What’s it like, being Muslim in San Diego?
The question arose for me earlier this year when I decided to hit Ocean Beach on maybe the worst night of the winter. It was Wednesday, the end of market day. Rainstorms exploding in off the Pacific, marquees flapping, most market folks packing up, re-boxing their fruit. But not the guys in the black tent near where Bacon crosses Newport. From inside the gust-wrenched canvas, half a dozen men shouted to scurrying passersby to come on in for the ultimate hand-warmer. Guled and Mohammed and Abdi and Hamza and a bunch of other young Somali men were selling the thing I’d weathered the storm to find: samosas, the Middle East and India’s great snack gift to the world. Aah, yes. Down in three gulps. A beef, a vegetarian, and a Californian adaptation (cream cheese and pineapple), all enclosed in hot, golden, flaky pastry.
We got to talking. These laughing guys were all students. All Muslim. All living a double life. Studying by night, selling samosas by day at the various farmers’ markets around town, including here and at UCSD. I’d always known the Somalis were an outgoing group. Somalia embraces the longest seaboard in Africa. They’re coastal people who have survived strangers with different cultures landing on their shores for millennia.
“I mean,” I say to Hamza, “you study, you take this business up hill and down dale six days a week, you go to class, you pray five times every day, and you still manage to get to a mosque on Fridays?”
“Oh sure,” said Hamza. “Why don’t you come? We have good food there…54th Street.”
This Veil Is My Liberation
There are maybe 100,000 Muslims living in San Diego County (many in North County), mostly Arab, according to, well, the FBI, as quoted by the Union-Tribune. More than many identifiable demographic groups, they’re a prosperous, businesslike bunch, people like Charles G. Abdelnour, the longtime city clerk. But many of the more recent Muslim immigrants have come from hard times in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Eritrea, Tigre, Sudan. They tend, like immigrants from Mexico and Central America, to be from the poorer levels of society who take on the jobs that require doing rather than communicating. Saudis, Iranians, Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Indians have penetrated the larger San Diego business and professional world. Somalis and Eritreans, meanwhile, seem to have cornered the taxi-driving market.
If anywhere seems like Little Mogadishu, it’s up on El Cajon around 54th Street. Women in long robes, some with their faces covered, form part of the scenery. You get used to it. Somali restaurants may not be a dime a dozen, but if you know where to look, places pop up with odd names like Coffee Time Daily or Taste of African Cuisine. Inside, it’s mostly young men with their taxis parked outside, or old men with magnificent creamy-white beards and beautifully carved walking sticks. Mainly, it seems these eateries service single men who have come here without their families or who have lost them. Which means they are just the tip of the Muslim iceberg, because most family-oriented Muslims are at home living the life you never see on the street.
But Fridays, at lunchtime, mosque brings everybody out, older men, often in their white cotton robes, veiled women in their finest patterned red and gold and black and blue ankle-length dresses. Even though they’ll be worshipping in separate parts of the mosque, this is when society congregates, does its bonding.
So on Friday I turn up at the 54th Street Somali community center, in the Safari Market, part of a shopping plaza just off El Cajon Boulevard. What must have once been a supermarket has now become a collection of Somali shops selling everything from traditional women’s clothing to cell phones and includes a Somali restaurant called African Spice, which the samosa guys also run. At the other end, a whitewashed hall has become the “Masjid Al Huda” (“Mosque of Guidance”). This is 1 of at least 16 mosques in San Diego, including the impressive main, domed masjid at the Islamic Center of San Diego on Eckstrom. Plus one in Tijuana.
I shake hands with Guled and Mohammed and Abdi and Hamza, and oh my…a gal dressed in robes, not just with a scarf covering her hair, but a blue silk veil covering her entire face and forehead, except for a slit for her eyes. At first you think Thousand and One Nights, then you think, What kind of religion believes God would want to shut off the beauty of youth with this sheath? Plus, you think, Hasn’t she broken some social contract here? Everybody else has exposed their faces, their identities, their vulnerabilities, but she doesn’t have to? She can hide behind the anonymity of a mask, in the name of God? Such a simple act can provoke complex emotions.
Then you think, Isn’t all this your typical Westerner’s rush to judgment?
“This is my sister, Hamdi,” says Hamza. “Would you like to sit with us, talk?”
We go find a table in an area set aside for African Spice, the restaurant. The walls are orange and white with washed green. Beyond the white trellis protecting this section, I notice a couple of middle-aged Somali ladies at Barrako Fashion Shop. One of them chatters into a cell phone she has wedged in her hijab — her headscarf — beside her ear, while both hands caress a silky sheet of blue cloth. Huh. Hands-free. Score one for Muslim hijabs.
Hamdi sits opposite me, those two eyes glowing out through the slit. Their other brother Mohammed brings us drinks. I have a delicious mango mix. Hamdi has tea. Of course I have to ask the obvious question about the severe veil, the hidden face, so shocking to unwary San Diegans: Why wear it?
“I came here [to the U.S.] when I was in sixth grade,” Hamdi says. “From the Ogaden, outside present-day Somalia. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about Islamic religion. So, hamdalila [“Thank the Lord”], when I was a freshman in college, I started practicing. One of Islam’s main purposes is to try to do as many good deeds as possible. In Islam we say a smile to a person is charity. It’s considered a good deed. This [veil] is called the niqab, and it’s something that’s considered as a good deed if a person wears it for the sake of Allah. And that’s why I decided to wear it, to do good deeds, and to please my creator.”
But…Hamdi is 20 years old, beautiful, if those eyes are any indication, and, well…I appeal to her brother Hamza.
“Do you agree with this?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, protective as any brother would be. “When she put it on, I knew she was going to get a lot of stares, and people looked at us funny, and it comes with it. [But] it’s something that will benefit her more than bring her harm, in my hopes. The protection is with her Lord. So we really didn’t have much to say about the problems because it was her choice. Some of the elders were against it since we are in the West. But you don’t always have to assimilate to the new place you come to. You can keep your culture. [Though] this is not even our [Somali] culture. It’s more religious. Pious women wear this, ones with a higher [calling].”
Hamdi is studying nursing at Grossmont, and no, she doesn’t wear the veil while she is working.
