When Master of None season two hit Netflix, all I kept hearing was that I had to watch the “Religion” episode.
It’s the third instalment of the season, and in less than 30 minutes Aziz Ansari depicts his experience as a Muslim-American, negotiating between the practices of his Muslim parents and his American friends. It’s an experience that many viewers can relate to, but is rarely depicted on screen.
“I’m glad that Aziz’s Muslimness (even if he is non practicing) was discussed,” says writer Fariha Roisin, who is Muslim. “I’m glad that a show on Netflix, even if it wasn’t as unpacked as I’d like it to be, was talking about being Muslim from actual Muslims.”
Like many of the episodes in this season, episode 3 revolves around food—in this case, pork. Practicing Muslims do not eat pork, however, in “Religion” Ansari’s character Dev embraces it and even convinces his devout cousin, Navid, to give pork a try. Both men hide their culinary choices from their parents, but everything changes when Dev decides—much to his mother’s disdain—to order a pork dish during a family dinner.
“I think the most relatable thing for most Muslim kids to see is a Muslim struggling with their identity, especially the pork/bacon trope because it’s such a big one,” says Roisin. “It encapsulates and distills so much of my youth, and the push and pull between custom and faith and being brought up in the West, that made it a really effective scene. Especially with Tupac’s ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ playing in the background.” (For the record, Roisin used to eat pork but doesn’t anymore.)
Indeed, “Religion” serves up a nuanced look at the generational clash between those who have fought hard to preserve their heritage in a new land, and the next generation who is now learning to blend the practices of their homeland with those of the country they actually call home. Like Roisin, I related to that.
About a month ago, my family and I were at an excessively fancy lunch to celebrate my uncle’s 60th birthday. The set menu offered several meat options and TBH I basically started drooling over the description of the slow-braised beef short rib.
But then I realized who was sitting next to me. My grandmother, whom I call “Dadi,” is a Hindu pundit and has performed many of the wedding ceremonies in my family. She prays every day and, even though I consider myself more of a cultural Hindu than a religious one, she always showers me with blessings. This came to mind at the birthday lunch because it created a conflict between tummy and tact. Like Ansari’s character, my cultural background means that I am not supposed to eat a certain meat, which in my case, is beef—and yet, I do.
“Dadi, would it bother you if I ordered this beef dish?” I asked her.
“Whatever,” she responded. “You always do, anyway.”
Despite that swift and severe burn, I ordered the dish and devoured every last piece of it without a second thought—until last week, when I watched Master of None.
My Dadi lived in Fiji and later in India, so she was raised in a world where eating beef wasn’t really on the table. But even after she moved to Canada, she never ate it and says she has never wanted to.
Watching Ansari’s interaction with his mom prompted me to call Dadi and ask her if it really bothers her when she sees me eating food that contradicts her religious beliefs.
“It doesn’t bother me that you eat it, I would rather you didn’t,” she says. Since me eating beef clearly *does* irk her, I pressed her for why. “What is it that bothers me? I don’t quite know what bothers me,” she answered.
This negotiation between culture and cuisine is charged territory—and everyone approaches it differently. Tess, a 20-something social worker, who describes herself as “culturally Jewish,” says that this is not a conversation she’s ever had with her family because it’s an established, albeit unspoken, rule that they keep Kosher in their home, but not necessarily elsewhere. She will order pork at a restaurant with her family and it won’t be a big deal, but she would never bring those leftovers home.
“It all comes down to respect,” she says. After she watched the Master of None “Religion” episode, Tess related to Ansari’s idea of a younger generation that is more culturally religious versus spiritually connected to religious texts and practices.
I realized that I feel that way as well. Like Ansari, I wasn’t raised in the same context as my grandparents or parents so I was, and still am, figuring out how to exist in both cultures. As Roisin explains, in her experience, negotiating that identity, whether it’s cultural, religious, or otherwise, is a process.
“Muslim identity is complicated and nuanced,” she says. “Frankly, more Muslims should be allowed to engage with what Islam means to them.”
To me, that is why I am such a fan of Master of None. Even when–let’s be honest—it’s chock-full of Ansari’s relatives and BFFs who can’t really act, it still prompts viewers to ask important questions. The “Religion” episode made me engage with the religion I was raised in, question it and discuss its meaning with members of my family. It was only then that I started to understand my Dadi’s deep respect for cows, and that respecting her means not ordering beef when we dine together. No matter how good the short ribs sound.
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