Monday, November 17, 2008
Sunday, September 7, 2008
We got off to a great start in our trip in
One of the most fascinating communities we visited were the Bosnians—Muslims who immigrated to the
Unlike other Muslim groups we spoke to in
Although the Bosnians said that they had been welcomed by
Despite these challenges the Bosnians always took great pains to say how accommodating Americans had been, and how lucky they felt to be in
Friday, September 5, 2008
Like most nights during this month of Ramadan, last night we attended an iftaar dinner at the home of Dr. Sadiq Moyhuddin. After our meeting with the board of the World Affairs Council of St. Louis, we were welcomed by Dr. Mohyuddin, and his wife and daughter to a wonderful spread of traditional Pakistani food. This dinner, sponsored by the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis, represented the openness and harmony that is in St. Louis between the different faiths. Muslim, Christian, Jew, Quaker, and other faiths exist easily in this quiet city, which often has the look and feel often of a small Midwest town.
We met many important St. Louisans that night, including former governor of Missouri Bob Holden who was in office from 2001 to 2005. While at the dinner we questioned him extensively on the history and culture of Missouri and St. Louis in particular. A gracious, humble, and amiable man, who dressed casually and relaxed easily, he offered in particular to show us the famous arch in the morning and explain its significance. The next morning we agreed to pick him up at his hotel. Standing with a suit and briefcase on the corner, we stopped and he squeezed into the backseat with us, talking easily without a trace of pretension. Although it was my first time meeting a governor, former or current, I knew that this friendly informality was unusual.
On the way he described that the famous arch symbolizes the gateway to the West. St. Louis in particular has been home to the beginning of many voyages across the West including the Lewis and Clark expedition. It represents going beyond the comfortable and into the wild unknown. St. Louis, and Missouri in particular, are trailblazers into the future. Furthermore there is a steadfast independence in St. Louis. The American spirit of independence and self-reliance is strong here. Gov. Holden shared that his father offered to give he and his brothers, on the condition that his sons not smoke or drink, one hundred dollars and one hundred acres of land when they turned twenty-one. His brother began to smoke at twenty and quit at twenty-one.
The value placed on independence, even from one’s parents, and the bold move to strike out alone was not lost on him even in a family far different from his own—the Kennedys. The death of John F. Kennedy was tragic for all of America, but for him the loss of Bobby Kennedy was even more meaningful. He admired his compassion and tireless work for the poor, to stand up for what was right, even when he was alone. Upon his assassination, many who had looked up to him mourned the loss of a great figure. But more than that Gov. Holden mourned the loss of morality and charity in public life. This dark moment inspired him to pursue a life of public service.
Standing with Gov. Holden under the soaring the arch, he also talked of the future in America. The arch, a symbol of innovation, courage, and the pioneering spirit, should be the model for us in the twenty-first century as well. As globalization brings new challenges and new frontiers to conquer, he argues that we must face these new challenges and prepare ourselves through education and creativity. He is also a professor at the original Webster University campus which has now expanded to over 150 campuses all over the world, including China. He recognizes that competition in the global marketplace and other cultural differences may be threatening for many Americans, but the answer is rather to be open to the unknown and learn from foreign nations in order to succeed.
The governor has had extensive experience in experience culture shocks. From the farm where he grew up to the governor’s mansion and professor’s podium in Beijing, he has proven his savvy in intercultural communication. However, he remains the humble farm boy at heart, hat in hand, ready to face hardship or fortune with equanimity and determination.
His spirit and the spirit of St. Louis (pun intended) has also set us up for a wonderful departure into the unknown. Our Muslim professor is now venturing into American society and Americans into their own, many who have never been west of the Mississippi. We now take our own bold journey from this Midwest town, with many cheering us on and wishing us well.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
When I was at Needham High School in Massachusetts, I was a basketball star with ambitions of playing collegiately. When I arrived at American University in Washington, DC for a Bachelors degree, I shifted priorities and dedicated my energy to scholarly activities. Within the last year, I continued this pattern upon studying Political Science at the University of London for an MSc. Now, just days after finishing my dissertation and arriving back in the
United States, I find myself the director of a documentary. The times have certainly changed. Certainly, I have changed as well.
