Walkabout: Potlucks with Muslims aim to dispel fear and ignorance in Pittsburgh
February 22, 2016 12:00 AM
Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette
Muslims and non-Muslims gather at the Assemble Gallery in Garfield for a "Meet Your Muslim Neighbors" potluck meal.
Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette
Muslims and non-Muslims gather at the Thomas Merton Center in Garfiedl for a "Meet Your Muslim Neighbors" potluck meal.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A friend invited me to a recent potluck at the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield at which the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh would provide the food. Non-Muslims brought desserts and beverages.
More than 100 people were expected for the “Meet Your Muslim Neighbors” event — the latest in a series of gatherings to build understanding and support for people who, since 9/11, have borne the brunt of ignorance and fear in this country.
We spilled over into Assemble Gallery next-door and needed more chairs, which were provided by the Irma Freeman Center across the street.
This potluck followed a similar event in January that the Islamic Center held with Conflict Kitchen. The Jewish Voice for Peace organized a gathering in December, when Kelcey Sharkas, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center, and Gabe McMorland and Marni Fritz of the Merton Center planned the February event.
I joined a table that included Amna Mushtaq, a Pakistani native who lives in Monroeville. She was the only Muslim at our table. Each had at least one, kind of like a host ambassador.
At first I thought, “We should be welcoming them, feeding them, being host ambassadors to them,” when it struck me. We? Why not they? They live here. Many were born here. Many are citizens, natural or naturalized.
They join us in line to buy tickets, they ride the bus with us, their shopping carts roll alongside ours. They file their taxes and look forward to planting a garden in the spring, just as many of us do.
And that’s the point. They are us.
“We’ve lived here 17, 18 years,” Ms. Mushtaq said, her eyes darting as if to find the accurate number in the air. “We’ve stopped counting.”
She has sat on panels, spoken on radio call-in shows and attends potlucks to build understanding among non-Muslims, she said.
Wasiullah Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center, said programs such as the potluck are intended to build community among Muslims and non-Muslims to counter the effects of Islamophobia.
“We’re looking at any outlet possible for outreach,” he said. “We do a lot of interfaith work, where we learn as much as we teach.
“There is so much misinformation, which leads to more fear. I can’t speak up every time” someone spews hate speech, he said. “It helps to get our allies more educated in a safe and understanding environment so that they are empowered to step up.”
Over halal chicken, basmati rice, curried vegetables, grape leaves and hummus, Amna and I talked about food, recipes and cultural variations from place to place. Pakistani food, Nigerian food and Persian food are all different, but they are all foods that Muslims eat. So is pizza.
I asked her to explain “halal.” In the case of the chicken, the designation means it was killed and processed according to Islamic law. I asked her about women’s head coverings and why they vary. Some fit loosely, some cover everything but the eyes. She told me the words: hijab for the looser scarf, niqab for the least revealing.
Like the different levels of adherence to the dress code among Muslims, different levels of adherence exist in other religions too, whether in dress or in other practices.
The most telling impression she said she gets from people’s questions is that they think Muslims lead different sorts of lives than other people.
“We all have the same daily grind,” she said, smiling. “You have to know people” to realize how much we are the same.
As we ate at tables in Assemble, dozens of people next door at the Merton Center sat picnic style on spreads on the floor, eating, talking, laughing, gesturing, licking their fingers.
Amna said she has been in other cities and talks to Muslims who live in other cities, and that Pittsburgh is a place where people are nice to immigrants. I hope that becomes more true, because I know of exceptions.
No haters showed up to the potluck the other night. Everyone there was more than amenable to having Muslim neighbors. Like many people at events meant to change minds, only the choir turned out for this one.
But with each event, new choir members come. In time, the choir will be big enough and vocal enough to suppress the hate and all the evil it can do.
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or412-263-1626.
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