Sunday, September 27, 2009

All the world is a stage, everyone has their part

I have gotten a little behind on updating with my book list. So far I have finished seven books which keeps me on track to reach my goal, at least technically. I didn't read much during Ramadan so it is a good thing I read ahead while I had the time. My main problem recently is that I have been having a lot of false starts. I started reading about George Washington in His Excellency and that just didn't stick. It was a little too dry for me at that moment in my life. Then I started reading Charlie Chaplin's autobiography which was quite good and I got about half way through but had to return it to the library before I left for Turkey. In Turkey I started both a book about Jackie Kennedy and Katharine Hepburn and both were a little too cheesy for me. So, now I am reading Angela's Ashes which should be done soon and a book about Hitler which is over 900 pages so that will take a little longer. So- that is my status and hopefully I do some good reading on the plane ride to Chicago tomorrow. After my recent laziness I am a bit concerned about getting to my goal, but hopefully this post will help me get back on track.

Book Four: Helen Keller: The Story of My Life
Read: 8/19/2009
Rating: 6.9/10

I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting too much from this book. Is that mean of me? Anyways, the book was pretty terrible. It was so cheesy and flowery and generally I scoffed as I read it. Most of the book is filled with passages like, "

To her credit she wrote this book while she was quite young. I am beginning to get the impression that no one should write their own autobiography until they are at least 50. (Remember Obama's failure?) And if you happen to die before that age-  if you were so wonderful, someone will find your personal journals and publish them anyways. 
So- the book was a giant fail BUT after the part HK writes as the formal part of the book, there is a section of letters between her and her many friends. This part of the book is very impressive. For one, she was friends with amazing people likeMark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charlie Chaplin. Interestingly, her letters to random people who showed her kindness and to her heroes like Mark Twain held the same love and admiration. I was really impressed by that and the fact that she wrote thank you letters for the most simple of simple things. She definitely got lots of sweet gifts and special treatment because of her circumstances but she was so incredibly appreciative of it. Her humility in the face of the love she was shown is probably the best take away from this book and you can fully see that in her correspondences. And even at this young age she rarely sees things as impossible. It was quite inspiring in a way I didn't expect!
You can find a digital copy of the book here
Book Six: Obsessive Genius; The Inner World of Marie Curie
Read: 8/25/09
Rating: 7.18/10
But afterward, when I was restored to my human heritage, Mildred and I grew into each other's hearts, so that we were content to go hand-in-hand wherever caprice led us..." or "Thus I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, "Knowledge is love and light and vision." Barf. 

This book was great for someone who knows nothing about science. It went a little into the science in her life but did a nice job of talking about it in an accessible way and making it more interesting by intertwining it with the more personal details of Marie Curie's life.
Since I read it quite some time ago, I can't review it all that well. However, I jotted down this quote from the book though. After her husband's unexpected death she wrote “I live only for your memory and to make you proud of me.” It was such a sweet sentiment. The two seemed to live only for their work on the outside but this piece from her journal shows a more tender side of her. 
What they didn't realize at the time, or refused to admit was that it was their work that was killing them. The radioactive material they were exposed to every day was slowly destroying their bodies. Even today the clothes they wore are radioactive!
Marie Curie was the first woman to teach at the University of Paris and the first person, man or woman to win two nobel prizes but still the French Academy of Science refused to admit her. This was just one of many cases of discrimination she faced as a woman in her field. In fact the Nobel Prize for her discovery initially didn't even mention her name, let alone list her as one of the recipients. However, in time, despite the prejudice she rose to become known as one of the greatest scientist in her time.
“Throughout history, once an icon has been created, there is a societal compulsion to destroy it. Marie Curie’s downfall was to be as fierce as a Greek tragedy.” After her husband's death, Marie Curie eventually found another lover but he happened to be married. Once the press found out they attempted to destroy her and she was even asked to leave the country. No mind that her lover was infamous for his many affairs and did not suffer at all in the scientific community or in general society. 
Eventually Marie Curie was able to recover from these attacks and continued to contribute greatly to science. The book paints a great portrait of the deep sadness that permeated her life and of the 'obsessive genius' that inspired her work.
Overall, this is a good and quick read- I recommend it. 
Book Seven: Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia
Read: 8/30/09
Rating: 6.8/10

