North Coast Journal


Muslims in our midst

by Wally Graves

Through a driving rain I followed Youseef's faded blue Toyota pickup north from Eureka to Arcata. We exited at Giuntoli Lane, and off Janes Road Youseef and I were met at the door of a trim, one-story house by the warm, welcoming hand of Abdul Aziz. He wore a comfortable robe and slippers.

men sitting on rugYouseef and I left our shoes in the entry and sat in a carpeted living room made cozy by padded divans and chairs.

In the adjoining family room and kitchen, Aziz's wife Aisha, dressed in a pale head covering and full length gown, chatted with two other women also covered in all but face and hands -- one in white, the other in black.

On the family room floor a neatly dressed dark-haired boy in a red, Chicago Bulls sweat shirt squirmed for his mother's attention near a wide-eyed toddler girl nursing a blue pacifier. The scent of a spicy dip, and of cookies, and of tea to be served after prayer brightened the air.

Friday noon.

One by one the worshipers arrived. They rinsed their hands at a convenient basin.

Down two steps from the family room we entered a two-car garage whose bare concrete was covered with a pale blue carpet. On this the men laid smaller prayer rugs upon which to kneel, facing a refrigerator on the east wall where ivy grew from a low dish. In one corner, the family's Whirlpool washer and dryer. In another a black exercycle at rest.

The shoeless men, dressed informally in sweat suits, slacks, jackets and sweaters, wore round knitted hats in prayer. They kneeled as the spirit moved, and in a few moments Abdullah, a tall young fellow in loose blue-gray trousers and long filmy shirt raised cupped hands before his face and said something like "Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. La illah illa Allah wa Muhammad rasoulu hu," echoed by the others.

seated man wearing robesI was told later they were saying in Arabic, "God is great, God is great, there is no God but God, and His Prophet is Muhammad."

Abdullah half-sang, half-spoke Arabic phrases that translated to "God the compassionate, the merciful." He then faced the praying men and spoke briefly of the "God bless you!" expressed when people sneeze. He suggested that the English saying could be improved by a specific mention of God's love, for it is God's love which we must keep always in mind.

The men formed a single row, shoulder to shoulder, foot against foot, in expression of brotherhood. They exchanged greetings in Arabic and shook hands.

I was secretly delighted with the Muslims' succinct service.

As an uneasy veteran of many hours in church wincing under Baptist admonitions to repent my many sins, I thought, "These Muslims really have it down."

I thought, this must be like the early days of Christianity, sequestering in someone's house as a minority whose offbeat beliefs were -- at the least -- ridiculed, and -- at the most -- persecuted.

I had scarcely noticed the women enter the converted garage and kneel silently behind the men, retreating to the kitchen when the prayers ended and quietly setting out the food.

Young Abdullah, who had led the service, spoke perfect English. As well he should. He was born in Chicago to a Jewish father and Catholic mother who tugged Abdullah this way and that between Hebrew school and Confirmation. His generic name "Abdullah" merely means "Servant of God."

Over tea, Abdullah told me how he had turned to Muslim friends in Chicago, had tested the Black "Nation of Islam" in New York. Finally, in Oakland, Calif., he knocked one day on the Nation of Islam's door, but Abdullah's skin was white, so the guard refused entrance, nor would the guard give Abdullah a copy of the Koran he sought.

So Abdullah returned to Chicago's Institute of Islamic Information and "REverted" to Islam. "We are all born Muslim. We do not CONvert; we REvert."

Now 25, Abdullah is active in the Islamic Student Union at Humboldt State University.

Youseef, who had led me to prayer in his blue Toyota, is also American, the New York Westchester County son of an Irish mother. He was educated in a Baptist seminary in Virginia, and now at age 39 -- after a dozen years as a Christian minister -- has embraced Islam.

Youseef's father carried enough African-American blood to color his son's skin a pale, café au lait. In racist America, Youseef told me, he found himself between two worlds, accepted fully by neither.

So years ago, when a basketball player named Lou Alcindor and a boxer named Cassius Clay shed their "slave names" in favor of Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Muhammed Ali, Youseef took note, as did thousands of other so-called "Blacks" who sought escape from their perceived isolation and sense of deprivation as social outcasts.

Abdul Jabbar and Ali had joined the Nation of Islam which developed in the '30s through the work of an African-American named Robert Poole. Poole believed that black slaves from Africa had been born Muslim. Poole believed that Christianity was an error foisted on them by their white masters.

Poole changed his name to Elijah Mohammed.

