Macalester Today Winter 2012

Rayanatou Laouali '12

Rayanatou Laouali ’12 is a Davis UWC scholar and winner of a 2011 Davis Project for Peace grant.

Muslim at Macalester

More than 30 Muslim students juggle fitting in with their Islamic faith and culture.

When you are Muslim at Macalester, it’s the little things that are tricky. When Rayanatou Laouali ’12 (Niamey, Niger) is introduced to a man, he will often reach out to shake hands. But where Laouali comes from, women don’t touch men who are not blood relatives. Each time she wonders whether to explain why she doesn’t shake hands—and risk offending someone she has just met—or accept his handshake, knowing it’s only intended as a friendly greeting.

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Rajisa Abdulle Omar ’14 prays in Macalester’s mosque, located on the lower level of the chapel.

When you’re Muslim—and live in a culture that’s mostly not—there are always decisions to be made, and sometimes you don’t even realize you’re making them. Laouali’s first experience living outside Muslim culture came when she attended the United World College in Victoria, British Columbia. Coming from a Muslim country, she was accustomed to all meat being halal or acceptable, which means that it was slaughtered in a specific way. “At home I never worried about food,” says Laouali. “I never imagined there was meat I couldn’t eat, so for the first three months at UWC, I ate the meat.” By the time she arrived at Macalester, she understood that she’d be confining herself to the vegetarian fare at Café Mac.

Rajisa Abdulle Omar ’14 grew up in Hopkins, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. Her family moved to the U.S. from Somalia with a six-year stopover in Pakistan in between. Although Abdulle Omar had spent half her life in the U.S., her mother nevertheless worried about sending her off to college.

However, while attending an open house at the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL), Mom was reassured by seeing the college’s mosque—a room located on the lower level of the chapel furnished with prayer rugs, Qur’ans, and other literature. “Any room could become a mosque,” explains Abdulle Omar. “Islam is a very portable religion, as long as you have a prayer rug and a Qur’an.” There has been a mosque somewhere at Macalester for more than 25 years, according to a 1986 issue of The Mac Weekly.

Which doesn’t mean it’s always easy to pause five times a day for the traditional salah or formal prayers. Although most of the formal prayers—early morning, around noon, just after sunset, and at nightfall— don’t conflict with classes, the late afternoon prayer sometimes requires flexibility in observance, praying a little early, a little late, or acknowledging that sometimes fewer prayers will have to do.

Even within the Muslim Student Association there is variety in practice and background. The MSA meets weekly and discusses topics such as, How do Muslim life and college life coexist? What about women’s roles? How do we understand creation and evolution? The group has a core of about 10 regular attendees out of 32 Mac students who have selfidentified as Muslim.

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Rajisa Abdulle Omar ’14 (center) and friends Sofia Haile ’14 (left) and Hannah Rasmussen ’14 (right) enjoying the Eid dinner, held last November.

MSA often holds an Eid “festivity” dinner in Smail Gallery. (There are two Eid holidays. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, which happens early in the fall semester. Eid al-Adha occurs after the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and is observed by those who have made the pilgrimage.) Last year MSA sponsored an event featuring the music and poetry of Muslim artists and this November they hosted a henna and Arabic calligraphy night. The group is also discussing holding an Islamic Awareness Week this year.

Salman Haji ’14 (Albuquerque) is originally from Arusha, Tanzania, but has lived in the U.S. for 11 years. He belongs to the Ismailism branch of Shia Islam and believes he is one of only two Shia Muslims at Macalester. Haji and Abdulle Omar both took the course Islamic World Past and Present. “Sometimes in class, we read literature critical of Islam,” says Abdulle Omar, “but when someone objected, the professor offered the chance to give another point of view.”

Asked his opinion about the climate in class, Haji says, “I never felt I had to speak for everyone Muslim, and I could speak up if a reading seemed biased. I felt great when students would ask me questions, and I could help them understand. For example, I have been asked, ‘How did you learn to recite the Qur’an and pray?’ To many it is fascinating that Muslims who don’t speak Arabic can memorize parts of the Qur’an at such a young age.” Another popular question is about the differences between Ismaili Shia Muslim and Sunni Muslim. Haji also tutors Arabic, which is not the language he grew up speaking—that was Gujarati—but one he has studied intensively.

A still-powerful memory from his Tanzanian childhood, reinforced when Haji spent a summer in Egypt studying Arabic, was hearing the Azaan, the five-times-daily call to prayer. So when he was asked to participate in the 9-11 anniversary memorial service, he called people to prayer in this traditional way. Protestant Chaplain KP Hong had approached the MSA about participating in the service and Haji volunteered because “I felt we needed to have a voice. Every religion needs to remember and reflect on the 9-11 attacks.”

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Asma Mohammed ’14 addresses her fellow students at the Eid dinner while Leila Malow ’14 looks on.