After reading about all these ultra successful women I needed something more street. A book about the mafia seemed in order. After seeing this cover I quickly knew this was the book I was looking for.
Sammy (Yup, we even kind of share the same name!) is the highest member of the mafia to ever defect.  In his autobiography we learn that Sammy kills lots of people and is swallowed into the mafia at a young age. He himself describes moments of his life as seeming like they were straight out of the Godfather. (I have not seen any of these and now am excited to finally watch them.) I couldn't help but laugh out loud (lol for the youngins) at lots of parts in the book. They just seem so over the top and so removed from any type of life that I have known that it is hard for me to relate or understand. Reflecting on the book it is kind of chilling to think of how many people he killed and that he talks about it without any remorse or sense of understanding of the wrongness of his actions. He just always attributes it to the fact that this was the life that they all lived in and getting shot dead by your friend was just a part of that reality. 
In the book he seems to think really highly of the mafia code. There are no problems with killing people left and right but since the family that he was in didn't deal with drugs, dealing with drugs was inconceivable to him. He was incredibly loyal to his Mafia family and the code until the end. Then a new type of gangster comes into the scene. The John Gotti type. Flash, money and no respect for the code. When they end up in prison together, Sammi realizes that the mafia of his childhood is gone. He is only loyal to that dream he once lived in and wants nothing to do with the mafia of today, the John Gotti mafia. So, naturally, he sells out Jon Gotti and all of the secrets of the mafia along with him. (In all fairness, John Gotti sold him out first.)
The end is kind of heart breaking. He loses his family (his wife supposedly has not "known" that he was part of the mafia) and has to go into hiding. That is where the book ends. Since then he has actually left the witness protection program and says he is not afraid to die and if a hit team comes after him, they better expect a good number of body bags back. Unfortunately, he didn't leave his life of crime forever, he started a huge ecstacy ring and now is back in prison. What an idiot? He is now dying of Grave's disease in an Arizona prison. 

Friday, September 25, 2009

We don't need no education

On Wednesday evening I arrived in London. Ahhh... another new beginning!  Everything went without a hitch. My luggage was not over weight. (Small miracle!) The British Airways hostesses were incredibly nice! (Slightly bigger miracle.) The plane landed over half an hour early after a perfectly smooth flight. Once I got off, Feraz's cousins Z and S were right outside of baggage claim to pick me up. Everything was perfect! We drove to the house that Feraz and I will be staying at. The place is so amazing! It is artsy and scholarly. It has a great guest room with a fireplace. The whole house has tons of character. The kitchen has a retro floor. The garden has a line with pins to dry our clothes on. There is a small, cozy study that is wallpapered in books where I envision writing brilliant revelations on gender theory. There are political posters on the walls and the owner's marvelous paintings are all over the house. There are so many biographies for me to read! I love everything about it. Everything is going so perfectly that I feel like I am in some wonderful, spectacular dream. Seriously that is exactly what I thought to myself. "Wow, this is such a dream life I live." 

But as we know, all dreams must come to an end and I got a rude awakening when I went to LSE to register the next day. It turns out that you can't get a student visa once you come to Britain. You have to have it before you come into the country. And you can't simply leave the country and go just anywhere to get the student visa processed, you actually have to go to your home country. When the lady at LSE sat me down to tell me this I literally felt in shock. Like the baby I am, tears welled up in my eyes. There was no way I could afford to go home and back and still make it in time for classes. I couldn't imagine how much a ticket to leave three days later would cost. From what I was hearing, I basically would not be able to go to LSE this year. 

As I headed back home I tried to see the bright side of things. I could go back to Istanbul and work or I could just start at my firm at a more normal time or I could travel all around the world. Although all these options seemed incredible, they weren't what I had mentally prepared myself for. And worst of all, in fact the deal-breaker was that they did not include Feraz. After this last month without him, the idea of leaving him for any significant period seemed too impossible to consider. 

