Ali Noorani is the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, a fellow at the ASU Social Transformation Lab, and author of the book Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants. Before the Zócalo event, “Could Immigration Unite Americans?,” he visited the green room to talk about his love of cooking complicated meals, his tendency to hate-watch TV shows, and the rabbit holes he went down while writing his book.
If you had one more hour in the day, what would you do with it?
I would probably cook a more complicated meal. I have this terrible thing where my stress relief at the end of the day is cooking dinner.
And you do a lot of cooking on Instagram; what’s your signature dish?
People always ask me that! I have some kind of home bases, but I like to experiment with things, and I’m trying to figure out how to combine tastes and techniques. Let me be clear: I have no right to use the terms “taste” or “technique.” I can do a pretty good rice and dal, that’s quick and easy and tasty.
What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?
I think it was an elementary school English teacher. Her name was Mrs. Drew, Kitty Drew. The one lesson [of hers] I always remember, in terms of just being a good writer, is whenever you read a news article, remember who wrote it.
What was the most surprising thing about the process of writing a book?
The amount of space that you have to write a book in terms of length works both for you and against you. Meaning that with a book you can provide more nuance, tell a broader story around the point you’re trying to make. But because you have more space, you end up down these rabbit holes, and it takes more discipline to say, “This might be interesting, but it’s a fantastic waste of time.”
What was the hardest rabbit hole to cut from the book?
COVID-19 grounded me. I had trips planned to Croatia, Cairo, Central America to do all this reporting. I ended up having a couple conversations via Zoom with some folks in Cairo who are doing amazing refugee resettlement work in and on the outskirts of the city. It told an amazing story, but I had to pull it—without the context you get from physically being in a place, I couldn’t do it justice.
Where would you like to travel to next, for fun or for work, now that some travel is back in the cards?
I have not even thought about this question. For fun, Paris. That’s just such a great town. For work, there are so many people migrating through northern Africa, and it’s something that we very, very, very rarely read or learn about in the states.
Where do you go to be alone?
I did a lot of forced gardening when I was a kid, watering and weeding, so I was turned off from futzing in the yard for a very long time. But where we live now, I have a lot of dirt to play with. So if there’s a time I want to be in my own head, I’ll just go to the backyard and move dirt from one place to the other.
Who is your dream dinner party guest—from any era?
I would say Harry Belafonte. Musician, civil rights leader, amazing human being.
How did you get into trouble as a kid?
Oh dear. I’m a bit of a smartass. That would usually get me into trouble.
What’s your most recent binge watch?
I have a tendency to hate-watch shows. Right now, we’re hate-watching Snowpiercer. We’re so far into it that we can’t get out of it, so we just sit there and kind of look at each other and say, “Why are we even watching this?” Before that it was probably Station Eleven, I think, and then maybe F1. Because if you’re a male in the United States these days you have to watch F1: Drive to Survive. It’s like a requirement.