I'm a blogger, a filmmaker and a butcher, and I'll explain how these identities come together.
It started four years ago, when a friend and I opened our first Ramadan fast at one of the busiest mosques in New York City. Crowds of men with beards and skullcaps were swarming the streets. It was an FBI agent's wet dream. (Laughter) But being a part of this community, we knew how welcoming this space was. For years, I'd seen photos of this space being documented as a lifeless and cold monolith, much like the stereotypical image painted of the American Muslim experience.
Frustrated by this myopic view, my friend and I had this crazy idea: Let's break our fast at a different mosque in a different state each night of Ramadan and share those stories on a blog. We called it "30 Mosques in 30 Days," and we drove to all the 50 states and shared stories from over 100 vastly different Muslim communities, ranging from the Cambodian refugees in the L.A. projects to the black Sufis living in the woods of South Carolina. What emerged was a beautiful and complicated portrait of America. The media coverage forced local journalists to revisit their Muslim communities, but what was really exciting was seeing people from around the world being inspired to take their own 30-mosque journey. There were even these two NFL athletes who took a sabbatical from the league to do so.
And as 30 Mosques was blossoming around the world, I was actually stuck in Pakistan working on a film. My codirector, Omar, and I were at a breaking point with many of our friends on how to position the film. The movie is called "These Birds Walk," and it is about wayward street kids who are struggling to find some semblance of family. We focus on the complexities of youth and family discord, but our friends kept on nudging us to comment on drones and target killings to make the film "more relevant," essentially reducing these people who have entrusted us with their stories into sociopolitical symbols. Of course, we didn't listen to them, and instead, we championed the tender gestures of love and headlong flashes of youth. The agenda behind our cinematic immersion was only empathy, an emotion that's largely deficient from films that come from our region of the world.
And as "These Birds Walk" played at film festivals and theaters internationally, I finally had my feet planted at home in New York, and with all the extra time and still no real money, my wife tasked me to cook more for us. And whenever I'd go to the local butcher to purchase some halal meat, something felt off.
For those that don't know, halal is a term used for meat that is raised and slaughtered humanely following very strict Islamic guidelines. Unfortunately, the majority of halal meat in America doesn't rise to the standard that my faith calls for. The more I learned about these unethical practices, the more violated I felt, particularly because businesses from my own community were the ones taking advantage of my orthodoxy. So, with emotions running high, and absolutely no experience in butchery, some friends and I opened a meat store in the heart of the East Village fashion district. (Laughter) We call it Honest Chops, and we're reclaiming halal by sourcing organic, humanely raised animals, and by making it accessible and affordable to working-class families. There's really nothing like it in America. The unbelievable part is actually that 90 percent of our in-store customers are not even Muslim. For many, it is their first time interacting with Islam on such an intimate level.
So all these disparate projects -- (Laughter) -- are the result of a restlessness. They are a visceral response to the businesses and curators who work hard to oversimplify my beliefs and my community, and the only way to beat their machine is to play by different rules. We must fight with an inventive approach. With the trust, with the access, with the love that only we can bring, we must unapologetically reclaim our beliefs in every moving image, in every cut of meat, because if we whitewash our stories for the sake of mass appeal, not only will we fail, but we will be trumped by those with more money and more resources to tell our stories. But the call for creative courage is not for novelty or relevance. It is simply because our communities are so damn unique and so damn beautiful. They demand us to find uncompromising ways to be acknowledged and respected. Thank you. (Applause)