So, it was time to brainstorm ways to still go to LSE. Essentially I had to have a new Visa letter issued, fill out my new Visa application, fly back to the US, preferably to Chicago where I could get a same day turn around, get a biometrics appointment and get my actual Visa appointment and hope that it all gets approved. Uh...yeah. I reconsidered how much I wanted to pursue this Masters... Enough to go through all this. So on Monday I will fly back to  Chicago and spend the next seven days there trying to sort this little mess. Please pray from your heart of hearts that all this works out! 

On the bright side, Feraz flies in tomorrow and I am so excited to share the magic of this place with him. We'll get a full two days together before I have to shoot off but hopefully after that we can just settle in and enjoy Glooorious Britainnnn. And when I get to Chicago on Monday, I get to spend a full week with my brother. Something that has not happened in the last decade! Hopefully I'll also get to see a bunch of my friends and maybe even drive up to Michigan on the weekend and see my family! 

It is strange how life never plays out how you expect it to. When I left the US in August I was sure that I wouldn't be returning to that soil for a long, long time. One year ago, you couldn't have paid me enough to believe that I would be living between Istanbul and London in the circumstances I am. And yet, here I am. And it feels that this is exactly how it was meant to happen. And even in all its imperfection, somehow it is perfect. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Allahu Allahu Allahu

It was a frustrating day at work. I was having a hard time fasting. I was sick of the apathy of all the Muslims around me. I am in a Muslim country. I want to feel like I am in a Muslim country. Sorry, if that makes me suck. But most, most of all, I don’t want to feel like I am defending my choice to fast every day. So, as I make my way home, I feel exhausted on many levels. I am eager to get to my apartment, to lay down and find that peaceful place that will help re-center me.

I get to my door and start the five-minute treasure hunt in my purse to find my keys. Five minutes pass. No keys. I sit down on the stoop and take everything out one by one. No keys. I hear the azaan in the background and I am desperate to open my fast. I reach into my purse to find my wallet so I can go buy some food. No wallet. I call my roommate to see if she will be home any time soon. Of course not.


I dig in my purse and find a few liras at the bottom and go and buy a “Le Cola Light” and a pide (a round bread that is sold here in Ramadan). I eat this glamorous dinner on my stoop where several of my neighbors question what I am doing.


Realizing that I can’t sit on my stoop all night, I call my friend and ask if I can spend the night. As always, she saves me. I head out to catch the bus to her house. As I walk to the bus stop I start to notice the Besiktas jerseys everywhere. It is game day. Soon the streets are swarming with Besiktas fans.


Usually this is a sight that makes me happy. But today I only see their drunkenness and how stupid they all seem. The air smells of cigarettes, filth, alcohol and machismo.


It is Laylat al Qadr in Istanbul.


Ramadan is the holiest month for Mulsims and Laylat al Qadr is the most special and holy of nights for a Muslim. On this night all the angels come down to Earth. It is the night on which the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhummad. It is a night that is considered to be better than a thousand months. Whoever prays with sincerity on this night will have all their past sins forgiven. 


Around me all the drunk people stumbled around. Their cheers and chants were deafening. In front of me a huge fight broke out between the police and a bunch of belligerent drunks. I felt the chaos would swallow me before I could even reach my friend.


I longed for the homes of the Salmans, Jukakus and Fahmys; these families that I have always loved and admired and had always opened their homes on this special night.  I longed for my own family and Feraz and for the peace and discovery that always comes on this night. I felt so helpless that I just sat down on a bench and cried.


Eventually, I made it to my friend’s house. She restored me with lentil soup, tea and Nutella. She made me lay down and take a nap to erase all the bad thoughts in my mind. Her other friend joined us and we made our way to a place where we could stay up all night and pray and worship.


In this random room in Fatih I found the peace that comes from sincerely seeking Allah. Among these complete strangers I felt my frustrations melt away. I realized that you don’t have to be in your town, in your musjid or your own home to experience the power of these last ten days. Allah’s love and mercy is so strong that it can find us across the world, through booze filled streets, and even past our own hardened hearts.


