Just because Whole Foods backed off its commitment to monetize the Islamic holy month of Ramadan doesn’t mean that the most sacred days of the Muslim calendar don’t lend themselves to promotional genius. On August 1, friends Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq embarked upon a Ramadan tour of 30 American mosques, over 30 days, in 30 cities in 30 states.
The two started their trip in Alaska, jumped down to Washington State and Oregon, bumped over to Hawaii and moved up from their to Wyoming and beyond. Snapshots from the tour, and interviews with devotees the pair are meeting along the route, are being posted live to the world web. Presuming Aman and Bassam remain friends (travel can be brutal to relationships), the trek will conclude in their hometown of New York.
And what is being promoted? The basics: establishing a human identity and connecting our commonly shared dignity through storytelling.
The more people we meet, the better. We’re hoping that these meetings as they occur over socializing will spiritually uplift us during this month.
Aman and Bassam took time out while on the New Jersey turnpike to answer TakePart’s urgent questioning.
Takepart: What are your personal histories with Islam?
Bassam Tariq: I was born Muslim; so is Aman. I didn’t really care much about the faith until I came to high school and I had Muslim friends. It was in Sugar Land, Texas. Tom DeLay was our Representative. It’s a pretty conservative town. I remember times we didn’t want to go to mosque because it was more important for us to be American before we were Muslim. Then 9-11 happened; so all of us kind of had to band together and start understanding what exactly our religion was about. When we started analyzing the faith, we started holding onto the identity a little stronger.
Takepart: Does Ramadan fall on the same month every year?
Bassam Tariq: Ramadan goes by the lunar calendar. It essentially is moving up 15 days every year. Last year it started August 15th; this year it started August 1st. Next year it will start off in July. It’s following the lunar cycle.
Takepart: Is Ramadan a historical event?
Bassam Tariq: It was the month where the Koran came down. The prophet Muhammad got his first revelation out in the cave of Hara, where he was sitting to meditate. The angel Gabriel came to him and said “Iqraa,” which means read. “Read in the name of your Lord.” That was the first time the Koran was revealed to him.
Takepart: How do you and Aman get 30 days off work to do this project?
Bassam Tariq: Aman’s a reporter; so it was easy for him to get off. For me it was a little harder. I’m in advertising, and I asked them to leave. They weren’t as understanding in the beginning, but I got lucky. That’s all I can say. Literally we both start work the day we come back to New York, the 31st.
Takepart: Has there been any pushback from your trip?
Bassam Tariq: A lot of the subjects we’re touching on have been upsetting to a lot of Muslims. For example, we highlighted a community of Muslims out in St. Louis that follows a different sect of Islam that is kind of marginalized. So a lot of Muslims were like: “They’re not Muslims. Why did you bring them up?” Another controversy was when I went into the women’s side of the mosque. A lot of people thought I barged into the women’s side. No! I got permission. On Twitter right now (@curry_crayola) you’ll see a lot of people wrote responses against my post. The most recent backlash we had was two days ago. I wrote a post about an Imam that’s a homosexual who leads a congregation of queer Muslims out in D.C. People were so upset. We literally got 230 comments in less than 24 hours.
Takepart: How much of your journey is spiritual and how much is social?
Bassam Tariq: A lot of spirituality comes from the socializing of this trip. Ramadan is a time when a lot of people recluse. A lot of men and women spend the last 10 days at the mosque; it’s called itikaf. They don’t leave the mosque. Some people back in the days used to be out in caves. They would just be out and alone. For us, it’s the complete opposite. The more people we meet, the better. We’re hoping that these meetings as they occur over socializing will spiritually uplift us during this month.
Takepart: Who are some of the more atypical Muslims you have met?
Bassam Tariq: I would say the Muslims in Holy Islamville, down in South Carolina. They’re a group of African American Muslims who embraced Islam in the 1980s through this guy named Mubarak Ali Gilani, who’s a Sufi from Pakistan. A lot of the African American congregates have taken on his style and his habits. Speaking with us, they would be, like, “thiek acha.” (It means okay.) They would use a lot of words in the Urdu vernacular. They had potatoes and meat and rice cooked in a very south Asian style. It was bizarre.
TakePart: Does traveling on an empty stomach strain your relationship with Aman?
Bassam Tariq: We’ve fasted for the past 10 to 13 years of our lives; so it’s kind of second nature to us. It kind of helps on the road trip; we don’t have to stop for food all the time. Our car is not that messy because we don’t eat much. We both do a good job on what irritates the other. There’s a lot of back and forth because we’re both very critical people; so we just need to shut up and move on. What we’re doing right now is bigger than the both of us.