“It’s a deep passion for us; it is our faith and our practice,” Haydar said. “And it really felt like this epic quest to learn and find the clues and put them together.”
The couple have garnered wide attention for their “Ask a Muslim” project, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in 2015. Outside a library in Cambridge Mass., they put up signs inviting passers-by to “talk to a Muslim” and ask them questions over donuts and free coffee. Haydar’s Song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” was also named one of the best protest songs of 2017 by Billboard.
By The Way spoke to the Michigan-based couple about their show’s goals, how the trip informed their feelings about identity and assimilation, and how they handled the long journey.
Q: How did the idea for the show come about?
mona: It was an interesting call we got asking if we were interested in doing a road trip across the country, and we kind of jumped at the chance. Having been in a relationship for almost a decade and parents for almost eight of those years, this was an exciting opportunity for us to explore a bit of Route 66 and also our own relationship.
Q: What did you learn about the American Muslim experience along the way?
Sebastian: I feel like from start to finish, it was really mind-blowing and open for us.
mona: Our son listens to audio books, and he likes those on mysteries and solving the mystery. And it actually felt that way for a while for me, where we were on this epic quest to uncover hidden secrets. We are both very educated people, and we were not informed at all on this particular subject.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from the series?
mona: I hope people will laugh at us. We’re very nice and we have our little inside jokes, and I hope people will feel informed because I think we’re funny and I think we have a fun rapport and jokes. I hope that’s what people take away, to feel a human connection at a time when so many of us have been isolated for so long.
Sebastian: We really wanted to use this trip as a lens for something bigger. I hope people can somehow see this story through us, [with] we like this lens or this magnifying glass or this thinking booth, to tell the story of a group of people who have been largely ignored or maligned. I’m not just talking about celebrities like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who deserve all the research and stories and movies they can get, but people who run restaurants, people who rebuild mosques, people who are …
mona: Physicians and serving their communities.
Sebastian: Yeah, just humbly. And they will never become famous, but their story deserves to be told like any ordinary hero story. It was a real privilege to meet these people and give them even a small platform to share their story. And also the history of Islam in a part of America where you don’t associate – you don’t associate that part of the country with great diversity, religious diversity, and you certainly don’t think about the Islam when you think of Missouri and Oklahoma and New Mexico and Nevada. And so, saying like, “Yeah, it’s an amazing country, and there are these rich stories if we peel off the surface, if we dust off the glass a bit and look.”
Q: How has the show influenced your feelings about identity?
Sebastian: When you travel, 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 kind of at the mercy of the people around you. People like to host and show [other] the people of their town. When someone is in need, you have that moment where you can kind of be the Good Samaritan. I experienced that a lot with people, and it was very humiliating. Being guests in other people’s mosques and restaurants and really being immersed in these intimate stories was a privilege, just to feel held and safe and for people to open up to us and have that exchange.
mona: In the Islamic conceptualization of life, having this human experience, we are called travelers. From the moment of birth to the moment of death, you’re just traveling in this life, and the idea is that you don’t take too much. You are not carrying your luggage. You don’t accumulate stuff just to accumulate stuff, but it’s actually about accumulating knowledge and meaning and infusing yourself with meaning and intention and care – you know, that focus inner love and that kind of fine-tuning of consciousness. [On a trip like this] you don’t know where you’re going to sleep the next day. Will the hotel meet your needs? Are you going to have enough food that you can eat? Sebastian is a vegetarian. He often struggled to find good sources of protein along the way. It really connected me to a kind of consciousness identity, to be in this world and to know that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
“Yeah, it’s an amazing country, and there are these rich stories if we peel back the surface, if we dust off the glass a bit and look.”
— Sebastien Robins
Q: What did that mean for you as a couple?
Sebastian: It was like a second honeymoon for us. It was the first time we were truly alone since our first son was born eight years ago, and on top of this covid and homeschooling two kids and quarantine and all that. We ended up at the place [in New Mexico] where we met on our anniversary, and it was just by chance. And it was really beautiful and we got to talk a bit about how and where we met.
But I think the deeper answer to that question is that when we go out into 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 how people behave towards us. I am a man. I am white. You don’t think of Islam when you look at me, you don’t think of Islam when you hear my name. So I get a lot of free passes. I have many privileges. So we had a lot of time to debrief these meetings. I have the impression that our relationship is sometimes tinged with it.
mona: This has always been a theme in our relationship. You know, it’s a fusion of cultures, a fusion of identities and a process of deep learning and deep learning in our marriage. And I feel like this investigation is so beautiful to me because we constantly challenge each other to be more open, to be kinder, to ask more vulnerable questions, to be more authentic with each other, and to not don’t be afraid of what might happen by asking these questions. There are definitely parts of the journey where people are likely to see this friction. We don’t claim to have a perfect relationship, and that’s part of the reason we’ve made it 10 years and hope to make it another 30. We’re working on ourselves. So this trip was a bit like a magnifying glass.
Q: How was the trip itself? It’s a long drive.
mona: I have ulcerative colitis. So being in the car, I wouldn’t call that my favorite thing. It’s not funny. But we did well. [We filmed in] a truly amazing time during the pandemic where the numbers were super, super, super low and low. So driving across the country, not being afraid of people, knowing the numbers were very cold, and feeling very safe, I know my body was pretty comfortable the majority of the ride, the majority of the stops.
Sebastian: We also crossed the country several times with our children. So to do it without a little kid or two in the back seat was kind of like, “That’s awesome.” Like, “It’s a vacation.” We listened to a lot of music. We argued about a lot of music and stuff. Ate a lot of horrible food. Ate lots of good food in unexpected places.