“Oh Allah who removes worry, the one who eliminates grief, the grantor of the prayers of the helpless, oh most merciful and compassionate of all in this world and in the hereafter, only You will show mercy on me; give such mercy to me that I do not need the mercy of anyone except you.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

And it rained all night and then all day

The evening starts innocently enough. I head out of the huge spinning doors at work and walk the short distance to the dolmus stop. For some reason I am feeling extra indecisive today. Dolmus after dolmus going to Besiktas passes by but I reject them all. One is too full. I don't like the color of the other one. Finally, annoyed with myself, I jump into the next Besiktas dolmus that arrives.

Seconds into the ride, the passengers are yelling at the driver. Although they are speaking in Turkish I am confident they are saying something along the lines of "You jerk! Why are you driving like a maniac?!" If you know anything about riding in taxis or dolmuses in Turkey, you know that the default is really crappy driving. So, you can imagine how bad this guy had to be driving to get a bunch of Turks riled up.

After many near accidents we came close to my stop. Then we had an actual accident. As the driver swerved to pass someone, he slammed into another car. As if in slow motion, my body lunged forward. My two knees slammed straight into the metal bar in front of me. I gasped for breath and then looked down to see if my legs could still possibly be attached to my body. Still there. Whew.

After a good amount of swearing and yelling, the driver continued on his way. I stumbled out of the dolmus feeling each painful step. Luckily I had on three inch heels. And the whole walk home is on cobblestone. And their was bumper to bumper traffic so everyone could watch me walking like an idiot. I used every ounce of concentration I had to ignore the pain and try to maintain my balance. To no avail. I fell forward five feet. Again, in slow motion. As every person in that stand still traffic gawked on. Thankfully, I had on a fabulous outfit. Whew. Again.

After pulling myself together, I looked up to see a group of three guys standing a few feet ahead of me. Throwing back beers. In this Muslim country. During Ramadan. As the Azan went off in the background. I wanted to cry. 

At home I nursed my knees which were actually feeling much better after the initial shock. Even though it was a lot of fun to sit in bed and pout about how much my life sucked and how much I missed Feraz, I dragged myself out of bed and forced myself to go hunt for dinner. I told my roommate I would be back in ten minutes. 

I passed about 84 restaurants that all looked unappetizing and kept walking. Even after fasting all day, I couldn't find one place where I wanted to get food. Soon I was about fourty minutes from home standing in front of an everyday shop. Once every few days I go into this shop, ask the price of something and then don't buy it. I am pretty sure the store owners want to throw a rock at my head.

But again, I walked in. I spotted the umbrellas. I needed an umbrella. Perfect. The store owners eyed me suspiciously. I was actually holding an umbrella. (It was my roommates.) They had no faith I would purchase their umbrella. They turned away and paid attention to people who were more likely to be actual customers. I cooly walked up to the counter and laid down a ten lira note. The umbrella was mine for 6.5 liras! Their shock was priceless. 

And then, the universe showed me how uncool I was. An incredible down pour came out of nowhere. It was like some faucet in the sky was on full blast. It mocked my two umbrellas. Even ten umbrellas would have been useless! It was the craziest rain I have ever seen. I ran across the road to take refuge in an outdoor cafe where I could watch this incredible show. In the huge outdoor section of the cafe everyone was crammed against the walls, staying close to the only seemingly dry spots outside. But there was one table in the middle of it all that was somehow staying dry. All around it there was rain falling down and like the opposite of an oasis, it stood completely dry in this sea of rain. I quickly sat down at it and ordered my dinner and tea. I felt like I was in a secret fortress. The rain fell down on all sides of me and sitting there in the middle of it all, I kind of felt like a superhero. 

For a good hour I sat at this table, slowly sipping turkish tea and watching the world try to run from the rain. There was a huge parade of the cheap five lira umbrellas that everyone buys off the street when there is an unexpected rain. Couples were huddling close to each other. Some laughing, others just trying not to get wet. Behind them the Bosphurus shone in the night. There was the smell of cigarettes wafting through the garden. There was that strange, calm feeling that comes with an incredible storm. It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. 

Finally, the rain slowed down a bit and I started the long walk home. The rain continued to come down, more lightly now. The sidewalks had huge puddles everywhere. Night had fully descended. Somehow life felt incredibly different from how I had ever known it. Each cobble stone step I walked on seemed like a part of a bridge I was crossing. And though I cannot explain it, this night when the worst floods in Istanbul's history destroyed so much in parts of the city, it felt like an awakening, a renewal and a rebirth. Here's to being born again and again. To always, always getting out of bed and meeting life. Even when our knees are incredibly weak! 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

She leads a glamorous life...

