Layla & Ab Freig
"It's a gold necklace, they gave it back to me and that is a blessing."
We are back with another family duo - this time father & daughter, Ab and Layla Freig. Layla reflects on what it was like to grow up not fitting into a box, as a mixed Muslim and Jewish person, and how her yearning to be connected to her background led to experiences that pushed the boundaries of what was evident and obvious around her. The connection between father and daughter is apparent through their respect for one another and we get to hear how Layla has learned so much from her upbringing providing her with gifts reflected in her ideals and values.
We top off the interview with an exchange using the Root & Seed conversation cards demonstrating the power of shared nostalgia, including what's up with the gold necklace! It's a story you don't want to miss. A moment we cherish and an interview to remember!
About our guests: Ab Freig is an accomplished businessman; he was the president and CEO of the largest Ag companies in Canada and is now an entrepreneur and a university instructor. Ab is married and has two wonderful adult children.
Layla Freig is a financial, strategic, and creative consultant and the founder of LF Consulting. She spends most of her time at work with entrepreneurs, helping to build and scale their businesses. She is a CPA who specializes in fashion, and she is often referred to as "the fun accountant." Outside of work, Layla loves travel, dance, and long walks on the beach. She also volunteers on a few different boards in Winnipeg, serving marginalized communities within the province and the arts & culture scene.
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It was hard growing up, I looked different than my classmates. I cared about different things. I remember I wanted to be really connected to my background. So when I was in grade six and everybody had to do these projects, I built a pyramid out of cardboard and brought sand and was trying to get it in the front door. Or in high school, I'm writing a paper on Islamophobia because a lot of the people around me had Islamophobia. Not towards me and not towards my dad, but they do in general. And so there was just a massive difference in perspective and I fought a lot when I was younger against stereotypes and felt this need to be self assured.
Welcome back to Root and Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.
We are really loving this season for the depth of stories we are hearing from our guests and how those stories have shaped their current-day identity. From Ryan Alexander Holmes speaking about his Black and Chinese grandmas, to George Pimentel literally walking in the footsteps of his parents in Portugal. We are reminded that every history, familial insight and tradition is really worth recording. Often at the time, the moment may feel insignificant but once you start talking about it, the details and importance really start to reveal themselves.
It’s for that very reason that we are excited for you to meet our next guests. We love family duos and with this episode excited for our first father and daughter one. Their love and respect for one another is very obvious from the get-go but we think it's their perspective on culture and values that make them most special, to us at least.
Layla Freig is a professional working in fashion and accounting and has been dubbed by many as a fun accountant, a title you’ll see on her website. She is half Muslim, half Jewish and she is joined by her Egyptian born Father, Ab Freig, a proud and well educated immigrant who grew up on the shores of Alexandria Egypt and who today remains a practicing Muslim, attending Mosque and upholding the traditions and practices.
We hear how the two have navigated their heritage and so-called definitions of heritage for them individually and how Layla has taken the time to really understand the meaning behind the practices and how those values remain important to her today.
If you could chat a little bit about your relationship with your background and culture. If somebody was to stop you on the street and say, where are you from? How would you answer that question?
Yeah, I get asked that all the time. I have a very different cultural background than my dad. My dad is from Egypt, he's Muslim. My mom is from Canada and she's Jewish and so I've been living in this household that split faith. Both of my parents decided to raise us equal on both sides. People need to know a lot of the time, are you Jewish? Are you Muslim? They always decide that I'm Jewish because if your mother's Jewish, it makes you Jewish, but also if you're father's Muslim, it makes you Muslim.
So I really do call myself half and half. It's an interesting mix because there's a lot of conflict in the Middle East and a lot of tension between those two religions. And it's put me in a very unique position of understanding and compassion that I'm really grateful for. My dad actually does a lot of work within this space.
He has an Arab-Jewish dialogue where he's brought together Arabs and Jewish people within Winnipeg. I think he has members across Canada and has created that dialogue surrounding issues in the Middle East, issues in Canada and that's what I've been raised around. I'm grateful to have two different communities that I can fit in with because both communities can be really tight and really caring.
Love that. Was there a time that you rejected a part of your identity or was navigating through it or might be a little bit more difficult to talk about?
I would say yes. So growing up in Canada and growing up with my mom being from Canada and being Jewish, she grew up within the Jewish community. And so we were very surrounded by the Jewish community and I was very familiar with a lot of the traditions, a lot of my friends were celebrating those traditions, so it felt a lot more natural.
And on the Arabic/Muslim side, I didn't know as many people. I wasn't integrated into the traditions and I didn't have as strong of an understanding growing up within that culture. And so I did find my identity kind of confusing growing up because I have family on both sides and I have family on both sides actually in Winnipeg.
