To my beautiful readers: I know I have a thousands of people who come to read my writings monthly ,who I love so dearly. Forgive me for taking 1 month off but after my burnout, I needed some time to decompress. I’m getting right back into writing and I have an exciting two-part travel series, a few new books / products, a new venture, and an upcoming youtube channel I will be sharing with you this week. Until then, enjoy!
Sometimes you have such profound experiences that when asked to speak about them, you can’t. You find yourself at a loss as to what to say. And then when you do, it becomes a flood of naked truth that has been within you for a long time that found the perfect time to get out.
That is what this is.
The following is a two-part series of personal essays on my journey to Chile, discussion on the intellectual collapse of the Muslim world and how to hack education in that part of the world, my newest journey with Exosphere and how their education model may be exactly what the Muslim world needs right now.
I tell this story often.
3 months before I left my hometown, Ottawa, for the very first time at 21, I found myself reading the Alchemist. It’s a small, classic book by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer whose work found its way into my life. There are many things in my life that happen where all memory of how it happened is erased.
The Alchemist is one of them. I have no memory as to how it came into my life.
The book tells the tale of a young man, Santiago, who decided to leave his home to follow his dreams. During this time in my life, I desperately wanted to go live in city of Istanbul, but I ended up in Egypt – exactly where Santiago ended up at the end of the book.
Alexandria, Egypt, my second home.
An odd thing tends to happen to me when I travel: the places I never expect much from always impact me the most.
Egypt fits the bill. There are very few things like seeing staff from a consulate watching soccer at 2pm in the afternoon during a work day while your standing there waiting for your visa papers to make you think: “Okay, so this is going to be interesting.”
Fast forward 3 years later, I ended up in a place aptly named, Santiago, with a group of people who compromise of an organization called Exosphere; a group of people that I’ve been searching for my whole life.
Growing up, I had no idea where I was from. I had no connection to my heritage. I branded myself a nomad and a cosmopolitan early on in my life with no intention of ever being tied down to a place not really understanding why. My parents, though they’d never admit it nor encourage it, were just like me – wanderers. My father has travelled from Jordan to Egypt to Turkey to Budapest and has the most unbelieveable collection of travel stories you’ll ever hear. My mother has been everywhere from Somalia to India to Dubai. I was born in Canada about 1 month after my parents left Italy, where they met.
Entrepreneurship and perpetual travel is written into me.
Over the years, travel become a philosophy- one that brought me closer to myself, the world and ultimately to God. I was always the girl who wondered to places that many people I know would never venture.
In January I was asked to come down as a visiting entrepreneur to Exosphere for their entrepreneurial program, Hydra II.
And to be honest, what I got was unexpected – it was a life changing experience.
When you peruse the Exosphere website, it is hard to categorize them – for good reason. They are people whose spirit must match your own before you can even try to explain what they do.
That explanation I did not need.
Exosphere’s tagline “Disturb the Universe” – Exosphe.re
I immediately understood their slogan: ‘Disturb the Universe’. In fact, all my life I feel like I’ve been disturbed or was doing some type of disturbing. I couldn’t follow rules. I couldn’t stop asking questions. I couldn’t stop being true to myself. I couldn’t bend to the system.
Exosphere reminded me of the beat generation, an eclectic group of radical non-conformists and authors in the ‘60s who challenged everything there was to challenge about modern American society and whose ideas subsequently heavily influenced American culture. I remember falling in love with the Beats when I was 16 in my English class – they manifested within them everything my ‘good girl’ reputation couldn’t but so deeply wanted – rebellion, non-conformity, civil disobedience, political dissonance and a deep concern for marginalized people while travelling, writing and creating with a group of like-minded folks. But they were more than a group of writers, they were a movement.
Gradually, I ended up in my late teens befriending people like them. My best friends were anarchists, poets, idealists, dreamers, hippies and musicians. People who you would end up having roadside cyphers with at 11pm ruminating over deep existential questions of life. They were people with a longing for a utopia – a better world. And it was with them that I started to have an inkling that the world I inherited didn’t need to be the reality I lived.
I wanted to, as Albert Camus famously said: “… to become so absolutely free that [my] very existence was an act of rebellion.” Which, in contemporary terms means being unapologetically human, as humans were created to be – creators, explorers, adventures, entrepreneurs, stretching ourselves to the absolute limits of life and being FREE.
Although my friends had good intentions, they were rarely willing to take the risks to make those ideas manifest. One of the main reasons I left activism was for this reason, especially after being an organizer at Occupy Wallstreet. The emphasis on the cause was noble but, as the saying goes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. What may seem to be your biggest asset can be your biggest liability. Passion is great but not enough.
