Zuleikha Hester is a busy woman. Taking a break from filming documentaries and spearheading campus efforts towards flood relief in Pakistan, Hester sat down with The Argus to talk about Halal, Middle Eastern politics, and making movies.
The Argus: So you were the point-person for the Pakistan flood relief efforts last semester—how’d you get that position?
Zuleikha Hester: Well I’m half-Pakistani, and last spring I was talking with some of the Pakistani students on campus and we thought about creating a little club, so we started the Pakistani Students Association. Then over the summer the floods happened, and I think everyone in the group realized that we needed to take action and fundraise. One person, Hira Jafri ’13, made those t-shirts that a lot of people on campus are wearing, with the red cardinal and the text in all different languages. So we decided that that money should go straight to flood relief. Then when we got back to campus, we decided to have a huge fundraising effort and get lots of people involved to raise awareness, since a lot of students hadn’t even heard about what had happened.
A: Do you have tips on how to get people to notice one cause among all the others that people talk about on this campus?
ZH: You have to be totally excited about what you’re doing, and you have to go to any limit you possibly can. When we scheduled the first meeting, about five people came to it. So we covered the campus—and when I say covered, I mean that on every single surface when people walked by they would see a flyer. We made them really simple, with just one or two quotes. We just had simple statements like “the worst crisis in the U.N.’s history.” So that started a buzz.
A: How did the campaign work?
ZH: We had a big meeting at the beginning of the semester, and we decided to just divide up into little groups. So instead of having everyone just do one thing, we had a bunch of different fundraisers throughout the semester and then pooled our money.
A: So after you had done all that fundraising, how did you decide what to do with the money?
ZH: We decided to donate the money to three big NGOs that have been ranked by the United States: OxFam, the Red Cross, and Islamic Relief. All of us knew the organizations, and we knew that they had a presence in Pakistan and had the resources that people there needed. We definitely thought about giving money to specific local organizations, but the problem was that we thought that students wouldn’t recognize the names of those organizations, and that might make them hesitate. We wanted people to know that the money was going somewhere legitimate.
A: You studied in Jordan last year. Did it seem to be on the brink?
ZH: No, it did not. I worked for a non-profit that worked with the parliament doing workshops for the parliamentary staff about how to write a budget and things like that. There was this one point while I was abroad that the king dissolved the parliament. I guess in a monarchy that can happen any time. So I’m not too surprised that that happened again, since it was sort of a trend. It’s just a very different system, and so it’s a very different way of thinking about the government.
A: You’ve been pretty active in the Muslim Students Association, right?
ZH: Somewhat. My main focus last year was trying to get Halal food on campus. I felt like that was one thing I could do to help other students feel like they belonged, to have something they felt comfortable with. There was a trial period towards the end of last semester, and now we’re still trying to find out whether it’s financially viable.
A: I don’t want to sound hopelessly ignorant, but what’s the difference between the rules for kosher and Halal food?
ZH: I don’t have it completely figured out, but when we were trying to get Halal food on campus that question did come up a lot. I think it comes down to the difference in prayer said over an animal before it’s killed. There are also differences in the types of food that are restricted. Both processes are very humane, and that’s sort of the reason for having these institutions. [Jewish chaplain] Rabbi Teva was explaining to us that the kosher section has a separate part of the kitchen down in the basement of Usdan, and the food is not supposed to be touching non-kosher food. Of course the Muslim students respect that. We were just trying to find out if there was some way we could fit a Halal section as well. Before we knew the rules of kosher, we thought maybe we could have a kosher/Halal section, but I guess not. And we understand, just because we want Halal food doesn’t mean that we want tell other students, “Oh, nope, you can’t have kosher food anymore.”
A: Apparently you also dabble in documentary filmmaking—can you tell us about that?
ZH: I do. I’m from Los Angeles and both my parent are in the film industry, so I grew up around that sort of thing. One year I decided to volunteer at a couple of film festivals, and I realized I really love documentaries. I thought, “Oh wow, I’m really learning something, but I get to watch a movie at the same time.” So I started seeing a lot of documentaries and interned at the International Documentary Association. That was really cool because I got to meet a lot of documentary filmmakers and hear their stories.
A: So have you made any movies?
ZH: Yeah, there was this class last semester called Documentary Advocacy and there were eight students; we made five documentaries. When I realized that the class was offered, I made sure I was going to be in that class. Oh, our films are screening tonight.
A: What was yours on?
ZH: I did mine with another student, Steve Koch ’11. We did it on a civil rights organization called the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. They fight discrimination, and it was really cool. A woman in the legal department of the organization actually contacted us. Originally I wanted to do a documentary on the flood relief efforts and talk about how you fundraise like that on college campuses. I tried that at first but it was difficult because I couldn’t film things, talk, and fundraise. And I didn’t want to do it about me, I wanted to do it about the process, so that kind of got scrapped. The organization we did the documentary for has been losing funding, so this was a project trying to help them. It’s not quite the documentary I would have imagined making because it’s promoting their organization—it’s for them. It’s basically an introduction to what the organization does, and it’s geared towards individuals so that people who have been discriminated against know that this resource exists.
A: Did you have any technical experience before you made this?
ZH: Nope, no. I wish I had. I wish I had just played around more with cameras and learned how to use them. I have one of those little flip cameras, and I’ve been playing around with it, filming everything and anything, like my housemates making dinner. My dream job would be just traveling around, learning about different places and people and making documentaries. If I get a chance to travel, I want to share that with people.
A: Okay, finally, if you were any kind of fruit, what kind of fruit would you be and why?
ZH: I don’t know. I would definitely want to be a fruit on a tree though. Probably a mango because they’re from warm places, they’re sweet and colorful.