On April 27, 2021, Pillars MNC fellow Asad Ali Jafri from South Asia Institute joined Pillars Managing Director of Culture Change Arij Mikati for a conversation on creative practices of reimagining the world for the better. Watch and listen to their conversation in full on Instagram. You can read the full transcript below.
Arij Mikati (01:14):
I am so excited to be here. My name is Arij Mikati and I’m the managing director of culture change at Pillars Fund. As we are currently experiencing a second Ramadan in a global pandemic, this series of Instagram Live conversations is meant to provide us a space to reflect on the lessons of the past year. We want to spend this space really resetting our intentions and reminding each other of the hope and inspiration that exists all around us. It’s particularly important when we are surrounded by so much that can make hope a real discipline, and so we’re excited to have conversations that hopefully can keep that discipline alive in you. At Pillars, we’re really excited to celebrate the contributions of our communities and create conversations that remind us to do several very important things that I know I need the reminder to do, which is to take time to rest, to think of ways to foster renewal, and today in our last episode of the series, we’re going to be spending some time thinking about how to allow us to reimagine our collective future.
So what I’m very excited to do now is I’m very honored to introduce today’s guest, who is a dear friend of mine. His name is Asad Ali Jafri, and I’m going to send him a request. Wow. This is my first time I’ve ever invited someone to a Live, this is big y’all I’m doing it. Asad, how are you?
Asad Ali Jafri (02:57):
I’m good. How are you? Are you enjoying Chicago weather?
Arij Mikati (03:00):
You know, I hear it’s quite nice there.
Asad Ali Jafri (03:03):
Oh yes. You’re not in Chicago yet.
Arij Mikati (03:05):
I’m not, it’s very blustery here.
Asad Ali Jafri (03:08):
Here it’s like one of the best days in Chicago, I think of 2021.
Arij Mikati (03:12):
Incredible. I saw the other day that it was like 77 degrees and I was like, why me? Why God, but, you know, there’s a reason for everything and you know, it’s been nice to spend Ramadan with some family. So it’s been good. Okay let me tell the people a little bit about who you are before we jump in, there’s a lot to say about you. So everyone get ready for this. Asad is a cultural producer, a community organizer, but that’s not all, he’s also an interdisciplinary artist and he uses a grassroots approach and global perspective to connect artists and communities across imagined boundaries to create meaningful engagements and experiences. Asad has two decades of experience working in the cultural sector in multiple capacities, including touring as an artist, developing arts education curricula, producing festivals, organizing creative communities and implementing strategies for arts organizations.
What doesn’t he do? That’s going to be my last question. So previously Asad served as director of arts and culture at Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, one of our Pillars Fund grantees, and also as the curator of programs at the Shangri-La Museum in Honolulu, must be nice. Asad is currently the executive director at the South Asia Institute in Chicago. So the Chicagoans are very happy to have him back.
Asad Ali Jafri (04:44):
I’m glad to be back.
Arij Mikati (04:48):
Thank you again so much for taking the time to speak with us today about this really exciting topic.
Asad Ali Jafri (04:54):
Thank you for having me. I’m really glad that you guys are doing this series and the way you framed it is really good. So I’m excited to be here.
Arij Mikati (05:00):
Thanks friend. So I’ve got a few questions for you, but I also want to give a shout out to everyone that’s joined us and is with us today because we want to take some questions from you as well. So if you’ve got questions, as we’re chatting, feel free to throw them into the comments. Hopefully if we’ve got time at the end, we can revisit one or two of those questions. So please feel free to engage with us in that way too. But first I get to ask questions because I’m the boss! So Asad, my first question for you is, how does the value of reimagination inform your approach as a community organizer and cultural producer?