What I found with entrepreneurship was that your merits came down to – not how good your intentions are – but what results you created.
With Exosphere, you find just that: visionaries with a ruthless pragmatism on solving world issues, the inner fortitude to persist and have a long term vision to disturb the universe and a community of people willing to grow and be vulnerable together. But unlike the Beat Generation, they didn’t make their home in Tangiers, but in Renaca, Vina Del Mar, Chile. It’s a beautiful suburb where you can meditate at the Pacific Ocean and go hiking up the sand dunes in the evening or surf.
It was beautiful, calm, meditative, steady and cold! I had this green Parka that I wore 24/7 to keep me from freezing my life away but that’s what I get for not being prepared for winter in South America.
Pacific Ocean, Renaca, Vaparaiso, Chile.
Sunset in Renaca.
There is a hopes to transform it into a central hub for brilliant entrepreneurs, innovators and visionaries to connect and build together.
And in many ways, it already is.
A Florence, Italy of the Renaissance, of sorts. An upstart.
Exosphere runs entrepreneurial boot camps, as a central part of their programing, but there is something more that brings people down there.
They aren’t capitalizing on an entrepreneurial trend. This is the future.
Most entrepreneurship development programs focuses on the technicalities of starting a business but what makes Exosphere different is that they have a soul.
Their programs serve as an intense incubation period of you – the person, the human, the entrepreneur. They ask questions like: how can we help you personally find yourself, your passions, make money from that and then connect you with a community of people who care about you and your growth.
It’s far less about creating startups, but creating the next generation of leaders, and challenging the internal tapestry of what constitutes the modern human being. This takes Exosphere outside of the realm of just being an incubator or entrepreneurial program but a movement of people focused on developing leaders and cultivating a new culture of conscious living.
Their average boot camp runs for 8 weeks of full day of sessions, not just of philosophical or spiritual ruminations but combines practical skills from customer development, marketing, to coding, to personal development with experienced visitors to pass on their expertise to their participants.
Honestly, where else can you find that?
Nomadic Routes from Somalia to Cordova
On my way to Santiago at the Toronto Pearson airport, I had a security officer stop me. He was Somali. Now if you are part of any ethnic community, you’ll know that there is subtle comradery and a sense of family with your people, no matter where you go –whether you know them or not.
He asked me where I was going.
I said Chile.
His jaw dropped.
He said: ‘Wiliigey gabar oo Somali aah oo Santiago oo socota maa arkin.’ Which means in Somali, I’ve never seen a Somali, let alone a young Somali woman, ever go to South America.
And at the same moment, his security friend, this big happy Chilean man asked me:
‘Yo Habla es Español?’
And me with my basic Spanish said:
‘Si. Un pocito.’
(One sidenote: Oh My God, do Chileans smell good. Like everyone and everything was sprayed with this heavenly mist of god-knows-what.)
When I replied in Spanish, this man just exploded with joy and welcomed me but not the Somali one.
As I said bye and walked away, I heard a faint voice call to me in a very fatherly way with a stern undertone and say:
“Dulkaas mahan dulkaagi. Iska Ilaali,” which means, ‘Those are not your lands. Be careful.’
And to any Westerner, this type of social dynamic is odd.
But it comes from a deeply primal and traditional need to preserve a shared cultural history in a world of globalization where things change more quickly than ever. For any immigrant, there is a need for self-preservation that intensifies the further you are away from your homeland.
That familiarity is safe.
It’s also interesting to note his chosen profession.
But for someone like me, whose entire life meant finding safety in risks, it makes me wonder.
But his response also hits on other things: the question of where home is for someone who is from a diaspora community, resisting labels or a land when I was born without both etc
That’s really the limitations of travel I’m trying to cope with. There is only so far you can physically go because, in all honestly, there is only so far you can place yourself in places that you don’t belong.
And it makes me think, maybe he’s right.
This is a living consciousness that people of color live with from diaspora communities.
You are forever unbelonging, as a someone once said.
Home can be anywhere I make it. But often times, not everywhere I make home wants me.
And I get that.
Nowadays I search for places that just want my soul.
And there is no one telling me: ‘Be careful’
I remember when I was living in my apartment in Alexandria, I had a huge realization.
That to search for acceptance, to be at peace with my identity as a wanderer, to chase my dreams as an entrepreneur – I could not escape myself, my ancestry.
And that’s why I completely understand that security officer to an extent
There are deep truths what he said.
That everything I was searching was within me all along.
But it took me years to find it.
