Strangers Among Us

Sunlight streams through the bare tree branches onto Cambridge's Joan Lorentz Park, where a local version of international relations is about to play itself out in the cold, clear morning. While her son, Saad Ali, is off in the distance, Christina Tobias-Nahi and I have been chatting for more than an hour about her childhood in Hawaii, her years in France, and her job at Harvard. She's Caucasian and was raised by Christian parents, and we're discussing the differences in how the world has responded to her on a daily basis since she converted to Islam seven years ago, and then again since September 11.

Suddenly a woman starts yelling. “Leave her alone,” we hear. The woman turns to Tobias-Nahi and, louder this time, demands: “Tell him to get away from her.”

Tobias-Nahi jumps to her feet, headscarf ruffling in the cold breeze as she rushes to her son, who is standing near the woman and a little boy and girl.

“He's bothering her,” the woman declares, motioning to the little girl, and meaning Saad Ali. She is using a tone reserved for those rare, hostile exchanges brought on by real frustration or real fear — irrationally, it seems, given that Saad Ali is only two and a half years old.

Tobias-Nahi stays calm. She nods to the woman, speaks to Saad Ali in French, and shuffles him 10 feet away. The woman stares after them. Tobias-Nahi knows this isn't simply everyday, overprotective parenting. This is about Tobias-Nahi's headscarf, known as a hijab, and Saad Ali's light brown skin. Some days, she says, this is just what it means to be a Muslim in Boston.

An estimated 70,000 Muslims live in Greater Boston, part of 7 million in America and 1.2 billion worldwide. Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion — a fact reflected in local demographics. Leaders of Boston mosques say congregations have grown noticeably since last year, and a new mosque and Islamic school in Roxbury are in the works. Local Muslims hail from every corner of the globe — Pakistan, Morocco, West Africa, France, even Sweden, Australia, and Idaho. This kind of diversity means that the story of Boston's Islamic community isn't about just one person or one family. Nor is it about one country or, in many cases, one part of the religion. It is about a complex group of distinct peoples who live among millions of non-Muslims and are extraordinarily misunderstood.

Just as tough as being understood, though, is the equally complicated struggle among local Muslims to understand the larger non-Muslim environment around them. Many Muslims have become much like their fellow New Englanders as their characteristics, values, and traditions meld with those of the place they now call home. Oddly, however, practicing their religion within Boston's diverse Islamic community has brought many Muslims closer to the core of their faith, because its spiritual essentials aren't distorted by the traditions of any one country. The result? A distinctly Bostonian-Islamic hybrid.

This also presents a distinctly Bostonian-Islamic challenge. September 11 has forced the area's Muslim community to reach out to its non-Muslim neighbors in unprecedented ways, with empathy and, in some cases, fear. For any subculture, reaching out to the mainstream community while maintaining cultural traditions is never easy. And in the face of distortions by both religious zealots and the secular media, Boston's Muslims have been striving not just to maintain traditions, but also to reclaim their entire faith.

It's 3 in the afternoon in the last week of Ramadan, and Aamir Rehman hasn't eaten since he woke up this morning. Ramadan is Islam's holiest time of the year, and it requires daily fasting from dawn until sunset for a month. Just as for Jews and Christians, fasting is a form of worship for Muslims, who use it to sharpen their consciousness of God. From about 4:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Rehman cannot eat or even chew gum, drink anything including water, smoke, or have sex. He is allowed, however, to go to work. Which is where we meet on one of the most sacred days of his year.

Five months ago, as a management consultant, Rehman spent his days brainstorming ways to make corporations more money. Now, the first-generation American of Pakistani origin is director of the outreach center at the Islamic Society of Boston, the second-largest mosque in New England (the largest is the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy). Instead of crunching numbers, he toils in a humble, subterranean room, organizing community workshops to teach people about Islam.

He made this switch in October, when questions about Islamic culture rose to an unprecedented crescendo and the Islamic Society was trying to coordinate its response. “Our local community is very educated and open,” says Rehman. “So right after the 11th we started to receive constant calls from churches and schools wanting to know more about us.”

Much of the public's initial reaction underscored how little Americans understand this religion or its culture, and how tragic the consequences of this ignorance can be. After several local Arab-owned businesses were vandalized, many Muslims refused to leave their houses. Muslim women, easily identified by their hijabs, feared they might be harassed or attacked, and many of both genders still feel uncomfortable associating with Islamic organizations, since those associations have apparently been under FBI surveillance. All of which, says Rehman, makes it difficult to strengthen the Islamic community's ties to the society at large at a time when this is needed most. “There was a lot of fear and intimidation in the weeks after September 11,” he says. “And there was a real need to teach people about Islam. We realized that the way to bring about lasting change was to build lasting relationships.” To that end, all five of the Boston-area mosques began working together, sending representatives to visit churches and to speak at schools.

