Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins felt they had a deep understanding of Islam. But filming “The Great Muslim American Road Trip,” a docuseries that will air on PBS this summer, made the married couple realize how much more they had to learn.
Haydar, a Syrian American rapper and activist whose music videos boast millions of views on YouTube, grew up Muslim. Robins, a writer and educator, converted to Islam after they met. The show follows the couple as they traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles via historic Route 66 in September. Along the way, they learned about Islam’s roots in America, explored nearby Muslim communities and took in the sights. In Chicago, they met with Muhammad Ali’s daughter Maryum Ali and toured the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) to learn about structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan, known for his work on the innovative tubular design for high-rises. On more than a dozen stops, Haydar and Robins visited with restaurateurs, doctors and authors.
“This is a deep passion of ours; it’s our faith and our practice,” Haydar said. “And it really felt like this epic quest of learning and finding the clues and piecing them together.”
The couple garnered widespread attention for their “Ask a Muslim” project, following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in 2015. Outside a Cambridge Mass., library, they set up signs that invited passersby to “talk to a Muslim” and ask them questions over free doughnuts and coffee. Haydar’s song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” was also named one of 2017’s best protest songs by Billboard.
By The Way talked to the Michigan-based couple about the goals of their show, how the trip informed their feelings about identity and assimilation, and how they handled the long drive.
Q: How did the idea for the show come about?
Mona: It was an interesting call we got asking us if we were interested in taking a road trip across the country, and we kind of hopped on the opportunity. Having been a couple for almost a decade, and parents for basically eight of those years, for us it was an exciting opportunity to explore a little bit of Route 66 and also our own relationship.
Q: What did you learn about the Muslim American experience along the way?
Sebastian: I feel like from beginning to end, it was really kind of mind-blowing and -opening for us.
Mona: Our son listens to audiobooks, and he loves the ones about mysteries and solving the mystery. And it actually felt that way a little bit of the time to me, where we were on this epic quest to unearth the hidden secrets. We’re both highly educated people, and we both somehow were not educated at all about this particular topic.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from the show?
Mona: I hope people laugh at us. We’re very kind of corny and we have our little inside jokes, and I hope that people feel let in on that because I think we’re funny and I think we have a funny rapport and banter. I hope that that’s what people take away, feeling a human connection in a time where so many of us were isolated for so long.
Sebastian: We really wanted to use that journey as a lens for something bigger. I hope people can kind of see that story through us, [with] us as this lens or this magnifying glass or this reflection booth, to tell the story of a group of people that has largely either been ignored or maligned. I don’t mean just celebrities like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who deserve all the research and stories and movies they can get, but the people who are running restaurants, the people who are rebuilding mosques, the people who are —
Mona: Doctors and serving their communities.
Sebastian: Yeah, just humbly. And they’re never going to become famous, but their story deserves to be told just like every sort of ordinary hero’s story. That felt like a real privilege to meet those folks and give them even just a small platform to share their story. And also the story of Islam in a part of America where you don’t associate — you don’t associate that part of the country with a lot of diversity, with religious diversity, and you certainly don’t think of Islam when you think of Missouri and Oklahoma and New Mexico and Nevada. And so, to say like, “Yeah, this is an amazing country, and there are these rich stories if we peel back the surface, if we dust off the glass a little bit and look.”
Q: How did the show impact your feelings about identity?
Sebastian: When you’re traveling, you’re in this very vulnerable position, and you’re kind of naked in the world. You don’t know where to eat. You don’t know where to go to the bathroom … and you’re sort of at the mercy of the people around you. People like hosting and showing [other] people their city. When someone’s in need, you have this moment where you can kind of be the good Samaritan. I experienced that a lot with people, and that was very humbling. To be the guests in other people’s mosques and other people’s restaurants and being really let into these intimate stories was a privilege, just to feel held and safe and have people open up to us and have us have this exchange.
Mona: In the Islamic conceptualization of life, having this human experience, we’re called travelers. From the moment of birth until the moment of death, you’re just traveling through this life, and the idea is that you don’t take too much on. You don’t carry your baggage. You don’t accumulate stuff just to accumulate stuff, but it’s about actually accumulating knowledge and meaning and infusing yourself with meaning, and intention, and attention — you know, that inward focus of love, and that kind of fine-tuning of consciousness. [On a trip like this] you don’t know where you’re gonna be sleeping the next day. Is the hotel going to meet your needs? Are you going to have enough food that you can eat? Sebastian’s a vegetarian. He often struggled to find good sources of protein along the way. It really connected me to a more, kind of, identity of consciousness, of being in this world and knowing that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
“Yeah, this is an amazing country, and there are these rich stories if we peel back the surface, if we dust off the glass a little bit and look.”
— Sebastian Robins
Q: What did doing this together mean for you as a couple?
Sebastian: It was a little bit of a second honeymoon for us. It was the first time we had really been alone since our first son was born eight years ago, and add on top of that covid and home-schooling two kids and quarantining and all that. We ended up at the place [in New Mexico] where we met on our anniversary, and that was just by chance. And that was really beautiful and we got to talk a little bit about how and where we met.
But I think the deeper answer to that question is that when we go out in the world, we experience the same thing very differently because of how we look, and because of how people perceive us and because of how people behave toward us. I am a man. I’m white. You don’t think Islam when you look at me, you don’t think Muslim when you hear my name. So, I get a lot of free passes. I get a lot of privilege. So, we had a lot of time to kind of debrief these encounters. I feel like our relationship is sometimes colored by that.
Mona: That’s always has been a theme within our relationship. You know, it’s a merging of cultures, a merging of identities and a deep learning and profound learning process in our marriage. And I feel like that inquiry is so beautiful to me because we’re constantly challenging each other to be more open, more kind, to ask more vulnerable questions, to be more authentic with one another and to not be afraid of what might come up in asking those questions. There were definitely parts of the trip that probably folks will see that friction. We don’t pretend to have a perfect relationship, and it’s part of the reason why we have made it 10 years and hope to make it another 30. We are working on ourselves. So, this trip was kind of like a magnifying glass.
Q: How was the trip itself? That’s a long car ride.
Mona: I have ulcerative colitis. So being in the car, I wouldn’t call it the favorite thing of mine. It’s not fun. But we did well. [We filmed in] a really amazing moment during the pandemic when numbers were super, super, super down and low. So, driving across the country in a car, not feeling afraid of people, knowing that the numbers were very chill and feeling very safe, I know that my body was pretty comfortable a majority of the way, a majority of the stops.
Sebastian: We’ve also driven across the country multiple times with our children. So, to do it without one or two small kids in the back seat was kind of like, “This is great.” Like, “This is a vacation.” We listened to a lot of music. We argued about a lot of music and things. Ate a lot of terrible food. Ate a lot of great food in unexpected places.