The Nation of Islam flourished under the rubric of "Black Muslims," a name which disturbed many traditional Muslims who thought that Elijah Mohammed's racially exclusive Nation knew little of the "submission" and "peace" carried in the meaning of "Islam."

Following Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, the Nation of Islam splintered. A more traditional, non-racist Muslim group led by the son of Elijah Mohammed, Warith Deen Mohammed, continued its quiet way, while a more divisive branch would eventually gain prominence as the Nation of Islam headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan's recent trip to Libya and other Islamic lands has led to cartoons in newspapers like the Eureka Times-Standard showing Farrakhan trampling the American flag.

Neither Arcata's Abdullah, nor Eureka's Youseef, follow Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.

Their chosen Muslim brothers on the North Coast share a worldwide faith grounded in two sources: the 6,666 verses of the Book of Recitations known as the Qur'an, or Koran, revealed to the Prophet Mohammed; and by the "Sunna," which records Mohammed's behavior from the time of the Prophet's revelation commencing in the year A.D. 610 until his death in 632.

Youseef and Abdullah are full-fledged brothers in a local handful of Muslims. Their faith knows no race and transcends a half-dozen or more languages and as many nations.

Islam can't be found in the North Coast Yellow Pages, but Youseef hopes to change that by setting up an information center in Eureka.

And a mosque in Arcata?

That's the dream of Aziz and the others who, when they find themselves identified as Muslims, sometimes question whether they are entirely welcome, or whether they might be faced with latent suspicion emerging, for instance, as a demand for liability insurance when they seek a rented venue.

Kay Hofweber, event coordinator for Celebration Hall in Arcata, recalled their inquiry, and told me she welcomed them. Liability insurance is standard, she said, and doesn't cost more for Muslims. Arcata's City Manager Alice Harris confirmed that the city's own Sanctuary House requires a set liability insurance irrespective of the group renting it.

Being braced for a potential rebuff is "something you have to live with," I was told by 22-year-old Mahammed, a native of Esfahan, in Iran, who's taking classes, with an eye on pre-med, at College of the Redwoods.

Mahammed wears western clothes and doesn't talk much about Islam to others "because they don't know anything about it." He says his heritage becomes a topic only when there's trouble in the Near East. Sometimes he's jokingly called a "terrorist"; and a teacher once threatened to "ship him back to Iran."

"You get ground down over time," he confessed.

Mahammed's brother, Mehdi, 33, a pharmacist in Crescent City, left Esfahan in 1980 at the start of the prolonged Iran-Iraq war. Their father ta ught high school, and they were raised "in a nice house, a nice neighborhood."

Like many Muslims, Mehdi came to the North Coast seeking a smaller city. He likes it, and would like it even better (as his dark eyes light up and a smile spreads across his determined face) "if there were a mosque in Arcata."

"A storefront as a beginning?" I suggested.

"Anything for a beginning," Aziz laughed.

"But," Mehdi concluded, "to see a mosque -- a true mosque -- in Arcata. How beautiful."

They have formed an Islamic Center of Arcata and meet Friday evenings in a conference room adjoining the Desserts On Us Baklava bakery in Ericson Court off West End Road. Through their president, Emran, they're seeking building funds from other mosques.

In this area it is the Muslim women who are most conspicuous, wearing their "habib" long gowns and head coverings which, ironically, were originally intended to make them less conspicuous. In fair weather on the HSU campus you might notice them selling food to raise money for the multicultural center.

One of these would be Zubeida Sheikh, the wife of Majid Sheikh, a retired electrician from Dar-es-Salaam, capital of Tanzania on Africa's east coast. Coming from a land whose native tongue is Swahili, and whose religion is predominantly Islam, they emigrated to Los Angeles, and later followed their son, an HSU student, to McKinleyville.

The other woman, in white, whose youngsters Humza and Mariam were playing on the floor, proved to be Bushra Khan, the wife of Dr. Mohammed Khan, a veteran of the U.S. army, and now a psychiatrist employed by Humboldt County. The Khans are from Hyderabad, India.

Dr. Khan's style is no-nonsense. He says he has found little prejudice here against Muslims.

"Why should there be? Islam teaches hard work, honesty and temperance. You don't see Muslims swelling the welfare rolls."

Does that mean Muslims take care of their own? What about the practice of giving alms?

"Our first allegiance is to the family, then to the community," Aziz explained. "Also, through the American Muslim Council we are aware of needs in trouble spots like Bosnia and Chechnya."

What about separation of church and state?