The airlines lost my luggage. I have never had to deal with lost luggage before. After a long flight, there is no worse feeling than watching the conveyor belt turn and turn and turn with no sign of your things. Slowly you see all the people from your flight walk away with their treasures. You stare despondently at the empty luggage cart for which you just wasted 3 lira and have nothing to put on. Then you try with your crap Turkish to find the customer service people. 

Perhaps it is a good thing I was alone because I would probably have found some way to blame Feraz for losing the luggage had we been together. I had to wait two hours in the customer service room before they even talked to me. When they refused to do anything to help find my suitcases, I pleaded "Please, you have to find them. My whole life is in there."


On the Saturday night before I came, I was talking to a friend who asked how I planned to pack for going away for over one year. I replied, I am about to find out. I am not a great packer in the best of times. I recall one trip to Switzerland where all my friends showed up with carry-ons and I came with a massive full size suitcase. I didn't hear the end of that for the rest of the trip. (But people did borrow the many warm clothes I brought along!!) Feraz always groans when we go somewhere because somehow I always manage to convince myself that there is a ton of crap that I have to have with me. Eighty percent of it usually goes untouched or unworn.


Before I left the US Feraz and I were driving and I said to him, “I can tell you the story about every piece of clothing and jewelery I am wearing. I can tell you who gave it to me or the thought process I had when I got it, who I was with and what price I got it for.”


I guess my point was that although I have more clothes than any human should, almost everything I own has sentimental value of some sort. I love shopping because I am materialistic but I also love shopping because I like hunting for a good deal, making plans with friends, walking around seeing all the colors and sparkles, finding a fabric that feels like magic against my skin, putting outfits together like an art project and then finally sitting down completely exhausted and spent from shopping and eating a big meal that almost always includes a chicken burger, fries and coke. It is an experience. In some ways it is even like a sport. In other ways, it is just really sad. :)


But how do I look at my masses of clothes and decide what I will take with me? At one point when I was deciding to pack a shirt I thought, this is too hippie-ish, you don't really dress like this anymore. Then I thought, but think of all the hippies you will meet this year. Who knows, you might need it come next year. Eventually, I sorted out all the best of the best. I picked my very favorite things and packed them up into two suitcases with a dismal 50 pound weight allowance for each.


Then the airlines lost it all. My life. Gone.


It seems appropriate that as I am back in Istanbul, my magical place of discovery and self-improvement that God sends this challenge to me. Lately, I have been spending a great deal of time reflecting about materialism. I am a materialistic person and I am a recovering shopaholic. (Feraz may disagree with the recovering bit.) I love things. I especially love nice things. I have no shame in saying that I hope to one day have a full Burberry wardrobe. It is classic and timeless. It is fashion perfection. Those silks and cashmeres, the perfect cuts, the fact that you can never put a price on a dress that makes you look ten pounds thinner.

But as I try to become more socially aware and more sensitive of my role in the world, I have to acknowledge the realities of consumerism, capitalism and superficiality.


Islamically I feel there are conflicting views sent about materialism or wanting the 'good life.' There are various accounts that stress that we should ask for the best of this world and the best of the hereafter. The Believer does not take an oath of poverty, and in fact one of the most famous and respected imams was said to wear a new garment each day. On the other hand our own Prophet lived by very humble means. Was he applauded because as a leader, it was more relevant for him to live humbly so as not to alienate himself from his followers? That he had to sacrifice first because he was asking others to sacrifice so much for this new religion? Or was the humility in his lifestyle the lesson itself?


Allah says in the Quran, “If it be that your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your mates, or your kindred; the wealth that ye have gained; the commerce in which ye fear a decline: or the dwellings in which ye delight - are dearer to you than Allah, or His Messenger, or the striving in His cause, then wait until Allah brings about His decision: and Allah guides not the rebellious.”