With age, I've developed a much more holistic understanding about both sides of my family and have created really strong connections there. But when I was growing up, it was definitely confusing and it was hard. I didn't know almost any Muslim people other than my own.
Yeah. We do a lot of work in schools and that is often the case. One of the things we researched was that it's often one side more than the other maybe it's because you have a volume of people on one side versus another in your situation. It might have been just being in a situation where there wasn't a box that you fit into, let's say that others wanted to maybe put you into. So it's an interesting thought, and I love that you've grown up and embraced both sides of your background, which are both incredibly rich.
Tell me your favourite part of each part of your background?
I would say my favourite part about being Jewish is the community surrounding us. We have a cottage at Winnipeg Beach and that's where a lot of Jewish people have cottages because they actually weren't allowed to build cottages on the other side of that lake. There's a community center where all the Jewish people go because they weren't allowed back in the day to be at a different community center.
And so because of that, the community's super tight and I find it really funny, really homey. All of my mom's friends can act as secondary moms to me. I would say that's my favourite part of the Jewish side and then my favourite part of the Muslim Arabic side is there's a big part of that religion that is related to empathy. A lot of people don't understand why Muslim people fast, but a big part of that is about understanding empathy to other people that might not have the same access to food and water.
So getting to be part of a community that puts so much focus on that has been really cool and also the food! Middle Eastern food is like no other, you know, not to pin one against the other, but gefilte fish. In the Jewish tradition, it just doesn't, it doesn't compare to some pita and falafel and some hummus and yeah.
You're making me hungry. Growing up is that something that was dinner table conversation, your background, your stories, your heritage, your culture, or is it something you're discovering now as adults?
Oh, it's been around the dinner table for most of my life I would say and still to this day.
Sometimes there's disagreements. There's a lot going on in the news, there's a lot even going on in pop culture, on social media and we actively engage in conversation, I would say, surrounding this. Yeah, things sometimes can get heated, but overall, everybody has a common understanding of each other and everybody shares the same values, so that's fine.
But yeah, me and my brother definitely have had a lot of discussions surrounding this ourselves and then also with our parents. So yeah, very prominent.
Ab, I did some research on that organization that you're part of and I think the premise behind it is just beautiful.
So if you're comfortable sharing a bit about that, I'd love to hear a little bit more about it. I think we can learn a lot from it.
Oh, I would love to share it with you. So it's called the Arab-Jewish Dialogue and that's a group of people. Arab/Muslims and Jewish business people that we get together on a monthly basis and we meet in each other's homes to talk about issues of concern. Issues, disagreements and the whole purpose of it is to create better understanding. From the lens of the Muslim people, the Jewish people to find the narratives. Why is it so important to you? And here's what's important to me. So we meet to discuss that and creating a relationship.
I think there's so much we could absolutely learn from just the model of having those conversations and having respectful conversation. I think that's what you're doing, which I think is just beautiful.
So Ab tell me about how you met your wife and what the reaction of both sides of your family was during that time.
I was new to Winnipeg. I immigrated to Canada and then from there to Montreal. From Montreal to Winnipeg, met my wife at University. Here at the University of Manitoba at the social and I was actually at another social. My roommate says, if you wanna really meet people, meet girls you should go to interior design because 90% of interior design students are women. So that's where you go.
So we go there and the place is dead. There's nothing happening and we were early. So I went to the faculty of graduate studies because I was doing my master's and I met some people there. So it was the end of the day, the evening. I said, oh when I was at interior design, I forgot my jacket actually a Levi jean jacket, I still have it.
I go and get my jacket and come down the stairs, and then I see three women. One is dark hair and that's what my wife is and two blonde-haired ladies. And so for some reason, I got attracted to the dark-haired woman so I asked her to dance and so we danced and so we spent some quiet time talking and so on. I really liked her and I said how about we meet next week to get together?
She was wearing the Star of David necklace, under her shirt, like it's not visible. Then she took it out because she knew and she asked me where I'm from and I told her from Egypt and so on and of course, the tension between Israel and Egypt was fresh back then.
They were talking about in the early eighties and the last war with Israel was the late seventies. So she knew that and she said, by the way, I am Jewish, so let's set this record straight. You want to get together, but I'm Jewish and then I said, the answer for me is I don't care, we should get together anyway so we did that. And the families, both sides actually reacted very well. I can't remember if my brother or my father said, do you love her? I said, yes. Is it okay? I don't care if she's Jewish or not.
And the same for Susan as well. Her mother embraced it. There was no difference whatsoever. I got invited to the Friday night dinner shortly after that.
You get invited to the Shabbat dinner you're in the family. You've been accepted. That's wonderful.
Layla, you spoke about your gratitude for your upbringing and your parents. What gifts did your upbringing provides you that lets you be who you are today? You're young, I feel like I might be closer to your father's age than I am to yours, but you seem so incredibly sure of yourself.
