, when you paint it out, when you dance it out, when you express, when you just get it all out.

[00:22:06] Noor Tagouri:
What I find at the end of the day is that our commitment to that process, our commitment to knowing our stories, our commitment to asking the question, and to asking our family or the people that raised us to tell us their stories and to document them, that is how we keep stories alive. And if we do not keep our stories alive, then someone else will write them for us.

And typically, those who have written our history are our conquerors, our colonizers, or our oppressors. So it is on you. It is a revolutionary act for you to commit to the quest of question, and to ask the ones that are hard, and to be open to whatever comes your way, however you're challenged. And the last thing that I'll say is that being open is mandatory.

[00:22:58] Nour Tagouri:
Because if you tried to control the story—which is what I did. At the beginning of Rep, I had every episode planned out, I knew who I was gonna interview for each one. I knew what we were gonna talk about in each one. I, I still have the entire production board in my cabin on sticky notes on the wall of what I thought Rep was going to look like. Even though that was great in theory, as a concept, I was controlling the story.

The interviews didn't, weren't working out. I was on a wild deadline, which really was what, like, lit a fire under mem, and I realize there's nothing for me to do except to completely surrender. Let go of control and let the stories reveal themself to me. Let your stories reveal themself to you. Don't try to control how you figure them out.
Your only job is to be an open vessel willing to receive, because you need to be open and as and as clear as possible because receiving the truth is, is really, really big. It's why we shak. It's why we get nervous. It's why we get anxious. And so the more you can ground yourself and be open and be clear, the easier it will be to lift it, and the more you say “I refuse to control this story”, no matter how challenging the questions that arise, come up, welcome them. Because the questions are only there to be companions to lead you to a more infinitely alive version of yourself, which is the breakthrough that I had yesterday.

[00:24:31] Chris Duffy:
So thinking about these stories and the idea of trying to find representation that feels real and accurate and honest, when is the first time or has there been a time that you felt represented in pop culture or media?

[00:24:47] Noor Tagouri:
The first time that I had realized that I didn't even know what representation actually felt like was when I watched my friend Ramy's show— that's on Hulu and…

[00:25:00] Chris Duffy:
One of my favorite TV shows of all time.

[00:25:01] Noor Tagouri:
Yeah. He had sent Adam and I the episodes. We sat and we watched them all in silence, and I looked at him, I looked at Adam and I said, “I feel like I was just spied on that, like someone just peered into my life, like I feel like I'm gonna get in trouble for this.” And that…

I was like, “Wow, this is what people feel when they watch Friends or Sex in the City or Seinfeld. Like that's what they're feeling? No wonder, no wonder they're so attached.” I'm attached to characters from those shows, but I, but now I'm realizing there was always a limitation and it, it almost shows me too, like… I love television. I think television is such a beautiful medium of storytelling. And it was through Ramy and also through my friend Minhal Baig’s film HALA, which was the first time I'd ever seen a Muslim woman represented in a film that way. That was the first time where I was like, “Oh, we're allowed to be ourselves and we don't have to be defined through this national security lens.” We can just be, and those stories are incredibly valid and also really amazing to watch and to connect with. They're just great stories.

[00:26:18] Chris Duffy:
Well, I feel like one thing that we don't often see, and we don't often talk about in, in the public sphere is faith. And I think, you know, obviously like the hijab is, is a public sign of faith, but it's also like we just don't often talk about the ways in which belief influences our lives. So I'm curious…

[00:26:37] Noor Tagouri:
Oh my gosh, yes.

[00:26:37] Chris Duffy:
How does it play out in your day-to-day?

[00:26:40] Noor Tagouri:
Ugh, Chris, I wish more people asked questions like that. It's so true, and I didn't know or realize it until a friend of mine told me that she was like, “Faith is such a big part of your process and you don't really talk about it.”

And I think that that was because my hijab was always politicized and talked about, and to me, hijab is actually the most private and personal thing. Like, you happen to be able to see it, but it was never about anyone except for me. I think the reasons that I wear hijab are always changing and they, they change every time I have a breakthrough, really.

[00:27:20] Noor Tagouri:
And now, reflecting on the, the role faith played in Rep, I mean, the whole series was based on faith. It was based on trust and surrendering that the stories would reveal themselves. I had no control over this journey. There were so many times where I just had to sit and, and just the entire practice of my day would be to let go of every single ounce of fear and control that I had with a story that like, that I knew was on deadline.

And I'm like, “I, I know something big is gonna happen. And I don't wanna try to just do a last-minute interview or try to control this. I know that my job right now is just to sit and to let go. And I know it'll fall into place.” T hat has never let me down. It's no longer about what you believe, how you practice, what you believe. It is existing as belief.

[00:28:12] Noor Tagouri:
It is just exist—It’s, it's being and embodying belief and the concept of it as a person who walks this earth. So it's how I see everything now. It's what has made me more patient, less angry, more understanding. It's what has allowed me to realize that nothing is ever personal. Nothing is about me. Even when somebody tells me, “You, you are this”, I don't hear it as “you” anymore. I hear it as “I am hurting because of this.”

So faith is also a protection for me because it, I feel like it protects my humanity to myself, to remind me you are not that victim that they told you that you were. You are not this terrorist that they told you that you were, you were, you’re not… You were none of these things. You’re just Noor. And your job is to figure out who Noor is in this world. Everything else is none of your business. So faith has really been the, the path beneath my feet that feels a little bit softer than the concrete sometimes.

[00:29:20] Chris Duffy:
Well, the show's called How to Be a Better Human.

[00:29:23] Noor Tagouri:

[00:29:23] Chris Duffy:
So what is one thing that you personally are working on to try and be a better human right now?

[00:29:30] Noor Tagouri:
What is something that I am personally working on to be a better human right now? I am working on self-censorship. I'm working on being more open and transparent with how I feel and what I believe, and just honest in my communication with people.

I didn't realize that I had a tendency, have had a tendency for self-censorship. And it's nothing dramatic ‘cause I actually think I'm one of the most open people that I know. But I think it's because I'm one of the most open people that I know that I'm constantly like, “How can I be even more?” And so then I'm noticing, oh, there's certain things that maybe I didn't say anything, not because I didn't want to, but because I felt like I wasn't supposed to.

[00:30:22] Chris Duffy:
Fascinating. That's really fascinating. Well, Noor, thank you so much for being on the show. It has been such a pleasure talking to you.

[00:30:28] Noor Tagouri:
Oh my gosh, Chris, this is so fun. Thanks for giving me the space to reflect on the most important work I've ever done in my life.

[00:30:38] Chris Duffy:
That is our show for today. Thank you so much for listening to How to Be a Better Human. I am your host, Chris Duffy. A big thank you to today's guest, Noor Tagouri. Her podcast is called Rep. That's R-E-P, and you could find it wherever you're listening to this podcast.

As for our show, from Ted, our show is brought to you by Jimmy Guttierez, Anna Phelan, Eric Yuen, and Julia Dickerson. That is a group of people who always ask tough questions. Tough questions like “Chris, why do you always lump us together as a group of people?”

And from Transmitter Media, we are brought to you by Gretta Cohn and Farrah Desgranges who are bringing their full selves to work. At least I assume they are. We work remotely, so I don't know if they even go into the office at all, but if they did, I, I would assume that they're bringing their full selves there.

And from PRX: Jocelyn Gonzales and Sandra Lopez-Monsalve, who have decided to trade self-censorship for the ability to censor me. Watch, as I say [BEEP]. I wasn't even saying anything at all offensive, and they beeped me. Thanks, most of all, to you for listening to our show. We would not be able to do this show without your support.

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