In London, I remained in close contact with Ambassador Ahmed. His assistant, Jonathan Hayden, notified me of ‘Journey into America’, a continental expedition to study the American identity through the eyes of Muslim Americans and their neighbors. I raised a large sum of money on my own to embark on the trip, an event that is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life thus far.
As an assistant to Ambassador Ahmed in 2007, I wrote numerous articles and attended many events in the Washington, DC community. I figured I would have a similar role on this journey, like helping out with writing, research and collecting data. The team sat down no more than a week ago in the Ambassador’s office to sketch out the nature of our study. I was informed of the projects effort to create a documentary. Five minutes after this conversation began, I was appointed by the team as its director.
The director of a documentary? Never in my life would I have thought of such a title. But in just three days, I find myself completely invigorated and immersed in the intricacies of the job. Angles, lighting, facial expressions, scenery, objects, and symbolism – all of these elements are crucial in grasping the essence of the characters and events we have already experienced.
Ambassador Ahmed calls me ‘the next Steven Spielberg’. Big shoes to fill, for sure! Right now, the team is in its third day of research and filming in St. Louis, where today we met with former Governor Holden of Missouri. We have also searched for conceptions of the American identity in meeting with Muhamad Hasic, a Bosnian Imam, and Mufti Minhajiddin, the Imam of St. Louis’s largest Islamic center. Tomorrow, we are meeting with local Rabbi’s, and even the Mayor of St. Louis.
Is filming challenging? Absolutely, but it is a challenge that I am most certainly excited for. Keeping that arm straight is perhaps the biggest of all problems. I hope, though, that the battery of my camera does not run out anytime soon, for this journey has only begun.
Here's the video of us listening in the car on the way to a Mosque. We'll write about that later. Watch for a hilarious reaction from the team at the end of the clip.
It finally happened…I looked outside the window as our plane to
When we landed in
Soon after, our car pulled up in an area with old, worn out buildings with a number of Somalian children playing around. A couple of men came outside to greet us. While they were warm and welcoming to Frankie, Jonathan, and Craig, most of them refused to make even eye contact with me. The ones who did look at me, seemed very confused at the image of a Muslim girl, wearing a scarf over her head, stepping outside the car with three white men none of whom were related to her by blood. As they tried to make sense of that imagery, I went inside to their prayer area to say my afternoon prayers. I was guided around the building by a 7 year old girl named Zaynab. As I prayed, Zaynab stood next to the wall observing me. When I finished my prayers, she invited me to visit her home. She told me that her mother was currently making some iftaar (Ramadan meal at sunset that marks the end of the fast). I accepted the invitation and went over to Zaynab’s house where her mother, along with her two aunts and four daughters were making dough and manually grinding up beef.
They all lived in a one bedroom apartment while about 15 children slept on the floor. The decorations of the house and the smell of African food gave the illusion that I was sitting right in
The mother then invited me to roll the beef into what is known as ‘samosas.’ As I rolled samosas into perfect triangles, Zaynab’s cousins gathered around and started talking to me about Eid. I told them that I celebrate Eid by wearing new clothes, jewellery and henna. The word ‘henna’ spread an excitement around the entire room. The girls showed me their palms on which they had drawn henna patterns with a pen because they could never afford henna. Zaynab, staring at me with her sparkling eyes asked me if I could come to their house on Eid and put on henna on their hands. I promised to send them some henna even if I wasn’t in
Mana’s mother started explaining to me how the situation in
I said goodbye to the warmest and most hospitable families of Zaynab and Mana. As I walked back with Zaynab, she told me that her only wish for Eid this year was to wear a matching top and skirt for Eid this year because her old ones had worn out. She asked me to find her something nice for her when I return home. I told her I would try my best. She pulled me down, gave me a kiss on my cheek, and said “I really really love you. I just want you to come back and see me again.” Tears started trickling down my eyes as Zaynab held me tight in her feeble arms for a couple of minutes. That hug changed my entire life around. A few hours ago all I could think of was when I would get a chance to eat next. Now all I could think about was how to fulfill Zaynab’s wish and help these women support their families. I realized that for the first time in 21 years I had truly understood the spirit of Ramadan. The essence of Ramadan and Islam – the word ‘Compassion’ could never have been taught to me in a better light.
