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Volume 57, Number 6November/December 2006

In This Issue

Portraits by Karim Shamsi-Basha
Interviews by Ann Walton Sieber

Muslims—whether immigrants, native-born or converts—are part of the mosaic of life in America, where human “tiles” of every color, shape and ethnicity abut, adjoin, interact and contribute to the whole. While relatively large numbers of the nation’s 1.2 to seven million Muslims—estimates vary widely—live in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Dearborn, many live in smaller cities and towns, and much of the interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans happens in those places where Muslim populations are more diffuse. And much of that interaction happens at work: in the offices, factories, stores, hospitals and schools where Americans of every stripe earn their living every day. To look at American Muslims at work, Saudi Aramco World asked Syrian–American photographer Karim Shamsi-Basha to consider his own adopted hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, a city of 1.2 million people that include between 5000 and 10,000 Muslims. And we asked free-lance journalist Ann Walton Sieber to talk to some of these people about their work as well as their lives as Muslims, Americans, Southerners and members of an American minority. As in the Islamic community nationwide, faith is central for some, peripheral for others; in every other way, they are as different from each other—and as similar—as any other group of Americans. Their voices are worth hearing. —THE EDITORS

Hafiz Rola Maher Loay The Gambinos
The Niknafs Shirley Mamoun Hussein Melanie
Donna Gigi Ashfaq Firas Karim

Hafiz Chandiwala CPA Vice President and CFO,
Coca-Cola Bottling Company United, Inc.

Hafiz Chandiwala

Simultaneously laidback and forceful, Hafiz is a Southern businessman. Although he was born in San Francisco, he moved to Georgia in high school, and he has lived in the South ever since. (“Yeah, I have a little drawl,” he says amiably.) Inside the Coca-Cola bottling plant, the halls and walls are filled with Coke paraphernalia and posters that show Coke as a world icon, and Coke is what Hafiz wants to talk about. His enthusiasm is solid, genuine. He’s married and has an 11-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son; when we talked, his son was about to go to Florida to compete in a soccer tournament.

The Coca-Cola business gets in your blood. Coca-Cola is the most recognized global brand, yet it is also closely connected to its local communities through its bottling-company partners.

The competitiveness aspect has been there since I was a child. I was always involved in sports and academics. My parents are from India, from Bombay, and it was very much a part of the culture, succeeding. My father was an engineer, and my mother was a teacher at the elementary level.

A lot of my vendors and professional support people know that I’m Muslim. I was taking a trip with an attorney to Montgomery, and we spent the whole trip back talking comparative religions. My interactions allow me to influence the opinions of people who know I’m Muslim, take some misconceptions off the table.

I serve as the secretary-treasurer for the Birmingham Islamic Society and as a member of the board of directors of both the Society and Easter Seals of the Birmingham Area. We have a full-time Islamic school in the Birmingham area with 160 students and are working on establishing another masjid and community center just south of Birmingham. This will hopefully provide another venue for the Muslims in the area to fulfill their religious requirements and social needs.

Rola Pacha Sales Assistant
Adrienne Vittadini

Rola Pacha

Riverchase Galleria is an upscale mall in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, where Rola has worked in various stores for eight years. Everyone seems to know her: The barista at Starbucks confides in her as she’s ringing up our coffee; an older man comes up and slips something into her purse in what seems to be a longstanding joke.

A true extrovert, Rola is married to Mamoun Pacha, md (see page 38), and they have four children, three in their 20’s and a 15-year-old.

I absolutely love working here in the mall, being close to people. I meet all kinds of people, all different ages, it’s full of energy. Sometimes customers like you to help them, and sometimes they like to be left alone. People are the sweetest things. I’ve never had any bad experience with people.

I don’t need to work. My son goes to school nearby so I chose to work at the mall to be close to him. I work 10 to three, so I can get him after school and we go home. I love being the wife of a small-town doctor. When I go to the grocery store, everybody knows you, the kids, the cashiers, the parents. I’m a big-city girl, from Damascus, and I love the city. But having kids who are active and involved, it’s better to be in a small town. My kids were in everything—tennis, dancing, basketball.

Maher Qashou Entrepreneur

Maher Qashou

Maher has owned his own company, installing satellite dishes and security systems, for four years, since the last company that employed him shut its doors. Mild-mannered and understated, he’s both straight-forward and a tad sardonic. He came to the us in 1988 from the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, on the West Bank, to go to school in electrical engineering. He is married and has two boys.

