Q&A with Mentor Omar Mouallem
King’s MFA mentor Omar Mouallem is a man of many and diverse talents: journalist, author, documentary filmmaker, founder of Pandemic University. This fall Simon & Schuster will publish his latest book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, and CBC Gem will stream his documentary, The Last Baron, which follows the storied history of Burger Baron, a rogue fast-food chain with mysterious origins and a cult following. And, oh yes, he’ll be mentoring a group of Class of 2023 students as they begin their book projects. We caught up with Omar between projects.
MFA: Was there a particular moment or incident that made you decide to write Praying to the West?
OM: In a way, it was an accumulation of events, and in another way, it was a singular event.
I’d been wanting to write a book that normalized the presence of Muslims in so-called Western nations for a while. The topic of anti-Muslim hate and hysteria had taken over my journalism since 2015, with the rise of Trumpism, and the downfall of the Harper government in the wake of their own bigotry. Adding to this was the rise of ISIS-inspired terrorism, and backlash to namely Muslim Syrian refugees. All of this together was just too much to get off my mind—and that’s before the world learned of Rohingya and Uyghur Muslim genocides.
However, the single event that forced me into action was the Quebec City mosque shooting. It was everything that I had been fearing—a massacre in Canada directly linked to Donald Trump’s presidency—but before the massacre, when I’d expressed the likelihood of such a tragedy to generally white Canadians, I was met with doubt that things were actually that bad. But things were actually that bad. And the massacre in Quebec City vindicated my instincts to myself. From then on, it was just a matter of finding the right angle to help temper anti-Muslim hysteria.
Why did you decide to frame your search for what it means to you to be Muslim as a physical journey to 13 mosques?
The first part is that it didn’t actually start as a search for what it means to be a Muslim, for me, or really anyone else. It started as a work of historical nonfiction. I was simply going to uncover the lost, ignored and erased Islamic history of the New World, which I knew it went back 500 years to enslaved Africans, and would soon learn had a not insignificant presence on Columbus’s first voyage. It amazed me how little there was out there and how little people knew—how little I knew. I believed and still believe that if people understood that the Muslim presence here is not a new phenomenon, but rather an essential part of its modern development, then it would be harder to be intolerant in the face of that information.
The second part is, I was looking for a framework for this angle and being a travel writer, a travelogue seemed the way to go. I was inspired by Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown and Marcello di Cintio’s Walls, two brilliant cultural studies books animated by the authors as travel guide. And yet still, I did not think that I should focus on mosques per se. It seems so obvious now—if you want to capture the Muslim experience, you go to where Muslims congregate. But it took me a little while to realize that, and as soon as I did, I realized also what a useful literary device a community space like a common Islamic centre is. With sufficient research, any building becomes a literary time portal: You go inside, and instantly there are clues that open wormholes to the past and near future. When it’s time to give the present context, you’re already there, talking to the people who built it, run it, or who rely on it. And even if they themselves are not historians, they are always linked to local history, whether they know it or not.
Naturally spending that much time in mosques made me reflect on my own Muslim upbringing and heritage. It was impossible not to because as soon as I started reporting, I realized that I wasn’t being welcomed less as a journalist than a Muslim brother, whom they expected to pray alongside them. It forced me to think about whether there was still a place for me in the faith, which ultimately became the thread that stitched so many disparate places together. That’s the third part to my answer.
How have you managed to juggle so many different projects and genres — a book, a doc, Pandemic University? Any tips on time management?
You’re talking to the wrong guy about time management, man! I just do my best to stay productive doing things I enjoy, without letting them overtake my entire day, or worse, identity. I’m not great at this, I admit, but it gets easier after you have kids. It puts the importance of everyday work in perspective.
As for how to juggle them, this is something I got really good at freelancing for 15 years. Freelancers always have something cooking but must also prep-cook future ideas if they want to sustain a career. The documentary was something I’d wanted to do for longer than I can remember, and when the opportunity to propose it to CBC came up, I just did it, not thinking too much about the timing. Evidently, the timing was right—I slid right into it from completing my book (or most of it, anyway).
As for Pandemic University School of Writing, it was never anything I expected to become a bona fide company. But I’d accidentally stumbled into a viable model for online learning that’s altogether accessible for writers, profitable for instructors, and sustainable for me—the Dean, the Provost, and the secretary. Because it’s a one-man show, I don’t have a lot of overhead and just have to make sure that instructors and students have gratifying experience, which luckily they have with very little maintenance at this point in the company. I’m not saying the school runs itself, but it’s reached the point now, where I only have to put in a few hours a week to keep it going very smoothly on a small scale. Of course, if I wanted to scale it up, I could. The first six months of it were a full-time job. But I don’t want that. I’m a writer. I’m here to write.
Can you talk a bit about how mentoring fits into your writing practice? Why do you do it, and how does your own work benefit from it?
Whether I’m hired to do it or not, I’m obligated to help emerging or pivoting writers to the best of my ability, because that’s what was done for me. I never went to school to do what I do. I learned on the job—jobs that I got because of more experienced writers and especially editors who, for whatever reasons, believe in me enough to take a chance on me. I owe them so much, but since I can’t pay them back equally, I try to pay it forward.
What’s your next project?
My next project is to have no project for a while. For the last five years I’ve been juggling two or more long-term projects at a time, and I’m kind of just spent. So, I’d like to to spend the rest of this year simply promoting my book and movie,åç≈ and doing a little bit of freelancing on the side, and picking away at Pandemic U, and, of course, mentoring at King’s. That’s project enough, don’t you think?