Tag Archives: filmmaker

Filmmaker, blogger … butcher? How TED Fellow Bassam Tariq works to upend conventional views of Muslim life

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 >>>

The Muslims Are Coming!: Fellows Friday with Negin Farsad

The Muslims Are Coming!:: Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad bowling down the alley.

The Muslims Are Coming!:: Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad bowling down the alley.

Ever bowled with a Muslim? Why not? Negin Farsad wants to know. The comedian and filmmaker’s new documentary The Muslims Are Coming! follows a group of Muslim-American comedians as they travel through Middle America setting up street actions — Hug a Muslim, Bowl with a Muslim, Ask a Muslim — skewering stereotypes and turning Islamophobia into Muslim love. Now on the last leg of her tour promoting the US theatrical launch of the film, Farsad tells the TED Blog how her lifelong passion for social justice led her from working as an intern for Hillary Clinton to a job as a policy advisor for the city of New York — to creating shows for Comedy Central, filming rapping nerds and making sure everyone has hugged a Muslim.

After your first TED conference in 2013, you wrote a hilarious piece about the experience, how you felt alienated from it. Why?

It’s so big, so lofty, and there’s so much innovation — and I am a comedian. Someone else’s “innovations in mummification processes” is my fart jokes. I mean, social justice comedy is my main thing. So, I guess I understand why I was selected for a TED Fellowship. Being the only stand-up comedian in the TED Fellows among so many other fields is one of the most interesting things about the process so far.

Above: Negin Farsad performs at Standup NY.

Tell me about yourself. Did you wake up one morning when you were a kid, and say, “I want to be a comedian”?

No, I woke up one day as a kid and I was like, “I’m going to be President of the United States! I’m going to end the racial divide, and I’m going to make healthcare available for everybody.” That’s what I said, when I was eleven. I’m an Iranian-American Muslim lady, and I grew up in Palm Springs, in the desert of Southern California. My parents emigrated from Iran before I was born, and severe allergies on my part as a baby are what enabled them to stay in the United States. Just a random side note. They have one of those classic immigration stories: they came with nothing, blah blah blah, learned the language, built a life, etcetera. You know, just really traumatic stuff. Stuff I don’t have to do because they did it. So identity became a really large part of my life.

In high school I was a drama geek, but also president of the debate club. I went to Cornell for undergrad, and I was a double major in government and theater. Then I joined a campus sketch comedy troupe. I really started to identify with the black struggle, the Latino struggle, with race politics and policy in general. So my commitment to public policy and public services has been around forever. I moved to New York, and I started another sketch comedy troupe, and I began excelling in comedy. Even still, I thought this was just a hobby I’d outgrow. “You must outgrow it, because you have to be a public servant.” So I went to grad school for African American studies and public policy as a dual degree at Columbia.

I ended up interning for Charles Rangel and Hillary Clinton. I really believed in, and still do believe in, that kind of work. It was valuable seeing people firsthand who are doing really good work, and I became even more emotionally committed to it. Once I graduated from grad school, I got a job with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and I would run numbers and talk about leveling the playing field for candidates and so on. It’s a really great program, and an example for what campaign finance can really be nationally.

But I had this nagging, horrible feeling like I just didn’t want to do it. Meanwhile, I was performing stand-up every night. By day, I’d go to city council meetings, dealing with really serious public servants. At a certain point, it just felt inappropriate, you know what I mean?

The Muslims Are Coming!: Hug a Muslim

The Muslims Are Coming!: Hug a Muslim

Is the passion for policy still there?

The passion’s still there, but I couldn’t be a part of the execution from a policy end. And I thought that’s what I always wanted to do — that I wanted to run for office. Then I realized, I think my skills are better used in a different way, which is to fold those things into my comedy.

And so began the Era of Parental Disappointment — my comedy career, a field that is horribly unstable and that half the time people don’t even view as a real art. It’s just one of these things where people are like, “Well you just go up there and wing it, right? It’s no big deal.” No, this takes years and years and years of boot-camp style, in-the-field training. And you’re never done training, because you always have to develop new material, you always have to test it and you always have to put yourself through the wringer. It can be seriously demoralizing. And then half the time you don’t get paid.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>