Muslim CowboyDECEMBER 6, 2008
- Kareem Salama as a kid
- (Courtesy Kareem Salama)
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More From Kyle Gassiott
When he was growing up in northeast Oklahoma, Kareem Salama knew that he wanted to be a cowboy. Now he's an aspiring country music star. He's also a practicing Muslim. He sees no contradictions in that, saying his upbringing in Oklahoma made it all possible. Reporter Kyle Gassiott brings us his story.
In high school, Kareem Salama spent a lot of time at the rodeo and drove a Silverado pick-up truck. Ever since he was little, he knew exactly what he wanted to be.
"I always wore a black cowboy hat, and I used to wear my boots and I used to wear a cowboy necktie. I was pretty much into that kind of thing," Kareem says.
His favorite music was Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker and Alabama. That might be in part because, he says, country music is like "crickets" in Oklahoma.
"It's not really whether you like it or you don't, it's just part of the culture. I don't meet people in Oklahoma who don't like country music."
But listening to country music isn't enough for Kareem Salama: He wants to be a star. He's already recorded two albums and just got back from a European tour.
Kareem's parents are engineers from Egypt and they immigrated to Ponca City, Oklahoma to work in the oil business. At first, slow-talking Oklahomans drove his mom crazy, but Kareem was born in Oklahoma. No one could stop him from loving it.
Once when Kareem and his mom were walking home from Walmart, some "rednecks"--as he calls them-- drove by in a car. Noticing his mom's headscarf, they shouted "Go home!" out of the car window. Kareem was in kindergarten at the time.
"I was learning you have to stand up and say your address," he explains. "So I was like 'We are going home! 400 Ren Drive, Ponca City, Oklahoma 74604!' I didn't really register what they meant by 'Go home,' as in 'Go home back to some place across the ocean.'"
Even now, Kareem manages to stay calm in tough
situations. In May of last year Fox New's Neil Cavuto called Kareem to be on his show right after six Middle Eastern immigrants were caught planning an attack on Ft. Dix, N.J.
When Neil Cavuto asked Kareem whether "fitting a profile" of the "Muslims grabbing headlines" bothered him, he was diplomatic.
"I see both sides of the argument," he explained. "On one side, most of the terrorists we've had have been Muslim and they've been from the Middle East… so you've got a distinct profile." The problem, he explained, is that profiling people based on race or religion is "a slippery slope."
This brings to mind one of Kareem's songs, "Generous Peace" - perhaps the first time Ancient Arabic poetry has made its way into country music. Kareem translated a verse by eighth-century poet Imam Shafi'ee for the song. In the poem, Shafi'ee responds to the increasing anger of others by increasing his tolerance, saying, "For I am like incense, the more you burn me, the more fragrant I become." Kareem was inspired by the idea of burning incense, since as it burns "it just keeps giving out a more beautiful smell."
Kareem hears no dissonance between his background and the super-patriotic tendencies of mainstream country music. Nobody sounds more country then he does when he starts talking about terrorists.
"Muslims…suffer when they see innocent people dying and people that are their own countrymen, but at the same time they suffer from heightened scrutiny," he says. "People somehow think that we sympathize with those people when we actually abhor those people. Nobody would want to put a boot in their ass more, and I'm wearing boots."
I can tell this is no act. I grew up in a West Texas oil town, pretty much the same part of the world that Kareem did. And by the way he sits up in his chair, and leans forward a little when he talks, you know he means business.
Right now, Kareem Salama's working on a new album to be released next year. He's hoping it will push him onto mainstream country radio, add a new audience and get him a little closer to his dream.