Rehman now heads a team of more than 100 volunteers at the Islamic Society of Boston and struggles to keep up with the demands for speaking engagements. “After every single visit,” he says, “we hear someone tell us that they didn't realize how misinformed they had been previously.” People often equate being Muslim with being Arab, for example, when fewer than 20 percent of the world's Muslims are of Arab descent; the most populous Muslim country is Indonesia. Also, many people learn for the first time how closely connected Islam is to Judaism and Christianity: They all share the story of Abraham; they all believe in the same God and many of the same prophets. But one of the main goals of this outreach is, Rehman insists, “to put a face to the name of Islam. Because once you know a Muslim, it's harder to hate Islam. If you don't know any, it's much easier.”

For Rehman, who first came to Boston from New York in 1995 to attend Harvard, his new job dovetails the personal and the professional in a profound way. “We have to make some systematic changes, like curriculum reform in schools,” he says. “Seminaries and education systems need to understand Islam better. Hospitals need to better understand their Muslim patients. It's no one's fault that when these systems were created years ago, the world was much bigger and there was less need to know each other. But these things need to change now. As a Muslim, the onus has always been on me to explain myself to others. If I needed to pray at my office, it was a challenge because I had to find an appropriate spot. With more understanding, things like that could become easier.”

Asked if he's hungry, Rehman laughs, then pauses before answering. “I realize that I could eat, but I'm not so hungry that I really need to,” he says.

Because of Islam's cultural variety, there are no traditional meals for Ramadan. After the fast is broken with dates and milk, Muslims dine on the dishes of their respective heritages. Those of Caribbean descent may eat codfish fritters; Lebanese may grill pizzas called lamejun; Malaysians prefer a spicy fish in coconut milk; and first-generation Americans simply broil up a steak.

“One of the things that fasting does is make people realize that they don't have to eat at every opportunity,” Rehman says. “People in the West have access to food all of the time, but there are millions of people all over the world who are hungry, too — not because they are fasting, but because they just don't have food. Feeling compassion for them reminds us of how needy we are in relation to God. We see that we need his bounties. Normally, we take them for granted because they're so accessible. But when we don't have them, we realize that we need them.”

This concept of sacrifice, Rehman says, compels him to keep working during Ramadan. “You go to work, but you're more conscious than usual of your behavior,” he explains. Nor has he had second thoughts about trading in a lucrative job for his current work. “What I'm doing right now is leaps and bounds more important to me. The world needs more understanding of Islam more than it needs another management consultant.”

The Islamic Society of Boston's mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge looks tiny from the outside. Sandwiched between typically drab apartment buildings, the structure pops with color: blues and greens compose the trompe l'oeil tile façade. Inside is an equally vibrant world — a sacred place with an intricate social and ritual order that is the center of its congregants' lives.

In the weeks immediately following September 11, neighbors and nearby businesses placed bouquets and candles at the mosque's front door, but on this afternoon in December, there are none. Instead, the mosque's yard is filled with scurrying men and women. It's the third Friday of Ramadan, and everyone wants to be inside by the time prayer begins. The front door is used exclusively by the “sisters,” as the mosque's female members are called; the men are “brothers.” After entering they remove their shoes for spiritual reasons (Islam states that all places of prayer must be clean) as well as practical ones: Prayer involves humbling yourself before God, in part by putting one's forehead on the ground, which, for obvious reasons, is far more pleasant if the floor is clean. Just inside the door, at a stairwell landing, the genders are divided. Men pray upstairs, women down.

I'm the only female here over the age of five without a scarf, and a twenty-something woman in a yellow silk headscarf and long gray skirt asks if she can help me.

“I'm meeting Aamir Rehman,” I tell her.

“Okay, you need to come downstairs, please,” she says. “Follow me.”

The small office at the bottom of the stairs is a blur of confusion. At least 10 people are crowded in, speaking Arabic, making calls on cell phones, generally bustling about. A woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a beauty mark on her lower cheek is looking for her bag, and a man in a pink oxford shirt, khakis, and a gold hat — known as a kufi and worn by most of the men here — is rifling through folders.