It is said a people who don’t know where they are from are more easily led into many directions that ultimately don’t serve them. Understanding your heritage gives you roots.
It was only recently I found out that my great grandfather was named Abdul-Rehman Ismail Al-Jabarti from the tribe of Darod (or Dawud in Arabic, David in Latin). My ancestry goes back to a placed called Jabarta(no longer exists) in Yemen and goes further back to the Arabian Peninsula. My ancestors were merchants, traders and travelers–much like I am. People who, it seemed, engaged much of their time in deep thinking, traversing the lands in searching of meaning.
Beautiful painting by Edwin Lord Weeks, Arrival of a Caravan Outside the City of Morocco. This is what I would imagine to be a scene out of the life of my ancestors.
My ancestors, long before I knew of my African heritage, were the Spaniards and Arabs of Andalusia. I would spend long hours reading Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ imagining myself to be in the fantastical world that could only mimic a world I wishes to live in – a world with finesse, culture, knowledge and spirituality. Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, In the Sultan’s Palace, is probably the closest physical manifestation of what my imagination conceived. These men gave me my historical roots – made me realize I was a descendent of something much greater than myself. They were the spark that made me realized that we could shape the world as we wish to see it. Averroes, Ibn Rush, Al Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun – I consider them my ancestors, my great grandfathers — they were the only constant in my identity growing up.
“The Prayer” – Jean-Leon Gerome, 1280
Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, In the Sultan’s Palace
Granada, Spain. One day I will make a spiritual pilgrimage here inshaa allah.
Inside the Alhambra, Court of Lions, Granada, Spain
And in some way, the life I created for myself is trying to mimic their world.
Nostalgia of a Bygone Era
There is a deep nostalgia in the Muslim world to relive those days. It’s a collective mourning – subtle, melancholy but its presence is always lingering. The Islamic Golden era, which was at its height around 13 century A.D. represents something beautiful but viscerally painful about the modern conditions in the Muslim world. That period of history was less about material conquest, but the conquest of the soul. How deep, and urgent the sense of acquiring knowledge in Islamic tradition is perhaps the single greatest reason why Muslim civilization was one of the proudest achievements of humankind. Seeking knowledge and education was at the core of its success. And it’s lack thereof is why the Muslim world is so painfully behind.
What happened in Cordova, Granada, Cairo or Baghdad in the 13th century was a model for what happens when the collective consciousness of a culture centers around self-purification and study and it produced amazing results.
Without it, for example, we would most certainly not have the works of Aristotle, whose texts were lost for over 1000 years, if it had not been for Muslim scholars translating his works from Greek to Arabic.
For people trying to work on creating harmony in the world must understand that there is no clash of civilization between East and West. Samuel Huntington got it completely wrong.
What many people fail to realized is that Islamic and Western civilization come from very similar roots. Many Arab-speaking Muslims not only preserved the scientific and philosophical knowledge in Hellentistic traditions but also incorporated it into their own theories.
The House of Wisdom is a great example where this intercultural, interreligious and international exchange of ideas took place.
Mount of Tariq(Also known as Gibraltar, stands as British Territory today off the coast of Iberian Peninsula).
When Tariq Ibn Ziad stood on the shores of the Iberian Peninsula on his way to conquer Spain and told his soldiers to burn the ships – either they would go conquer Spain or die – is an brutally honest reminder of what is literally happening with the Muslim world – stuck in a paralyzing fear of whether we should burn the boats, take the risks and dare to dream or stay standing there, ready to retreat when things get hard. That nostalgia of an era past comes up again, as a recurring nightmare.
Because we know we can be better.
Because we were better.
There is hope.
The Intellectual Collapse of the Muslim World
Neil De Grasse Tyson in his talk: “The Intellectual Collapse of the Muslim World” discusses how a culture with a tradition of knowledge acquisition, namely the Muslim civilization, whose legacy contributed to the intellectual advancement of modern western civilization, collapsed. Granted, he places this intellectual collapse on the fundamental incapability of religion and science, which is not only wrong but historically inaccurate. But he made an interesting point:
“I lose sleep at night with how many secrets of the universe lay undiscovered because 1.3 billion Muslims, who in an ancestral time, would have participated in this enterprise, which are now not. It’s in the cultural heritage – all we are asking is to resurrect it.”
It’s a profound statement.
He is asking, what if the next great discoveries, next great leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs from the Eastern parts of the world, were to be given the tools, resources and inspiration they needed to unleash their potential and become the leaders they are more than capable of becoming, what would happen?
Now, I asked, like Tyson does, how do we resurrect it?