"Why shouldn't politicians also be aware of their religion?" Dr. Khan asked. "The American founding fathers wrote the First Amendment not to protect the state from religion, but to protect religion from the state."

The "jihad"? The holy war against nonbelievers?

"There are two 'strivings,' or jihads," they explained. "The greater jihad pits each person against himself in striving to keep the faith day by day. The lesser jihad is mere politics."

Abstinence from pork and eating only of meat blessed at killing?

"Eat kosher, or if you can't get kosher ('halal') meat, God understands. And we don't eat with our hands. We use knives and forks -- some of us prefer chopsticks."


"Never, not even for cooking, We engage in no manufacture nor sale nor gifts nor transport (of alcohol)."

Are mixed classes in public schools a menace to the morals of Islamic children?

"Our children do well in public schools."

Abortion and contraceptives?

"The killing of babies is strictly forbidden in the Koran. Contraceptives over the years have included herbs."


"Of course. The Prophet loved horse racing. We enjoy football, basketball."

Fasting during the month of Ramadan?

"Fasting is psychologically healing," Dr. Khan concluded. "You're ready to bear the pangs, doing it to please God. It gives you the humbling experience of knowing what it is to be hungry."

Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses"?

"Blasphemy. A disservice to the community. Unhistorical. He just cooked it up."

"Belly dancers?" I asked.

They laughed. "The Arabs had them long before Mohammed."

And women's rights? Dowries? Polygamy? Divorce?

"Dowries are typically still given. They may be in lump sum, in installments or over a lifetime. Marriage and divorce follow the laws of the nation you're living in, though in America, like the Mormons, it is probably possible to have more than one Muslim wife, though only one in civil ceremony. Polygamy is discouraged.

"And as for the status of women, from the beginning of Islam in A.D. 622 their women's fiscal rights have been the envy of the world. Not till the late 19th century did the West pass its first laws protecting women's property rights in marriage and inheritance."

women with childI was too timid to interview the Muslim wives face to face in the other room. I had heard the expression "There's Islam and then there's Hislam," and I did recall a remark by an American Muslim who said of polygamy (she shared her husband with two others) "It sure beats adultery."

And another, a former "feminist" in Oak Park, Ill., had said she was outraged that she was removed from men's company in prayer. "And then it dawned on me: What am I saying? I'm saying they can't send me off to the women where nothing interesting happens. Here I am really denigrating women! Islam has really elevated my feeling that women are important and that being with them is important."

I asked Aziz, "What about usury? The Koran approves buying and selling, but not earning interest on money."

"We do the best we can never to pay or collect interest. I paid my house mortgage off in five years."

"And," Youseef added, "If I had the cash I'd be driving a better truck than that old Toyota, but I won't borrow or loan money for interest."

Youseef, who works for the Alcohol and Drug Care Services which runs seven "clean and sober houses" for Supplemental Security Income recipients in Eureka, is soon to be married in a Muslim ceremony to a woman in Georgia whom he has seen only through photos. Muslim practice discourages unchaperoned meetings before marriage.

"The telephone is our chaperone," Youseef explains with a smile, happy to be in a pristine courtship and spared the "hypocrisies" of a Christianity which blinks at permissive sexual behavior and which ordains admitted homosexuals.

"How do I become a Muslim?" I asked.

"Simple," Youseef said. "You publicly witness, from the heart, the 'shahada,' that there is no God but God, and that His Prophet is Mohammed. You then set out to fulfill the other four pillars of faith: pray five times a day, a trip to Mecca, give alms, and fast during Ramadan." (Aziz and his wife Aisha traveled to Mecca in 1994.)

I had read somewhere that Mohammed, in his common sense, had made ritual in Islam simple, thus sparing his followers the overloaded priestly presence in birth, marriage and death that the Jews and Christians had refined to such an art (Mohammed also added divorce.) It was revealed to the Prophet, I was told, that no man is God, that each individual is his own minister, and each may fashion his own rituals. The Koran and Sunna point the course.


After that Friday among the true believers, I talked with other Middle Easterners raised in the Muslim tradition to see how they fared in our land of the free.

I learned that ours is a benign nation compared with even the highly westernized democratic Republic of Turkey, not to speak of the military emergency Republic of Afghanistan, or the Islamic Republic of Iran.

From Ankara, Turkey, has come 33-year-old Lufti and his wife Yadigar, 29, joined by her mother. Their Muslim heritage is strong. Their offering of tea and cake traditional.

Yadigar (her name suggests "remembrance" of a father who died before she was born) dresses "habib," which means in Arabic "friend." (With her long skirt, and her hair fully concealed, she announces her "friendship" with other Muslims.)

