Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shadia: Passover a common belief for both Muslims, Jews

By now, you know that I'm a Muslim who mingles with Jews.

But the other day, I took it a step further and attended a Passover Seder at my friend Jazy's home. Seder is a ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover.

Seder means order. The feast consists of various specific foods, prayers and the retelling of the story of the Prophet Moses (who is also a prophet in Islam) who liberated the Israelites from ancient Egypt's brutal Pharaoh.

Yes, even though I'm Egyptian and very proud of my country, its history and civilization, I know that Pharaoh was no good.

And that's why we believe God sent Moses to save the people of Israel from his brutality. We believe Pharaoh wanted to kill the newborn boys of Israel.

We believe Moses, as a child, was saved by a member of the Pharaoh household, where he was raised by Pharaoh's wife. Unlike Pharaoh, who wouldn't believe in God, we believe his wife was a woman of faith.

We also believe the story of Passover, which is when Moses was able to cross the sea with the people of Israel. And we believe God handed him the Torah.

If you're starting to question whether I'm really Muslim or Jewish, let me clarify: I am Muslim.

We just share the same stories. The story of Moses is one of the first stories I learned as a child. Uncle Beautiful taught it to me.

But why do we share the same stories?

I asked my favorite imam, Waleed Basyouni, who lives in Texas, that question. He is a frequent guest speaker, nationally and internationally. He is also a member of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America-Fatwa and Research Committee, and an advisor to numerous Islamic societies around the U.S.

Basyouni told me the answer is simple: We share the same God. Duh.

"It shows that our book wouldn't contradict the other books because they come from the same source," Basyouni said.

And the reason the Quran retells the story of Moses and others is because Moses has rights over us as Muslims, and the stories allow us to recognize other people's struggles.

"It teaches us that we should never be the oppressor in our lives," Basyouni said.

Even though Seder is traditionally held on the first night of Passover, the one I attended was just a day before the last night.

Jazy wanted to bring together some of her Jewish and non-Jewish friends to share in this ritual.
It was a potluck-style Seder.

Wherever there's a potluck situation going on anywhere, I make my specialty, baklava, or — and this happens most of the time — I ask my mom to make an amazing dish called "macarona bashamel." Yes, bashamel is a French word, but we've taken it. My mom, Shadia, makes bashamel sauce from scratch.

But Jazy kept saying to make sure that whatever I brought didn't have meat mixed with dairy. "Kosher rules," she kept saying.

The dish I wanted to bring has meat, eggs, flower and milk. I didn't think that was going to work, so I brought something else after hanging out at the grocery store for a while. "Is this kosher?" I asked myself. "No, it's not. Well, maybe it is."

I was the only Muslim at Seder, but no one could tell. (Talk about successfully infiltrating a group.)

Even though there were many people I hadn't met before that night, there were several who were close to me. I felt at home with my good friends Jazy, Babak, Josh, Becky and Farahnaz.

As it got late, only a few of us remained. My friends and I starting talking about our religions, and we began exchanging what we were taught about the prophets Abraham and Moses. It was comforting how our stories were pretty much the same.

Then Jazy, with her lawyer smartness, asked a question: If we believe in the story of Passover, why don't we Muslims celebrate it?

I mean, it would make sense.

I didn't have an answer, but said I'd ask.

In fact, we do.

When the Prophet Muhammad migrated to the city of Medina and learned that the Jews celebrated Passover, he asked them why, Basyouni said.

When they told him, the prophet said in this case Muslims must celebrate it as well, because Moses has rights over us, Basyouni said.

The prophet then began fasting on that day, the day of Ashora, and ordered all Muslims to fast as well.

Ashora is the 10th day of the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, and it's different from the Ashora celebrated by Shiites.

My mom and Uncle Beautiful are among the Muslims I know who fast on that day each year.
And now that I know, I too will start fasting in commemoration of Moses' success over Pharaoh, and in sisterhood and brotherhood with my Jewish friends.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Play shows us all sides of the conflict

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was one of the first crises I knew about growing up.

And if you're Middle Eastern, Muslim or Jewish, the conflict is probably one of those things you can't escape.
I would love to be able to tell you exactly what I think. But I won't.

Instead I'll tell you this: I've studied it extensively, read about it, written grad school papers about it and know each side. There are more than just two.

I encourage you to set your emotions aside and find a good, objective source to read about each side. Then make up your own mind.

When I heard about a play in Los Angeles regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I was hesitant to watch it or write about it at all. But several people told me it was a good show.

I thought using "Sarah's War" to write about the conflict would be a way to address it without making it about politics.

The play, produced by Freedom Theatre West, is about a 23-year-old American woman who decides to join the International Solidarity Movement in the Palestinian Territories. She first goes to her uncle, who's Jewish, to ask for monetary support, but he passionately refuses, cites rocket attacks on Israelis and tells her to go to medical school or find another way to make a positive difference in the world.

She goes anyway.

Sarah's story is not fictional. There was a woman named Rachel Corrie who once decided to join the International Solidarity Movement in the Palestinian Territories.

