One has to go through experiences in life’s journey before they reach their destination.
“Whether you know good deeds or sins or confusion or internal conflict, all that leads to something,” Gibran Saleem said. “We’re always growing in a direction whether we know it or not, and we don’t necessarily need to be there as long as you’re kind of working towards something, and sometimes you’re working towards something on a subconscious level.”
Saleem, a stand-up comedian and one-third of the Laugh in Peace Tour, presented his lecture, “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A Personal Journey,” on Thursday, August 1 in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of the Week Six theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”
Saleem talked about his childhood and the obstacles he faced as a young boy, being the only darker-skinned child in his class, sitting alone at lunch because of the food he brought to school and the split that existed between his life as a “regular child” and his life within the Muslim community.
“I’d go to Sunday school on Sundays,” Saleem said. “I even went to a karate class in our local Masjid, which was a very interesting experience because there was a Pakistani man with a thick Pakistani accent, and when we’re doing karate … can you imagine a thick Pakistani accent trying to speak Japanese? We’d get kicked out because we were just laughing so much at the wrong time. So, it was weird. There’s this dichotomy between me just being a regular kid at school and then me being a Muslim kid.”
As this dichotomy remained throughout his childhood, Saleem became more resistant, not wanting to pray as his family did — five times a day in the household. Some days, when he was sent to his room, he would genuinely pray, or he would do a Dua, a type of prayer Saleem described as a “personal confessional” or “a direct connection to God at your fingertips.”
“It was just my own personal dialogue, and that was me kind of exploring the world of religion and the different ways to connect to God through various lenses,” Saleem said.
Prayer was not all Saleem rebelled against. One time in school, a young boy approached Saleem and asked if he was Pakistani. Saleem said he wasn’t and that he was from North Carolina.
“Basically everything in my life, I just wanted to run away from,” Saleem said. “I was constantly embarrassed by my family, like most kids are.”
As Saleem grew, he started to think about his community and the similarities shared between all religions — one being the sense of community that religion creates.
“Part of what’s so funny about religion is that it’s not funny, and that makes it so much more funny,” Saleem said. “But also, what’s so funny is the communities, because within the communities is its own culture that’s part of the community, your own personal culture. And within that culture and within that community, there’s an arsenal of punchlines from people that you know and see all the time. There’s so much funny there, rooted from the people, that’s rooted from the culture, from the community, from the overarching religion.”
Saleem began to realize this, and he began to feel this sense of community when he went to college. Saleem went to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was exposed to a great deal of diversity.
Again, Saleem wanted to distance himself from his religion and community. Part of the reason was that he didn’t want to represent Islam in a bad way, as many people tend to see one example of a group and use it to define the whole group. He also wanted to feel like and fit in with everyone else.
“There was a lot of internal conflict, and part of that conflict is learning how to unwind and take that ball of conflict, and turn it into a thread of clarity,” Saleem said. “Part of that was going through experiences, learning who I am, learning part of what the world is and what is my identity versus what is perception; what is someone’s perception of my identity?”
Finally, Saleem learned that he needed to stop fighting himself and stop rebelling against his identity. He said he was once washing a strainer, and there was a spot at the bottom that he could not get out. He flipped the strainer over and realized it was his own hand through the bottom of the strainer.
“Maybe those holes in the strainer really just represent an opportunity for my family to come through,” Saleem said. “Maybe that’s the way that I want to go. Rather than focus on negative or internal conflict, the solution is to just look at it positively and find a resolution within myself.”
Saleem began to have positive experiences in college with people of different religions, as well as people of his own religion. He said he began to create his own sense of community, and he also reconnected with his own community through the Muslim Students Association at his university. He even created his own university organization, PASA, which stands for Pakistani American Student Association.
After graduation and some time living in New York City, Saleem decided to pursue his master’s degree. While earning that degree, he went to England to work as a cognitive behavioral therapy coach at an obesity camp.
One day, he and a girl he met through individual counselling were skipping rocks. She could not skip the rock for anything, and at first, neither could he. But, from watching how she was skipping it wrong, Saleem was able to learn how to properly skip the rock. From this experience, he said, he learned a spiritual lesson.
“Your goal isn’t to give them the conclusion,” Saleem said. “It’s not to give them an answer on how to handle your situation or conflict. The goal is to help someone to arrive at their own conclusion, to help guide them along their way; it’s their journey.”
Saleem also learned that meeting and interacting with people enhances one’s journey and allows people to learn from one another.Because of his interactions, Saleem became more socially and spiritually attuned.
“Faith comes even when you’re not looking for it,” Saleem said. “Sometimes, there’s things around you that are there to teach you, to help you, to save you. … I started realizing that if you don’t keep an eye open or an open heart, … things in life happen that force you to think on a spiritual level.”
Everyone is on a path — a journey — to a destination, Saleem said. And, though everyone will face obstacles and be pushed to learn serious lessons, all people need laughter to make the journey a bit more enjoyable. Laughter doesn’t deviate one from their path, it only makes the passing time sweeter.
“Without conflict, without understanding, I wouldn’t be able to arrive to where I am and do comedy,” Saleem said. “So I get to laugh all the time along the way. And that makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I feel like I’m a better person to other people. I try to make people laugh; I try to make myself laugh because I know when I’m in that funny place, I get to be my best self, and I get to share my best self with every other faith, community and culture. … That positive feeling, in a way, feels like it helps everyone head towards the path that they’re headed toward anyways.”