Despite the support of the CRSL and the fellowship of the MSA, being away from family during the holidays can be hard, especially when your holiday is largely invisible in the wider culture. But with the support of the Department of Multicultural Life, department coordinator and Muslim Afifa Benwahoud adds a touch of home by preparing special foods for Ramadan’s Break of the Fast.

She usually prepares a Moroccan garbanzo bean soup called Harira and a tagine with vegetables—chicken tagine with potatoes and olives or Moroccan meatballs and rice. The department coordinator also invites other members of the Muslim community to help cook or bake; some bring dates, walnuts, and milk; others a homemade cake, soup, or dish from another part of the Muslim world, such as Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco.

Afifa also practices Arabic with Haji and lets the Muslim students know about cultural events around town, such as a discussion of Arab Spring at a local coffee shop or the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival.

Most Muslim students are hard to pick out on campus, but not Laouali and Abdulle Omar, who regularly wear a hijab or headscarf. Abdulle Omar explains that at home or on an all-girls residence hall floor she needn’t wear a headscarf inside, “but on campus I always have to wear it.”

“Some Muslim girls see the headscarf as a burden, something their parents oblige them to wear, but many of us want to wear it and cannot imagine coming out without it,” says Laouali. “At home in Niger people really respect me for wearing it. If I’m out walking with friends who are not wearing a scarf, it feels like boys greet me more respectfully.” In the U.S., however, it can be a visual barrier, getting in the way of making friends. “It may cause people to see me as someone who doesn’t want to talk or be friends,” she says. “That changes when they get to know me.” Still, like most of their peers, these three students have developed friends from a wide variety of backgrounds through shared classes, dorm floors, and other social circles.

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Apparel-wise, it’s not just the hijab that’s different. Shopping for clothes in the Twin Cities is difficult for Laouali because many items designed for the American market are too revealing, short, or tight. “Thank goodness for the Somali malls,” she laughs. Two of these malls—Karmel Square and Village Market—are located in South Minneapolis, home to much of the local Somali population. Because many Somalis are Muslim, Islamic religious items, as well as food, clothing, books, and housewares, are also found at these malls.

Although most people at Macalester have a basic understanding of Islam, the Muslim students say they wish their fellow students knew more. Haji regrets the fact that many Americans are isolated from Islam, which means all their impressions of the faith come from the media, which often presents the Middle East as a violent area. He faults not only Western, but also Middle Eastern media, pointing out that Al Jazeera broadcast Osama bin Laden’s messages.

Most students are familiar with Muslim belief in one God and the practices of fasting, the Hajj, and charity for the poor, says Laouali. The thing that makes her heart drop is when she hears talk of jihad. “The fear the West has of Islam after 9-11 is understandable, but Islam is a religion of peace,” she says. “Some people who call themselves Muslim have done things that are not Islamic at all. It’s worth learning and reading about what the Islamic faith really is.”

One group that really does get the special needs of Muslims is Bon Appétit, the college food service. The Muslim students are grateful for the effort the food service staff has made to accommodate them. During the fasting days of Ramadan, Bon Appétit makes box lunches available, which students can pick up and eat after sundown when eating is permissible. They also appreciate that Café Mac always has non-meat options, says Abdulle Omar. “You don’t have to ask for it; it’s preconsidered, so you don’t feel like you’re being a burden.”

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Salman Haji ’14 (right) and friend Vincent Siegerink ’14 fill up at Café Mac’s salad bar. Bon Appétit, which runs student dining, has made a great effort to provide vegetarian options for Muslim students.

After a year of eating vegetarian food at Café Mac, Laouali took a different tact. She spent a year living in Hebrew House, where the Kosher dietary requirements were enough like the Islamic ones that they could all eat the same food. Still, for simplicity’s sake, those meals, too, gravitated toward vegetarian. As a bonus of living there, she learned about potato pancakes and the Jewish holidays. She now lives off campus in an apartment with two roommates— one a Muslim roommate and the other a devout Christian. In picking roommates, it was lifestyle compatibility rather than religion that mattered most.

Another potentially problematic aspect of campus living is the drinking scene. However, the consensus among the Muslim students seems to be that there is plenty to do at Macalester that doesn’t involve alcohol, and that they can easily avoid the party scene. “When I first left home, so many things were shocking,” says Laouali, “but I’ve gotten used to it. I just don’t go places where there is a lot of drinking and music with offensive lyrics.”

When asked what Macalester could do better to make Muslim students feel welcome and comfortable, Haji said, “Macalester is already doing so much that Muslims appreciate to accommodate us. It’s not about changing everything to make it feel like home. If too much was changed to accommodate us, it would not have been as enriching an experience.”

“Anyone can fit in at Macalester,” says Laouali. Then, wistfully recalling meals at home, she expressed one small wish on behalf of Muslim students: “If once in a while Café Mac could have halal meat, that would be wonderful.”