Bassam first reached out to me about my website through a mutual friend. I shared with him the story behind Millennial Nomaad and then we set up his phone interview. It was that simple. During the course of his interview, it's evident why. Bassam is easy to talk to. And while I tried to ask him some challenging questions, he was able to eloquently express himself each time. It's no surprise that contrary to their public demeanor, many comedians have a pretty serious side –a depth and vortex of experiences in which they draw inspiration from and then finely polish with humor. Bassam is just that.
In his interview, we discuss his decision to quit his lobbying job and move to New York to pursue his passion for comedy while balancing his role working for a startup company. We discuss identity, compassion and what it means to identify as a Muslim-American today. And we discuss the power and impact of traveling on how we view both society and ourselves. But, what I enjoyed most from our discussion is his combination of bluntness and intelligence expressed through the lens of humor. Because in this serious world faced with some serious challenges, there is a healing and sense of unity in humor. And as Bassam mentions, a learning curve too. Thank you Bassam for sharing your insights with Millennial Nomaad.
Occupation: Stand-up comedian
The key to happiness is: doing something creative
My kryptonite is: dollar slices
In three words, I would describe myself as: neurotic, sarcastic, well-meaning?
I dream of: traveling with friends + fam, no travel constraints
Success to me means: getting opportunities to pursue your creative goals
Define curiosity: a need for a deeper understanding (that’s a great War on Drugs album btw) To be brilliant is to be: self-aware
To be a Millennial Nomaad means: chasing that dream no matter where and when
MN: As an American raised with a Muslim upbringing, you mention that your relationship with Islam is more cultural and less religiously based. What do you mean by this? What do you think people misunderstood most about Islam? How has being raised in these two cultures impacted your view of the world and self-identity?
BS: Well first, I identify as a Muslim. That being said, I’m not really practicing and I don’t always adhere to some of the religion’s dogma/traditions. If another, more “orthodox” Muslim individual tries to claim, “Oh he’s not really a Muslim because he doesn’t do x, y, z” then to me, that’s like borderline Takfiri. Relax. Focus on your relationship with Allah. I’ll do the same –no judgements for the most part. I didn’t necessarily grow up in the most religious household. My parents enrolled me in Islamic Sunday school. I had Arabic/Quran lessons for a few years, but we wouldn’t go to mosque every Friday, and I wasn’t expected to pray 5 times a day. Post 9/11, yeah I was definitely a lot less keen to share my religious background while I was growing up in a pretty white affluent area in upstate NY. I think my parents did a good job of letting Islam influence how they raised me to be somewhat of a decent human being. I think the biggest misconception of Islam is assuming its followers are almost exactly the same or have the same approach to life. There’s 1.8 billion Muslims on the planet; you’re gonna get some nuance and contrasting opinions and ideologies. A Kurdish Alevi in Southeast Turkey isn’t the same as an Indonesian Sunni. In our media and pop culture, Islam is mostly associated within the Arab culture but in reality fewer than 15% of Muslims are Arab. It’s key to understand Islam transcends across cultures.
MN: You recently look the bold leap and moved from D.C.to NY to pursue a career in comedy while working at a startup. Most people have a defining moment where they say “f*** it, I want to pursue my dreams. What was the main catalyst for your decision? What has been the most rewarding and challenging aspect of this experience so far?
BS: I was working at a lobby/PR firm, the election happened, I became jaded about politics, and lost interest in my job. The work was creatively very limited and for clients that weren’t necessarily altruistic. The firm let me go, and I took a camping weekend in the woods with some buddies, listened to a lot of Tame Impala and Brockhampton and decided I really gotta chase the dream. I mean I should’ve realized this earlier because I had a meeting with the HR people at the firm, and they asked what’s my dream scenario/career. I was like “comedian/actor/writer probably.” In hindsight, not exactly the correct answer in that context. Biggest challenge was probably leaving a group of great friends and family in DC. I was also getting better opportunities in the DC stand up circuit and knew it was going to be a hard reset when I got to New York. DC has an amazing stand-up scene, and it was really tough not being able to get really acclimated into it. Working at a start-up that’s in a social impact space is rewarding, and my bosses have been really flexible and understanding about my comedy schedule. I’m keeping myself busy with the career and comedy while blowing all my money on rent, egg + cheese bagels, and attempts at hipster clothing. But, I’m definitely a lot happier than I was a year ago.