“The two years since I first put it on have been interesting,” she says. “Going to the supermarket or schools, at first it worries them. It’s a little bit more shocking. I was in a supermarket, and a woman was appalled. She looked at me and said, ‘Why are you wearing this? You’re not in your country anymore. You don’t have to.’ And I explained to her, ‘This is my liberation, because I see this as a symbol. I’ve grown up here, and I’ve seen how the media is, and I’ve seen how [Western] women are treated. And I felt that society can pressure a woman to dress a certain way, to look a certain way. So by me wearing [robes and veil], I feel I’m not subjected to the laws of any fashion or [to please] any man. This is the greatest liberation.’ ”
But didn’t her parents object?
“At first my mom was hesitant, because she felt that maybe somebody might take it the wrong way and try to harm me or say foul words to me. But I think over time now she’s becoming accustomed to it.”
That’s when a kind of rustle goes through the place. I hear a call.
“Juma,” says Hamza. “The holy service. Juma means the ‘group,’ the get-together.”
“Will you please excuse me,” Hamdi says.
Oh yes. Women pray separately from men. Another thing I need to ask her about.
Issa Means Jesus. Musa Means Moses.
It’s around one o’clock. “Follow us,” says Mohammed. We walk down past the Waamo Wireless store to a little station where dozens of guys are taking their shoes off. “Don’t forget your gift to Masjid Al-Huda,” says a sign near a big box with a slit in it for donations. I take my shoes off. Amazing how intimate that one gesture makes the experience feel.
I follow Guled into this large white hall where rows and rows of men, some in shirt and trousers, others in white caftans, line up facing a bearded imam in white garb who stands at a lectern beside a kind of hooped sentry box. I discover that this is a mihrab, a sanctuary, set in the qibla, the wall that always faces Mecca. And it turns out that in some branches of Judaism, the same word, mihrab, is used to describe “a room for private worship.” In fact, the closeness of these three religions starts hitting me now, left, right, and center. I stand between Guled and a guy named Issa, which, it turns out, means “Jesus” in Arabic. His neighbor is named Musa, which means “Moses.” Now we start the ritual prayers affirming that Allah is the one God, and Mohammed is his final, but not his only, messenger. Jesus, Islam believes, was a messenger too. And Moses. We go down on our knees, touch our foreheads to the rolled-out mat for the longest time, pray, and then set back on our heels. At the end of each sequence we sit cross-legged.
Then the imam, Saad El-Degwy, launches into a sermon. He has a powerful voice and switches from Somali to classical Arabic — Islam’s equivalent of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church — and then into patches of English.
“The feast of Al Muharram, which we call Ashura: This is a very special day for all Muslims. Before Islam, Jews and Christians, especially Jews, showed respect to Ashura and considered it as a day of festivities…”
I had had no idea that Ashura (“tenth” in Arabic, also called “the Little Fast”) is the day on which the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, Mohammed’s grandson, is marked, especially by Shiite Muslims, but also, according to Sunni Muslim tradition, the day Mohammed fasted with neighboring Jewish communities to express gratitude to God for the liberation of Moses and the Israelites from pharaoh.
The imam heads his sermon further into surprisingly familiar territory, like Noah and his ark landing on Mount Judi (the same, many say, as Mount Ararat). It turns out Ashura also celebrates the day Noah set foot outside the ark. I shouldn’t be surprised at the commonalities, but I am. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are closer relatives than I ever imagined.
Before we troop out at the end, I ask Hamza where his sister Hamdi has spent the service. He points up to a walled-off upper-level room within the hall. Its white walls are peppered with small openings, big enough, apparently, for sound but not sight to penetrate. “The women’s area,” he says.
We Don’t Know a Lot about Our Religion
For Hamdi, being sectioned off from men to pray is not a problem. “The definition of a Muslim in the Arabic terminology,” she says afterwards, “is one who submits. And in Islam, it is the person who is submitting to the will of the one who created him or her.”
How committed is Hamdi to Islam? Very. “One of my goals is to memorize the Koran, and the Koran is composed of more than 6000 verses. I read classical Arabic. There are millions and millions of hafiz people who have memorized the Koran. I have memorized more than 100 pages. I still have 25 chapters to go. I think one of the greatest phenomena of Islam is that you can take a reciter from China, a reciter from Indonesia, a reciter from Pakistan, a reciter from Africa, and they will all be reciting the same Koran, without any changes.”
So are there other San Diego Muslim women like her?
“Yes. Because there is so much negative perception of Muslim women in the media, a lot of them are starting to realize, ‘Hey, we don’t know a lot about our religion. We need to know about it in order to see, is this really true, what the media are saying?’ And that’s how I felt. When I was in high school in Minnesota, I used to wonder all these things about the Islamic religion, like, ‘the women are oppressed’…encouraged me to learn about my faith.”
Did all this make her resent her adopted country?
“Growing up in this country, facing prejudices was a challenge, but I see myself as a bridge-builder,” she says. “Loving this country and meeting some of the greatest people I have ever met in my life, I want to not exclude myself. In order for people to respect each other, they don’t necessarily have to believe in the same things, but at least to be informed about one another’s beliefs and to respect those beliefs. I think that’s one of my major goals.”
We’re just out from a meeting of the Ogaden Student Youth group that Hamza invited me to. They’re trying to make the world aware that Christian Ethiopia is attacking their people back in the Ogaden plateau in northeastern Africa. “Sixty thousand are suffering,” says Graen, one of the organizers. “Everybody hears about Darfur. Nobody hears about the Ogaden.” The people of the Ogaden are Somali Muslims forced out of their own land years ago. They made a new life in the empty Ogaden. Now, it seems, oil discoveries are changing all that, and close relatives of Hamza, Mohammed, and others in the samosa crew are in desperate need of help. They’re trying to send everything they can, from money to secondhand textbooks.
In between the speeches, I asked a group of girl students about dating. They burst into giggles. They had names like Farhiya (“Happy”); Iddo (after the celebration of Eid’s first day, marking the end of Ramadan); Faiza (“Gain, Strengthen”); and Ifrah (“Giving Happiness”). “Dating is not allowed in Muslim families,” says Farhiya. She’s studying for a BA in teaching. “If you’re going to try dating,” says Faiza, “you have to be secretive.” “I have talked to my mom,” says Ifrah. “I asked her, ‘Will you make me marry?’ At 23 you’re usually married. So rather than finish my education, I’ll marry. And I know who. We grew up together. He’s my age. He’s Muslim. He has to be Muslim.”