It is the most holy of months, the most blessed of days. And so I lost my things. But I have my life. I have my lips with which to worship Allah, to ask for His mercy and for His help. Blessed are we who get to see another Ramadan. Who are given another chance at redemption. It is ok for us to want the best of this world, to want that which is material. But when things happen that take away some of our wealth or health or happiness we must strive to remember that nothing can be more dear to us than Allah, that we should cherish nothing more than guidance and truth and with that knowledge we must find peace.


Surely, we are only travelers in this world. We are bound to lose things along the way. I am grateful that it is only luggage that I have lost this Ramadan.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

After being worried about getting to work on my first day, this morning I felt like something of a pro going to work. Having already done it yesterday, I already know exactly which dolmus (shared taxi) I have to get on and have the exact change for the driver. I feel kind of like a big deal. I also have the bright idea that I should read while commuting to work.  It’s not a very long ride but I think it it is a good way to stay on track with my reading goals.

So, I delve into unnamed book and keep an eye out for my work. Soon, I notice the dolmus is completely empty. Strange. I look around and can't recognize the neighborhood I am in at all. This doesn’t seem like the route we went  on  yesterday. In fact, this is a part of Istanbul I have never seen. Suddenly we are careening in and out of random streets. I start to panic. Obviously I am being kidnapped.

I take out my cell phone and think of who I should call. I try to bluff the guy, pretending to call a friend at work and saying that I will be there soon.  Realizing that this guy doesn't know English, I just sit and wait for my untimely demise.

After about ten minutes the dolmus pulls into a massive parking lot. This is it. I am going to die in some giant parking lot in working class Istanbul. I am at peace with this. Then I notice that lots of dolmus drivers bring their victims to this lot! In fact, there are rows and rows of dolmuses lined up everywhere. It is going to be a mass murder!

The driver parks and turns around throwing his hands up as if to ask why the hell I am still there. I feel like the little kid who fell asleep on the back of the bus and didn't wake up until the bus driver is all the way back at the bus lot. I say, Levant?? Lutfen? He rolls his eyes at me. Then he yells what could mean nothing other than, "Get Out!!" I try to sit there for a second thinking of what I should do. (There are no taxis anywhere.) He yells again, "Get Out!!" Alriiiiight I think. Out I go. I start walking up the dolmus lines to see if there is anyone else willing to reply to my more sophisticated "Levant istiyorum lutfen." I am thinking I am an idiot. I need to do my Turkish lessons. I need to look out the window while I am being driven to work. I need to not think I am being kidnapped every time I am an idiot. 

The dolmus driver sees me and gestures for me to follow him. He takes me to the front dolmus and then as if dealing with a mildly retarded person, he tells me to sit down and stay there. So, I sit and wait and wait... Eventually another driver comes and off we go. We pick up passengers until there is no room to breath on the dolmus, let alone be able to look out the window to spot my work. 

When I see a small sliver of the mall that I work by in the distance I jump up to get out. I can walk the rest of the way! I am just scared he is going to take a turn and take me somewhere else all together. I force my way through the wall of people and as the dolmus is still moving I jump out.  As I stumble and almost fall, I try to act cool. No worries, I think. I am an expert at getting to work.

Yippie! Obama's remarks from the recent White House iftaar dinner. I was so happy to see some of my old DC friends on the attendees list and particularly happy to see that Karamah was represented! I am really happy to see this speech after reading so much against Muslims in the media and after seeing so many ignorant remarks regarding CAIR’s actions against the judge in Michigan. Thank you Barak Obama and the White House for affirming that there are many, many Muslims like myself who sincerely love this country and consider ourselves a part of the fabric that makes it so beautiful.

THE PRESIDENT: Please, everybody have a seat. Thank you. Well, it is my great pleasure to host all of you here at the White House to mark this special occasion -- Ramadan Kareem.
I want to say that I'm deeply honored to welcome so many members of the diplomatic corps, as well as several members of my administration and distinguished members of Congress, including the first two Muslims to serve in Congress -- Keith Ellison and Andre Carson. Where are they? (Applause.)

Just a few other acknowledgements I want to make...(I cut this part out)

And most of all, I want to welcome all the American Muslims from many walks of life who are here. This is just one part of our effort to celebrate Ramadan, and continues a long tradition of hosting iftars here at the White House.

