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Friday, March 27, 2020 9:11am ET by  

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Interview with Mim Shaikh on Pilgrimage: The Trip to Istanbul

Returns on 27th March

Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?

When the offer came in, I was thinking this could be a very spiritual trip - a trip where I could go and learn something new about other religions and people from different parts of the world. I love learning through others, their opinions, their views and seeing if I can challenge mine through a conversation. This was the main reason I chose to study journalism, to interview people whilst radio broadcasting and I thought this trip would allow me to do exactly that. I decided to join the pilgrimage and say yes to going on the experience in the hope that I would learn something new.

Did you have to prepare in advance for the pilgrimage? What did you do?

I have never done any type of hiking before in my life. I was quite scared just at the fact that I didn’t know what was to be expected of me, how fit I would have to be in order to complete the hike. The lovely team organising and working on the show told us that we would be walking quite a lot and extreme weather conditions could be apparent during filming. Therefore, whilst I was in the gym I was doing more cardio rather than weightlifting to help me with the stamina during the hike. As well as this I got myself some fleeces, ponchos, hiking trainers (not boots, as they were more comfortable) and a bag.

Have you ever walked this far before?

I have certainly not walked as far as I did in this pilgrimage. The longest I ever walked before the pilgrimage was back and forth from my university to where I was living and that was just 30 minutes each way. I think growing up as a London city boy I never really appreciated how good walking is for us. Maybe not in the capital, but wherever there is a great view, great scenery, I am now more inclined to walk. Maybe not 20km at a time, but still I do love a little walk to just be able to gather thoughts and get out of my head at times.

Did you find it hard? A challenge? Fun?

To be honest, I thought it was more difficult for the crew who had to carry tripods, cameras, and find angles to film us. One of the best moments was when we were climbing one of the last mountains in Bulgaria, and all I kept thinking was: “Watch when I reach the top” and then we reached the top and I remember wearing a bright pink jacket and thinking I was in a music video, letting the wind run through my hair and I spread my arms across like I was on the Titanic.  That was a fun and memorable experience that I will never forget. The scenery, and the mountain top views were to die for. Literally, I have never been so amazed and taken aback by life’s beauty. What I did find hard was always carrying our bags, and the laundry that we had to do sporadically rather than on a regular basis. These were just some of the challenging things along the way but there were so many fun parts like setting up tents for hiking, singing songs whilst walking in the mountains, praying in the places of worship, learning about other religions, and experiencing different cultures.

Tell me about your experience on the series...

You know it’s quite hard not to think about how you may come across when everything is being filmed without you knowing sometimes. I remember getting some advice from people who have been working in TV for a while and they always say the same thing which is to just make sure you are yourself at all times. I was myself in this show and that’s sometimes a hard thing for me to be because I am balancing so many different ideas/viewpoints and understanding of others, that sometimes you can lose a sense of yourself along the way. Once the idea of me being able to just be me set in, I found the experience more wholesome and beneficial, and was able to experience everything more fully.

I remember being in Serbia and we were sleeping in a Rangers Hut.  We woke up the next morning and as we walked off, I noticed the words ‘WHITE POWER’ written on the walls in graffiti with a Neo-Nazi swastika painted next to it, and it got me thinking. I realised how different the London experience of growing up in such a multi-cultural city with different races and religions, and class is so apparent. I didn’t manage to see any brown or black people when I was in Serbia and Bulgaria, but at the same time I never experienced any racism directed towards me either.

What was your highlight?

When we reached the Suleymaniye Mosque. Prior to this, we were filming in Monasteries and talking to Priests. I felt as if I had been able to listen open-mindedly to other peoples’ idea of faith and how their religion allowed them to strengthen their faith. As soon as we got into the Mosque, after taking my shoes off, I felt this need to pray. This sudden urge came over me and I went to pray straight away. I gave thanks for the experience that I was able to go on, and it hit me there that I can never go away from this feeling. This knowing, that I am a person who has such strong faith, and Islam is my way of practicing that faith.