She will expect a typical wedding. Read: huge. “On the first day, only the men have to be there,” Ifrah says. “Your father signs the papers, gives you away. I don’t have to be there. On the second day it’s traditional dancing, with old women leading the way. On the third day it’s men and women dancing to everything from traditional music with accordion and drum to Somali rap.”
“I’m Gonna Teach You to Eat Muslim-Style…”
says Duali Karie. Duali’s African American and a “revert.” That actually means “convert,” but he’s called “revert” because Muslims believe we’re all born into the family of God, which is the Muslim family, and then some leave for other religions and beliefs. I’m sitting with Duali here in African Spice, trying to learn how to make everything happen with four right fingers and a thumb. “This is the first rule,” Duali says, leaning into his meal. “Eat with your hands. The feel, the touch is almost as important as the taste. Eating with knives and forks divorces you from the feel of the food. But only bring it to your mouth with your right hand. Your left is reserved for unclean things, even though we wash our hands before every meal, of course.”
He has ordered me up a combo plate of baked goat meat, roasted chicken breast, salad with ranch dressing, a pile of spaghetti, and another of basmati rice. Spaghetti has been a Somali staple since Italy’s fascist dictator Mussolini invaded and occupied Somalia. Basmati rice echoes Somalia’s monsoon trade with India. And the goat tells you these guys’ families lived in the hills of the interior plateau, where either goat or camel was the delicacy du jour. Oh, and the banana that comes with the meal? You squash it into everything. That’s as Somalia as you can get. Somalis say U.S. bananas have nowhere near the sweet taste of theirs, from the legendary land of Punt.
“And when it’s time to take a drink,” Duali says, “don’t worry if your right hand is wet or covered in rice. Guide your drink with your left hand, but lift it with the knuckles of your right, eating hand.”
Duali says he became a Muslim almost by chance. “I was friends with Mohammed in Minneapolis. My family was big on Christianity. Mom made sure we went to the Evangelical Mighty Fortress Tabernacle every Sunday and every Wednesday. But I was confused about Jesus being the Son of God. The Holy Trinity. Then one day, it was January 25, 2003, it happened. I was at home, eating pepperoni pizza. My brother and a Muslim guy came to my house to pick me up. One thing that attracted me about the religion was they only believed in one God, the same God that I believe in, except I believed that Jesus was also the Son of God. And they [answered] my question that I’d always had and no one could answer, about this Trinity in Jesus. They said He was only a messenger of God. The things that He did were true, but He wasn’t the Son of God. That day me and my brother became Muslims together. We went to the [mosque] and the imam. But I didn’t know anything about the Prophet Mohammed. So I was saying, ‘Y’all worship Mohammed like we worship Jesus.’ And they said, ‘But [Mohammed’s] just the messenger of God.’
“And then he asked me, ‘Do you believe there is just one God?’
“And I go, ‘Yeah. I believe there’s one God.’
“ ‘And what about the Prophet Mohammed? Do you believe he’s a prophet?’
“ ‘I could believe he’s a prophet.’ It made sense.
“And he said, ‘Well, right there, you’ve become Muslim.’ ”
Duali says converting has given him hope and a new sense of community. “I used to go to church a lot. I don’t know how many times I went up there when they said, ‘Who wants to be saved?’ And I’d go up there and I’d be saved, but once I’d leave, it was like I don’t feel nothing. I didn’t know anything about Islam, really, when I took it, but I [feel] I’ve found truth in my heart.
“I telephoned my mom. I wasn’t going to tell her. She cried. But now it’s my fifth year. She’s learned a lot. Like, we [Muslims] don’t believe Jesus was crucified. But He was raised to the heavens and He will come back. Mohammed died and will not come back.”
San Diego Is Home. I Love It.
The voice echoes off Manchester Hall and over the campus of San Diego State University. Not loud, not demanding, but quiet, naked, modest. A single voice.
There’s no minaret, no muezzin, no loudspeaker. Just a student, with three more behind him, their backpacks and running shoes scattered around the mat they’ve rolled out as he calls, “God is great!” For this moment, up here, the year is 1429 AH (Anno Hegirae, 1429 years since the prophet Mohammed’s Hegira — flight — from Mecca to Medina). The first student stands at the carpet’s edge, making the call. There’s something moving about these four guys up here, calling out to an unseen entity, with just the strength of one human voice and the belief that it’s being heard. Right now, though, the forces are against them. A Huey helicopter batters in overhead, its rotor-wash bouncing between the campus buildings. Seagulls scatter loudly. Crows caw in trees. Then, after a long, raucous minute, silence returns, except for the breeze sifting in the palm fronds.
“Ash-hadu alla ilaha illallah.”
“I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah.”
A couple of other students eating a wrapped lunch nearby, a Latino boy and girl, look up from their bench, then return to their sandwiches and books.
Shaybah Abdullah, a biology student, repeats the call “Allahu Akhbar!” two more times. In front of him, beyond the fronds of young queen palms planted 20 feet below, the glass dome of the library forms an amazingly appropriate scenario between him and what he’s really facing: Mecca, 8395 miles to the east-southeast.
Then he falls in with the three other students, Ahmed Abdi, Ahmed Mumi, and Dannesh Kassamali. Ahmed Abdi takes a little blue carpet, lays it out in front of the main green-and-white mat, and starts the actual prayers while the others follow his lead in the ritual they repeat five times a day, leaning forward with hands on knees, then going down to the mat and pressing their foreheads on it.
“Ash-hadu anna Muhammadar Rasulullah.”
“I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
You notice that when they stand again, two of the students cross their arms in front of them, hands on opposite shoulders. The other two place their hands straight down against their thighs. That means one remarkable thing: Sunni and Shia are praying together.
“When I first heard the call to prayer on campus,” says Dalal Alfares, a Kuwaiti feminist studying at State, “a shiver went up my spine. It was a beautiful feeling. I never expected to hear the calls of Islam here in California.”
