Artist Bassam Tariq is determined to shine a light on the incredible diversity of Muslim life – and he does it by any means necessary. Known for his blogging project 30 Mosques in 30 Days, Tariq and a friend took a month-long road trip through all 50 states, breaking their Ramadan fast each evening in mosques along the way and documenting the people they met.
He also traveled to Pakistan to film These Birds Walk, a documentary celebrating the life of the unassuming man who created Pakistan’s first ambulance service, through the lens of a coming-of-age story. And if that’s not enough, back home in New York City, Tariq cofounded Honest Chops, a halal butcher shop in the East Village that offers high-quality meat to his neighbors, 90 percent of whom aren’t even Muslim.
As his TED Talk, “The beauty and diversity of Muslim life,” is released, we spoke to Tariq about the unifying vision behind these wildly disparate projects, and how they each serve to alter perspective on what it means to be Muslim.
Your arsenal of talents is somewhat bewildering — butcher, blogger, filmmaker. How did you get here?
I was born in Pakistan, but after a short time in New York, where we lived in a very middle-class Astoria neighborhood, we moved to Houston — to the hood — when I was about 11. We didn’t even realize how bad the neighborhood was at first, because New York was so dirty in the ’90s. It was a subsidized housing complex. We thought, “Wow, this is so nice and so big!” It turned out to be violent.
I realized that everything was divided by race. It felt really weird, because in New York, we all just got along and everyone was from a different background. This neighborhood was a predominantly African-American area, and we were the only brown kids, and we always got into fights — always. So I started lying to people, and told them I was Jewish, just to get around. I didn’t want to be called “Gandhi.” To me, that was the worst thing you could be called.
I can think of worse people to be.
I know, right? But my attitude was, “That stupid little Indian man ruined everything for me.” They’d show videos of him in school, and everyone would be like, “Yo, that’s your dad.” And I was like, “Oh my god. No, I’m Pakistani.” People would respond: “What’s that?” No one really even knew where it was on a map.
Then, when we moved into the suburbs, we lived among more affluent people. It was the first time I started seeing a lot of white people in my life. I was in ninth grade. And I thought, “This is weird. These are American, WASPy white people.” Very different from the Greek and Italian kids that I grew up with [in New York]. That’s when I started seeing a different side of privilege. Until then, I believed our problems were due to having a victim mentality. When I went to college, I got involved with student organizations. The pivotal point for me was 9/11. I was forced to deal with Islam and what it meant to me — if anything. It’s such a cliché. But our politics and beliefs were put in the spotlight.
I also met affluent Pakistani kids who grew up wealthy, and until then I had no idea what that wealth was like. My dad worked in a restaurant, and we owned a gas station — that was our upward mobility — and we weren’t particularly religious. My dad would open the doors to the mosque in the morning, and then he’d go to open up the gas station. Later, we closed the gas station and my dad then opened a Chinese restaurant.
How’d that go?
It was really good food — Pakistani-Chinese fusion. It was awful as a business; it only lasted about a year-and-a-half. But my dad’s a great cook.
Above, watch the trailer for These Birds Walk, Bassam Tariq’s documentary feature that follows the coming-of-age story of two boys in Pakistan.
What did you grow up thinking you’d do?
I thought I’d go into business, or maybe become a doctor. No one in my family went to college, so it was really important that one of us go. But during that time, because my parents couldn’t afford college, I was signed up as a subject for medical tests to make money. It was dehumanizing. They’d hook me up to these weird machines and feed me medicine, and then follow my heart rate and so on. Then I took this class called “Creativity in American Culture,” and that really shifted my perspective on what was possible. I picked up a camera and thought, “I’ll start shooting videos. That might make some money.” I learned how to edit from a friend, and then did corporate videos — like videos for the university mental health department, and so on.
Is that why you became a filmmaker?
Yes, but I didn’t have an interest then in the art of film. In the beginning, I was excited about the creativity of advertising, and that’s the route I took after I graduated and moved to New York. It was really tough, being the only non-white person in the creative world of advertising. It’s very, very homogenous, and there’s no nuance to stories. There’s a façade of creativity, a sense that you’re changing the world. But I saw through it, and I ultimately got axed from my first job due to my lack of interest.
How did end up making These Birds Walk?
When I went to New York, I wanted to get away from Muslims, because in Texas, I saw how we bubbled ourselves. But as soon as I got to New York, I ended up meeting Muslims — and they were an amazing group of creative artists. My roommate, for example, was a filmmaker named Musa Syeed. He was setting his own rules, doing things his own way, and he was unapologetic about his beliefs and his practices. Until I met Musa and others in this circle, I’d worried more about being the token Muslim, that my work would be only for Muslims. Even now, for These Birds Walk, it was really important for me to make it about universal themes — family, youth, growing up.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>