Elements Holding Back the Muslim World from adopting an Entrepreneurial Philosophy
Before I give my reasons for major issues holding back the Muslim world intellectually, socially and economically, I think it’s important to note two things here:
1) This doesn’t even scratch the surface. In this case, I would have to write a thesis to truly give a comprehensive analysis to give justice to the topic.
2) The 1.6 billion community that makes up the Muslim world is in no way homogeneous. This has to be the most diverse community –politically, socially, ethnically and culturally. When trying to provide specific answers, we would need to look further to the deeply embedded cultural practices of a region before we can make any concrete conclusions.
Dr. Umar Abdullah Farooq of the Nawawi Foundation puts it beautifully in his essay: ‘Islam and the Cultural Imperative” :
“Like a crystal clear river, Islam and sacred law are pure but colorless, until they reflect the Chinese, African, & other bedrock over which they flow.”
Issue 1: Question of Islamic Scholarship
One major argument that come up often in Islamic public discourse is the need for the creation of more Islamic scholars as a solution to curbing social issues, ones that can navigate both western and eastern cultural landscapes.
For those who aren’t aware, Islamic scholars are central bedrock of Islamic communities. They are, in many ways, the elites and revered with utmost reverence.
The huge reverence for them is routed in Islamic tradition that says scholars are the inheritors of Prophets (again, huge emphasis on high status being placed on knowledge seekers and those who are learned). In the modern context, we’ve seen brilliant work to counteract the lack of scholarships such as Zaytuna College, which is the first Islamic liberal arts college established in the United States.
It’s absolutely right to say that there is a need for authentic Islamic scholarship, one that can be held to the same rigour as modern scholarship. The problem isn’t that we need more scholars, we need to utilize Islamic scholarship in a way that is culturally and contextually relevant.
Islamic scholarship is essential but providing individual people the tools needed to unleash their own potential in a way that is accessible and cognizant of their own reality is the next best solution to deal with on the ground realities. We need to build a crop of entrepreneurs to solve social issues while utilizing authentic Islamic scholarship to bridge the religious knowledge gap and use Islamic scholarship to promote the essential role entrepreneurial and economic empowerment plays in solving social problems. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive as they have been thus far.
I want to add another challenge: Islamic scholar historically was never an institution that was connected to government. Scholars were, mostly, independent entities that functioned on their own. Today, scholars are very much embedded within political power structures, so it’s harder to get them to advocate on certain issues but it’s essential we keep trying.
One of the most positive counterreactions to this trend has been the rise of ‘third spaces’ in Muslim communities ie Ta’leef Collective in California, for example. They are alternative safe spaces that foster religious harmony that are not ‘mosques’ per say.
What will be needed to promote entrepreneurship is utilizing both spaces – not just one – to start capacity-building entrepreneurial infrastructure as these third spaces are currently filling a void, mostly with millienial Muslims who are looking for places to be understood and heard.
Essentially, the Muslim world is paralyzed due to the question of leadership. My humble suggestion is that Muslims need to stop looking to leaders outside of themselves and stop becoming overly dependant on scholarship that isn’t culturally or contextually relevant to give them solutions to problems they are dealing with in their day-to-day life.
Issue 2: Industrialization and Colonialism is Still Seen as an Ideal
The other issue is that the Muslim community, in many ways, hasn’t been able to properly respond to industrialization, not just as an economic engine but as a social and cultural philosophy that brings consumerism and materialism as a religion with it. Consumerism and materialism force people to stay working for indefinite period of time. It’s a world view that never had a place in the Muslim world because it remains in stark contrast to how work, success and meaning is definited under an Islamic context(and it can be further extended to much of the Eastern world).
The reason, I feel entrepreneurship is stigmatized in many ethnic Muslim communities even though those people are known to be naturally very entrepreneurial is because the roles of industrialism in shaping people’s minds and ideas. There is a funny saying that says career options for an immigrant tend to be a) doctor b) lawyer c) engineer d) disowned.
There is truth to this. These careers didn’t become a symbol of high status until after colonialization and few people understand why.
“The tradition of madrasas and other classical forms of Islamic education continues until today, although in a much more diminshed form. The defining factor for this was the encroachment of European powers on Muslim lands throughout the 1800s. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, French secularist advisors to the sultans advocated a complete reform of the educational system to remove religion from the curriculum and only teach secular sciences. Public schools thus began to teach a European curriculum based on European books in place of the traditional fields of knowledge that had been taught for hundreds of years. ….” (Source)
What’s more is that students who thrived in this credentialism-based new system were encouraged to go pursue higher education in the sciences whereas those who didn’t do so well were encouraged to go into ‘softer’ subjects like the arts, humanities or religion. And this practice continues today in most of the world.
