Abdul-Rehman Malik

Abdul-Rehman Malik

Anika Chabra

"What does it mean to be a witness to the passage of a generation?"

You know when a conversation is next level when it feels like therapy: part informative, part healing, part inspirational. This episode we speak to Abdul-Rehman Malik, an award-winning journalist, educator, and cultural organizer. He speaks about his family story, appreciation for intergenerational time during this pandemic, and sheds a light on a tradition he wishes to reclaim (and where we get to experience the more jovial side of Abdul-Rehman). He concludes by expanding on the idea of storytelling as a sacred act - an idea we can't argue with!


Abdul-Rehman's work, at the intersection of faith and social change, has spanned the globe; from Canada to the U.S., U.K., Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia and beyond. Abdul-Rehman is currently a Lecturer at the Yale Divinity School as well as director of the Muslim Leadership Lab at Yale’s Dwight Hall Center for Social Justice. A veteran of BBC Radio, he is also host of the Aga Khan Museum’s popular podcast This Being Human, which is in its second season.


If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.


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Episode Transcript



Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who were sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity. This season we are talking about the ways that we celebrate our cultures and heritage. It can be through holidays, like we heard with Brooklyn & Zoe, or in our daily life with the passing of curiosity to future generations, like Sunita… but there are countless other ways that we’ve heard our community celebrate. It’s about fun, pride, and most of all, it’s about sharing.

Last episode we explored how religion can be presented for a modern generation. This episode, we have a guest who uses a deeper understanding of his own roots to better empathize with other races, cultures and religions. Full disclosure, this is a longer episode as our guest was gracious with his time and thoughts, so we didn’t have the heart to cut more than we did!


From migration to multi-tasking to Intergenerational Trauma to Food & Music, this episode covers the why’s, the how’s and the what’s of cultural discovery & celebration. And we really appreciate that it’s not all sunshine and roses… There needs to be the rains and the thorns to afford us those moments of reflection, joy and celebration. But it does take a scholar to bring this to light as eloquently and with as much lightness as our guest today does.


Abdul-Rehman Malik is an award-winning journalist, educator, and cultural organizer. His work has spanned the globe. Abdul-Rehman is currently a Lecturer at the Yale Divinity School as well as director of the Muslim Leadership Lab at Yale’s Dwight Hall Center for Social Justice. A veteran of BBC Radio, he is also host of the Aga Khan Museum’s popular podcast This Being Human, which is in its second season. The podcast explores the Muslim faith and all it’s potential and facets.


Abdul-Rehman starts off by speaking about his commitment to be present with his fast growing 11 year old son and then quickly segues to being reflective of his elders - a common midlife, sandwich generation, Root & Seed moment, Here he is!



I've come to that point in my life where time can't be just on the fly anymore. It's gotta be part of the schedule. It's gotta be intentional. As present and intentional I may be in other spaces, I have to be super present, intentional, in these moments of discovery and growing up.


And I think that's one of the things that's driving me at this moment to really think, I think more seriously about the things that I'm doing. And I think that the other thing that's really kind of on my heart right now is that, over the last few years, my mother's health hasn't been well.


And since the pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, I've been able to travel back to Toronto more. And then I spend time with the family, but I do feel like I've arrived at that point in my life that I'm witnessing as my parents once witnessed the passage of the previous generation.


So many of my beloved aunties and uncles and elders have passed some of my own personal mentors during the COVID pandemic have passed there isn't a week that goes by that we don't hear about a family member, a loved one, an auntie or uncle from the mosque that we grew up with people who were like parents to me and my siblings begin the next part of their journey. And I think that that is also weighing heavily at this moment because it does feel like the passing of the Baton. And, it also reminded me, Anika, of watching my parents when they were my age, even though I never really thought about their age very much.


I think particularly in South Asian culture, we don't really think about our parents' age. They're just old and older which is sort of considered them in a rank. There's a rank of old, one who is old, fidelity, et cetera, et cetera. And I think back to my parents sort of dealing with and engaging with their own parents’ passing, my grandparents passing away, elders passing away.


And, and often for my parents, they were very far from the places where that was happening. They weren't able to get back to Pakistan in time for the funeral. My father was not present for either of his parents' funerals in Pakistan. And, and that's got me thinking a lot about, you know, what does it mean to be a witness to the passage of generations and also what does it do to us? What does it do to our generation? Is it a moment of sadness? Which it is. Is it a moment, a time to remember? Which of course it is but also, is it a time to kind of, for lack of a better term, to renew our covenant with who we want to be and the kind of world that we want to see.


And I'm thinking about that a lot. I'm thinking about death a lot and I'm thinking not in a morbid way, but I'm at that age now, well, past middle age and in my own journey, you know, God willing, we have many decades left and, nevertheless there is the inexorable trotting, the path to that time. And you're like, there's more behind me than there is in front of me. It really makes you think about not only what are priorities, but what legacy are we leaving behind for not only our kids, but the communities that we work in and the relationships that we've really cultivated over our lifetime.



