Dinner with the People of the Book: Pakistani Muslims and American Jews Share a Night of Dialogue and Friendship

By: Melody Fox Ahmed

January 23, 2014

In early January, I had just returned to work at Georgetown University from the holiday break, and was busily helping to oversee set up for a dinner event we would be hosting that evening on campus.
Suddenly, I noticed a commotion outside the doors of the ornate, wood paneled hall where the dinner was about to start. A large group of people in Islamic dress, many women wearing niqabs and men with full beards, was gathered in confusion, arguing with a security guard. As I approached I could hear the guard denying them entry to the Muslim prayer space located in the building, which is a student dorm. "Assalamualeikum!" I shouted over the jumble of Urdu and English. The group turned, and suddenly their faces lit up. “Hello, Sister! How wonderful to see you! Please can you help us? “

Last April I had traveled to Pakistan for the first time as part of the US Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC) with Intersections International, and had been privileged to meet many of the distinguished scholars of Islamic Studies in this group, many of whom were visiting the United States for the first time as part of the Pakistan Winter Institute, a series of seminars sponsored by Georgetown University and the College of William and Mary. I had not known I would recognize so many of the scholars, who I thought of as friends, and felt the sort of surprised, “twist of fate” happiness one feels when you unexpectedly run into a childhood friend on a crowded street in a distant city. But this was more than a twist of fate—this reunion was carefully conceived, and the product of much planning by many people dedicated to creating new, strong bonds of friendships between ordinary Americans and Pakistanis, to change the story of mistrust and ignorance between our countries, and build peace, one relationship at a time.

I quickly showed my ID to the security guard and escorted the group to the prayer space, chatting excitedly about their journey and impressions of Washington, DC, and the seminars they’d taken part in so far, with the leading scholars of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations including John Esposito, John Voll, Jonathan Brown, Yvonne Haddad, and Tamara Sonn. Although fighting jet lag, the group was animated, saying how they had loved their tour of the DC monuments, how beautiful the campus was, how important it was for them to be in class with such world renowned scholars. I emphasized how important it was that they had made the trip all the way from Pakistan to be with us for the next two weeks. The session would be a unique opportunity for university students, faculty, staff, NGO, religious, and community groups to meet a group of the top young Islamic studies scholars from Pakistan—at first glance a group potentially the most serious, conservative, and unfamiliar with America.

The dinner we had together that evening quickly disavowed everyone in the room of any such stereotypes. Intersections had devised a program that was interactive and intentionally—although not always explicitly, interfaith—with a strong focus on shared similarities between Judaism and Islam. A cantor from a local congregation opened with a beautiful prayer, and soon led the group in a moving song of “Shalom, Salaam.” There was uplifting music throughout which enhanced a spiritual feeling of communion among the group. The grandson of an African Sufi master played and sang beautiful traditional songs. One of the Pakistani scholars was moved to an impromptu singing performance of the verses of Pakistan’s national poet, Muhammad Iqbal.

Important words were also shared. The group heard from a leader of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism about how her personal faith as a Jew led her to work tirelessly for justice for those affected by Islamophobia in the United States. We discussed the importance of Pakistan for world affairs and peace, and the overwhelming opportunity we have as educators to reach out to and support young people in Pakistan. International education—precisely the aim of the Winter Institute—was discussed as the way forward to solving some of the entrenched problems afflicting both our societies.

And we shared food and warm conversation together. In addition to the 18 scholars, around 25 community and interfaith leaders, scholars, and students were in attendance. The scholars arranged themselves at separate tables for men and women, and the American guests sat among them.

I sat at a table with female scholars from several different universities, among them International Islamic University and Fatima Jinnah University in Islamabad. An icebreaker was posed: tell the table something about yourself no one else knows. After the usual moments of silence and giggling that such exercises provoke, the confessions started to flow. “I sing in the shower and don’t care how I sound!” “Under this niqab, you won’t believe it, but she is the craziest, funniest person out there, although she looks so serious.” “I am the first woman in my family to go to college, despite my parents’ wishes, and now I have a Ph.D. and am a professor.” The mix of funny and serious confessions was moving for the way we quickly felt united in common experiences. Who hasn’t felt their true character hidden at times by their looks or dress? Clashed with their family? Sang in the shower? Looking around the room, I was moved to see each table filled with people of such different backgrounds quickly being brought together.

There were many fascinating moments from this remarkable dinner to report, but I will close with a theme that stood out, surprisingly: the interest in and respect for Judaism. As we listened to the rabbi give a closing blessing, the woman to my right leaned in close. “Does Georgetown offer Hebrew courses?” A bit surprised, I said we did. The scholar smiled and said she wanted to find a way to learn it and maybe this exchange would be able to make that possible. During a seminar at the Berkley Center later that week, another scholar mentioned that International Islamic University is the first and only university in Pakistan to offer Hebrew courses. And I later learned from the organizers at Intersections that so many of the scholars had requested Hebrew language resources that Intersections was preparing a shipment of Hebrew-English dictionaries AND copies of the Torah for them to take back with them.

This seems like a headline-worthy story to me. The positive attention the scholars paid to the speakers from the Religious Action Center at the close of the dinner was full of respect and friendship, and the lines were longest to meet them. The women lined up to take smiling photos with Deputy Director Rachel Laser, who had spoken out so strongly against the twin evils of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

During the dinner and the Pakistan Winter Institute, the too-often dominant narrative of animosity and mistrust between Jews and Muslims was firmly shown instead to be the brotherhood of the People of the Book, as described in the Holy Qur’an. This is the friendship of civilizations; forget the clash. Now the task remains to keep this work going and widen the impact.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.

comments powered by Disqus
Dinner with the People of the Book: Pakistani Muslims and American Jews Share a Night of Dialogue and Friendship