“Great Muslim American Road Trip” on PBS features the Ann Arbor couple


Mona Haydar has been on many road trips with her husband, Sebastian Robins, and their two sons, ages 8 and 5. But last year, the Ann Arbor couple got in a car and took what Haydar calls “a second honeymoon” while their children stayed with his mother.

They had long, uninterrupted conversations while driving and found time for downtime like stargazing. They also maintained a fast-paced schedule of stops in over a dozen cities, from Chicago to Los Angeles.

“We missed our kids so much,” Haydar says. “It was very difficult to take on, but it was so worth it because we got to meet these amazing people and have these experiences that we just wouldn’t have been able to have if we had to stop and potty every 10 minutes.”

Haydar and Robins weren’t just road tripping for fun. They were continuing their longtime mission of fostering understanding and communication by traveling U.S. Route 66 for “The Great Muslim American Road Trip,” a three-part documentary that begins airing Tuesday on Detroit Public TV ( Channel 56) and other PBS stations.

The docuseries takes Haydar and Robins down the historical path to learn more about the centuries-old history of Islam in the United States and to explore what life is like for a wide range of Muslim Americans across the country. .

Along the way, they reveal that the famous highway, one of the oldest in the country, has many diverse threads woven into its fabric of Americana. Over the decades, Route 66 has become a pop culture landmark that has been featured in everything from John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” to Pixar’s 2006 film “Cars” and immortalized in a 1940s pop song and a 1960s television series, both titled “Route 66”.

Haydar and Robins kick off their Chicago trip with a segment on Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower), which held the title of world’s tallest building for nearly 25 years. Their visit sheds light on the work of Bangladeshi-American architect Fazlur Rahman Khan, who designed the famous skyscraper and was an innovator of high-rise construction.

They end the trip in Santa Monica, California, where they meet Layla Shaikley, a young Muslim woman with a venture capital firm that represents the millennial generation of Muslim Americans. Shaikley, who wears the hijab headgear and pursues skateboarding as a hobby, embodies how traditions can coexist comfortably with contemporary trends,

Over the course of three episodes, “The Great Muslim American Road Trip” combines the fun and sense of discovery of a travelogue with the social relevance of documentary journalism. The relationship between Haydar and Robins, who listen to music in the car, discuss where to stop next for meals, laugh, have disagreements and generally behave like couples on long drives, is at the basis of all this.

“As a viewer, you see that Sebastian and I are just a married couple. And everything else kind of – no pun intended – takes a back seat,” says Haydar.

Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins from "The Great American Muslim Road Trip" on PBS.

Although they sometimes talk about God and their religion, the docuseries doesn’t limit their interaction to those topics, she explains. “The conversation about being Muslim and Muslim history, this stuff is wonderful and beautiful and historically accurate and really deep, but I think…why we took on this project because we just have to be ourselves .”

This means viewers will be able to see things their friends and loved ones will recognize, like Robins telling his corny jokes and Haydar looking up at him. “We didn’t need to portray characters,” she says. “We didn’t need to put up a facade. We really have to be who we are.

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A rapper, poet and activist who grew up in Flint as the daughter of immigrants (her parents left Syria for America in 1971), Haydar emerged onto the music scene with her viral 2017 song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)”, which was included on a Billboard list of the top 25 feminist anthems.

In the video for “Hijabi,” Haydar, who was eight months pregnant at the time, takes on racism and declares her pride in herself and Muslim women everywhere, rapping: “Concealed or not , never take us for granted.”

After the release of his EP “Barbarican” in 2018, Haydar told Elle that his music “is for people who stand up to racism. Speak truth to domination. My music is an introduction for people to see something different. new that redefines what a Muslim woman is.”

Haydar received a degree in English from the University of Michigan-Flint and later a master’s degree in Christian ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She met Robins, an educator originally from the Boston area, at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, a spiritual and educational community in New Mexico. He, too, is a University of Michigan alumnus who earned a degree in philosophy at the Ann Arbor campus. They have been married since 2012.

The couple have drawn national media attention to the Ask A Muslim effort they launched in 2015 to combat Islamophobia. They put up signs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the area they lived in at the time, and offered free donuts and coffee while inviting passers-by to ask them questions about, well, everything and don’t. whatever.

As Robins, a writer and educator who converted to Islam, puts it, he wanted people “not to ask us questions about Islam. Ask someone (something) who is a Muslim, but ask him something about pop culture, about what he had for breakfast, about their family.

The couple shared their story in the series of short films “The Secret Life of Muslims”, which earned an Emmy nomination in 2017. A year later, Haydar appeared in the Detroit episode of the PBS series of Marcus Samuelsson “No Passport Required”.

For “The Great Muslim American Road Trip,” filmmaker Alex Kronemer, who directed the series, asked Haydar and Robins to do the Route 66 road trip. They say they trusted him because of his past work, which focuses on religious diversity and Islamic awareness and includes several PBS films. Kronemer is one of the founders of the Unity Productions Foundation, which produces films in line with its goals of fighting prejudice and promoting peace through the media.

Robins says the docuseries illuminates the vast expanse of Muslim history in America. “Our sense of time kept getting pushed back more and more with each historian we met and the more we learned,” he says.

In Springfield, Illinois, he and Haydar chat with Dr. Kamau Kemayo, Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, who provides insight into the history of the first enslaved Africans in America of the North and the number of them who were Muslims. And while going to see Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in the city, they discover a Muslim cemetery nearby.

In Quartzsite, Arizona, they see a monument to the last camp of a Civil War-era Muslim, Hadji Ali, aka Hi Jolly (a mispronunciation passed down from a folk song), who was hired by the US Army to use camels to explore the American Southwest and who is credited with helping to survey the best route to California on what became the final stretch of Route 66.

Alex Kronemer, director of "The Great American Muslim Road Trip."

For Haydar, one of the most profound moments was a visit to the Muslim Village community initiative developed by Masjid As-Sabur, the oldest mosque in the Las Vegas area. It provides outreach services, including fresh food through a free farmer’s market, to help people rebuild their lives after release from prison.

“In this community, we had the warmest welcome,” says Haydar. “They help the community in such a profound and wonderful way that when you go there, you can’t help but realize that’s what community is. That’s what community is for. is the true definition of that word.”

Haydar says doing the road trip was especially meaningful in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says 2020 has been a tough year, starting with her father’s death in March, which was followed by being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Said Haydar: “Meeting and being with people, how can it not be joyful after such an intense period of isolation that we were in during this first year of the pandemic. It was just an opportunity to meet people and to be in communion with other human beings.”

There could be more road trip documentaries in their future if Haydar’s enthusiasm for exploring Michigan is any indicator. When asked if she would be interested in making a documentary about her home country, Haydar describes Michigan as a remarkable place.

“Every year my dad would pack us all in the car and we would drive somewhere,” she says, listing Tawas, Mackinac Island, Traverse City and Muskegon as some of the destinations. A favorite stop was a visit to the majestic Tahquamenon Falls, the largest in the state.

“I still dream about it,” she says.

Stay tuned for the possibility of a great Muslim American trip across our pleasant peninsulas.

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected].

“The Great American Muslim Road Trip”

Beginning of the series

10 p.m. Tue

Detroit Public Television (WTVS, channel 56)


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