I said this earlier, but I wanna say it again because I think this is probably one of the biggest ones, but compassion. Just coming from two different backgrounds and not just religious, not just from where people are from, there's a lot more to background than that. There were a lot of differences between my parents and I got to grow up with compassion for others. I grew up in a pretty privileged space and within that space I was very different than the other people around me and somewhat from my parents and then somewhat from not fitting in necessarily, I gained a lot of strength and assurance of myself.
It was hard growing up, I looked different than my classmates. I cared about different things. I remember I wanted to be really connected to my background. So when I was in grade six and everybody had to do these projects, I built a pyramid out of cardboard and brought sand and was trying to get it in the front door. Or in high school, I'm writing a paper on Islamophobia because a lot of the people around me had Islamophobia. Not towards me and not towards my dad, but they do in general. And so there was just a massive difference in perspective and I fought a lot when I was younger against stereotypes and felt this need to be self-assured. And an inner need I guess. I also, it's inspiring to have a father who came from a very different background and became really successful and my mom has had things in her past and she's had a lot of success too. So my parents have helped a lot with confidence.
Love that. Ab I have an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old and if they speak like Layla when they're Layla's age, then I think I've done well. Kudos to you.
So I picked 3 questions for you. I do it kind of oracle card style where I picked them ahead of time. If we were together, I would ask you to pick them.
I feel like the first answer to this question is going to have to be your Levi's jacket. So the question is, are there any family treasures or heirlooms that have been handed down?
Dad, I'm thinking of a funny story. What about when you were living in New York and you had the necklace from your mom and you were working at the diner. Yes. In New York, during the summer while I going to university I worked in a restaurant and worked the night shift. The restaurant is not open for people to come in and we had only a window, so people order from outside. And I'm handing the food to somebody and he reaches over and grabs my necklace and pulls it out of my. and runs away with it. Of course, this necklace is very important to me and I still have no idea Layla, I have no idea how. First of all, I chased them. There were two guys I guess I must have been a good runner. Caught up to them and you were just going to go take the subway and I told them how important this necklace is to me. I don't know how I ended up doing it. There's no way in the world. It's a gold necklace. It's not cheap and they give it back to me and that is a blessing.
An absolute blessing. Ab what traditions do you want your family to keep forever?
I would say it's having awareness of Ramadan and Eid, which is the end of Ramadan. Celebrating that going forward, I think that will mean a lot to me.
Layla is that something that you practice right now or something that aligns with your present day values?
Yeah, we always celebrate Eid together. This past year I actually put on a hijab. I don't normally and so I think I might continue to do that because it just makes me feel really connected to my family and my culture.
I would say something that I know I need to do that I've been lazy to do. I love cooking, but I didn't say that I love cooking HelloFresh. So I'm not exactly the most creative in the kitchen. My Naina, my dad's mom passed away and I never learned how to cook anything that she made because I was super young.
But my aunt is an incredible cook and she cooks all the traditional dishes, and I know that I need to learn that from her
Do you know what question I have in front of me? It's who are some of the best chefs in our family? And there you go.
It's definitely not me, but my dad is actually an incredible chef as well.
What's your favourite thing that your dad makes or your aunt makes?
In terms of my dad, it's actually this Egyptian dish called ful. Super simple, but you can't get a recipe out of my dad to save your life because he doesn't know how he makes anything.
Because it makes a difference.
So anyways, I've recently perfected that dish and then from my aunt, there's something called mahshy. I don't know what it's called in Greek, but it's basically rice wrapped in vine leaves.
It's actually very hard to make and very time-consuming, and so I would really like to learn that because it's my favourite dish.
Listening to Layla speak about how she connects to her culture intimately through food reminds me of how I learned how to make rotis following the passing of my mom. It was a way that connected not only to her but to my ancestors….the act of kneading the dough and trying tirelessly to make them round connects me to something bigger than myself.
And the banter that ensued when they were asked about heirlooms as part of our conversation cards, it reminded us of what we discovered early on on our Root & Seed journey - that the very definition of heirlooms is so personal and so wide for people from all walks of life and histories. We wonder perhaps what is more valuable - the gold necklace or the story that Ab told? Food for thought!
A huge thanks to both Layla and Ab for being an incredible pair to interview and for sharing such precious stories and perspectives.
Building off of the Arab-Jewish dialogue that Ab is involved in, we have just so much respect for that kind of activism and conversations in today’s world and climate. We are excited to get a bit deeper on the stories of changemakers.
In our next episode, I meet with another Layla, this time Layla Saad. She is a New York Times best-selling author of Me & White Supremacy, and the founder of "Become a Good Ancestor". What can we take from the past and make better for the future? How do we become good ancestors to tomorrow's generations? Can't wait for you to meet Layla.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Editing by Emily Groleau
Sound Editing by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
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