There's no denying we live in divisive times. But as two Somali-American Muslim women are finding, one way to confront the country's ugliest problems is to start with an invitation.
For longtime friends Fathia Absie and Ilays Aden, who, for the past year, have concerned themselves with the fight against intolerance and Muslim stereotypes, the request is simple: Come eat with us.
Absie and Aden cofounded the Eat with Muslims project, a Seattle-based dinner series that gathers groups of open-minded folks of any faith, from any culture, and sits them all down to share Middle Eastern cuisine.
And to be perfectly clear: That’s all it is. There’s no proselytizing. The meals aren’t some kind of Trojan horse to sneak in a lecture on faith. You eat. You examine issues with your dining companions. Hopefully, you laugh. And then, that's it. You go home.
With preconceptions subverted. Again, hopefully.
And though Absie and Aden would be the first to say that it would be delusional to think sitting down to a delicious meal is the answer to the country's most pressing racial and immigration problems, it's still a start. And both women see it: The idea of breaking bread with someone can stir a particular kind of closeness, if you let it.
And perhaps that’s enough.
"There’s a Somali saying that goes, ‘You can’t claim to know someone unless you share a meal with them or take a journey with them,’” Absie explains. A filmmaker and the mother of two girls, she was consumed by an urge to do something. So she, with Aden, a recent law school graduate, began hosting the dinners right after the 2016 election. It wasn’t long after their first get-together, hosted in the community room of an apartment building, that they noticed a recurring theme: The dinners represented the first time many of the participants had ever even talked to a Muslim in their lives.
The founders recall one such participant who left amazed that Muslim women weren’t the shy, quiet hijab-wearing figures she’d imagined. It may be a surprising admission, especially for anyone who lives in a progressive city like Seattle, but it also demonstrates just how high the barriers can be.
Aden recalls another diner who confided that they "always thought Muslim women didn't really want to talk, and they just want to be by themselves and be quiet."
"To have someone say that and admit that is cool," Aden says, "because we want people to be honest. We don’t want it to be our job to go around and shake everybody’s hand, going, 'I’m human; look at me.' We just want you to come to our event, and then go back to your respective communities and talk over family dinners or wherever about how you felt.”
"The only ways for us to get to know each other is if we sit down together," Absie adds. "We can just talk about families, work, whatever. And just the fact that you get to know each other and you see each other’s humanity. . . . Something is seriously happening in our country, and we just have to find a way to come together."
Absie and Aden are scheduled to host dinners in Des Moines, Iowa, this month, the first time they’ll host an Eat with Muslims gathering outside the Pacific Northwest. Beyond that, they’re gearing up to launch a web series starting in July, filming their encounters on the road as they encourage strangers to join a pair of Muslims for dinner.
The meals are free for participants—a no-brainer, as Absie explains. “We try to model the idea of Muslim hospitality, which is that if you invite people, you feed them.” In addition to their busy summer schedule, Absie and Aden have ambitious plans to take the series across the country.
“Inshallah, that’s the plan,” Absie says. “We have people reaching out to us from all over our great country wanting to meet their Muslim neighbors, which gives us so much hope about the future and about who we are as people. Our government may act in way that isn’t always wise, but the majority of the American people are kind, generous and care about the well-being of all of humanity.”
Andy Meek is a writer based in Memphis. Follow him on Twitter at @aemeek.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.