Another one of my highlights from the trip was when we travelled to a church and were invited to take part in a ceremony. This was the first time I felt out of place and I understood how people may feel excluded if they don’t feel a sense of belonging to a particular religion. After the ceremony we were invited join the local community for a big feast. All the priests sat at the top of the table. I was welcomed by the priests and invited to sit with them, which I loved. I spoke to them about my religion and we connected as our faiths were similar. I decided to get up and say a few words. I said I wanted to thank them for welcoming us with open arms and feeding us. It was a true blessing, so I toasted them by saying that: “In my religion we say 'Assalamualaikum' which means 'peace be upon you'", as I wanted to wish them peace. Everyone clapped, and afterwards told how great it was to feel included and have unity in a world where there is so much division and hate - it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

What was the hardest part?

The constant walking uphill in the mountains proved to be a little difficult. Also, I think watching what I had to say and not rudely questioning people. Sometimes I can let my curiosity get the better of me and I start asking a million and one questions which can come across as a bit rude. However, I didn’t want to do that I just wanted to be able to allow people to speak up with their views and express them freely. So that was a bit of a challenge. Sleeping in a tent when it was so cold outside was another challenge, I had never camped before so that was an experience.

Are you affiliated to any religion. If so, which?  Do you practice?

Yes. I am a Muslim, and I would say I do practice, but not heavily. I would like to call myself a liberal Muslim. I attend Friday prayers. I fast, I give to charity, I identify as a Muslim and my faith has played a strong role within my life and even in my career. I like what it represents and what it allows me to feel. When I need strength, I pray. When I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, I pray. Prayer really helps my mind state, and what I am learning even more as I’m growing up is that prayer has allowed me to remain selfless in my approach to things. Don’t get me wrong, I can still be self-centred and think the world revolves around me as we all can. But I think without prayer, my ego could get the better of me. But prayer, the act of prostration when going down to pray, and praying collectively allows me to remember how human we all are.

Has the experience changed or increased your faith? 

I wouldn’t say changed, but I resonate with the idea of my faith being increased. I have always had it, but I think sometimes for us to take time out of our busy work and social lives and remember God, and our chosen religions is good. This experience allowed me to do exactly that. I have yet to complete the Muslim pilgrimage where we travel to Mecca but this experience was a warm-up for when I complete that.

I know that my faith has increased and become that bit stronger. This trip may have helped with that, or maybe I am growing more into my ways. Sometimes I wonder why God has let something happen to me, or why am I going through certain things but then I try to remember something my Grandmother told me, which was to never question God’s motives. It’s all happening for your benefit.

Has the experience changed you in any way? 

Yes, the experience has changed me in quite a big way actually. My faith increased; my sense of identity became stronger. I feel like I have grown, not remained stagnant, and been pushed so far out of my comfort zone that I had to grow.

Did anything about this pilgrimage surprise you?

I thought all the other pilgrims were going to be so different to me. This was true to an extent, as I was the youngest person there. Before going, I thought I wouldn’t be able to connect or have anything to talk to them about. However, over time I realised how similar they were to me, and me to them. We all connected in different ways.

How did you get on with the other pilgrims? Was it a bonding experience for you all?

Whilst walking, I would pull my phone out and play some music. I was blasting Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s track Reborn because it fitted with the sentiment of the trip. Adrian Chiles took an interest in some of my musical selections and asked me to make him a playlist that he could listen to. I connected with Fatima as well, I could tell she had an unusual upbringing as a child and we spoke about foster care, moving homes and what effect that has on a person as they become an adult. I spoke to Edwina about writing books, as that is one of my future aspirations and she eloquently explained how to tackle the execution of it. Pauline and I spoke about acting, how old she was when she played Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, and how the auditioning process used to work back then. When I first saw Dom Joly, I told him I used to make prank videos when I was younger, and that we used to watch his TV sketches for inspiration. Amar made me realise how grateful I should be to have sight, and I was in awe at how he handles himself on a daily basis.

Describe you’re your feelings/emotions when you reached the end of the pilgrimage and arrived in Istanbul?

When we finally made it to Istanbul. Something beautiful happened. We were filming the last scene and we were asked to walk down so that we could see the landscape of Istanbul. As we looked out towards the city, the Adhaan (Islamic call to prayer) began. It was one of those moments that made me feel complete. It was lovely, and beautiful, and it fed my soul. That was the main reason why I wanted to go on a show like this, to see if I could be moved and if I could appreciate the small moments that we could experience as a collective, and I did.

Would you do it again? 

Without a second thought YES but I would like to take a different route this time.

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