To be a Hajji is to be radiant among Muslims. To be a Hajji and young is a rare thing. “Hajjis” are those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five core duties of every Muslim. (The other four are Shahada, the profession of faith; the Salah, ritual prayer five times a day; the Sawm, fasting during Ramadan; and Zakat, giving charity to the needy.)
Dannesh Kassamali, the modest, 21-year-old fourth-year international business major at State, is, it turns out, a Hajji. He tells me this casually after he and his three friends have made their lunchtime prayers on the deck of SDSU’s Manchester Hall.
“My mom made it happen,” Dannesh says. “It was incredible. In Mecca, there were so many different types of people, from every country in the world, making their pilgrimage. But all of us were in unison. We had one common goal, which was to fulfill one of the pillars of our religion, and to try to purify ourselves.”
He felt especially close to those who spoke English or Urdu — his family comes from Pakistan. “They’re the ones you can talk to and share those moments with. But I had experiences where I was sitting next to somebody in front of the Ka’bah (the black cube-shaped shrine near the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca). We didn’t share the same language but shared the same smiles and shook hands and tried to [indicate] where we were from. You bond with them because you are all there for one purpose.
“I was 20 at the time — I felt like, wow. Why am I so lucky to be out here? You see these old people, so skinny and so old, and their beards down to their chest almost. I looked at them and I saw, this was their first and last opportunity to be here. And they looked so fulfilled. And this was probably one of the last things they were hoping all their lives to do before they died. And here I was, barely starting a life.”
Dannesh says returning to San Diego was like landing on Earth after a trip into space. “One of the funny kind of weird feelings I had was that that whole region over there was like the Holy Land. It’s so spiritually elevated that when you come back to an everyday place like California, in America, [devoid] of religion, it’s kind of a comedown. But you just have to cherish the moment while it’s there and move on.
“But also, when you come back home, it’s wonderful because everybody wants a piece of you. It’s a good thing for a Muslim to shake hands with a Hajji — someone who’s been on the Hajj — right when he comes back. Touch the Hajji. So everybody wants to say ‘Congratulations!’ shake your hand, talk to you. Not everybody has gotten the opportunity, and they tell you how lucky you are.”
So how did San Diego feel, after such a peak religious experience?
“I mean, San Diego is definitely home. I love it. My philosophy personally is that within everything there is good and there is bad, and you embrace the good and you try to refrain from the bad. There is so much good out here in this society. Like, we’ve just started practicing our prayers right here on campus. And that’s such a good thing, because nobody’s going to say that we’re not allowed to do that.”
Dannesh’s future? “I have to study abroad in order to graduate. I’ll study in Syria, study some Arabic in September. After I come back [and graduate], I might [get into] international business, emphasizing finance, and since hopefully I’ll be fluent in three languages — English, Urdu, and Arabic — I may look into some kind of financial institutions that do business both here and in places like the Gulf, like Dubai.”
Does he feel there’s any real philosophical difference between the three Middle Eastern religions? “I’d say fundamentally no, but in practice yes. We [all] believe in one God, judgment, this life being temporary, the next life being the permanent one. The Prophet is the major difference. We believe that he was the last of the prophets [who] finished the delivery of God’s sending His messengers upon Earth.”
One thing he finds hard to deal with is the evident prejudice Hollywood movies seem to display against Islam. “The Kingdom, with Jamie Foxx, is a great story. As a viewer, just a normal person watching it, the action scenes are really cool. Except…you worry about these people who will watch something like this and all of a sudden associate Muslims with that. It kind of scares me. The Kingdom shows the Muslims in Saudi as just crazy, bloodsucking killers, taking out Americans, shooting little kids, shooting American mothers. It would make you grind your teeth if you watched it. As an American, you’d be, like, ‘Damn these people!’ even though you’re just watching a fictional movie, because of the current events in the Middle East. And actually I was talking to a good friend of mine, a freshman, an American, a white kid. We were talking about the movie, and he told me how it made him upset to see the Americans get killed. He really, really said this. He said, ‘Now, I know that people over there are like this in Saudi Arabia.’ And I was just, like… ‘It’s only a movie, that’s not the way it is.’ But it’s hard…”
Before You Kill the Animal, You Face It toward Mecca
Dannesh says he went through a party phase, when he busted out, “traveling a little bit here and there,” staying at the houses of friends who were involved in “all sorts of crazy things, living that lifestyle for just a couple of days, weeks,” till he came to the realization that “that was not how I wanted to be.”
So what do he and other Muslim friends do on a Saturday night?
“Sometimes we just hang out at somebody’s house and chill and watch a movie, go to a coffee shop, or cafés. But personally, I try to stay busy with being productive and trying to have work to do. I go to the gym and tire myself out, doing schoolwork and gym.”
Would that socializing be boys and girls together? “It depends who you’re with, if you like women, how strict the people you hang out with are. I hang out with different groups. Sometimes I’ll be with Muslim guys who won’t hang out with girls. Or sometimes, with people who are a little more laid back, there’ll be some girls there, you know? And I like going to the hookah places. [Islam doesn’t approve of smoking, but hookahs have traditionally been tolerated.] I love the flavor, and it’s just so peaceful. Sometimes we discuss each other’s experiences to help each other.”
Music is also a delicate issue. “I’m a hip-hop fan, but the religion is touchy about music. In some circles, anything beyond the single beat of a drum is not permitted. The worst is if it’s made for gathering and drinking or making you want to dance with females.”
And if it’s food, he tries to go to a suitable place. “You know halal? There are only so many places where they have meat that was killed the proper way, so that it becomes permissible for us to eat it. Like kosher for the Jews. These types of places attract Muslims, because then they feel they can eat the meat. If they go to McDonald’s, Rubio’s, or any other place, they’ll usually choose vegetarian or seafood.”
What does halal involve?
“Basically, before you kill the animal, you have to face it towards Mecca — that’s probably the hardest thing — and then you have to say, ‘In the name of Allah,’ and then when you kill it, you have to cut a certain vein, so it carries out the most blood from the animal. It makes for cleaner meat. There’s a website which shows where you can eat halal. It’s zabihah.com. You enter the zip code of any place in America, and it’ll show you restaurants, markets, and ratings. Like ‘This place claims to be halal, but it might not actually be halal.’ ”
So how tough is it, I ask, being Muslim in San Diego, with all its different requirements, and in the face of a national wariness?