What a gorgeous expression in being a witness to the passage of generations and the privilege that witnessing provides and how it really is a time to think about what type of future we want to conceive, construct and experience. Love that. Abdul-Rehman has clearly had such incredible influences in his life inside and outside the Muslim community resulting a strong sense of self. We spoke next about the effects of the India/Pakistan Partition in 1947 - an event that had a lasting effect on so many lives but one that does really need more colour painted upon it.



The experience of the creation of these two countries affected all those who were there, but there's something very specific right about what really I think now is one of the largest migrations of human beings in the world, in the shortest period of time, 12 to 14 million people left homes and cross borders across a frontier that was fraught with inflamed hatred an untenable situation created by the British Raj.


Then a lifetime of processing the home that you left by, the friends that you left behind. You know, our grandparents remembered their friends who were Sikh and Hindu, and I've spoken to seeking Hindu friends who remember there who say their parents, remember their friends who were Muslim and what those communities were like and how they existed in co-existent.


I think there's so much to talk about in that process and I think there's wonderful work that is being done by incredible Scholars researchers ethnographers, mostly women who are going back and finding the artifacts and the stories and telling the everyday stories of partition because, the other problem is, Anika that so much of the story of the creation of India and Pakistan has been told by men has been told by historians has been told by those who were complicit in the devilry that took place, in those years, that, that often we're not getting a picture of ordinary people caught up in these extraordinary political moments and what it meant for them.


And we owe it to ourselves and our kids to be able to communicate that. I haven't really been able to, I think yet, communicate to my son what happened in 1947.



Abdul-Rehman and I had a moment connecting on the impact of this event on our families. In fact at one moment we had shivers down our spines thinking of both of our families being forced from their homes at exactly the same point in time and crossing borders, his from India to Pakistan, mine from Pakistan to India….both to countries now defined by religion and religion alone. The trauma that has seeped in generations is real and Adbul Rehman unpacks that next.



Anika you said something about the impact of something like partition. I have only just beginning to realize the generational trauma associated with that, what my grandmother went through until the very end of her life. She was a remarkable, resilient, just incredible personality and woman, but also experienced a lot of tragedy. I wonder sometimes, how that generational trauma landed on me or my sibling. How do we process things? Part of it is about movement, actually, Anika.


I've thought about this a lot… migration and movement. And I say movement because at the beginning of Southland Rusty's, controversial, novel, the satanic verses,he quotes the English author, Daniel Defoe and he talks about the curse that God placed upon the devil that he could not step in the same place twice. And writers like Rusty and others have spoken about the curse of partition, the promise and peril of midnight when these two nations were created. But also that line has always stuck with me because there's something about migration and movement. I now kind of realized both my parents, families migrated. My father and mother migrated. My sister and I have ended up migrating. My paternal grandfather, my dad, my father's father had actually left India before partition to work in the sands of Saudi Arabia at the Arab American Oil Company. In fact, my father, after leaving Amritsar (India), actually went to the Arabian desert where he lived for 10 years, where my father worked as one of the foreign workers where my grandfather worked as one of the foreign workers at the Arab American Oil Company. And he was a stenographer, he was literate. So he was in the office and we used to hear stories about his Egypt and the Sudanese and Palestinian, colleagues who he would work with. I realize that movement is like in our blood, we need to move and it's not just like, Hey, we need to travel.


I feel like we need to move. Like I've now moved to another country. I never thought that would happen, but I just feel like It was natural to do that. And I think folks like ourselves and others who you featured on this podcast, we have a superpower and our superpower is our two feet can be in four places at the same time. We work in metaverses. We move between languages, geographies, cultures, religions, we code switch so fast that we have multiple codes running at the same time. We're not even switching between codes that are on and off, they're on all the time. It's just like the code that we choose to speak through at any given moment, like in some ways we moved that fast, right? Like we're speaking in English and I'm hearing Punjabi with one ear and that all my kind of Canadian Muslim male, whatever sensibilities are kind of processing it on the inside and then you got to make sense of it.


We're dancing all the time between these realities and I think for the longest time we were made to feel weird and unsettled, othered, marginalized, not clear, you haven't figured yourself out, you have it, you don't know who you are. Well, I know who I am and I'm all of these things. And I think to grow into the owning of all these things and, not just legitimizing it for others who cares about that, legitimizing it for ourselves.


That we are complex and that we have the right to be complex. We have the right to switch between, and it's powerful because we can navigate spaces in ways that other people cannot. And I now own that as a badge of pride, not because I did something about it, but this is the gift, right? This was the gift, those bequeath to be by God and the ancestors.