My day starts with paperwork, then I coordinate with a couple of technicians to decide where we need to go with jobs. Most of the times I stay with them to finish the job and from that point we go to another job. While I’m doing that, I’m also doing a lot of business on the cell phone, meaning that I have to keep up with new prospects, and ordering new equipment for the next jobs. Collect my money at the end of the day and come on home.

It’s up to you as far as how much or little money you want to make and how much time you want to spend. But because the business is relatively new, I’m working now 70 hours a week and I don’t have an off day.

That’s tough. The family understands the circumstances. Right now it’s very hard to depend on employees because again the business is still like a baby: you want to walk it and feed it and make sure it grows. Once the business is solid and stable, I’m hoping that I can depend a little bit more on employees and I can relax a little. So I keep in the back of my mind that what I’m doing now is temporary. I’m not complaining. I get to meet a lot of people and do a lot of fun stuff. Sometimes you do work in tough neighborhoods and it gets a little adventurous, so we have to be very careful. Luckily we haven’t had any major problems.

I’m a social secretary with the [Birmingham] Islamic Society and on the board of directors. We try to have programs where we invite the public; we have had successful open houses, when a lot of people from the neighborhood or Birmingham came. We invite scholars and guests and we have an interfaith committee and send people to churches and establish good relations with all major religions. People want to hear it from the source.

Loay Ali Owner
European Kitchens

Loay Ali

Loay is pursuing a dream: sleek kitchens. He recently left a position as assistant vice presi-dent of Compass Bank to open his own high-end kitchen design center. Jocular and easygoing, Loay has the promotional zeal of a new business owner, mixed with the incredulity of a kid who has been handed the keys to his own candy store. A native of Iraq, Loay emigrated to Canada in 1983, and then moved to Birmingham one year later to attend school. “Why Alabama?” He shrugs with his easygoing smile. “I applied to 20 to 30 colleges. I got accepted to Alabama.” He is married, and has two children, ages nine and 10.

I was a banker, a systems analyst, for 15 years. Four years ago, when I was building my first house and I wanted a slick, European-style kitchen, I had to go to Atlanta because we couldn’t find what I was looking for in Birmingham. The idea crossed my mind—why don’t we have something here? We’re a big city; a lot of people want this, with a lot of downtown buildings being converted into lofts.

I was going to do it as an investment. Then I decided to quit my job and do it full-time. People ask me, you’re doing what now!? Because they’ve always known me as a computer banking person working with numbers.

I’d always had a dream of having my own business, set my own hours. Now we’re open 10 to four. That’s a big difference. And sometimes if I feel like it, I go home during the day. [Laughs.]

You gain more freedom, more control over your time, your destiny. I thought, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to the bank and be an employee again.

It was a big career change. I have a master’s in business, but I have so many different certificates. A lot of people put them all on the wall, but if I’d put mine, the whole wall would be full and be ugly. Now they’re all in a cheap folder.

I’ve always enjoyed designing since I was a little boy—Legos, I was addicted to it. In the old country, in Iraq, they offer vocational classes in the summer time. I did wood lathe creation, electrical wiring. These are the only diplomas I have framed. I designed my second house that I just moved into.

When we design a kitchen, we first consult with a client, work with them from A to Z to customize and personalize it to fit their lifestyle, from the height of the cabinets to everything else they need. The cooktop, we do it lower, so you can see what’s inside the pots and pans. We have a lot of pullout drawers. I like to have everything behind closed doors, have it very slick and clean, but also very functional and elegant. So if I want something, I have very easy access to it. I’m a big-time cook. I always have gatherings in my house—it’s part of life. We have a few Iraqis here; we get together and cook. Have Arabic food, speak Arabic. Very loud, of course. [Laughs.] I miss [Iraq].

People in Alabama haven’t seen this. People in Alabama aren’t like the people in Atlanta or Houston, who travel a lot. Some come in here and ask, “What is this, laminate?” Because they think a kitchen has to be oak, wood, stained. They come in and see a red kitchen, and they say, what is this?! But another group knows about this design. When they come in here, they say they love this. There was a woman architect. She called and said, “You’re kidding, where are you?! I’ve been wanting to find something like this. I’ll be there in 30 minutes!”