“I don’t think it’s tough anymore,” Dannesh says. “Because once you get over yourself, and you don’t think that everybody’s looking at you, staring at you, once you get over that little hump, that little hump that’s insecurity, then all of a sudden nothing’s hard. You rise and fall between you and the guy up there who is watching over you.”
But doesn’t the religious law of Islam, the Sharía, frighten him? “When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was thinking back when I used to be a kid and how sometimes I’d go into the grocery store and steal candy bars. And there, over in Saudi, I was thinking about that.” He laughs. “If I did that over here, they’d cut my hands off.”
So that’s the way to go? “Not completely, but at the same time it’s their laws. You don’t totally think that their way is stupid either.”
What about treatment of women in some Muslim countries? No vote, kept behind walls, behind veils, subject to “honor killings”?
“I worry that people might think that [women are not treated well] and therefore reject Islam because of that. We treat our women with immense respect and hold them so dear in our societies and our families and within our circle of friendship. They are so strong, the sisters and the mothers in our community who have maintained a strong faith and wear their hijab properly. I just have so much respect for them. More so than for any man with a nice beard.”
“It does…worry me,” says Dannesh. “I don’t know sometimes what to make of it. I think it goes both ways, for men and women. Because if a man is known to [commit] adultery, he has to endure the punishment as well. But we live here in America, so we don’t have to worry about that too much.”
Of course, honor killings are definitely not sanctioned by Islamic law. They have tribal cultural roots but occur most notably in Muslim-majority countries. According to the United Nations Population Fund, perhaps 5000 occur worldwide every year, some even among immigrant families in Europe and the U.S. Relatives may kill a woman who “dishonors” the family by, for instance, refusing an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce, committing adultery, or becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
Will he raise future kids as Muslims? “Definitely. Because I feel like this life here is like a temporary adobe mud hut. I want them to have this foundation, so that they can keep going with it and be the best person that they can be.”
So, big breath: Did he ever talk about 9/11 and Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, the two hijackers who spent time here in San Diego?
“I never talked to anybody about that. I would hope that we would not advocate it and be against it, because I don’t think it was the right way to go. Killing an innocent person doesn’t resolve somebody else’s [bad] actions.”
It’s an awkward subject. Al-Hazmi and al-Midhar, 2 of the 19 hijackers, who lived here in the Parkwood Apartment complex in Clairemont for a while, were apparently introduced to mosque-going members of the Muslim community, at least to some of those who attended the main mosque at the Islamic Center of San Diego on Eckstrom. But not, of course, as “future hijackers.”
Dannesh would have been around 14, 15 at the time and living elsewhere in Southern California. Does he remember that day?
“Oh yes. I remember eating breakfast with my father, watching ESPN SportsCenter, and they interrupted SportsCenter to make a little [announcement] about the building, and I was out of it. It was so early in the morning. My father was ‘Change the channel!’ We watched the news, and in awe. Then you go to school and…I do remember one person coming up to me. Like, he was a friend of mine, because I was friends with most of the football team. This was high school in Irvine. He was the biggest guy in the team and he came up to me and it was just, like, ‘Look what you people did!’ And then the people around us were laughing it off, and he was kind of laughing about it too. He didn’t mean anything, he didn’t want to hurt me, but it was a statement made. After, it was cool. There have been a few things, like somebody saying, ‘Go bomb something,’ but you try to let them go.”
Dannesh hasn’t stood idle on this, though. He decided to do something to build bridges. He has created a website: salaamtohumanity.com. “I’ve been trying to do something like this to help make a difference, help spread Islam. We did some relief work when we originally started. Some money we raised we sent over to orphans in Iraq. Now I want to work on restoring the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim,’ so when somebody in the West hears it [it will] mean something of sanctity and beauty, positive, so they will think [of] the peaceful side of Islam, rather than grunt over it and think only [“terrorists”].”
You Can Be a Modern Man and a Muslim
“An imam, a rabbi, and a priest decide to go for a summer walk in the forest. They pass near a lake and in the heat decide to bathe. They ditch their clothes, jump in, and splash around. But when they get out, they can’t find their clothes. The rabbi suggests they walk to his house, which is within the woods, where he has spare clothing. They agree. But on the way, a group of women from their small town, picking mushrooms in the forest, spot them. The terrified rabbi and priest cover their genitals with their hands. But the imam covers his face and leaves his genitals exposed. As the women run away screaming, the rabbi and the priest turn to the imam. ‘What were you thinking?!’ ‘Well, I don’t know about you guys,’ replies the imam. ‘But my congregation knows me by my face…’ ”
Cevdet Ugur’s telling the tale. He’s Turkish-American, Muslim, and has a big laugh. In other words, he’s saying, let’s not always be so heavy when we’re into talking religion. “This is not disrespect,” he says. “It’s just having fun.” Ugur is developing a business here in San Diego making Turkish-style baklavas — more like baked desserts than the honey-dripping Greek-style treats. We’re sitting with his wife Sarka in their dining room, sampling baklavas, some sweet, some savory, with spinach and meats, for lunch.
“When 9/11 happened,” Cevdet (pronounced “Jeffdet”) says, “I was totally shocked. My initial reaction was not from the point of view of being a Muslim but rather from the point of view of being an American. I was deeply offended as an American that over 3000 of my compatriots lost their lives in such a heartless attack. After the initial shock, I realized my Muslim reaction [was] of deep disappointment and serious concern for what might come as a reaction to the Muslim world from the U.S. and E.U. And I was worried for my family and myself from the potential harassment, though I am grateful that nothing bad happened.”
Cevdet, a one-time karate champion in New Jersey, comes from a prosperous Istanbul family whose house overlooks the Bosporus. Here, in his La Mesa condo living room, a huge plasma screen scrolls through color pictures of the Turkish seaway busy with ships. They slide past churches and mosques, such as the Hagia Sophia. A big decorated Turkish brass tray hangs on one wall, and beautiful blue-and-white-decorated Turkish plates are dotted around the tables.
“My baklava is lighter and more refreshing than others,” Cevdet says, as Sarka proffers a plate of puffy-pastry savory-flavored ones. I nab one stuffed with beef, peppers, parsley, and cumin. “And we have a far greater variety than, say, Greek baklavas.”
