THE SMALL, carpeted room to the left of the entrance to the mosque is filled with girls my age and younger, kneeling in in an oval shape on the floor. Their youth group has just finished meeting when my friend escorts me in. She introduces me, and lets me explain why I’ve come to their place of worship on a chilly Friday night, and why I’m standing awkwardly with a bare head, my bare toes curling into the plush carpet. I tell them I’m writing a story about Arabs in New Orleans. It’s a straight-forward topic. But, as soon as I speak, things become complicated.
“So, you only want to talk to Arabs?” someone asks.
They begin pointing out the girls who would identify themselves as Arab, as I begin to realize how little I know. I bring out my best question: How does the Muslim community fit into a city known for parties and debauchery?
The girl I’m asking looks at me apologetically.
“Well, I’m from Kenner,” she says. “There aren’t any parties there.”
No topic involving New Orleans is simple. The city has layers of culture and religion that are at times separate and at times interconnected, but that all interact to paint the portrait that is recognizable as New Orleans. Creoles and Cajuns, Spanish, French, Pacific, and Vietnamese immigrants give us their unique twist on everything from festivals to bread rolls. Buildings that reflect European architecture contain restaurants that serve critters found in the swamp. Catholic cathedrals dominate postcards that tourists bring home alongside souvenir voodoo dolls. Everything in New Orleans seems to be complex, not least of all its race relations.
It’s a place of contrasts and layers, and the Arab community here is no different.
“Do you want to know how many Muslims there are in New Orleans?” Anwer B. asks me at the end of our interview. Of course I do. It is a statistic that has been difficult for me to find. He tells me they calculate based on the number of prayer attendees, taking into account those that don’t go regularly:
Anwer B. is Iraqi, and has lived in New Orleans for most of his life- almost 30 years. He works as the outreach and interfaith coordinator for Abu Bakr Masjid in Metairie. I asked him specifically about Arab-Muslims. Although Louisiana is nowhere near the top ten of states with Arab residents, the community is here and real, and faces unique challenges. What are those challenges, and in what ways have the Arab-American community found to be involved in their city?
Anwer B. has a special way of bridging the gap between the largely Catholic- and Evangelical- identifying city and the Muslims in his own community. He coordinates interfaith events, has spoken to classes at Tulane, and, most importantly he says, has developed personal relationships with leaders of other faiths. Speaking specifically of an Evangelical pastor and a Catholic priest, he says, “We have some sort of history. And the fact that you have that kind of history means that you can build on a trust that’s already there. So when someone asks you something, you can assume good intention rather than being defensive.”
Anwer B.’s work hits on one of the major aspects of the city that has the potential to separate Arab-Muslims from their neighbors- religion.
“I didn’t have a lot of Muslim friends,” says H.A., a student at Xavier University who went to a Catholic high school. “There were two other girls who were Muslims and wore the hijab later on…” Then she adds, “But that’s more Muslim than Arab.”
Although going to a Catholic school is not a unique experience for anyone growing up in Orleans Parish, it does seem strange for someone with such a strong religious identity to have received an education based around another, some would argue opposite, religious identity. There’s oftentimes few other choices. Some of the city’s best schools are Catholic, and they are also more prone to be divided by gender.
H.A. is Palestinian, and her family is a part of the community surrounding Masjid Abu Bakr al-Siddique, the mosque in Metairie. Although Palestinians make up a larger percentage of Arab people groups in the city, there are still very few compared to the cultural oases in New York and Michigan. Other first- and second-generation immigrants who practice Islam and are from countries even less represented are especially likely to flock to the place where they know they can find community- the masjid.
Islam is a religion that was founded on breaking down societal divisions. It is for everyone, regardless of race, wealth, or social standing. It has a remarkable ability to create community, structured as it is around recitation and prayer cycles, in the same language, so that a Muslim from Sudan could pray in harmony with a Muslim from Indonesia.
At my visit to the mosque, I sat down with Alaa Malik, a student at Tulane University. Her family is from Pakistan, which means she would not identify herself as Arab. She speaks Urdu, and she and I are in the same Arabic class together. But our discussion is not about ethnicity, it’s about the thing that binds she and other people from all over Asia and North Africa together:
“I feel like we as Muslims- our main focal point in any community is the masjid. People always congregate here… So I feel like this is the center of community. Islam is not just a faith you can practice on the days you want to. It dictates how you live your life. It’s how you dress, how you carry yourself, how you interact with other people… It’s basically encompasses everything…”
Alaa and H.A. know each other through Masjid Abu Bakr. Their stories about high school are very similar.
