The shy girls at the Salaam Academy trickled into the room one by one, eyes only briefly glancing up from the floor to take in the table full of strangers, heads uncovered, there to greet them. It was Friday, the Islamic Sabbath, and the girls wore their best clothes to school. Brocaded lavender dresses, cream-colored silken hijabs and black chadors trimmed with gold wrapped the young girls in an elegance and modesty fit for the afternoon's prayer services.
The teenage girls from Highland High School fidgeted and whispered to each other. They had arrived with a list of questions in hand to pose to the Muslim girls as part of their field trip to Albuquerque's only Islamic school. They had been studying Islamic culture for the past few weeks in their Middle Eastern history class and wanted to talk about religion, politics and culture. Among other things, they wondered how their Muslim peers really felt about Americans, if they practiced the five pillars of Islam, what they thought of veiling, and if they could explain jihad.
The Salaam Academy opened only four years ago to provide for the primary education of Albuquerque's Muslim children and youth. Around 90 students are enrolled in its preschool through eighth grades, and all must study Arabic language and Islam in addition to standard core classes. The school principal and spiritual leader is also the Imam of Albuquerque's only mosque.
Although the classes are not gender-segregated, the student-to-student discussions that took place were. A few minutes before, the principal had welcomed the visiting Highland students with a warm, broad smile and led them down hallways decorated with children's art and Koranic verses written in fine calligraphy. Then he directed the girls and women into one room and the boys and men into another.
When all the seats at the long table were finally filled, the teachers instructed the two groups of nervous teens to introduce themselves.
The girls from the Salaam Academy were between 11 and 14, and most were born in the United States although they have roots in Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria. The Highland girls, an ethnically diverse group themselves, quickly said their names and then stared at their hands in awkward silence.
With gentle encouragement from Becky Gordon, the Middle East history teacher, they hesitantly ventured questions about boyfriends (not permitted), marriage (women decide whom they will marry), favorite sports (soccer and basketball), and the hijab. All the Muslim girls responded that they made the choice to wear head dress and were not pressured by their families, except one.
"I don't like it," she said. "I only wear it at school." All eyes turned to her, including those of the young principal who had just walked in.
"What are your feelings on it?” asked an eager Highland student.
"Oh," said the girl, knees now drawn up to her chest, "I have no feelings."
The conversation soon became animated, and both groups of girls started pitching questions to each other. Do you practice the five pillars of Islam? Do you fast, too? What kind of holidays do you have? What kind of food do you eat at home? What other languages do you speak?
The Muslim girls explained, when asked why their families immigrated to the United States, that they were looking for a free country. Some said there was no peace in their parents' country, that the government was bad, or that here we are rich. "It's easy to make a living here compared to Palestine," one of the girls offered. Like most immigrants, they came to this country seeking the American dream.
Isam, the school principal, came here one year ago from Kuwait, where friends warned him that America is not a safe place for Muslims anymore. "They all told me, ’watch out! They'll put you in Guantanamo,' but it's not true. No one's concerned about where you're from." Still, he said, six or seven people were killed in the United States after September 11 in random hate crimes against Muslims, although the first murder was a case of mistaken identity, and the violence was directed against a Sikh.
The girls said they experienced harassment sometimes because of their religion.
"Three teenage boys were sitting under a tree when we went to the library, and they yelled terrorist! at us," one of the younger ones recounted.
"When did this happen?," the principal said, indignant.
"About a month ago."
"Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded. The question hung in the air unanswered.
Renee, the seventh and eighth grade teacher at the Salaam Academy, later told me that was not the first time such harassment has been directed against her students. After 9-11 was the worst, she said, when the school received a bomb threat and had to cancel classes for a few days.
"If they knew our religion very well they would not say anything," said Isam. He looked weary, as someone who's tired of repeating himself over and over and having no one listen.
"What do you think about jihad?" one of the history students asked quietly.
The principal decided to address the topic. "The word jihad in Arabic does not mean a holy war. It means nonviolent struggle. Jihad can be speaking out against tyranny. To say righteous words before an unjust leader is the highest level of jihad."
One of the Muslim girls ventured a question. "When you guys first saw us, what did you think of us?"
After a moment's thought, someone said, "I have to honestly say there's some sense of intimidation. I mean, if I didn't know you I might be scared to ask certain questions."
"My family [wears the veil]," countered one Highland High student from Afghanistan. "So it's normal to me." She personally does not wear the hijab because she feels she does not know enough about Islam.
"I think you're beautiful," offered another Highland girl. She was impressed at their respect for their own religion. Other girls said the same thing. "It shows so much dedication ... you commit yourself to your god."
"Are you going to a public high school after this?"
"Yeah, and it's gonna be hard."
"Come to Highland!" All the girls voiced their agreement. One boasted there are 32 languages spoken at highland, another called it the the most diverse high school in New Mexico. “Nobody cares what you look like or what religion you are. Look at us, we're all different. You would love it there." The Highland High School girls—Chicanas, Anglos, African Americans, Afghanis and a Pakistani—were beaming as they spoke of the pride they had in their school.
The younger girls looked at each other and smiled.
After the talks were over the Highland students reconvened for lunch in their co-ed group. They compared notes on their discussions with the students at the Salaam Academy.
"I thought it was very interesting," said one boy from Highland, who called described himself as Christian. He was surprised to find out his Muslim peers share many of his hobbies, opinions, concerns and hopes for the future. "We have a lot more in common than we have differences,” he said.