Cevdet makes it clear that with Turkey, a determinedly secular state, the Islam practiced there is less strict than elsewhere. “It is a great thing if you do your prayers five times a day,” Cevdet says. “But in modern life sometimes you don’t have the time for it. You don’t become an infidel just because you didn’t do your [prayers]. You can be a modern man and be a Muslim.”
That’s what he’s doing with his baklava too, it seems. The last one Sarka handed me, Mozzarella Delight, is his invention: “Turkish-Italian fusion.” On the other hand, your basic baklava predates Islam by more than 1000 years. “They’re 3000 years old,” says Cevdet.
Sarka is another “revert.” She converted to Islam shortly after the two were married, here in California. She’s originally from the Czech Republic but met Cevdet on vacation in Turkey.
A few months and many emails later, they were both in San Francisco and Cevdet proposed on the Golden Gate Bridge.
What about the religion problem? “I didn’t really convert like ‘I want to be like my husband,’ ” says Sarka. “I had already become a born-again Christian in Prague. But then I met Cevdet, and I didn’t have a plan. He believed in God. That was most important to me. And he didn’t have a problem with me being a Christian. He didn’t think, ‘Oh, you will go to hell, because you are a Christian,’ because he knew from the Koran that’s not true.
“So then I started reading, and the more I read, the more I believed this [the Koran]. I saw that I couldn’t call myself Christian [anymore] because that’s not what I believe. So once you believe this, you become a Muslim, which means ‘a believer.’ And I believe in God.”
But that didn’t mean dropping out of mainstream American society. “We have two boys now, three and five, and we can’t deny them the fun part of celebrating occasions like Christmas.”
They married in 2001, before 9/11. “When 9/11 happened, I was an American citizen,” says Cevdet. “People who proclaimed themselves Muslim should not have ever done anything like this. But even before that, I was in New Jersey during the first attack on the World Trade Center, and one of my karate buddies walked up to me, very offensive, very aggressive, and said, ‘Do you support this stuff?’ And I’m, like, ‘How come you expect me to support something like this? First of all, this was not my country [that did this]. Turkey is the strongest ally of the United States, especially now that it’s wrapped up in NATO. I grew up in a country admiring the United States. I chose to carry the passport of this country. I took the oath. Okay?’ ”
By the end, Cevdet is quite emotional. But, both in the U.S.’s sometimes bellicose liberal democracy and Islam’s all-enveloping embrace, he sees an underlying harmony of values.
“The Koran indicates that time spent on productive thinking is the best form of worship. In Islam, the ink of a thinker is one thousand times better than the blood of the martyr.”
The Mental Leap from Muslim Majority to Muslim Minority
Dr. Khaleel Mohammed is an associate professor in SDSU’s Department of Religious Studies. He stands beside his paper-packed desk in his office at the College of Arts and Letters. His window looks over the leafy-shaded winding trails of campus that lead right up the hill to the amphitheater. He’s dapper, casual in long jean shorts and shirt but intellectually intense.
Dr. Mohammed worries about the bedrock values of all three “Abrahamic religions.”
“The fact of the matter is these three religions share the same inherent aura of violence,” he says. “Jesus is the most peaceful of all the prophets. But the office that Jesus was supposed to fulfill was not a peaceful one. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the one to fulfill the [work of] David by repelling the Romans. So because he rejected that role, the Jews rejected him.”
Violent religions? Look at the historical record, Mohammed says. “God gives Israel to Abraham [and commands the killing of] all the Canaanites. Then Mohammed comes, and his thing is the battle against the disbelievers of Arabia: Kill them wherever you find them after war has been declared. And look at the legacy of the Crusades, look at the legacy of colonialism, justified by false claims of Christianity.”
But Dr. Mohammed comes from a different Muslim background than most. He grew up at the farthest limits of Islam’s reach, in non-Muslim Guyana, the only English-speaking nation in South America. “My family was Muslim,” he says, “but a Muslim in Guyana is quite different from one in, say, Pakistan. My ancestors came from India, so at some point there were Hindus in our family. Now I have Christian, Hindu, and Muslim kin. It’s a society where there’s a lot of intermarriage.”
Mohammed went to Canada when he was 17, then in 1982 got a scholarship to Saudi Arabia to pursue Islamic law, where he studied original texts in classical Arabic, then returned to Canada to do his master’s and doctorate in religion, to Brandeis near Boston for Jewish and Islamic studies, and finally here to San Diego State to teach Islamic studies.
The guy, in other words, is super-qualified on the subject. Especially since, in Saudi Arabia, he got to read the actual original text of the Koran. “Most Western Muslims…learn the Koran through translation or through exegesis [interpretation]. When you are in Saudi Arabia you get to read the text itself,” he says. Significance? All those interpretations that have layered, one upon the other, over 14 centuries, are cleared away. The severity and inflexibility regarding such issues as clothing, women’s rights, and punishment, he says, largely evaporate.
An unwillingness of Islam to adapt, particularly in the West, worries Mohammed. “Having been brought up in Guyana, the way that we practiced Islam then, I saw no problem between the religion and a Western lifestyle. And even now, as I practice Islam — my family and I are observant Muslims — we still see no disjoint between our lifestyle and American lifestyles. The problem is that in America, the image of Islam has changed radically from the ’60s to now. Before 1966, when the borders were sort of open, Islam in America was defined by a purely American expression, with people like Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed. Whether one agreed with his view of Islam or not, the point is that Islam was viewed through American lenses. After the ’60s, when Middle Easterners and Pakistanis started coming in large numbers, Islam comes to be defined by immigrants. They’re coming from places where there is political upheaval, such as Pakistan, such as the Middle East. And so when they come here, they have this radical outlook that pits their religion against the West. And it’s a politicized Islam we see for the most part.
“Strangely, the American concept of human rights plays into this problem, because in Pakistan, for example, one can be prosecuted for simply saying something against Mohammed. One comes to the United States and sees freedom of speech to the point that now you can dress however you wish, say whatever you wish, and you have rights for religious minorities, and things that they were not even allowed [to do] in their own Muslim countries, in the name of Islam, they’re allowed to do. In the United States, which is amazing, that makes them say, ‘Oh well. We have absolute freedom now.’ And since they have not been accustomed to living as a minority, they cannot make that change. So they try to bring their so-called ‘Islamic norms’ and impose them on American beliefs. They cannot make this mental leap from Muslim majority to Muslim minority. You have Muslim taxi drivers, I think it’s in Michigan or Chicago, saying they will not pick up fares now who have whiskey in them or [other] alcohol. That is absolutely nonsensical. We have Muslim women saying that if they join the police force they still want to wear the hijab.”
