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Muslims in America

As a globetrotting photojournalist, Alexandra Avakian ’83 has spent the past two decades photographing Muslims around the world: Palestinian soldiers, Uzbekistani farmers, Somalian refugees, Iranian women at the beach. In this excerpt from her new book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, Avakian turns toward home, training her camera on muslims in America.

Photographing Muslims in the United States gave me a window into their lives in turn-of-the-century America. The dynamism of the communities was as striking as their diversity. On Los Angeles’s Skid Row, Arab-American teenagers handed out free meals to the homeless. In a Mississippi village, Muslims shared a religious lifestyle in the countryside.

Muslim Americans, too, died in the attack on the World Trade Center. In New York, the Hamdani family defended the reputation of their son, killed trying to save people in the World Trade Center, only to be wrongly accused of aiding the terrorists. In Mississippi and Cincinnati, I visited Muslim families as they sat—horrified—watching the latest televised news about radical Islamic terrorists.

Before 9/11, when Americans thought of terrorism within their own borders, they thought of men like Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber, or Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing. After 9/11 Muslim Americans came under intense scrutiny and even suspicion by some.

The attacks brought American Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds closer together. Previously, Muslims of South Asian, Arab, or African American backgrounds did not often mix. After the tragedy, cultural differences began to seem less important. September 11 had begun to reshape the Muslim experience in America.

What I found on my journey was mostly a wide embrace of the American dream. Each Muslim American community has its own special character. Dearborn, Michigan, an old manufacturing town, is home to many Arab residents, both Muslim and Christian. About 30,000 Arabs, most of them Muslim, live in the city of almost 100,000 people.

At first glance, Dearborn looks like Anytown, USA, especially if you expect to see quick, obvious signs of Arab traditions. Instead, Middle Eastern and Middle American characteristics blend together, both in glimpses on the street or in depth behind closed doors.

Smoke from a Ford Motor Company factory billows full and grey-white in the sharp winter sun. An Iraqi American boy arriving at the mosque sports a leather jacket decorated with an American flag. Teenage girls run around in jeans and tank tops in the summer. Endless strip malls line the main thoroughfare.

On a private school’s basketball court, young Shiite grade-school children wear white robes and circle a black, cardboard replica of the Ka’aba at Mecca. They throw cotton balls instead of stones at the devil as they learn to make the pilgrimage—one of the five pillars of Islam.

I attended a fashion show just for Muslim women; watched volleyball practice where religious Muslim girls in hijab played alongside unobservant girls in shorts; and visited a therapy center for victims of torture, most of them from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Young Lebanese American men smoked argila (water pipes) on the sidewalk and watched women go by at a classic American street carnival with cotton candy, rides, games, and face-painting.

In Dearborn, during the holiday Eid al-Adha, which celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and the pilgrimage to Mecca, it was a challenge to find a sheep sacrifice to photograph. Fewer families still practice this tradition and they have to drive far to find farms belonging to Christians—who have hired a Muslim to perform the ritual slaughter. A third of the meat from the sacrifice is donated to the poor, another third to neighbors and friends, and the rest eaten as a holiday meal by the family.

After 9/11, tension could be felt in Dearborn at the Arab International Festival, where the FBI had a table to recruit locals. Nobody approached, except for a few who argued with the women posted there. At the Dix mosque, while I waited for permission to photograph Friday prayers, a man came out of the mosque and videotaped me, wouldn’t speak to me, then went back inside. At that time, many of the Iraqi Shiite expatriates and refugees who worshipped at Dearborn’s Karbala Mosque supported a possible war in Iraq, while many other Arabs in Dearborn were critical of it.

In Los Angeles, on the last Wednesday before No Ruz, the Persian New Year, I photographed celebrants jumping over fires, to bring good luck. Iranian officials have often tried to ban the practice in their country, considering it un-Islamic.

Many Iranian exiles living in Los Angeles call the city “Tehrangeles.” Most of them are secular, but deeply attached to their Iranian heritage. This crowd is renowned for its wealth and high-society lifestyle, more reminiscent of Shah-era northern Tehran than the southern Tehran of the Islamic revolution.

Although my grandfather came from Iran, I never knew this community when I lived just a few miles away in Malibu as a teenager in the 1970s. Looking out at that same ocean where I once swam often, I realized both the length and the circularity of my own journey.

children slapping chests

Dearborn, Michigan
March 2003

Generations of Shiite penitents attend the Iraqi-American Karbala Mosque on Ashura, the mourning day honoring the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain.

men eating pizza

fire jumping

Dearborn, Michigan
June 2002

Tufaha mowing

Tufaha Baydayn, a Lebanese American, fled Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s.

Buffalo, New York
March 2003

crying woman

A Turkish-American volunteer for VIVE’s La Casa hugs a girl whose Pakistani parents fled to Canada to beat a rapidly approaching INS registration deadline. Soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks in America, pressure to catch illegal Muslim immigrants mounted. The families I met wanted to remain in the United States and did not want to be sent back to Pakistan. Many of the children were born US citizens. VIVE’s La Casa is a nongovernmental agency that shelters refugees, arranges their appointments with Canadian immigrant authorities, and helps them get to the border. When I was there, women and children who fled the civil war in Africa were also preparing to leave for Canada.

New Medinah, Mississippi
November 2002

Muhammed in living room

Lateef Muhammed, 76, relaxes at the end of the day. His wife Florence, 44, and granddaughter Kelly, 9, are reflected in a mirror. New Medinah…looks like any rural Mississippi village except for road signs with Muslim names. It was founded by mainstream African-American Sunni Muslims in the 1980s. Florence told me her granddaughter first visited this tiny enclave in 1999 and cried when it was time to return home to New Orleans. The family decided to have Kelly and her brother move in. “There were so many unhealthy things going on in the city,” Florence told me. “To live here in New Medinah has given us a difference perspective. Muslim community life makes it easy to remember God, your family, and your neighbors.”

Dearborn, Michigan
March 2003

Generations of Shiite penitents attend the Iraqi-American Karbala Mosque on Ashura, the mourning day honoring the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain.

New York, New York
December 2001

Boys and girls look forward to pizza after Saturday studies in Arabic and the Koran at the East Village’s MaMosque. Many of their parents emigrated from Bangladesh. When it was time to order lunch, one of the boys did so in a strong New York accent, as their teacher spoke little English. Several times a day, an assistant imam stepped outside the front door to perform the call to prayer. Nearby a man sold incense and fragrant oils from a table, downtown moms pushed babies in strollers, and hip denizens of the East Village strolled by in a kaleidoscope of New York culture.

Los Angeles, California
April 2002

At the beach, Iranian Americans jump over a fire in celebration of No Ruz, the Persian New Year.

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