Monday, September 1, 2008
I am writing this from the plane from DC to St. Louis on our first leg of the trip. We are really excited to be launching the trip today, as you’ll see from the video below. (We each say “excited” several times.)
We start in St. Louis today. Hailey tells me that Lewis and Clark began their exploration from St. Louis so it’s fitting, I suppose.
The schedule is jam packed for the next 24 days. We plan to update the blog every day with a rotating cast of team members updating us all on their activities and video that we are filming throughout the trip. We will share our personal thoughts, interesting stories or some of the better interviews. Also, you will see some guest bloggers appear from time to time.
The team consists of Frankie Martin, Hailey Woldt, Madeeha Hameed, Craig Considine, myself and of course Dr. Akbar Ahmed. Bios of everyone should be up shortly. Some of us worked on the previous project, Journey into Islam. We have a couple of new faces, but we’ve all worked together before in some way. We are friends, which makes traveling in such close quarters easy. Frankie is peering over my shoulder as we speak. And I'm not even mad at him for losing my peanuts somewhere underneath the seat.
Anyways... The video below is an introduction to the “team”.
Tomorrow, we will have another update after an amazing day in St. Louis.
Here's the link to our YouTube page.
Friday, August 29, 2008
When I was growing up in
I still admire
As a trained anthropologist, I had always been fascinated with American culture.
In 2006, I led a research team through the Muslim world, visiting 9 countries from the Middle East to
With my sabbatical leave from
On September 1st, 2008 my team of young American scholars and I will embark upon a ‘first of its kind’ anthropological journey throughout the
Upon exploring the cultural, social, and political fabric of the Muslim community, this project will also actively engage in rediscovering American identity. As a Muslim who believes in the vision of the founding fathers as seen in the The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I am hopeful that we will be able to rediscover this unique vision.
For those who remain skeptical about a Muslim touring and commenting on
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed
September 28, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Renowned Muslim Anthropologist Taking One-Year Sabbatical to Examine
Contact: Jon Hussey, AU Media Relations, 202-885-5935 or firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 1, 2008)—Akbar Ahmed, renowned anthropologist and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies in American University’s School of International Service, is taking a one-year sabbatical to research Muslims in America and the attitudes and perceptions of Americans regarding their Muslim neighbors. The cross-country ethnographic study will take Ahmed and his team of five young Americans to more than 30 American towns and cities between September 2008, and summer 2009.
Throughout the trip, the team will be posting their thoughts as well as photos and videos from their experience to their blog, www.journeyintousa.blogspot.com.
Ahmed, who traveled throughout the Muslim world with four young Americans while writing Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, will be joined by three from that group and two newcomers as he travels through America. The trip will include meetings with religious leaders of all denominations, in-depth interviews with Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors and interfaith dialogues at leading universities across the country. From a mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—the oldest existing mosque in the United states—to the bright lights of Las Vegas, Ahmed and his students will visit religious centers, community centers and schools in small-town, rural America and big cities.
Ahmed will set out to explore the Muslim community, but also to rediscover American identity. With his team, he will examine culture, society and politics making comparisons with other commentators like Alexis De Tocqueville.
Following the trip, the results of in-depth interviews, questionnaires and observations will be compiled and analyzed for a new book, Journey into America.
Ahmed’s study has received widespread support from politicians, think tanks, religious leaders and academics. The
“I believe that this study proposal contains the promise of another groundbreaking piece of scholarship,” said Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress. “In order to have a peaceful Muslim world and a secure
Ahmed is the former high commissioner of