And it's a powerful place to be. And especially in the world that we're in now increasingly complex, increasingly intersectional, we're built for the intersectional world. What a gift that our ancestors gave us.



We then started talking about names… as a child of the 1970’s born in a trying- time, marked by violence, war, recession, and hatred Abdul-Rehman was given his name, which literally means “servant of the merciful” in hopes of giving him a chance of getting through such a turbulent world. He reflected that he's drawn to that and has surrendered to be a means, a muse to manifest divine mercy in a broken world. It’s only fitting, that he hosts a podcast, which is described beautifully as a “Kaleidoscope of contemporary Muslim experience and identity.” together with the Aga Khan Museum. We love the story of how it got its name from a beautiful Rumi poem, “The Guest House” and begins with the line “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.”


They have likened the Muslim experience to being just like the human experience. So true, and something I think we can all understand. But it was asking Abdul about one of his favourite moments and interviews that got us really thinking.



I think about my friend, Tanya Munira Williams, who is a British Afro-Caribbean poet, broadcaster, women studies scholar, playwrite, and appears regularly on the BBC. And I enjoyed my interview with her so much. And then we've been friends for many years and I've known her through her work as a poet as a hip hop artist.

But you know what, I loved her description of her mother's Christian faith and how, as she's grown into her being Muslim, her mother's Christian faith means more to her now than ever. And I think the lesson for me has been late. It's something that Malcolm X said in the closing pages of his autobiography is he said that since “becoming a Muslim in Mecca,” which was his, you know, the next stage of his spiritual evolution, he said, “I've found that, that I have friends who are Democrats and Republicans, Capitalists, and Communists,” and he goes on and on.


And he says even a few uncle Toms, if that's Malcolm's great humor and, I love that line. And I go back to it a lot. I shared it with students a lot. It was as Malcolm and my friend Munira became more confident, more at home, saw their faith and their identity as a source of power. It also became a source of generosity. And that is it. Isn't it. As, as we grow in our faith, a litmus test, if we're really growing in our faith is how much we are able to embrace and accept difference and to see others to be empathetic, to be compassionate, to be graceful and, be confident in the humility that comes with faith and identity, that is a really powerful litmus test now. And so if I see now, if I see, people who grow more into their faith, their traditions, their identity, and that becomes a source of closing themselves off to other people's human experience.


It's like a warning to me that something is wrong. And that doesn't mean that we don't stand against injustice. Absolutely not. That doesn't mean that we are uncompromising with the red lines of gender justice and against anti-black racism and against misogyny and against homophobia and against antisemitism and Islamophobia and so on so forth. But it's also to say that my confidence and who I am and where I am in my relationships also allows me to be open to others because I'm not threatened. In fact, I am in a mode to learn and engage because I'm not threatened because it's when we feel a lack of confidence.


It's when we feel on uneasy ground, that we're like, “Ooh, if I engage with you, if I speak to you, I might become sullied. My ideas might become even more confused.” It's through this confidence and humility that we engage the world. And that's something that comes across with the podcast over and over again with kind of these incredibly accomplished confident people, many of whom we all read about.


You know the headlines of the newspaper, but who deserves books to be written on them. I found them all to be incredibly open to the possibilities of being human and engaging in humanity and that's, and if that's not a source of hope in these strange, long pandemic times, I don't know what it is.



Wow, what a realization that as we grow in our faith we have the ability to embrace difference and be empathetic and compassionate to others. What a superpower and a message that everyone has the ability to activate.


Ok… back to this season’s podcast theme, celebration. We got right to it and asked Abdul-Rehman, “What does celebrating your culture mean to you?” And without a second thought, it was food and how the pandemic has given him pause to think about our relationship with food and cooking, and the dizzying diversity of South Asian cuisine.



Every meal for me is opening up the cookbooks that I try to look for something new and there's kind of family favorites, but it started conversations with my mom that especially at this time that she's been terribly unwell, were really meaningful.

You know, all of a sudden there would be joy. Like she'd be in pain, she'd be hurting. But the moment we started talking about cooking, I realized it's one of those, it's one of those enduring joys, you know, as our parents get older, they love YouTube who would have thought right.


YouTube was created for the over 60. And they love watching the food programs from Pakistan. Cooking on street chefs. They have all their favorites. So Ammi and I started talking about it and now whenever I cook something, I'll call her and say “Ammi I'm making this korma tonight, or I'm going to try this recipe. What do you think?” And she’ll just say, “well make sure you add that..” I said, “it's not the recipe.” And she's like, “okay, take a stab at it.” So recently I was back home. I had discovered a dish that I'd never heard of before, And it's called Amritsari Harissa. It's like Haleem for those of your listeners who know what Haleem is, it's like Haleem’s sister, but it's very different, as well in texture and in preparation.