Yadigar was afforded a full education parallel to her husband Lufti's. They met in university classes. Quite independent of their family's traditional prerogatives, they became engaged on their own and four years later married.

They get news from Turkey by e-mail and Internet. The day of our interview they had just learned that four Turkish political parties had managed to piece together a provisional government, giving hope for sustained stability in politics which have been scarred over the years by martial law and by an occasional summary execution -- the earmarks of a nation struggling to catch up to the democratic West, while preserving its Islamic past.

Lufti is one of many Turks sent to American graduate schools to prepare for staffing new universities in Turkey. His major is sociology, and he came here by mistake. He had applied to San Diego State but somehow his papers were shifted to Arcata's HSU.

No matter.

A more pressing question facing them is how Lufti, the sociologist, and Yadigar, the psychological counselor, can relate their western education to their Turkish students.

"For example," Yadigar told me, "in family counseling, we study in university how to deal with teenage girls suffering bad self-images because they have no boyfriends. While in Turkey, we must deal with teenage girls who suffer a bad self-image because they DO have a boyfriend."

Modern Islamic custom bans dating. And intimacy even after engagement is unacceptable. Only marriage validates sex.

I said, "Sounds like when I was growing up."

"Yes," Yadigar agreed. "Turkey is 20 or 30 years behind America." She foresees a more permissive Turkey, and both she and Lufti are comfortable with America's freedoms.

In their modern Arcata apartment, the TV entertains their 4-year-old daughter, Rengisu ("water of life"), as she bounces about in her red overalls. During our chat Rengisu brings out her white stuffed bear and confides that her favorite eatery is McDonald's, and her favorite food is hamburgers.

"And milk shake?" I ask.

"Coke!" she firmly corrects.


From a village in the mountains east of Kabul, Afghanistan, we have Nazefullah Komak who, on a moonless night in 1983, departed his native land, thus escaping the Soviet occupation.

At Afghanistan's eastern border populated by Pathan tribesmen, Nazefullah and his frail wife Fatima with their three toddlers -- two girls and a baby boy -- evaded border guards through the Khyber Pass to neighboring Pakistan.

"'Islam' means 'peace,'" Nazefullah told me, "but in Afghanistan everybody was fighting."

Today, in Eureka, Nazefullah and his wife rent from CalTrans an old Victorian house off Broadway along the abandoned freeway corridor. The house will soon be up for sale, and when they move they hope to remain within biking distance of General Hospital, where Nazefullah serves as a nurse's aide. In Afghanistan, Nazefullah was employed by the department of agriculture in the capital, Kabul; but after coming here he changed his studies from wildlife biology to nursing.

In their sparsely furnished, fully carpeted living room, neat bedding is stacked shoulder-high for spreading out at night. Above family pictures hang two wooden signs mounted on red backgrounds. In Arabic calligraphy the signs read: "God is the only God, and His Prophet is Mohammed" and "By the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful."

Nazefullah's age is a mystery. His birth went unrecorded, and when authorities came to his village to issue ID cards to his family, they arbitrarily assigned his father an age of 27, though by then Nazefullah had grown into a young man.

Having listed his father as 27, the authorities had no choice but to show Nazefullah no older than 11, so he was born in 1949 which today -- assuming he's calculated accurately the conflicting Western and Islamic calendars -- gives Nazefullah 47 years of official life.

Fatima is pursuing a long delayed education studying English. She wears loose black trousers and a long black and white blouse that might be taken for Punjabi garb. A black shawl is worn casually over her dark hair as she serves tea and cake.

She is younger than Nazefullah. He remembers her as a little girl "before she achieved her nature," but Fatima has no recollection of Nazefullah till their arranged marriage when she went one night to live in his family's house.

Since Afghanistan they've added four more youngsters, all enrolled in Jefferson Elementary School. The family, of course, speaks English, but at home it's Pushti, and the younger children -- all born in America -- will be learning rudimentary Arabic.

Their oldest boy -- who was the babe in arms when they stole across the border -- is a senior at Eureka High, and has been admitted to the University of California at Davis.

Their two girls are now on college scholarships, one at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., the other at Pacific University in Cottage Grove, west of Portland.


woman in doorway Across Humboldt Bay in Manila lives Aghaghia, a 25-year-old emigré from Esfahan, Iran. When Aghaghia's telephone rings with a call from her mother in San Diego, she answers in flawless English, but lapses immediately to Farsi.

