The Good That Storytelling Does

Opinion

By Sadia Shepard

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When I was a teenager in the early 1990s, several young women at my Boston-area high school converted to Islam and began to wear the hijab, a trend that raised some eyebrows. Several months later, the school administration asked my mother, a Pakistani American, to offer her perspective of Islam. As my mother described her relationship to her faith I noticed how my classmates were riveted. I learned the power of personal testimony and saw how curiosity can open up an opportunity for learning.

After my book, “The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home,” was published two years ago, I was reminded of my mother’s talk as I began traveling across the country to speak at museums, libraries, community centers and bookstores. My book tells the story of my Indian-Jewish grandmother, who eloped with my Muslim grandfather and converted to Islam in the 1930s, and my journey to India to reconnect with the community she left behind.

Many of my book events were hosted by Jewish organizations, and at each stop on my tour questions about Islam animated the conversation. Some readers confided that they had rarely, if ever, had the chance to interact with someone of a Muslim background. At first I felt wary of talking about Islam; my own background is non-traditional, and I am not a religious scholar. But most often, audiences were looking for my individual experience, idiosyncratic or not.

Why, I was asked, did my mother not wear a headscarf? Why did my Muslim grandfather help my grandmother’s Jewish family emigrate to Israel? What did it feel like to grow up in a home that combined Islam with other faith traditions? I began to see these questions and others as an opportunity for engagement. And I began to wonder if there was room for more Muslim voices to speak in Jewish venues, and vice versa. The Jewish Book Network, a program of the Jewish Book Council, matches authors with Jewish cultural organizations. The creation of a Muslim Book Network that could match authors with Islamic, Jewish and secular cultural centers would enable a two-way conversation so sorely lacking now.

As the author of a memoir, first-person narratives are my bag. But are they a worthwhile mode of interfaith dialogue? Can a lone voice ever responsibly reflect multitudes? And if not, are they worth throwing into the mix? I got my answer this September 10, while attending a service at the Islamic Center of New York University on the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr. Haroon Moghul, a young Islamic scholar, gave the khutbah, or weekly address. He encouraged his audience to be informal ambassadors and answer questions about Islam. Muslims need to engage with people of other faiths, he later told me, and worry less about whether they are qualified to do so.

“People are not really looking for a sermon, but the perspective of an everyday person,” he said, “when someone can say: ‘I’m a teacher, I’m a musician, I’m a filmmaker,’ and speak from that point of view.”

What Moghul seemed to be touching on was this: Curiosity can open the way for interfaith engagement, and Muslims should seize this moment to connect with people of other faiths, particularly amid the current groundswell of fear about Islam.

America’s Muslim community has only recently begun to consider the role of arts and culture in altering prevailing views of Islam in the United States and would be well-served to learn from the example of Jewish cultural organizations that have pioneered the use of book clubs, film festivals and lecture series to help foster and strengthen community ties. Two recent initiatives in New York City — the Muslim Voices Festival and the New York Sufi Music Festival — also demonstrate how cultural programs can reveal the diversity of Muslim self-expression.

Sharif el-Gamal, the chief developer behind the proposed Park51 Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, has stated that he wants to model his project on the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community organization and arts venue that welcomes people of all faiths. The creation of an open, inclusive space where Muslims and people of other faiths could gather to listen to and exchange ideas would be a valuable contribution to New York City and to the national dialogue taking place about Islam. It is a place I hope to visit someday.

Sadia Shepard is a documentary filmmaker and the author of “The Girl from Foreign” (Penguin Press, 2008).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.