These are strong critiques of his religion. So what of those accusations by fellow Muslims that he is too liberal?
“Yes, I get accused of working for the CIA, of working for the Mossad. This is an accusation that I will get among certain Muslims. I’m prepared for it, because…I went to Israel. I argued with many Israelis. So I’m not worried about it, although there are elements among the Muslims who portray me as an Israeli stooge. Some of them don’t wish to speak to me.”
Strangely, he prefers that.
“It’s because those people who keep away from me [might otherwise] be frequenting my home. I have little children at home. I do not wish [them] to be listening to the sort of hostile, anti-Jewish, anti-American rhetoric at a level that might invite American security surveillance. A nation in a state of war has the right to survey every person whom it deems to be of interest. I don’t wish to invite such things.”
Ironically, he also feels this is a good time to be a Muslim academic in America. “What I can tell you is that America happens to be not only the most powerful country in the world but that right now, in America, you have the top Islamic scholars also living here. Scholarship on Islam has been happening in America since long before the Gulf War and coming up with books and concepts that are being [instrumental] in the reform of Islam. You have such a wealth of Muslim scholarship right now, [scholars] who feel, at various levels, reform-minded. Some are conservative, but they still recognize the need for reform and are working towards it.”
But in this troubling era for Islam, doesn’t he also see a growing retreat into conservatism?
“Well, certainly, you find on campus right now, there are some women who cover their faces. The funny thing about it is the Koran never expresses that sentiment. It tells the Muslim women…to wear a certain form of outer garment to [identify] themselves as part of the Ibrahamic culture. When you dressed a certain way — which was following the Jewish norm, actually — your head was [covered] and the breasts were covered. You were basically sending a message: ‘I’m not a promiscuous person.’ The Koran adds this legislation ‘so that they might be known and not molested.’ It was a social [admonition]. It has nothing to do with personal piety. And yet [a student like Hamdi covers her face] and comes up with this wonderful [spiritual] interpretation, which is nonetheless not Koranic.”
I Can’t Wear Shorts Like Bill Clinton Used to Wear.
“Dr. Mohammed does not represent the mainstream,” says Edgar Hopida, a Filipino American who once considered entering the Catholic priesthood but who instead converted to Islam. He’s now the San Diego-based public relations director of the Washington DC–headquartered Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “Dr. Mohammed wants to secularize Islam, make it palatable for the American audience. [Yet] mainstream Muslims practice their religion, pray five times a day, go to Friday prayers, fast during Ramadan month, go to the pilgrimage [to Mecca] when able, and they don’t eat pork.”
These are rules, he says, unchanging, from Saudi Arabia to San Diego.
But one thing has changed for American Muslims: From being self-contained communities, “kind of like with the early Jewish communities [in the U.S.], keeping to themselves, very isolated,” post-9/11 Muslim America has started reaching out to the majority. “We realized that we have to show people who we are. If not, others will define us,” says Hopida.
Fast-forward seven years, and Hopida’s startling statistics show a now-vibrant, socially involved Muslim community. “We actually exceed the national average as far as people obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher,” he says. “Sixty-two percent have [done so]. That’s double the overall population’s figure. About 50 percent of our community is professional, 43 percent have a household income of $50,000 or higher, 89 percent vote regularly, 86 percent said they celebrate July 4, 64 percent say they fly the U.S. flag, and 42 percent say they volunteer for institutions serving the public (versus 29 percent of the population at large). These are 2005 national figures. So we’re very much integrated into the society.”
Yet, Hopida believes, integration doesn’t mean American Muslims should water down their Muslimness, such as women not wearing the headscarf.
“Men also have a dress code. We can’t wear very short shorts that expose our thighs. Our area of nakedness is between the navel and the knees. I can’t wear shorts like Bill Clinton used to wear. So we have a dress code as well.”
But come on. Women only allowed to show faces and hands? Sometimes not even the face? What ancient tyranny dictates such mind-sets?
Au contraire, says Hopida. He believes it’s women of Western culture who are being tyrannized by societal norms. “In a society where women are objectified as sex objects — the less clothing the better — and the pressure on teens to look like these very chiseled, manufactured women [celebrated in] popular culture, we have all the eating disorders and obsession of looking beautiful, according to the Hollywood standard. Whereas in Islam, the reason women cover is not so much oppression. This is basically a sign saying, ‘Keep out. This is my personal property. My body. I want you to appreciate me for my mind and what I can give to society, rather than my physical attributes.’ The beauty of a woman should be reserved for [those] whom she considers should look at her for her beauty, like her husband, or immediate family. Not strange men who could gawk at her and look at her and do the whistling and all that stuff. Her body’s her private property.”
A Muslim Feminist
Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh is waiting for her teaching assistant, Dalal Alfares, the young feminist from Kuwait. Ahmed-Ghosh teaches a groundbreaking course called “Women in Muslim Society,” the first ever that deals with Muslim women, here at SDSU’s women’s studies program, the oldest in the country. Oddly enough, no Muslim women are among her first 25 students. Quite a few came here from another course on “Women and Violence.”
“It did not surprise me too much,” Dr. Ahmed-Ghosh says, “but it still depressed me, because here is this stereotype. Muslim women: Honor killings and so forth.”
Ahmed-Ghosh is perhaps typical of the educated Muslims of northern India and Pakistan, reflecting the matured Mughal (Persian-based) civilization that produced great scholarship and such exquisite architecture as the Taj Mahal. As with Dr. Mohammed, it’s no big deal that she has mixed religions in her immediate family. Her husband is Hindu. But after 9/11 they suffered the same backlash as many. “My son got called insults like ‘camel breath’ and was told to ‘go home!’ — in his soccer league. I’m lucky to be in an academic institution. I’m somewhat insulated from that kind of thing.”