“Please, take off your coat,” says the woman in the yellow scarf. As I comply, my cardigan sleeve yanks down for an instant, briefly exposing a flash of upper arm. “You must keep your arms covered up,” she quickly tells me.

Rehman isn't here yet. Amid the confusion, I'm left largely to my own devices. This allows me more direct contact with the members than on my previous visits, which have all been carefully filtered by an Islamic Society envoy. The man in the pink oxford finally approaches me. I explain again who I am, that I've been to the mosque before, and that I've arranged to sit in on the prayer sessions.

“I don't think it will be possible for you to be upstairs with the men,” he says. “It's very difficult.”

Arrangements were made weeks ago, I explain. Already the floorboards above my head are groaning as the men start filing upstairs.

He goes away for a few minutes. When he comes back, he tells me it may be possible to visit upstairs before the prayer session begins, but I'll have to wear a hijab. No problem, I tell him. In the meantime, I'm to wait in the women's prayer area downstairs.

I've been in the women's prayer room before for interviews and meetings, but it's never been quite this alive. The emerald green carpet overflows with women — tall, short, thin, plump, old, young — dressed in everything from crushed green velvet robes to pink houndstooth jackets. And hijabs of every kind: tropical prints, lilac checks, paisley velvet, muslin, lime cotton. Beneath it all, bare feet stick out from long skirts and jeans.

I watch from the doorway until I'm pulled out and led to the office closet, where the pink-shirted man is somewhat frantically looking for a hijab for me. The one he finds is shorter than most.

“I might need some instruction,” I say, trying to lighten the moment. “It's my first hijab.”

He chuckles, then becomes serious again. “I'll get help.” He returns with a stern-looking woman in a silky, black scarf. As she starts wrapping my scarf, she asks, “Are you American?”

“Yes,” I reply. “From here in Boston. Where are you from?”

“Morocco, but I live here now,” she says. “Is this your first day here?” She thinks I'm a convert, which makes sense — in Boston, 70 percent of all converts to Islam are women.

“I'm just visiting,” I say, hoping she understands I'm not Muslim.

It doesn't seem to matter to her. She nods and deftly ties the scarf in back, then looks me square in the eye. “Beautiful,” she pronounces. She is smiling, her sternness suddenly disappeared.

There are two reasons why the brothers and sisters are separated during this prayer session. In all Islamic prayer, the postures are very physical. They are close-range, shoulder-to-shoulder. In such a sacred context, it would be awkward to be touching members of the opposite sex, but more to the point, it might also be a distraction from concentrating on God. However, unlike in the many Islamic countries where women are encouraged to pray only at home, here there are days when both men and women pray upstairs, though only when space allows them to form separate rows. Which is not the case during Ramadan. Today, when the faithful are clamoring for every inch of floor space, this is not an option.

The pink-shirted man leads me upstairs past a father with a little girl on his hip, talking casually with another man. The corridor is thick with brothers, and over and over I hear the standard Muslim greeting — As-salaam alaykum, literally, “Peace be upon you.” But none of this compares with the main prayer room. The large, blue-carpeted room is wall-to-wall with hundreds of men, all facing the same direction: northeast toward Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia where the prophet Muhammad first revealed Allah's message. The imam, the mosque's spiritual leader, is dressed in white and stands at a podium at the front. It's almost 1 o'clock — one of the five times of day (dawn, midday, midafternon, sunset, nightfall) when all Muslims stop what they are doing and pray. I know I have only a few minutes, and it's dizzying taking in so many details — the men in the striped J. Crew sweaters and plaid button-downs, in leather jackets and bright purple kufis; a video camera; a visiting priest and his students from a school in Roxbury; a giant poster of Mecca on the far wall. “There isn't enough space here for everyone,” a man standing nearby says. “It's always crowded during Ramadan, but right now there are even many men praying in the parking lot out back.”

I'm interrupted by the pink-shirted man. “Time to go,” he says. I've been upstairs for maybe seven minutes. The rumblings of Arabic prayer are beginning to rise, and the men are just about to bend forward to touch their foreheads to the tiny patches of blue floor between them. But I don't get to see them pray, and as I descend the stairs, the booming, melodious flow of the imam's chanting follows me down.

“Polygamy is not what people think it is,” says Hoda Elsharkawi. It's a topic Elsharkawi — and many Muslims, in fact — have been forced to address many times, and today she's trying to explain it to the women who are attending her class for new Muslims at the Islamic Society of Boston. For most of them, the meeting is an introduction to the religion, and they ask other basic questions Elsharkawi has also fielded countless times: “Why do we have to wear the hijab?” and “Does the concept of jihad mean killing people?”