In Gaza, Sarah faces Israelis, who view her as a terrorist sympathizer, and Palestinians, who believe she's a spy.

And that's where I noticed the great service this play is doing for audiences, and also for those who might see only one side of the conflict.

One character is an Israeli Defense Forces soldier who wants to be a teacher and feels conflicted about serving, but has also lost his father in a suicide bombing. His friend, a religious Jew, warns him not to enlist and tells him that once in, there's no going back.

He tries to get approval to serve in a less sensitive area, but that request is turned down by his superior, who tells him his options are very limited and they include military prison.

Then there's Sarah, who's tormented over the 8-year-old Palestinian girl and many others like her who get killed by the Israeli military, the bulldozers that keep taking down Palestinian homes and, of course, the olive trees.

There's also the young Palestinian woman who doesn't understand why Sarah would risk her life and tells her that over there, they're like ghosts whose lives don't matter to the outside world.

There are Sarah's parents who have to deal with what happened to her.

There's the elderly Palestinian woman who wants to help, but trembles in fear when the bombs start.
There are also those, from each side, who are used to everything as is.

It was hard for me not to sympathize with each one of those characters. I know that each one of them lives.
It's why this conflict is not a matter of black and white.

But I do think there is a way to solve it, if we put our emotions aside, don't use the conflict for political gain and start understanding that those in the middle of it, on each side, are human beings who deserve a home and deserve to live without fear.

I have a picture on my Facebook with a Palestinian boy and an Israeli boy walking shoulder to shoulder.
A few years ago, I tagged my friends and wrote this under the photo:

"I've tagged my friends in this picture because I believe that in all of us there's hope for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hope that a Palestinian can walk shoulder to shoulder with an Israeli. Hope that their children will live a peaceful life full of sharing and friendship. A long life. A deserving life. A life where they can dream under the falling stars and fulfill their dreams. I'm optimistic and I believe I will see it happening in my lifetime. I hope all of you believe, too."

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shadia: Passionate music where Middle East meets the West

Music runs through my blood like the Nile River runs through Egypt.

And if you know anything about Middle Easterners, Egyptians especially, you know we love our music.

My mom, Shadia, loves the songs and music of Egypt's oldest legends — Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Nagat, among many others. Use YouTube to find videos of Abdel Halim Hafez when you get a chance. You won't understand a word, but you'll love it anyway.

Some of my favorite singers died long before I was born, but I and many others love them because their music transcends the ages.

And I credit my mom for exposing me, though maybe accidentally, to great music.

For some outsiders, the Middle East offers nothing but trouble, dictatorships, extremism, oppression and war, but the Middle East I know has much more: great entertainment and food, rich history and cultures, kind and sincere people.

I love Western music, too. One of my favorite hobbies, aside from shopping, is singing. I sing in both Arabic and English.

But I've always thought of Western and Middle Eastern music as totally separate, not for mixing.

Until just two Saturdays ago, when I experienced something amazing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. It left me a changed person, mesmerized and more hopeful than ever about the world in which we live in.

Yes, a few hours of music did that to me.

But it wasn't just any music — it was the perfect merging of the Middle East and West.

When my friend and colleague Bradley Zint, who writes the "Classically Trained" column for Times Community News, told me that this year's American Composers Festival put on by the Pacific Symphony is celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, I told him I already wrote about Nowruz in one of my columns and that I didn't plan on writing about it again in the near future.

Brad insisted I check it out. He said it would be a shame if I didn't attend this one-of-a-kind festival and write about it.

I decided to attend with my friend Lauren Williams, who covers courts and crime for the Daily Pilot. Brad was right. It would've been a shame to miss it.

The four-day music festival debuted a new work by American composer Richard Danielpour, a New Yorker of Persian and Jewish ancestry. His "Toward a Season of Peace" is a seven-movement oratorio in Hebrew, Farsi, Arabic, Aramaic and English. It was sung by soprano Hila Plitmann and the Pacific Chorale. The piece was conducted by Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St.Clair.

The festival also featured "Kodaly: Dances of Galanta," conducted by Farhad Mechkat, who was once the principal conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, and the Shams Ensemble, a traditional Sufi and classical Persian music group. The festival was presented in collaboration with Farhang Foundation, which works to celebrate and promote the study and research of Iranian art and culture.

When Shams Ensemble began playing, I found myself being transformed to a world far away, a world where Shahrazad was telling one of her stories as people gathered around her to listen while the Shams played in the background.

But I also wondered why St.Clair was standing there quietly.

Then he started raising his arms and the orchestra followed, playing along with Shams.

Lauren and I looked at each other at the same moment and said, "Wow!"

"It was really special to hear these ancient instruments used with such passion accompanied with a full orchestra," Lauren later said. "I would have thought the traditional Persian instruments wouldn't blend together with the orchestral ones, but they added this depth and cultural richness that was incredible."

It really was incredible; my heart was beating with the music. And it dawned on me: If our music could be mixed so flawlessly, why do some of us tend to focus on our differences instead of our commonality?

Before that night, I had never experienced something so eye-opening, so passionate like the Middle East and sincere like the West.

You should be jealous, oh so jealous, if you didn't experience it.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.