When I ask about face-covering she says, “Face-covering was not invented by Islam at all. It belonged to the region, and actually in the Middle East, you need to cover your head [and face] because of the sun.”
I can’t resist mentioning how, talking with Hamdi, I became riveted by the only part of her face I could see: her eyes. Ahmed-Ghosh lifts her eyes and laughs.
“Western male fantasy! On the night of my first class, I showed a film called Hollywood Harem, where the projection of the veiled woman, in the Hollywood films of the ’20s to the ’60s, was really playing out the male fantasy. On the one hand, the belly dancer, scantily clad, but on the other hand, the veils also. And now what we’re seeing is a shift, where the veil is seen more as a sign of oppression, not as the exotic. Because it fits into our political agenda. But I think it is a very Western male fantasy, and that is why we saw it in the media, and we saw so much writings about it by Westerners when they colonized [South Asia and the Middle East].”
She calls around to see if Dalal Alfares is in the building. “She’s a very interesting girl,” Ahmed-Ghosh says. “And proof that one size doesn’t fit all in feminism. Culture counts, too.”
Half an hour later, Dalal Alfares and I are walking down the Avenue of Arts, heading toward the library. She wears the long green-and-brown dress and headscarf, but she says that doesn’t prevent her from being feminist. “Yes,” she says. “When I heard the call to prayer from up there on the balcony, it was so unexpected, here, at San Diego State, I got goose bumps.”
We talk about growing up asking questions in conservative Kuwait. Surely, being a feminist in the Middle East could be a hazardous occupation?
She hesitates a moment. “I feel so embarrassed telling you these things. I’m caught in a position where, as a Muslim woman, do I raise the conflicts in my community, or do I defend them? I’m always caught in this bind.”
But, she says, she couldn’t help questioning things growing up.
“I questioned why my father preferred my brothers over me. Like, ‘If I’m older and smarter, why does my younger brother get to go to mosque and I stay at home?’ Or why were women not able to vote in Kuwait (until they gained the right in 2005)? And I would get the stare, like ‘Are you crazy? This is the way things are.’ ”
So does she think Islam, the religion, supports the relegation of women to secondary status? “Yes. Most religious and political leaders would go back to religion to reinforce their power. And those [religious] texts will always perpetuate patriarchal meanings and goals. And so would the fathers of the tribe and the families. Arab families tend to [favor] the males.”
Wasn’t her kind of thinking potentially dangerous?
“My older brother told me that a lot,” she says. “And my mother was always worried. Because honor is very important in the Middle East. But she definitely encouraged me. And she still sends me articles and things to this day. ‘You have to read this book. It says so much that’s interesting.’ ”
Her dad is a tougher sell. “He and I have come to a truce. But we are a diverse family. We have the very liberal and the very conservative. So we’re used to having these arguments and then respecting [each other] at the end of the day. I’m going to have my own feminist interpretation, and you’re going to stick to your so-called objections.”
At school she stuck out, too. “Other kids know [the status thing] from the age of nine, and they would come up to you and say, ‘Which family do you come from? Are you Sunni or [Shia]?’ I’d go, ‘We don’t have to talk about tribes and origins and who is higher than who.’ And then I would question gender, and then I would want to talk about race and class, and they would give me the eye and say, ‘Well, Dalal, it’s just [the way things are].’ ”
Here at State she’s doing a master’s in women’s studies. “Supposedly, my thesis is going to be on postcolonial literature and feminists in the Middle East. You have to be careful. Changes you [might] bring about that you would think were beneficial to the [majority] women in a country might harm certain women in minorities. And — you have to know that I’m still coming to terms with my own feminism and how I should be dealing with it. It’s just a very complicated thing. I struggle with it every day.”
But one thing she won’t abandon: her headscarf. “It’s an identity, here. Because the minute I walk out of my apartment, it’s on my head whether I want it or not. It tells everybody in the street that I’m a Muslim. So in the West I have to acknowledge this fact and accept that people might come up to me and say, ‘Why do you wear it?’ I know some people would like to say these [clothes] make me look more religious. I don’t think it affects the way I think. And I have to go back to Kuwait. This is how I was when I left, and I don’t want to be different when I get back.”
Snapshots of Islam in San Diego
So here’s the thing in a nutshell. Scene One: I’m sitting at the Café Madrid on Orange Avenue in Coronado, watching the world go by. The usual gaggle of tourists from the Old Town Tour bus come ambling along in shorts and flyaway shirts. Then a group of two young couples approaches, chatting away brightly and confidently in California accents. The men are dressed in check shirts and long shorts. Their partners? Fully swathed in voluminous black robes, like traditional Iraqi women or 15th-century nuns.
It does clang, here at the beach. But one thing you can understand: Part of the problem for communities like San Diego is future shock. Identity, culture, a sense of a coherent community — challenges to all of these things are just, it seems, coming at us too fast. You wonder if the fabric of society can handle all the strains.
Scene Two: I’m hurrying out of America Plaza, trying to catch up with a trolley at the Santa Fe depot, when, right by the giant, glossy Luis Jiménez sculpture Border Crossing, I spot a tourist grabbing her camera and clicking away. The scene she’s shooting is a pair of cabdrivers, side by side, on their knees, on a piece of cardboard by a blue plywood construction wall. Praying. They lean onto their foreheads, quietly vocalizing the prayer.
“Interesting,” the lady says. She turns to me. “I’m a radio journalist from Germany. We have the same phenomenon. Now I see it’s starting here. In Germany we have issues with Muslim teachers and pupils wanting to wear the headscarf. I have written and broadcast pieces saying we should ban that. I think if they come to the West, they must be prepared to learn the language and dress appropriately. We don’t want societies within societies. Europe wants to remain Europe.”
Hmm. But I thought in Europe — and in both Americas — women wore head coverings in Roman Catholic churches. The Pope himself wears a skullcap. Should we ban turbaned Sikh teachers? Kilted Scottish pipers? It may be unfair to point out, but Germany has a past in which, in the worst imaginable way, the state tried to eliminate an entire minority culture that was “different.” How far do you go in the cause of sameness? John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Thomas Jefferson have all warned of the “tyranny of the majority.”
The cross-light turns green. The German journalist, her friend, and I hurry across. As I enter under the arches of the Santa Fe Depot, I can just hear a faint voice from behind the taxicabs.