And I had actually seen a YouTube video about Harissa. I called my mom “Why have I never heard of this dish before?” she goes, “oh yeah. Amritsari Harissa, it comes from Kashmir, Kashmiris brought a commerce side that they brought to Lahore”. And then I talked to my dad, I'm like, “Abbu, have you had this?”

He says I used to have it when I was young, amongst the Amritsaris. And he said I had it in the area of Lahore because in the area of Lahore, they make it because migrants from that part of Punjab had settled in Lahore. And I was like, I got to watch some recipes.


So I got recipes out on the internet, when I was back in Toronto for three weeks over the holidays. We sat down, and we watched 13 YouTube videos on making Harissa. I constructed a recipe. I’m like “I'm never going to do it.” And it took two days to cook. It is a kind of a stew made from cracked wheat, Rice, Lentils and Mutton that is cooked over a long period of time. And then flayed, it's this Hardy winter Stu it's amazing. I made a proper bag of it, it was a lot! And then what you do is you decorate with these Chicken and Lamb Kebabs that you put on top and you do a Tadka with Ghee and you pour it over and then you serve it.


It's amazing. It has a sticky gloopiness to it because the starches come out anyways. I had a video in my mind from YouTube and I kept watching it. I said, this is the consistency. And my mom and I went back and forth. It's something that I'll remember for the rest of my life.


My mom's joy in that dish is being able to connect with it. But also then, you know, in this pandemic period where we're opening up a little bit more to be able to, she was able to invite her friends. Her closest two friends to enjoy the Harissa. And then I put it in containers and my sister, you know, offered to take it around to friends and neighbors, who mom would love sharing her food with. And so, it was delivered to them. And so, we had dozens of people eating from this bag of Harissa. I can tell you it was bloody hard work. it really was. But I can also tell you that, that the satisfaction and the joy and the celebration of producing this dish.

And my mom finally admitted. She said, I have, I've actually never had the dish. And I said, you've never had Harissa. She goes “All my life, I've heard about this Harissa, but I've never had it.” And I'm like, “oh, that's amazing!”



Ah! The joy of sharing meals, food and other people enjoying it. What a gift, not only to the recipient but the maker. That’s an idea that really transcends all cultures. Just Beautiful.


Of course, we always end with a question from the Root & Seed Conversation Tool. We asked Abdul-Rehman, “What tradition would you like to reclaim” and this is what he said:



Dance would have been very much part of our Punjabi traditions. Bhangra in particular.


I feel like I missed out on that growing up. I think later into the nineties, with friends started getting married and the Henna Nights and the Mehend Nights became a little bit more alive and activated.


And I think we became more, a little bit more comfortable in our own skin around it, it took awhile. I would definitely say that if it was a tradition I wanted to reclaim, it would be the tradition of social dance. And I love watching on YouTube. I love watching all the Bhangra artists, and all the schools from Brampton they're kind of cool. They're traveling around the world. I love that… old school ‘90s especially the UK Bhangra scene. And I love that and I love the dance. So I feel like, as a Punjabi dad, it's kind of in me because I hear that music and it's like… the light goes on and it's like, "get all ready for it. I'm going to get it." And I'm a big guy and I don't move very well. I feel kind of like a Hippo, trying to dance on two feet. And it's really, probably very uncomfortable for others to watch, but, but when sometimes I find myself doing it on my own, dancing with myself, so to speak.



Love that after such a reflective, deep conversation, Abdul-Rehman’s lighter side came out in his love of Indian dance. This interview was filled to the brim with golden expressions of thoughts that underscore the gift of being able to be intentional with understanding your story. Towards the end of our interview we reflected on the fact that all the work that platforms like Root & Seed and This Being Human are doing to capture and document these stories is really important and we love the way he expressed that in this final thought.



"A thousand flowers really need to bloom." And I don't say that in a glib way. That the telling of our stories is a sacred act. The preservation of our stories is a sacred act and it's a necessary act if we don't do it, I think God's going to hold us accountable for not doing it because we have an opportunity now to amplify the stories of the ancestors of the people around us, and also in a small way to contribute to that repository of knowledge that generations, hopefully ours and these amazing young people with their dynamism and their tech savvy and their intersectional identities and their locusts can, sort of take and run with.



If that doesn’t inspire you to capture your own stories, we are not sure what will! What an incredible conversation filled with discovery, reflection, laughter and lots of mutual respect for our efforts. A huge thank you to an amazing human that needs to keep doing more and more to better this world.


Next episode we talk to Asha Frost - Indigenous Medicine Healer, Author, and Mother who is not only uncovering the injustices and giving them a voice… she is also providing the tools for healing and does so in a way that transcends her heritage and background making her an inspiration for all.


Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and Edited by Camille Blais.


Episode Credits

Hosted by: Anika Chabra

Brought to you by: Root & Seed

Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel

Edited by: Camille Blais

Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN


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