Asad Ali Jafri (05:38):
So I would say that this idea of reimagination is really at the core as an artist, as a cultural organizer, all of that work, right? I look at the work as transformative in some way or another. So even as a DJ that I’ve now been doing for two decades, which just kind of sounds crazy to me and ages me a bit. I have to think about the transformative power of that, of the music. I’m like, honestly, because of some of my elders I even think about like the frequencies in the music and how that affects the heart and the soul, for example. But I think all of that arts production work is transformative, of course, but there’s also work that we’re doing that’s trying to transform minds, change perceptions, and also build community. I think that work in itself is transformative and that only comes when we’re able to be creative, when we’re able to reimagine the world as it is, and reimagine something drastically different.
I’m a huge scifi and fantasy nerd as well, and I know you are as well, but the reason is because it allows me to then reimagine things. I think that’s a really compelling way of even fighting injustices in our world, whether by putting pen to paper or creating a film or a story in that way. But I also want to challenge our people to think of ourselves as innovative, as people who have this ingenuity, and that’s what reimagination is to me. Very specifically though, because of the pandemic and moving and all of that, I’ve been trying to think about, you know, oftentimes we think about new solutions to old problems, right? I’m trying to reimagine a world and reimagine that whole kind of system drastically enough to say that actually maybe the problems and the way we define them, we’re looking at those the wrong way and we need to get to the source before we can start thinking of solutions. In that way, we end up not being as reactionary and we end up being able to reimagine in a new way, in ways that are sustainable, that are able to be renewed, that are generational change. That’s exciting me right now. I don’t know why, I don’t know where that’s going to go, but for the last few months, maybe the last year, I’ve just been on this kick of we need to do this drastically different, especially in Muslim communities.
Arij Mikati (07:49):
Yeah, I think that’s incredibly beautiful. You know what you said about just framing the problem differently, I think is so crucial because I think particularly in Muslim communities, we’ve been spending a lot of time reacting to the gaze of people outside of our community, rather than saying what do we define as the problem? So I love the idea that, you know, we can come up with much more innovative solutions if we actually define the problem ourselves. I think that’s so powerful. I love that.
Asad Ali Jafri (08:18):
I will say, I know that there’s a privilege to even being able to say that. So I don’t want to discount the fact that sometimes you have to be in a reactionary mode because of the pressures of the world. But I do think this is where, like the artists who were able to do that, the creatives that even against all odds are thinking like that and are preset to do that, and we need to kind of lift those people as well.
Arij Mikati (08:37):
Most definitely, I think making space for ourselves to reimagine is so crucial alongside that reactivity. So we can be proactive and innovative and creative.
Asad Ali Jafri (08:49):
A big shout out to my sister from the UK, from Bristol, Muneera Pilgrim. I just had a conversation with her earlier and one of the first things she said is that she’s just embracing slow art and her process in doing that. It hit me because I think what I’ve also realized is that some of the stuff that we’re doing now, we were probably working on 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and we didn’t acknowledge it as that because we were looking to have results immediately, which is, I think a problem in the way that we live our lives now. But when I heard that, it’s kind of like allowing yourself that space to say, this is an idea. This is a seed right now and the way that I’m thinking about it now, it may not even come into fruition in my lifetime. How do I struggle and tackle that and allow it to be okay much later down the line when who knows what happens to us, right?
Arij Mikati (09:40):
Absolutely. You know, that’s such a beautiful transition into what I wanted to talk to you about next, because I think, you know, you and I are part of a group that is really thinking about how to do generational work creatively. You are one of Pillars’ Muslim Narrative Change fellows, a group of people that is like my favorite part of my job. I don’t know if I should play favorites, but y’all are my favorite part of my job. You’re a group of Muslim artists, historians, and academics that we’ve spent the last year and a half with together, deliberating on the ways that we can use art and storytelling to change culture. We both examine that from learning from other communities and overlapping communities in the United States that have done similar work, to transform culture, transform narratives about their communities. We’ve also said, which of these pieces don’t actually match our community’s needs, and that’s been just a really incredible space to learn from all of you and learn alongside you. So I wanted to ask you as part of this Muslim Narrative Change cohort, in what ways has spirituality informed the imaginative work that you’re doing as an MNC or Muslim Narrative Change fellow?