She answers the inquiries one by one, usually with a good deal of discussion. The taking of more than one wife, she explains, dates back to the time of the prophets, when it was a common practice, including among Christians. Today the custom varies by country. It happens often in more conservative Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, where Elsharkawi was born. But in countries like Egypt, where she was raised, the practice is quite rare. Registering for more than one state marriage is illegal in the United States, but, claims Elsharkawi, it's been known to happen. “I know only two instances of this,” she says. One is a close friend. “In that relationship it has been agreed between the man and woman that he should do this because his wife cannot have children. She is sad sometimes because of it, but they both agree it is the thing to do.” I ask if this couple lives in Boston. She hesitates, then admits they do.

She's more reluctant to divulge the second example and nudges the conversation in a different direction. “There are things about this that so many people do not know about,” she says. “When there is more than one wife, they all must agree that it is okay. If any of the wives decide they do not want the husband to have other wives, they can leave and often get a divorce. They are free to do that. Also, the rule is that a man must be able to afford his wives, and he must treat them equally. In America, a man has only one wife, but he will sometimes not be faithful.” Since much of what she is describing would be considered appalling under most non-Muslim value systems, I ask her if she views polygamy as more honest than infidelity. “Yes,” she says, and by way of explanation offers her second instance of polygamy: “There is a man here who has two wives, and the police came to his door and said, 'We have to ask you about your two wives.' He said to them, 'One is not my wife; she is my girlfriend.' The police say, 'Oh, then that is okay,' and leave him alone. In America, one is accepted, but not the other.”

Elsharkawi was 12 when she donned her first hijab — against the wishes of her parents. “Many people who are not Muslim in America see my veil and think it means I am oppressed. But nobody made me do this. It is my way of showing devotion to God.”

How does it indicate devotion, I wonder. What exactly does it tell God?

She replies without missing a beat. “It says that I am surrendering to God. Islam means 'to surrender,' and I do that. God says that I must wear a veil, and so even if I don't agree with it, I do it.” Her voice rises slightly. “Even if I don't agree with it, I still do it because I trust God more than I trust myself.”

In her classes, Elsharkawi says, she hears women extolling what they view to be some of the added, albeit mostly secular, benefits of wearing the hijab. “One woman said that when she first put it on, she was saying to everyone, 'I am not part of this sexual game anymore. Men never bother me now.'” Another took the idea even further: “It's a real freedom, because I don't have to worry.” Elsharkawi says this woman thinks, “People don't look at what I look like. People look at my intellect.”

Elsharkawi moved to Cambridge with her husband, Ossam, five years ago. The couple met at a family gathering while she was still living in Egypt. They married there and soon moved here. Now they're contending with how to raise their children — two-year-old Eman and four-year-old Ali — as both Muslims and Americans. “By the time they are teenagers, they all want to be 100 percent American,” Elsharkawi laments. “They ask, 'Why can't I have a girlfriend or a boyfriend?' Plus, in Islam, there is such emphasis on respect for elders, which doesn't exist so much here, and in mostly Muslim countries you have an entire community around you to help reinforce that.”

This is where they see local mosques, specifically the Islamic Society of Boston, coming in. “It's the most active mosque,” she says. “It provides a strong network, and it has the most diversity of people.”

The irony is that here, where her children may one day reject her religion, Elsharkawi says she has come to a better understanding of it. “Living in Boston as a Muslim is definitely different than living in other places. When you live somewhere that has only one kind of Islam, you see things only one way. You are mixing local culture into the religion. For example, in Egypt, a religious woman always wears a skirt. But in Pakistan, a religious woman wears pants. When I came here, I was seeing Muslims wear both. So I had to ask scholars and read the Koran, which says that actually both are okay as long as they are within the boundaries of Islam and they are not too tight or too short. Living with so many different forms of Islam forces you to explore the real religion.”

The overwhelming diversity within the Islamic world is one reason why the annual pilgrimage to Mecca — the Hajj, as it's called in Arabic — is such an extraordinary event. Millions of Muslims make the journey, ignoring differences in race, ethnicity, class, and language, to the place most sacred to them all. Riding across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge at dawn, I brace myself for a taste of that. This morning is Eid-ul-Fitr, the day after Ramadan ends, when thousands of Muslims from every mosque around Boston gather to pray together.

My cab passes a group of festively clad Muslims filing toward the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury. “Looks like something big's going on here,” the driver grunts.

“It's the end of Ramadan,” I say. “Everyone's going to pray.”

