Throwing Our Own Potluck: A Conversation with Wajahat Ali
November 17, 2022
Wajahat Ali is a child of Pakistani immigrants, the father of three children, a columnist at “The Daily Beast,” the survivor of several near-death experiences, and a “recovering attorney.” He is also a brilliant writer and storyteller. His latest book, “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on Becoming American,” proves all of this to be true.
Most importantly, though, Wajahat is a person of deep hope. Through trial and challenge, he continues to hold on to the possibility that we might recognize as humans that “we are all connected, even when we feel so distant and untethered to each other’s truths and realities.” The story of his latest book is one of the slow realization that people, even across a chasm of differences, “have the capacity for decency and kindness.”
Seated in Interfaith America’s Chicago office, I had the immense honor of conversing with Wajahat over Zoom. In the following conversation, we discuss many topics ranging from tokenism to potlucks filled with biryani to our experience as those who come from what a former president described as “s—hole” countries. Through it all, though, Wajahat affirmed two central truths: Goodness can be found in this world and it is our job to bring this goodness to light.
The following interview had been edited for length and clarity.
Amar Peterman: Wajahat, for those who don’t know you, those who haven’t read the book yet, can you share the quick MSNBC/NPR pitch of who you are and how you arrived at where you are now?
Wajahat Ali: I am the son of Pakistani, Sunni Muslim immigrants whose parents thought would be hilarious to name him ‘Wajahat’ to “blend in.” And I got to where I am by writing with my pen and telling my story.
The book is about the challenges, the opportunities, and the wonderful experiences of loving a country that oftentimes doesn’t love you back. It questions how this feels — how do you navigate this reality? How do you step up and defend your people? How do you fight for a country that doesn’t fight for you (and sometimes oppresses you)? How do we create a better future for our kids [and] make it easier for them so they don’t have to go through some of the challenges that we had to go through? How do we do you stretch and expand America to accommodate all our kids as its potential heroes and co-protagonists?
AP: Much of Interfaith America’s work is about faith and public life. Some people see these two things as beneficial to one another, others see them as mutually exclusive — that they’re supposed to exist in separate realms. How do you understand or describe the relationship between your faith and the public square?
WA: I am public with my faith in a country that is very religious. A country that — for better and for worse — religion plays an active role in politics and culture; where we have religious freedoms and yet where we are religiously illiterate. Despite religion being such an animating lightning rod for politics and culture, we simultaneously don’t have etiquette or language to talk about it in the public space. And oftentimes, there is a remarkable ignorance about religion and religious people.
I always joke that we are depicted as either vegans or carnivores when most people are like omnivores. You know, most people are like, “I’m not very religious but I go to church once in a while,” or “I believe in God, I’ll practice fasting during Ramadan, but I drink alcohol.” You know, most people are like this. It is an interesting mishmash and hodgepodge of how we practice our faith.
But in public depictions, it’s either you’re a fundamentalist, extremist, or you’re a rabid atheist. When it comes to mainstream discourse, most newspapers like “Washington Post” or “New York Times” only have one or two religion writers, which just always fascinates me. I know these religious writers. They are always exhausted. You would think that with the [conversation around] abortion or the rise of Christian nationalism or the rise of fascism or the rise of the ‘Nones’ that, there’d be more devotion to [covering religion]. It’s a very strange kind of schizophrenic relationship that this country is super religious compared to places like Europe, but we don’t talk about it.
And so, for me, especially being a minority as a religious minority, I was often the cultural ambassador of my religion and 1.7 billion people from childhood. I had training as the token guy who was the walking Wikipedia explainer on religion. It’s one of those things where I guess I made the choice early on that this is who I am and I’ll share it. And I’ve tried to be sincere and honest and — the buzzword of the 21st century — authentic. This is why I’m much more comfortable than most in talking politics and then about being a dad, but then also about being a Muslim. This is because it’s very hard for me to separate these parts of my identity. It’s all merged. Those who know me know that I do what I do, in large part, inspired by my faith. So, for me to not talk about it is to not talk about myself.
AP: That’s wonderful. It makes a lot of sense. I grew up as an evangelical Christian in a small village in Northeast Wisconsin; and I am also adopted. I went to school in the middle of literal cornfields as one of maybe three non-white students, but I shared the same faith as many of my white peers. And so, I also learned how to function in that token role as a non-white evangelical. It is something I’ve really had to reckon with — can Desi and evangelical fit together in the same person?
To your point, I agree that the relationship between faith and its role in society is complicated. But I think that at its best, it is a constructive contribution. At their best, faith traditions and faith communities are a gift to our society and democracy.
WA: I went to an all-boys, Catholic high school. You always have to explain; you always have to defend; you always have to give speeches. It is exhausting. But as a storyteller, and as a person who likes to share, I also saw it as an opportunity.