Lucas and Sawsan Gambino Attorney and homemaker

Lucas Gambino

Lucas and Sawsan are an amiable, low-key couple who live in a new house in a new residential commu­nity with their newborn baby and their preschooler. It’s hard not to point out that one doesn’t expect a blond Southerner named Lucas Gambino to be a Muslim, a fact he addresses with a touching tenderness. Sawsan is quiet but speaks eagerly when she trusts a person. Lucas is a volunteer partner with Ashfaq Taufique, Hafiz Chandiwala, Maher Qashou and others in guiding the construction of a new Islamic community center.

Lucas: I’m more of a business lawyer. I do not represent squabbling parties who are threatening lawsuits against one another. I have no interest in going to court and being Perry Mason or Matlock. Most of what I do is corporate and transactional. My practice focuses on all aspects of the representation of parties in secured and unsecured transactions, structured finance transactions and multistate transactions. I also represent purchasers and sellers in acquisition, development and leasing matters. In my practice, details are critical and, fortunately, I am a detail-oriented person.

How does a guy named Gambino become a Muslim?
I grew up in southern Alabama in a Christian home and, at that time, knew very little about Islam. I was introduced to Islam at age 18 when I met a friend who was Muslim. Like many Christians, I suppose, I had a lot of questions, so from age 18 to 28, I dabbled and researched Islam.

The more I read, the more I became interested. After several years of reflection, I realized I had already slowly converted in my heart. It was meant to be for me, and I have no regrets. Islam is a beautiful religion and has molded my life.

Legal services are in high demand in our [Muslim] community. Not because people are breaking the rules, but because people aren’t always sure of what to do when starting a business, selling a home, etc. They’re reluctant to ask questions because of their ethnicity and the corresponding stereotypes, but we don’t want them to be taken advantage of, so I try to help out when I can.

Sawsan Gambino

Sawsan: Right now my job is these two [children]. I taught for six years, mostly first grade. My son goes to preschool and I spend a lot of time with both of them. If the weather’s warm enough, we go for a walk in the park. I love it. I really want them to have a fulfilling childhood. The learning part of it, working on sounds and reading, I got to see that in my classroom, and now I can see that with my son. It’s great. I try to write down their growth and development, like when they first learned to crawl and walk, etc. I really enjoy being a mom and caring for my children.

Michael and Nillie Niknafs Owners
Saxx Hair Design
Michael Niknafs Nillie Niknafs

Saxx Hair Design is in Homewood, a suburb nestled within metropolitan Birmingham. Michael opened the shop in 1979 after leaving Iran, following the revolution. Nillie came to the us from Iran in 1994. She has a master’s in business administration, but currently splits her time between the salon and the couple’s two daughters. Michael is a commanding, handsome man—you can see him persuading a nervous customer to cut off all her long hair. (“He loves to do that,” Nillie confides.) Bright and charming, Nillie seems to smile at everything.

Nillie: Mike had the business when we got married and I came from overseas. I went to business school and I always had a passion because my husband is a business owner and I wanted to help out. To us our customers are like family. They keep up with the news and we keep up with them. We hurt with them, we laugh with them. I have made some good friends here. We get invited to the weddings a lot.

When you go overseas, customers in salons are mostly women. But what I like is that here it’s a family salon, men, women and children, whole families.

We go to hair conventions and seminars so we are world class. When someone walks in from California and they want something hot, we know what they mean. We have three partners here and they rent out the stations. Each has their own style. We use word of mouth. We have a customer who flies in from Virginia every two months to get her hair done and then flies back. I didn’t know hair was that important! [Laughs.]

Michael: I used to have long hair and I would get it blown dry two or three times a week. I was in the clothing business as well as working in a tea shop, but as I left my country I became more interested in hair. I have trained with a number of different companies from New York to California, in London and France. I’ve been in it for close to 27 years and I love my clients—they’re wonderful people. Fifteen to 20 percent of my business comes from two hours or more away. We stay on top of things because of continuing education, going places, keeping up; in this business you never know enough.

I will not do a trim on a first-time client. I will give them a makeover. I don’t feel a client should come in here and spend nearly $60 so I can trim the ends of the hair. I want to show them something they haven’t seen.

Shirley Stanley, CRNA Nurse-anesthetist
University of Alabama
at Birmingham Health System

Shirley Stanley

Ask Shirley how she’s doing and she is apt to reply, “Any better and it’d be illegal.” She is chipper, innately generous, and her fierce idealism is softened with a little dreaminess. Her two children were grown before she became a Muslim, although she says, “I suppose I gravitated toward it my whole life.” She is passionate about interfaith work: When we met, she was making posters for a Birmingham talk by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina that was to be held at a synagogue. She has been a nurse-anesthetist for 30 years.