“Really?” he responds. “They'll probably start bombing us after they're done praying to Muhammad.”

“I can get out now,” I snap. “I'm headed in there.”

The driver was, of course, wrong: Muslims don't pray to the prophet Muhammad. They pray to Allah — the same God to whom Jews and Christians pray, but with a different name.

Cameras (and, I find out afterward, members of the media) have at the last minute been banned from the festival, and anyone with a bag is directed through a security checkpoint. The Reggie Lewis Center has an enormous indoor track, and hundreds of men in gray suits and hooded silver robes, some sporting kufis and some not, are already filling the green oval infield. Many sisters have formed rows on the back half of the track, while others — especially those with small children — are filling the surrounding bleachers, talking and laughing.

A special chanting for Eid echoes across the field house's expanse. Allahu akbar — “God is greatest” — is repeated again and again. The phrase may seem elementary, but it's the most profound tenet of Islam: the belief in and surrender to a single divine creator. The name Allah itself is simply the compounding of two Arabic words: al (the) and lah (god).

As the chanting ends and prayer begins, I finally get to see the men pray, this time with the women. Like a human tidal wave, at least a thousand people drop from a standing position to their knees, bend forward, and touch their foreheads to the floor. The movement of so many bodies acting so precisely is both humbling and breathtaking. Even the sisters in the bleachers, who have seen the spectacle before, stop chatting long enough to watch.

I also finally grasp the full force of the women's dress: Pakistani-style getups of long skirts open from the sides with flowing scarves to match; sleek black Arab hijabs pulled down tight against the face; and Caribbean head wraps and full skirts so colorful they seem to vibrate. This fabulous fashion show is itself the embodiment of Islam's diversity. “In a way, I learned the most about Islam when I came to Boston,” Elsharkawi told me, referring to her investigation into the Koran's dress requirements. “And I found that there is room for all of these dresses, because this is a universal religion.”

The imam, himself dressed in the traditional whites, is a speck on the stage. As he begins his lecture, some people suddenly get up to leave and go to work — something, one sister assures me, that would never happen among a more conservative group of Muslims. “We are all here because of different reasons,” the imam intones, “but today for only one.” I can barely hear him above the murmurs of the faithful, but the crowd itself echoes both his message and a passage in the Koran. In one of his last sermons, Muhammad quoted God's message intended for all of humanity: “O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another” (49:13).

Of all the questions Muslims are asked by non-Muslims, the issue of violence is predominant. For years, the concept of jihad has been one of the religion's most controversial facets.

“People genuinely and sincerely ask us if Islam encourages the killing of innocents,” says Rehman. “It's a genuine question, but it disturbs us because Islam condemns the taking of innocent life. There is a concept that includes martial defense, but it's very constrained. September 11, by the standards of Islam's jihad, was completely wrong.”

All religious texts are highly interpretive, but evidence of Rehman's rejection of wanton violence is, in fact, found throughout the Koran. Because Muhammad delivered the holy text during a time in the 7th century when tribes were at war with one another, it addresses both violence and peace in depth. War is justified primarily in self-defense: “Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them” (4:90); and, “Warfare is always evil, but sometimes you have to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Mecca inflicted on the Muslims” (2:191; 2:217) or “to preserve decent values” (4:75; 22:40).

The primary meaning of jihad, in fact, is not “holy war,” but literally “struggle.” It comes from the Arabic root word jahada, meaning “to toil, to exert oneself, to strive for a better way of life.” The struggle is intended to be as much personal as political, and it rarely entails violence. It can be the struggle to raise children, to fast, to better understand God, or to understand the world around you. In many cases, it is the struggle to be understood.

Thanks to fanatics and the popular media, which many claim have equally distorted the importance and meaning of jihad, Muslims find themselves defending Islam's tolerance of others. That defensiveness is evident back in Joan Lorentz Park, as Tobias-Nahi discusses why she converted. “Islamic family bonds are extremely strong,” she says. “I find that [Muslim] fathers are a lot more involved than fathers are in most of the West, and there's a great amount of respect for both human life and the environment. So much more than people realize, it's a religion that emphasizes peace and tolerance. I don't know” — she trails off for a moment — “we're lucky to live in a part of the country where those things are appreciated, but we still need more education about Islam. The sooner we teach children those things, the better off we'll be. That's our challenge.”

She nods toward Saad Ali, who is pushing a toy truck in the sandbox with the little girl from the morning's earlier scene. “You see? They always find a way to work it out. It's the adults who have more trouble.”