In addition to that, as European colonial nations proceeded to colonialized Muslim lands and people began to adopt an internalized racism that comes when European structures, ideals and philosophies are taught to be ideal rather than alternative worldviews. This creates an inferiority complex where previously held ideals, such as entrepreneurship are no longer valued as they once were.
This is the Stockholm Syndrome at its best – when a victim expresses sympathy with the person causing them harm, even making excuses for them.
Now you have a generations upon generations who believe that jobs and being a worker is more important and safer than being an entrepreneur.
The solution comes down to shifting mindsets and mentalities by executing a series of social campaigns to help people understand that entrepreneurship is the best lifestyle and philosophy to adopt.
And it’s happening, just not on a wide-scale.
Issue 03: Ignorance and the Challenges of the Modern Education System
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a renowned American- Muslim scholar in one of his talks “The Crisis of Knowledge” made a really interesting comment.
He talks about two types of ignorance: simple and compounded. Simple ignor-
ance is a naivety and the person is aware of their own ignorance. It can be remedied. But compounded ignorance is when someone is ignorant of their ignorance. He then proceeds to mention the Wizard of Oz, a classic American fiction book.
In the story, there is a Scarecrow looking for a brain. He sings:
“With the thoughts you’ll be thinkin’
You could be another Lincoln
If you only had a brain.”
He never ends up finding his brain but at the end the Wizard gives him a piece of paper and says:
“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma. “
And then he proceeds to give him a diploma. In other words, when someone doesn’t have a brain, we confer upon him a diploma.
This is what happens in the education system and the dangers of pushing modern education as a source of pride and accomplishment. People go into the education with simple ignorance and then leave with a compounded ignorance. The more our communities put upon people the need to go to university, the more change becomes harder.
Hacking (Alternative) Education the Muslim World
I believe entrepreneurship is one of the most practical and pragmatic solutions to solving problems within the Muslim world. The solution to its application lies in alternative education methods by which we build entrepreneurial capacity in the Muslim world.
Not only will this solve socio-economic issues but it’s a massive business opportunity with plenty of data to back it up. Muslim markets alone are worth $2 trillion. Muslim in America, one of the wealthiest and educated Muslim demographics, worldwide spend about $150 billion of that. There is a whole market waiting to be utilized, disrupted and developed.
Benefits of increasing the number of entrepreneurs speaks for itself.
There is a whole generation of leaders and innovators waiting to be empowered with the tools, resources and community who will not only solve problems but bring back much needed wealth into our communities.
But if we don’t create and empower entrepreneurs from our communities, we can’t benefit from that. All that money ends up going to support multinational corporations who’ve understand the financial viability of the Muslim market.
Sometimes the worst aspects of power isn’t misusing it but forgetting how much of it you have but don’t use.
And while the infrastructure isn’t there to support a global entrepreneurial ecosystem now, the best way to foster entrepreneurial growth in the Muslim world is try to mimic how traditional education in Islam worked:
- Start nourishing individual entrepreneurs. It starts by taking their dreams and helping them manifest what they wish to contribute to the world. We need to focus on nourishing minds and spirits.
- Bringing people together. There is a power in community; in bringing people together, consistently into safe spaces to build harmony and love between them all.
- Showing people there is another way to live your life. Allowing critical thinking to thrive means creating safe spaces where people can question themselves and others without judgement.
- Letting people taste entrepreneurship, even if it’s for a few weeks. It’s hard to convince someone to do something but showing them via apprenticeships or real-time application of basic business principles in a nurturing space is a much better way to convince people to jump into entrepreneurship.
- Capacity-building with influential elders: In the Eastern world, there is a high reverence and respect for parents, grandparents and elders. They’re opinions hold weight that can shift conversations and mainstream discourse, unlike in the West, where societal cultural is essentially a mirror of youth culture.
These are super simple ideas that will create a ripple effect in changes. Right now, what we are seeing are Muslim countries dealing with great poverty, refugee populations, both talent acquisition and retention issues.
There is no reason to sit back and allow social problems to remain unchecked and the easiest way is to run a series of experiments to see what are the most effective ways to utilize unleashed talent.
Until recently, I had no model of entrepreneurial education as to how we could bring about the above points while taking into considering the sensitive and every-changing cultural and social dynamics in a society.
Can we create a model that can change and shift with the regions it goes to?
I strongly believe I’ve found that entrepreneurial education model in Exosphere.
Read Part Two Here