AP: I am curious to hear your thoughts on this: I think of my calling as a translator between communities. I often use my name to describe this — Amar, an Islamic and Desi name; Peterman, a white and Germanic name. Those two things don’t go together. But as a Christian I see my experience as an opportunity to witness to what faith can look like when things that “don’t go together” are placed in the same location or community. Do you see yourself at all in this type of translation work between your Desi roots and the American landscape you speak into?
WA: You see that people of color who are evangelicals — Black folks, some Latinos, Asians — are speaking out more and more in the past few years to differentiate the way they live out their religious values from what has been dominated by the white Christian conservative evangelical space. It’s very similar to Muslims in after 9/11. I’ve been talking to a lot of evangelicals, and they feel like their faith has been hijacked by a very well organized politicized, influential, what they say is a global minority of white Republican Christians, right?
I empathize in a strange way with Christians who are religious because I know what it’s like when a few extremists hijack your religious traditions, and then that becomes the dominant narrative. It’s so divorced from the reality that you have in your family and in your community where this faith and these stories actually make you a better person.
AP: Wajahat, how do you want to be remembered? A century from now, when a journalist or historian is writing about this era and has a copy of “Go Back to Where You Came From” on their desk, what do you want them to say about you and this book?
WA: When you talk about the tombstone, it’s very easy. It’s like, “here lies Dr. and Mr. Sarah Kureshi, father of Ibrahim, Nusayba, and Khadija.” That’s enough. I mean, in all seriousness, I’ve thought about this. My name is erased, and I’m known through my association with my family. That’s it. That’s all I need.
As far as the book, or if anyone reads some of the articles or listens to a speech (and I have no delusions of grandeur), we each owe a debt. There are 8 billion people who are alive. The best we can hope for once we die, if we loved people and love them well, is that they remember us and they pray for us.
And then there comes a point very quickly, after maybe two generations where no one remembers you, right? Once your kids are gone and your friends are dead and maybe once your grandkids have passed, that’s it. Like, you get erased.
Maybe the book allows you some sort of permanence if anything like that even exists. If people engage with it, I hope what they see it is an attempt to have hope and hopeless times and to push forward and to try and to try our best to write a verse in the American story — something that is authentic, that is by us for everyone.
If I fail, then I hope they say, “At least he tried. He could do better, but he’s onto something.” Because I am very confident that the challenges that I talked about in the book will unfortunately remain with us in the future. My hope is that they’re minimized. Because the story that I’m telling is almost a reboot, unfortunately, of an American story. It has happened before to the Irish, to Italians, to Jews, to Latinos and Black folks and Japanese Americans. And right now, it’s us from the “s—hole” countries and people who look like us.
You know, we’re witnessing the death rattle of white supremacy both here and abroad. I’m not saying white people; I said, the death rattle of white supremacy. And as predicted, that death rattle has become a death march. And they’re playing for all the marbles.
People say, “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” But I believe you have to bend it towards justice. And so maybe that’s what they get out of it: You must do the work. And maybe they could be inspired enough to do the work. If that happens, man, it’s a win.
AP: I love that. I appreciate that you highlight the passivity of those who invoke MLK’s “arc of the universe bends towards justice” quote. You’re right, someone is always bending this arc towards goodness. The arc of the universe not doing that on its own. History does not tell a story of leaning towards a desire to be more just and loving as a nation. You know, it shows the opposite. We’ve got to fight against the natural bend of the world to achieve moments of justice.
My last question for you: If there was a Venn diagram between your book and Interfaith America as an institution, in the overlapping middle is this big word in bold font that says “potluck.” Do you have any thoughts on this analogy?
WA: So, I think we need to take the analogy further. I’ve thought about this, and the reality is that many of us — not all of us, but many of us always — just want to just get an invite to the party.
We realized quickly in this country that we were never invited. So, we did our own thing. But if we are to be honest, when we think of the many immigrants or children of immigrants in America — or just people in general — no one says, “I’m going to be an outsider.” No, people want to just blend in. I don’t care what your ethnicity or religion is, they want to be accepted. They just want the invite.
And so, my take is, “Okay, you don’t want to invite me? You don’t want my biryani? Your loss. I’m going to throw my own party. And I’m going to give out biryani and you can come if you want. But you can’t stop me.” To get to that point is pretty powerful — where you say, “I don’t need your invite. I’ll do it myself.” It’s very powerful. And most people don’t get there. Most people spend their whole life trying to get invited to a party where the host doesn’t like them. And I feel like the empowering work is to say, “You don’t have to like me, I’m going to throw my own party and I’m going to invite everyone. I’m going to show you how it’s done. And I’m going to do it better. And if you don’t want to come to my party, you don’t have to. But if you do, the door’s always open.”
Amar Peterman is a Program Manager supporting the Emerging Leaders Network and other strategic initiatives of Interfaith America.
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