Asad Ali Jafri (10:57):
So I think spirituality for me in a very, very personal sense is deeply connected to the work. A lot of people will say this is my calling, my purpose, and I really feel that in a way that those terms don’t even help define. As you were reading the bio, and I always have a hard time doing this and I’ve realized why, how do you kind of define in a sentence and a few sentences, what you really deeply feel is your intention, your purpose, your reason for existing? For me, that is this work, however that’s defined, and I’ve stopped kind of needing to always define it for others, because I think I know it in my heart, right? I know that bringing people together through what we call culture in a bigger sense is what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet while I’m here and that’s something that I don’t have a choice in.
I think once I embraced that, I just kind of felt like it was easier to justify to myself, and everyone around me as well, and then also give my every single thing I have to it. In that way, I feel like, you know, ritual practice is important, but I think this is also like a spiritual practice. When I think about being Muslim and what that means and submitting, this is me submitting to something that’s greater than myself. It’s really like if I don’t do this, I kind of feel like I’m out of my spiritual worship in a sense, and it also connects me deeply to elders and ancestors. It helps me think about generational wisdom and I’m also just really deeply connected to other spiritual forms and pathways. I don’t like this idea that if you’re this particular thing, then that means that’s your only kind of narrow spiritual view. My worldview is really informed by other practices as well and people that I’ve got to spend time with, that ended up being my mentors and even my spiritual mentors in ways. All of that really comes together beautifully in this type of work, because we can’t think of it in a silo, in a vacuum. We’re really in an ecosystem. That’s true even within Muslim communities, right, because it’s not just one monolithic community. So all of that is like, it just pushes me and forces me to do crazy things, sometimes to be honest and have this energy that I can’t even define myself. Again, that’s like a privilege to recognize I think, but I kind of just love it to be completely honest. I don’t want to be like all super positive about it all the time either, but this is true.
Arij Mikati (13:23):
I mean, that is so beautiful to know your passion and know your vocation. I think it’s important to name too that we don’t give enough credence to the fact as a community the poet has always had a place at the pulpit religiously. So, you know, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) would invite poets to recite in the mosque at the pulpit and so I think really transforming the way that we think about art as, you know, a spiritual location, a way that we can connect to our creator is so beautiful. I’m grateful that you’ve been gifted that and are willing to share it with all of us through your art.
Asad Ali Jafri (14:00):
That reminds me too. I feel like, you know, ideas of justice and ideas of our community, both sit deep within me because of these spiritual traditions and because of my particular spiritual tradition within Islam that is really important and something that we’re kind of not allowed to forget. So much so that sometimes it even feels burdensome, because you’re kind of like, well, what am I doing? You know, like, what is my role in this like small thing that I’m trying to do? Let’s have a festival over here where like, what is that really going to change, right? You kind of keep questioning it, but then it also connects you back to this humility and thinking, well, okay, I am kind of trying to be an agent of change and like this idea of power, justice, and even community building are all connected within that spiritual path.
Arij Mikati (14:43):
Absolutely. So I have one more question for you, but before I ask that question, I just want to remind folks no pressure, but this is your chance to ask the Asad Ali Jafri anything you want. So if you’d like to throw in a question, I just have one more question before we start to close out. So I’m just gonna welcome you and invite you into that. So my last question goes back to this idea of generational change. One thing that I really love that one of our friends, poet Amir Sulaiman says, is that you are going to be someone’s ancestor so act accordingly. You’ve talked a little bit about how this is a way that you’ve connected to your ancestors and elders, etc., through this work, but also like we want to acknowledge that we are someday going to be ancestors. So my question for you is when future generations look at the work of the Muslim Narrative Change cohort, and look at the work that we’ve done with our communities and the way that we worked, what do you hope that they are able to take away from it?