For well over a billion Muslims, Ramadan is a time of intense devotion and reflection. It's a time of service and support for those in need. And it is also a time for family and friends to come together in a celebration of their faith, their communities, and the common humanity that all of us share. It is in that spirit that I welcome each and every one of you to the White House.
Tonight's iftar is a ritual that is also being carried out this Ramadan at kitchen tables and mosques in all 50 states. Islam, as we know, is part of America. And like the broader American citizenry, the American Muslim community is one of extraordinary dynamism and diversity -- with families that stretch back generations and more recent immigrants; with Muslims of countless races and ethnicities, and with roots in every corner of the world.

Indeed, the contribution of Muslims to the United States are too long to catalog because Muslims are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities and our country. American Muslims are successful in business and entertainment; in the arts and athletics; in science and in medicine. Above all, they are successful parents, good neighbors, and active citizens.

So on this occasion, we celebrate the Holy Month of Ramadan, and we also celebrate how much Muslims have enriched America and its culture -- in ways both large and small. And with us here tonight, we see just a small sample of those contributions. Let me share a few stories with you briefly.

Elsheba Khan's son, Kareem, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when he lost his life in Iraq. Kareem joined the military as soon as he finished high school. He would go on to win the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, along with the admiration of his fellow soldiers. In describing her son, Elsheba said, "He always wanted to help any way that he could." Tonight, he's buried alongside thousands of heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. A crescent is carved into his grave, just as others bear the Christian cross or the Jewish star. These brave Americans are joined in death as they were in life -- by a common commitment to their country, and the values that we hold dear.

One of those values is the freedom to practice your religion -- a right that is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Nashala Hearn, who joins us from Muskogee, Oklahoma, took a stand for that right at an early age. When her school district told her that she couldn't wear the hijab, she protested that it was a part of her religion. The Department of Justice stood behind her, and she won her right to practice her faith. She even traveled to Washington to testify before Congress. Her words spoke to a tolerance that is far greater than mistrust -- when she first wore her headscarf to school, she said, "I received compliments from the other kids."
Another young woman who has thrived in her school is Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. She's not even 5'5 -- where's Bilqis? Right here. Stand up, Bilqis, just so that we -- (laughter) -- I want everybody to know -- she's got heels on. She's 5'5 -- Bilqis broke Rebecca Lobo's record for the most points scored by any high school basketball player in Massachusetts history. (Applause.) She recently told a reporter, "I'd like to really inspire a lot of young Muslim girls if they want to play basketball. Anything is possible. They can do it, too." As an honor student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls -- she's an inspiration to all of us.

Of course, we know that when it comes to athletes who have inspired America, any list would include the man known simply as The Greatest. And while Muhammad Ali could not join us tonight, it is worth reflecting upon his remarkable contributions, as he's grown from an unmatched fighter in the ring to a man of quiet dignity and grace who continues to fight for what he believes -- and that includes the notion that people of all faiths holds things in common. I love this quote. A few years ago, he explained this view -- and this is part of why he's The Greatest -- saying, "Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams -- they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do -- they all contain truths."

They all contain truths. Among those truths are the pursuit of peace and the dignity of all human beings. That must always form the basis upon which we find common ground. And that is why I am so pleased that we are joined tonight not only by so many outstanding Muslim Americans and representatives of the diplomatic corps, but people of many faiths -- Christians, Jews, and Hindus -- along with so many prominent Muslims.

Together, we have a responsibility to foster engagement grounded in mutual interest and mutual respect. And that's one of my fundamental commitments as President, both at home and abroad. That is central to the new beginning that I've sought between the United States and Muslims around the world. And that is a commitment that we can renew once again during this holy season.

So tonight, we celebrate a great religion, and its commitment to justice and progress. We honor the contributions of America's Muslims, and the positive example that so many of them set through their own lives. And we rededicate ourselves to the work of building a better and more hopeful world.

So thanks to all of you for taking the time to be here this evening. I wish you all a very blessed Ramadan. And with that, I think we can start a feast. I don't know what's on the menu, but I'm sure it will be good. (Laughter.) Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)
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