by Irene Jagla
Peals of laughter and layers of conversation in Arabic, Somali, and English echoed up to the high ceilings of the Sullivan Community Center in Tukwila on Saturday November 17th, when 50 guests shared a meal in an event hosted by EatWithMuslims.org and Action Tukwila, a grassroots group that organizes community-building projects. During the event, Muslims and non-Muslims from South King County shared food provided by two local Somali restaurants and listened to stories in an effort to foster cross-cultural understanding.
Founded by Fathia Absie and Ilays Aden, two Muslim women based in Seattle, EatWithMuslims.org forwards a simple premise: sharing a meal with people from a different background than your own and listening to their stories can help build community in an increasingly divided world. After the negative rhetoric that emerged from the 2016 Presidential election, Absie and Aden were compelled to create a space where Muslims could rewrite the one-sided narratives being propagated in the media by interacting with non-Muslim neighbors in a friendly, welcoming environment.
During the Nov. 17 event, Absie and Aden created this welcoming environment by ensuring each table had diners from different backgrounds and decor appropriate for an intercultural dinner party: a candle, a small plastic sign with the word “Greetings” translated into three languages, and a photocopy of an Islamic prayer translated into English.
After enjoying an appetizer of pita and hummus, a young Muslim man delivered a pre-dinner Islamic prayer that he also translated into English. As guests ate steamed vegetables, fried chicken, lentils, chicken curry, salad, and bariis ishkukaris — rice seasoned with fragrant spices and cooked in meat broth — Imam Sheik Yahya Sufi talked about his previous life in a Kenyan refugee camp and shared the story of Adam and Eve, one that many of the guests know, to emphasize how human diversity is part of God’s plan.
“God created Adam from the dust, which he took from all different parts of the Earth,” said Sufi. “And sons of Adam were produced in accordance with those different places — some of you are black, some are brown, some are white — and none of us had the choice to look the way we do. But we have the choice to understand.”
In her own address to the guests, Absie shared a story about an incident that inspired her to establish EatWithMuslims.org. In the fall of 2016, she was sitting in her car outside a Somali shop in Seattle waiting for her brother.
“I saw this white man coming up toward the car and we made eye contact, so I smiled at him. And as he looked back at me he mimicked the shape of a gun with his hand, pointed it at me, and I heard him say ‘BAM,’” explained Absie.
It was at that moment she realized there had to be a way to counter ignorance and hatred, so she contacted Ilays and together they developed the idea for EatWithMuslims.org as a way to “build bridges between people of different cultures and faiths, bringing them together over delicious food and fostering dialogue,” according to their website.
The next to speak were representatives from Action Tukwila and the City of Tukwila. Pam, a member of Action Tukwila, introduced some of the community-building events that her organization is known for, like a giant potluck in 2016 that was attended by over 1,500 people. Allan Eckberg, Mayor of Tukwila, spoke about the importance of bringing people from different backgrounds together to confront unfounded fears.
Hamdi Abdulla, Ilays’ mother, shared a funny story about overcoming her own fears of people with tattoos by test driving a Toyota with a man whose hands and arms were covered in tattoos.
“I told him when I got in the car, ‘You know I am afraid of you, because all the tattoos are scary to me, but I am trying to beat down my fear by being around you,’” she said. “The man laughed and said, ‘I feel the same when I see women in Muslim garb, but I’m here with you, too!’ We did the test drive, he was very kind, and I overcame my fear because I confronted it. And he wasn’t scary at all!”
It’s these kinds of stories and confessional moments that make EatWithMuslims.org events so groundbreaking, and that’s exactly what Absie and Aden intend. Although it was established in Seattle, EatWithMuslims.org organizers travel to other cities in the U.S. when they’re contacted by people who see the need for a dinner event to bring a community together.
This past summer, Absie and Aden hosted a dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, that joined non-Muslim residents with their Syrian and Somali immigrant neighbors. Absie and Aden don’t make politics a focal point of their events, but when these issues do get introduced, they use an open-ended approach to dialogue inspired by the work of Jim Henderson, a self-described “spiritual anthropologist” whose method for confronting issues, not people, uses a structure for conversation that gives everyone 60 seconds to voice an opinion and 60 seconds to respond so everyone feels heard.
During the dinner conversation in Des Moines, Iowa, many of the non-Muslim attendees shared their perspectives on the 2016 presidential election.
“One by one they all confessed that they voted for him,” recalled Aden about some of the non-Muslim attendees. “I use the term confessed because they don’t seem to like the idea that they voted for him; some of them struggle with it, in fact, and some of them said we voted for him but we don’t support him.”
At the end of the Des Moines dinner, one of the guests said that if he had befriended his Muslim neighbors prior to the election and had a better understanding of who Muslims are, he wouldn’t have voted for Trump.
The transformative experiences that accompany a EatWithMuslims.org event will soon be made accessible to those who cannot attend the dinners. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in which they raised over $25,000, Absie and Aden are creating an online web series. Part of the series will feature content from the dinners they host on the road, and the other part will be a cooking and conversation show based in Seattle in which guests share their perspectives on current events and trending topics.
“You never really hear the opinions of a Muslim woman, let alone man, in the media about certain topics. The web series is a way for us to have a few different ways of getting our message out there, not just about the project but showing local voices and highlighting their stories,” said Aden.
The next EatWithMuslims.org event takes place in January in Seattle, and you can view the event calendar and register on the site.
Featured photo by Irene Jagla.