Asad Ali Jafri (15:53):
That’s a really, really good question. I think that sometimes when we’re working on things like plans and other things and doing like a landscape analysis, for example, we sometimes are thinking about the immediate, and I know that we have to continue to focus on the fact that this is supposed to be change that is generational. Like you said, with the Amir Sulaiman quote, I think a lot about working seven generations down because one of my First Nation family basically gave this concept to us from their tradition. It really resonated with me and still does, right, because that’s so far ahead that you can’t even necessarily imagine. It’s not even your grandkids or your grandkids’ grandkids, right? It’s just beyond that. So I think about that first and my kind of more formal answer is that I hope that we’re building an ecosystem, rather than just this one solution type of thing. An ecosystem in which our differences of opinion are okay and our diversities are actually championed.
The fact that we don’t all have the answers is very important to the work itself, and that people can look back and say, this is what built the infrastructure that we needed in order to be thriving communities in the multiplicities that exist. My less formal answer is I really hope that they tell our stories, and I hope that they tell our stories in ways that are not always factual, that have a little myth to them, that are maybe kind of like, oh, I heard this and I’ve heard that because to me that’s powerful. For me really, the oral tradition that exists for Muslims and within Islam is that, I mean, they even designate how well something was told, right? To me, that’s a powerful thing of oral tradition and the importance of it and I actually love the fact that it’s not all in agreement.
I actually love the fact that I can think about things and say, I can’t imagine how this would have happened. This seems like supernatural to me. The reason I love that is because one, I connect to it just from a nerdy geeky kid, but also, I heard the same stories about hip-hop culture that’s only 40-something years old. When I heard these stories of these DJs coming to the park, doing this, doing that, I almost felt like they were superheroes. It almost felt like they were doing things that couldn’t be imagined at the time, and they were creating things that people hadn’t really imagined, but it was taking from the past and then reimagining them as something new. I hope that when people kind of look back, maybe generations down the line, these things become stories, not about us as individuals necessarily, but maybe, maybe so. They’re like these kind of almost super stories that allow people to have the inspiration. Also, I think one thing that we sometimes lack is the joy of being Muslim and just the joy of this. It doesn’t have to always feel like such a burden, and I hope we can continue to spread joy that people generationally inherit instead of the trauma that’s sometimes inherent.
Arij Mikati (18:40):
Oh my gosh, I love that you said that so much because something I often say is, you know, marginalized people deserve frivolity too, and joy. I think that is so incredibly important and I love the way that you talked about how we might be mythologized in the future. What does it mean for us to become legend and what do we want that legend to say? I think that framing question just really inspires me as an artist and a strategist to think through what I want my legend to be, what I want our legacy to be, and that is just so inspiring. It seems like it really resonated with folks in the chat too. I saw lots of hearts, so not surprising at all. We did get one question. Throw other questions in if you’d like folks, but we did get one question, which is how do you see Azadari culture having relevance for American Muslim narrative change?
Asad Ali Jafri (19:53):
Okay. That’s a really good question. So this is kind of what I was alluding to, but not really getting into. There’s a culture of Azadari, right, a mourning culture. It’s particularly a mourning culture that comes specifically in Shia communities, but also in Sufi and Sunni communities and other communities, because it goes beyond just those easy designations and they come from different places. I think it’s very culturally steeped as well for me, and it’s really important, and it’s poetry and it’s song, although other people would not call it song, necessarily. But it’s art, it’s culture in all these different ways. It’s visual art that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, who I consider an ancestor and I consider an ancestor in the way that other folks in the East and other folks in First Nations consider ancestors, ones that are living because that also goes into our tradition and can still give you inspiration. I think there’s a beauty in that tradition, because it allows you to think about justice, it allows you to think about the temporality of our world, and it allows you to think about what you’re doing again, generationally. This story has existed for 1400 years. It has one of the largest gatherings or pilgrimages annually today in Karbala, and so I start looking at Karbala in a new way because it’s sacred land. I think about how when I was in living in Hawaii and people talked about Maunakea being a sacred land and how they had to protect that sacred land through love through the aloha ‘āina movement. I thought immediately of a place like Karbala and other places that, from our own community sometimes, are kind of targeted. I thought about what does it mean to have sacred lands and what does it mean to have ancestors?