Alaa was the only Muslim in her school. And there were moments where she felt very different. We sit on a balcony above the main floor after the 8 p.m. prayers, and she tells me about dropping off her younger brother while she was still in high school. She was wearing her uniform and her ID, but she was still assumed to be her brother’s mother.
“It was very, very offensive,” she says. “I don’t understand why it happened.”
Her older sister, a medical school student at Tulane, sits next to me. She has a similar story, in which she was assumed to be her father’s wife.
“People assume the weirdest things…” Alaa says in wonder.
The entirety of the United States went through a shift in the way they viewed Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans back in 2001, and the recovery has been slow. Masjid Abu Bakr put up a gate at the entrance of their mosque in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because of hostilities in the surrounding neighborhood. It was the first time, since the mosque’s construction in 1988, that they felt the need to do so. Alaa and her sister’s anecdotes about prejudicial misinterpretation feel like the still-looming result of the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab rhetoric that appeared after 9/11. Still, when I asked H.A. about her experiences in the city, she had a hopeful perception. She acknowledged that in New Orleans, specifically, “there aren’t many Arab places to go”, but added that she thinks people are interested in learning.
It may be difficult, however, for Arabs who practice Islam to feel fully integrated into the life of the city. Alaa explained, “So many of what Muslims believe is in contrast to what the city is. So we don’t listen to music, we don’t dance, but that’s such a part of what New Orleans culture is.” She stressed that there are cultural expressions of music and dance, but they are practiced within the smaller Pakistani community.
H.A., too, emphasized that there, “should be a distinctive line, and I think that people should know what is religion and what is culture.” But unlike Catholics coming from Brazil and other parts of South America, who find their religion already represented, and their traditions effortlessly- and sometimes lucratively- blended with carnival, Arab immigrants can struggle to feel like they have a place in the city, which has three mosques to the 137 church parishes. It means that for some Arabs the two major facets of their life, are hard to reconcile with their city.
“It’s kind of weird to say,” Alaa tells me, “but I feel like I don’t really identify with the city as much as I probably should.”
Anwer B. offers a different vision of Muslims in New Orleans: “We have Muslims that are on Mardi Gras Krewes. We have Muslims who eat red beans and rice on Monday’s. And cook much better crawfish than they do, perhaps, a curry. We have Muslims that love the Saints.”
He tells me specifically about one man he knows who loves crawfish boils. He invites his non-Muslim neighbors, who enjoy his personality and humor as well as his crawfish. Although Anwer B. acknowledges that there are aspects of the New Orleans culture that are not accessible to Arab-Muslims, like the bar scene, there is still plenty that they can enjoy with their neighbors. Like food, religious discussions, business ventures, and, of course, crawfish boils.
“The difference is that we don’t put sausage in our crawfish,” he says. “It’s not a huge difference.”
This kind of accepting of New Orleans as home, even down to the enthusiastic embracing of the local sports teams, is crucial to finding identity in a place that was most likely not chosen. Something I did not think about be- fore interviewing several people is that most immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East do not sit down with a map of the United States and decide which state would be best for them. They are pushed out of their countries, and go where they can. H.A. explained that her parents had been planning on returning to their lives in Kuwait, but could not because of the invasion. Many Palestinians arrived in New Orleans after the Six-Day War in 1967, trading one West Bank for another. There are several Syrian and Yemeni families who settled in the Great New Orleans area during their separate crises, although it should be noted this is no longer possible.
“It wasn’t my choice, but I’m happy to be here.” W.S., a student from Saudi Arabia, is here on scholarship from her government. She transferred to Tulane from UNO, a school with a much larger Arab student population. Like many Arabs I spoke to, she did not choose New Orleans, but she likes it.
W.S. has travelled all over the United States during the last three years she has been here, and has seen more of the major cities than I have. I asked her which one she’d want to live in. She told me it was a hard decision, saying, “I can’t find a perfect place. But, New Orleans would definitely be one of my options because I really like it… I feel comfortable here, people are very friendly, and that’s the environment that I want to live in.”
W.S. stands as an important reminder that religion and culture are separate. She is not Muslim, and her community in the city is very diverse, without centering around a particular culture or religion. “I’m kind of open-minded,” she says. Her experience in the U.S. will be very different from some of her peers.
Anwer B. ends our conversation by telling me about one of Abu Bakr’s past imams, who went on to become an internationally renowned motivational speaker and scholar. The imam is also a die-hard Saints fan. One day, Anwer B. tells me, “he and several other of the imams and top scholars in the community- they had all gone to a Saints game. And the Saints won, and they’re like, ‘Well, come on, there’s like six of us there, how would God let the Saints lose the game?’”