You have a very interesting background, being raised Muslim by your converted parents. How has living being raised as a Muslim American shaped your world view and goals?
I think being a Muslim and an African American gives me a unique perspective. America hasn’t been very kind to my people, so there’s a deep relationship of some time of distrust and it’s forced me to think outside of the box per se, to think that there’s not even a box, to not even think of a box. There’s also a constant challenge of where do I fit in, where do we fit in as a people into this larger narrative of America.
Have you made your hajj yet? If so, could you talk about that experience a bit? How has the re-entry experience in the US been for you? Have you experienced reverse culture shock of some kind?
I have not made hajj. I’ve made a lesser pilgrimage called umrah, which is basically a mini hajj to Mecca. I’ve done that twice. Regarding reverse culture shock, I think the United States is very bizarre. We don’t take off our shoes when we come indoors. Americans don’t have the same bathroom etiquette as people in other places. We’re not as clean. We don’t have bidets. Like, how do you not have a bidet? That’s civilized. The biggest shock has been the fact that there are no places built in for reflection. You walk into a mall in Malaysia, and there’s a prayer room. There are signs to tell you where you can go pray. You can go to the Burj Khalifa, one of the tallest buildings on planet Earth in Dubai and you can find prayer areas. You go into Jordan and there are prayer areas. You hear the adhan all over Saudi Arabia. You have a constant reminder, which is what used to be here when you’d hear church bells. You don’t even hear church bells anymore. Growing up I used to hear church bells every hour, and it was almost reassuring. Like OK, that comes from the church. It’s sending a message, “Don’t forget about God and it’s 5 o’clock.” I think we’ve missed some of that ceremony and ritual, that’s my reaction to coming back. And also, for a Muslim, being abroad you have more freedom about what you eat. When you come back, you’re all of a sudden forced to say “Oh, I can’t eat there.” Because of the pork obsession. You never know what’s going on in people’s kitchens. You never know how they cook, what forks and knives they’re using, and what cutting board they’re putting things on.
So much of international education and environmental work relies on air travel and we end up with the unfortunate irony of contributing to global warming (via the huge carbon footprint of long distance flights) while trying to promote green ideas and awareness of global issues. What can we do in this predicament?
There’s not a lot we can do, given the context that we’re in right now. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to do it. I don’t know if my son will be able to travel as much as I’m traveling now. I don’t know if his son, God willing, will be able to travel that much. This is a unique moment in human history when we’ve had this ability and I don’t think it’s going to last very long, because it requires you to have an incredible amount of unlimited oil. We’ll do better things, create better technologies, but I don’t know if we’ll be going up in the air that way. It’s hard to say when will be that next thing.
In interviews for Melibee Global and the ANT Bookstore’s Foot Note a few years ago you gave readers tips on how to effect change in the environment. Do you have any additional tips that you tell people these days?
The first you can do is to de-hoard. Start throwing away and giving away and getting rid of your stuff. Personally go through your house stuff and if you haven’t used it in three to six months, figure out someone who can use it. Let go of stuff. Get rid of things. Or if you’re going to keep things, keep them really well. Hold onto them and keep them in good condition. The second thing I tell people all the time is create less trash by buying less things or buy things that have more value and hold on to them. Your goal should be to have zero trash coming out of your house, and start by doing less trash each day. This a meditation, a deep meditation, an over time meditation. You’ll find that after a year or two you’ve created less waste. For example, my wife and I spent some time with her sister, and they don’t actually create a lot of waste, but they had a garbage can, a traditional one that most Americans have. You open it up, and it has a big, black garbage bag. You pull it out and take it to the garbage disposal. We haven’t used a garbage can and bag that size in about three years. It felt foreign to me to actually be doing that. I was like, “How do I do this again?” So it’s like retraining ourselves, our relationship with waste. Nothing gets thrown away. There’s no such place as “Away.” So we have to really start getting into a rhythm, almost a meditative rhythm, to understand our human behavior as it relates to trash and to not assume that we’re going make changes overnight. No spiritual path has ever come and transformed people within a day. People have evolved and have had to understand themselves first before that can happen.
What have you found best motivates people to follow through on these tips?
We’ve had trouble. I think everyone has trouble with it. I think for motivation some healthy competition is good. I’m always a believer of some good, healthy competition. In Islam we say you can’t be jealous of anything other than someone’s knowledge or practice. If I see someone being more frugal and practical, I’m jealous of them because I want to be the most frugal. I want to do dishes every night, but me and my wife made a deal that we would never wash dishes at night. Stuff like that that motivates you. With the lack of clutter you’ll find that you have a clearer mind and can think better when there’s less stuff.
Can you describe your speaking presentations with Melibee? What is it that you like about having these dialogues?
I’ve had some fun conversations at some of the best campuses across the United States. Some of the premier institutions in the Big Ten, the SCC, the Big Twelve, just being able to go to places and be welcomed and have really insightful conversations. To speak, to sell books, and get to ask tough questions and respond to them as well. My role is to make sure that I’m saying something that’s true and accurate, smart and clever. I think it fits well with what Melibee is doing.
Many thanks again to Melibee’s Kate Kirk for posing such thoughtful questions! You can read one of Kate’s own posts and read her bio here.