I think that fits very well into ideas of justice and ideas of peace and ideas of community and generational wisdom in the U.S. as well. I think what hasn’t happened is that as communities, we haven’t been able to switch that into something that makes sense for us and is rational in ways that’s not only for folks that are in the know. Not only for folks that have this heart kind of passionate thing that’s in them, maybe it comes through within their DNA or their historical legacies, but there’s a story there that can connect to this movement that we have now. I think the folks who want to keep that tradition alive are probably the ones who have to carry that burden on their shoulders. So people like Justin and people like others that I know have to be the ones that kind of make this relevant while keeping it authentic as well, so that we can create narrative change in that way. I hope I answered that well, Justin.
Arij Mikati (22:19):
Beautifully said, beautifully said. I don’t know this Justin, but it was a great question. So, I have one more question for you and I think it’s a really great one because this is something that you and I have spent a lot of time thinking about over the last year and a half. Ozzy eats asks, Muslims all over the world are influenced by unique cultures and environments. How do we harmonize to create one Muslim narrative for future generations? I would even say that, you know, this is me adding on, that for you and I, we’ve talked a lot about how one of the incredible strengths and also complexities of the Muslim experience in the United States is that our faith community is the most racially and ethnically diverse community in the United States. So even if you just bring it down to this country, thinking about what one Muslim narrative could, would, or if it should be is an interesting question. So I’d love to hear, I know it’s really tough to put you on the spot on this one cause I know we spent a year and a half debating and discussing, but I’d love to hear your thoughts today in this moment.
Asad Ali Jafri (23:25):
My gut reaction is I wouldn’t, and I think that’s the beauty in it. I think that we want to come together and even be unified, right and say, this is us, look at us. I understand the reason for that because it feels good, but that unity, I think comes when we have difference and we have diversity, and if we can embrace that, I think we’ll be a lot better off. So we create multiple narratives and that’s the only way I think that we get to the point that we’re trying to get to. Yeah, I’ll just leave it at that.
Arij Mikati (23:53):
Yeah. I think multiple narratives is so crucial because we aren’t monolithic. I think, you know, the actual issue with what’s happening now is that we are being painted as such. So I think that’s where a lot of the frustration with many of us not feeling seen or heard comes from.
Asad Ali Jafri (24:12):
Yeah, I would say that’s the beauty of it, because I love how we have all of these different ways of defining what Muslim is, and we can define it culturally and religiously and spiritually, and even politically in different ways, right, or based on gender, or even based on sexuality. All of those things can kind of have these intersections with our Muslim identities in these really interesting ways. When we embrace that, I think it’s just rich, you know, and then those, the culture, the tradition, and the future all kind of come together.
Arij Mikati (24:39):
Absolutely. Well Asad, we’re coming to the end of our time and I’m feeling very sad because this conversation has been the highlight of my week so far. So I just want to first thank you for spending time on what is apparently a perfectly beautiful day inside with me for a few minutes. So I really appreciate you and all the work that you do for our communities, the art that you put into the world, and your work with us as a community member of Pillars, It just means so much and you mean so much to us. So we’re just filled with gratitude that you would spend this time with us.
Asad Ali Jafri (25:22):
Thank you so much for having me and Ramadan Mubarak to everyone who tuned in.
Arij Mikati (25:26):
Ramadan Kareem to you too and to our guests, thanks for joining us and hanging out with Asad and I. We loved hearing your questions, loved seeing all your reactions to what we were speaking about, and we hope to see you at more Pillars events in the future. Really grateful to everyone spending time with us today, and again, gratitude to you Asad, gratitude to our larger communities, and Ramadan Kareem. Salam alaikum everyone.
Asad Ali Jafri (25:59):