MN: During our conversation, we talked about how your study abroad trip to Turkey became a turning point of growth for you as an individual. You have traveled before, but what was it about this trip that impacted you so deeply? Why do you think traveling is important?
BS: My parents are immigrants from Kashmir, and we would go back to visit family there almost every summer when I was growing up. My brother was born and spent a few years there. Same with most of my cousins on both sides of my family. I was born and raised in an affluent, predominately white school district in Syracuse. I didn’t necessarily embrace my culture and was trying too hard to assimilate into what some people consider to be “American.” I didn’t appreciate my visits to Kashmir as much as I should have, and I even felt some resentment that I wasn’t hanging out with friends over the summer.
But, studying abroad in Istanbul definitely got me out of a sort of identity crisis. It was my first big city living experience and the area was known for being the crossroads of Eastern and Western civilization. For me, personally as a Westernized Muslim, it felt like the perfect balance between my two worlds. I learned more about Islam and its influence in art, architecture, math, music, food, poetry, and I felt a sense of belonging and pride. By the end of the program, I didn’t really want to leave, and I even had some plans to live there at some point in my postgrad aimlessness. But, sh** really popped off there politically and a lot of people that stayed say it's no longer the same.
Traveling is important because it gives you an opportunity to embrace and learn about other societies, cultures, traditions, and political/religious ideologies. Visiting Kashmir when I was growing up definitely made me more cognizant of how much sacrifice my parents made for my brother and I. Living in Turkey made me become more comfortable in my skin.
MN: Happiness. We are living in the age of “Think and Be Positive” where everyone seems to be searching a way to find joy. But, our negative emotions are still a part of us we must face. Comedians seem particularly good at balancing pain with humor. How do you think one can experience happiness? What role do you think negative feelings or pain play in self-discovery? How do you process difficult emotions?
BS: Comedy’s great because you can take a really shitty situation, feeling, experience, etc and turn it into something that people can relate to or find some levity in. Anytime someone goes through some sh**, how they cope or deal with those demons definitely should give an indication of self-discovery. I think when you get out of situations that suck, you find out what’s actually important to you and how you can avoid those circumstance in the future. That being said, happiness is a journey. For me, it’s something that builds over time and doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of highs and lows in comedy, and for me I take those low moments and use it as some motivation. Sharing some vulnerable and difficult material on stage is cathartic as f*** for me, and it’s almost like a version of therapy –only it's not from my parents insurance plan that I’m getting kicked off of in a year. One of the reasons I love comedy is because you get to take embarrassing stories, shitty experiences or personal problems and turn them into humor/entertainment for other people to laugh at or even relate.
MN: Much of your comedy refers to the theme of “being Brown” as you call it. While you intend to use humor to inform and bring people together, you mention that sometimes your skits receive negative push back from some Muslim-Americans. What is your response to this reaction? Living in the politically polarized and rapidly changing world that we do today, what are some ways in which we can promote unity and compassion overall?
BS: A lot of humor/comedy comes from the comedian having a “wrong”or “incorrect” opinion on the subject matter in their bits. I don’t pretend to be an expert in all things brown or Islamic, but I know there’s a lot of things that we can poke of –as there is with any ideology or religion. I did a show with a predominantly Muslim audience and made the joke that “I’m not a good Muslim because it's a pretty numeric religion, and I’m really bad with numbers.” A heckler in the crowd straight up called out “You’re being very Islamophobic right now; it’s actually a spiritual religion.” My shitty punchline was “Well, we invented algebra?” and I don’t know if that’s really Islamophobic? I handled the few people throwing more of those accusations as well as I could and finished my set, but felt really f****** off when I got off stage.
What was really nice was a lot of people came up to me afterwards and said they loved the material and that if we can’t joke about these topics, why even have comedy shows that showcase Muslim/brown comedians. For more general audiences across the country, a lot of them don’t personally know someone from an Islamic background, and their primary understanding of Muslims/brown people is from what they see on TV or read on their respective internet bubbles. In these crazy political times, I like using humor to diffuse tensions between different demographics because laughing at our own biases and stereotypes is sometimes the only way for us to start questioning them seriously. Comedians aren’t supposed to be 100% correct, they aren’t supposed to live to someone else’s standard on whether their material is up to a political/cultural appropriateness. If you don’t like or enjoy the material, you can walk out, approach them afterwards or just simply don’t support them anymore. But, don’t derail their performance just because you feel compelled to tell them off at how they do their job. |
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