Aghaghia's firm, quiet voice, her assured bearing and her attentive dark eyes suggest a heritage of feudal privilege. But the privilege was disrupted by political chaos which saw her father, an avowed Marxist, endure a two-year arrest by the last Shah of Iran.

No plaques to God adorn Aghagia's small room. She shuns "habib."

Her long, jet black hair all but hides her silver earrings, and the stereo music filtering softly through a dozen green hanging plants attests to her self-acknowledged "alternative" lifestyle of the North Coast. She earns money as a care giver for the Humboldt Community Access and Resource Center (HCAR), and is studying at HSU.

From Iran Aghagia has brought with her the famous hospitality so evident in Near Eastern homes. Hot tea steaming from the kettle has awaited our interview. Aghagia misses the Muslim culture, but feels "fortunate to be brought up by a Marxist dad" who didn't demand that she abide by Muslim rules and regulations, though she's not a Marxist -- rather a socialist who respects others' religions.

Such social consciousness has led her to study a mixed major of appropriate technology, natural resources and political science, along with a minor in environmental ethics. Someday she hopes to help heal the world by carrying her knowledge abroad. And she is not enamored of the offers by local Muslim wives: "Do I have a nice Muslim boy for you!"

"The world has plenty of people already," she observes.

"I'm glad to be from a Muslim society, but glad not to be conditioned by it." She remembers, as a 5-year-old, going to the mosque with her grandmother wrapped in the concealing "chador." "But religion never really took. I don't like to be forced into worshiping. As much as I love it there, I couldn't live there."

Yet when Aghaghia travels to the East (she can't return to Iran with her U.S. passport, though her father has gone back to eke out a living on five acres) she's reminded of the warmth and hospitality of her childhood in the countryside surrounding Esfahan.

On the streets of India, Burma -- even China -- she sometimes extends the traditional Arabic greeting of one Muslim to another, "Assalaam a'alaikum" "The Peace be upon you" to which the stranger looks startled at her western dress, then replies, "Wa a'alaikum assalaam." "And upon you the Peace."

Wally Graves taught for many years at California State Universities and has resided in Humboldt County since 1979.


The home of the free

by Wally Graves


Denver Nuggets basketball star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was told by the National Basketball Association that if he didn't stand up for our national anthem before each game he couldn't play for the NBA.

Abdul-Rauf answered that he played not for the fans or coaches. He played for Islam. He said, "I get total peace from Islam; little peace from basketball."

Though it would cost him $32,000 a game, he refused to stand for a "symbol of oppression and tyranny."

In Denver a telephone opinion poll, respondents voted 8-1 against Abdul-Rauf. Here on the North Coast it was 9-1.

Star center Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic said, "People should respect different religious beliefs."

A deal was struck

The next Nuggets game, at Chicago, saw Abdul-Rauf stand.

But instead of raising his eyes to the flag, he cupped his extended hands before his face and prayed to God. Then, amid boos, jeers, waving flags and signs saying "Stand Up or Go Home," he scored 19 points.

"A good compromise," Michael Jordan of Chicago concluded.

We on the North Coast last fall saw a similar confrontation between faith and allegiance when Methodist Pastor Bud Tillinghast was removed as a lecturer in religion from Humboldt State University because he refused to sign the required loyalty oath demanding of instructors "true faith and allegiance" to the U.S. of A.

"'Faith' is a religious term," the Rev. Tillinghast explained. "And I reserve my faith for God."

I asked another HSU professor, and a Muslim -- Dr. Abdul Aziz --whether his required loyalty oath had challenged his faith to Islam.

"I know of nothing in Islam which denies allegiance to country," he explained. "One should be proud of one's country. God gives us food, the air, the water of our land. Islam teaches that if we do not feel loyal to our country, we should migrate from it."

Aziz migrated from Pakistan.

A 20-year-old Afghani Muslim named Asghar, now attending College of the Redwoods, told me that stories in the Eureka Times-Standard about Palestinian terrorists habitually confuse nation with religion when they substitute "Islamic" for "Palestinian."

"Those so-called 'Islamic fundamentalists' who bomb 'Israel,'" he said, "are not foremost 'Islamic.' That struggle is nation against nation, not Judaism against Islam. Why bring religion into it? The press doesn't identify Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bombing suspect, as a 'Christian.'"

Caught perhaps most severely in this web of loyalties are the American Black Muslims who feel betrayed by the white citizenry of their native land and who, in their sense of betrayal, have embraced Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.

Where are they to go for food, air, water, to satisfy their bodies as well as their souls?

Could it be American racism, rather than America, that Abdul-Rauf is protesting?

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