His father is a convicted terrorist, but Zak has chosen to be a peacebuilder.
Tell me how you got started.
Because of my life story I had been introduced to fanatical ideologies that drive people to commit acts of violence. My own father chose to pursue a life of violence instead of a peaceful life with his family. His name is El Sayed Nosair and he co-masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. The attack killed six people but was meant to kill many, many more. Before the 1993 bombing my father began training me at age 7 to shoot automatic weapons at shooting ranges. I was being groomed to follow in his footsteps. These memories were huge burdens for a young man to carry. Besides being ashamed of what my father had done I also felt broken. I was unable to live a normal life because of what he had done. My family had to change their names to protect themselves from the communities in which we lived. In fact my name isn’t really Zak Ebrahim. I’d changed it to hide who I was. I was born Abdulaziz El Sayed Nosair but chose the name Zak in order to keep my old nickname “Z”. Unfortunately, it was harder to hide than we’d thought. There were death threats against the sons of Nosair. I moved 20 times by the time I was 19 years old. I spent many years trying to escape my father’s shadow.
Finally in my mid 20s I had my first serious relationship and I opened up to my girlfriend about my true identity. Sharon and I had many talks about how I could make a difference with my story. One night while watching TV a stark realization crept in…I realized most times we hear about the Middle East or people of Arab decent it’s usually related to some form of extremism. It was then that I realized that I had an obligation to tell my story. Not only to get the message out about breaking down these stereotypes but also to hopefully inspire others to choose peace. I thought I could show people that even if you were raised in violence that doesn’t mean you are fated to continue that cycle. There was a time when I was paralyzed by fear and unable to gather the strength to take the next step. Sharon made me feel like I had the strength to overcome that fear and go public with my story.
What interests you most about what you’re doing now?
The thing that interests me most is how many people are out there every day trying to find peaceful solutions to humanity’s suffering. There are committed souls working everyday to create a world where we are not measured by how much we have, but how much we give. These people often do it with little or no acknowledgment. Their dedication and perseverance is astounding to me. The fact that I get to interact with those people on a daily basis is very special to me.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment? Biggest challenge?
Hmmm…biggest accomplishment? That’s tough. Telling my story has been a surreal experience. Sometimes people tell me how moved they are that I was able to renounce my extremist ideology, that they take inspiration in my ability to overcome, those are unique experiences. More often than not, I just feel like a normal person sharing my story. The idea that I might change the way people think for the better, that is incredibly humbling and easily my greatest accomplishment.
My biggest challenge was finding the strength to stand up and speak in the first place. One example was being invited to speak to several hundred FBI Counter Terrorism agents. Throughout my life my family would receive periodic visits from just those sorts of agents. They’d come by to ask questions and check up on us. Finding the strength to get up in front of that crowd and share my story felt like a pretty significant accomplishment. It was a great experience!
Who or what inspires you?
Well, in my travels, I have had the incredible honor of meeting peace-makers from all over the world. It is from those people that I derive my inspiration. One of the first things that struck me when I first began speaking was the range of people brought together by this common goal of peace: famous people, moms and dads, students, artists, teachers, the rich, and the poor. From the outside it’s difficult to appreciate just how much work goes in to promoting the cause of peace. I am lucky that I get to see this process firsthand.
Why is peace sexy to you? What does “Peace is Sexy” evoke for you?
Violence is ugly. It’s that simple. It’s weak. As human beings, violence is sometimes the first thought that comes to mind when engaged in conflict. By overcoming that attitude we can use our minds instead of our fists.
Peace is Sexy means standing out in a crowd. Blazing your own path when you realize the roads you’re used to lead to the same old destinations. It means moving forward with new ideas that may take you places you never thought you’d go. To me it means living life with purpose.
What is a simple thing you do to create peace? What is something you do everyday?
I try and approach the relationships I have with people by using one of the simplest lessons my mother taught me growing up. “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” It’s amazing what a simple lesson like that can do to affect your daily life.
How would you like Peace is Sexy to make a difference in what you are up to?
Finding unique ways to draw attention and encourage participation in the peace making process has always been extremely important. I think Peace is Sexy does that and more. Not only does it draw attention to the important issues, but it does so in a provocative way that causes people to reframe the entire concept of peace. Thinking outside the box has always been a great way to find new and exciting solutions to the problems we face. That is something all peace advocates can make use of.
Where would you like to see your passion go in the next 10 years? 20 years? 100 years?
I am currently being filmed for a documentary by Off Center Media about my coming out with my life story. In the short-term I’m hopeful that by sharing my story I can show people that where we come from isn’t nearly as important as where we’re going.
In the long-term though, I hope by working with others breaking down stereotypes and promoting non-violent conflict resolution we can encourage a cultural revolution; that a person’s race, sexuality, or religious background has less to do with our character than the environment we live in.
Is there anything else you want to tell us?
Being a peace maker is easily the most gratifying thing I could have done with my life. It gives me direction, hope, and the constant reminder that so many people are out there working toward the same objective. It shows that together we can accomplish any of the goals we set for ourselves. More than anything I would like to share that feeling with as many people as I can.
I am my best self when I am advocating for peace. It gave me a sense of self worth that I don’t think I would have found anywhere else, certainly not in such abundance. Doing what makes you happy…that is sexy.
More information at: http://zakebrahim.com