As a student nurse, I saw that the only person in the operating room who was focused solely on the patient was the anesthetist. Everybody else was focused on the instruments or the surgery. There are really so few people in this whole world who can take away pain. And I do it every day. I really truly have the best job in the world.

Also, things happen fast. I like that. If I give a drug, I’d like to see a change in 45 seconds; three minutes is too long. We need to have the person’s physiology change quickly, to respond to the change in surgical stimuli. At many times it seems as though the anesthetist is doing nothing, but they are really watching many things. Every time the patient’s heart beats, or every time they take a breath, we know about it.

My day starts at six o’clock, when I get to the hospital, check out the anesthesia equipment. The anesthesia machines are very complex, thousands of dollars. Get the drugs ready. Get the patient ready, address any concerns. An anesthesia doctor will be supervising the anesthetics in my institution. A surgery will take anywhere from seven minutes to eight hours. As long as the patient is under the anesthetic, I cannot step outside the room. [My job] is a great sign of trust. I’ve worked hard to earn that; I don’t treat it lightly. I hold my patients very dear.

Hussein Abdullatif, MD Pediatric Endocrinologist
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Hussein Abdullatif

Hussein works with children with hormonal disorders including diabetes and issues related to the thyroid and puberty. A gentle man, he often speaks with a smile in his voice. He has no children of his own. “I see them all day long, and then when I come home, I want to be quiet.”

I like to look at myself as doctor, but also as a teacher. I believe we’re all supposed to be teachers in how we live our lives. I’m teaching my students by modeling to them what it is like to be a doctor—doctor and teacher complement each other. When you become a teacher, you realize that you are a student from the time you are born until you die.

Working with children is wonderful. They play with you. Their sicknesses are not very severe, they get better most of the time. When they get better, they bring a smile to your face. I oftentimes ignore the parents as much as I can when I’m dealing with the child. Of course, when the serious talk comes, the parents will be involved.

You start by introducing yourself to them. In Alabama the icebreaker is often what football team they are for. Then you ask them the question why they think they are there. If the child is not old enough to talk, you make eye-to-eye contact with the child, while talking to the parent.

I work about a 10-hour day, sometimes longer. I get to work at five in the morning. Spend some personal reading time until 6:30, work on my office duties, e-mails and correspondence, phone calls. At 7:45 I go to the morning report, where the doctors discuss the patients who were admitted the night before. I spend the morning seeing patients. I spend the afternoons seeing patients, but also catching up on office work. Then I go home and work out and do all that stuff.

I’ve been a doctor for 21 years. I graduated from medical school in Amman, Jordan in 1985, came to Atlanta at Emory and did my medical fellowship. In 1999, the University of Alabama at Birmingham was desperate for an endocrinologist and they hired me. I’m happy that they hired me. It’s been wonderful.

Mamoun Pacha Urologist

Mamoun Pacha

Mamoun is the only urologist in Sylacauga, a small town of 20,000 east of Birmingham. He speaks rapidly, nodding and smiling, an amiable flow of run-on sentences. It’s easy to see him transmitting to patients both authority and concern in a compact amount of time. He has been married to Rola Pacha (see page 34) for 30 years. He seems deeply content as he surveys life, and his own watercolor paintings of traditional life in Syria adorn his examination room.

My practice consists of seeing patients in the office and performing surgery. I see about 70 to 100 patients a week who come in with a variety of medical problems from bladder infections to kidney stones to prostate cancer. I average 200 surgeries per year. Surgery is very exciting, the drama, you have a limited amount of time, and you have the way to correct the problem, which makes it very satisfying. On the other hand, in the office, things are not always as clear-cut. You’re trying different things out, and you are waiting for time and the body to respond.

How did I end up here? I did my training in Chicago, and after I finished, in those last couple of years the weather was bad and the big-city traffic was worse. They were looking for a urologist in Alabama. We liked the town, the people were friendly, it’s an easygoing life. I’ve been here since 1979. A while ago, they needed more doctors, so I put out a call and nine Syrian doctors came here and started to practice. They all liked it. Now they are a vital part of the medical community.

Everyone asks the question: How have people treated you, being an Arab from a different culture and background? I’ll tell you, not a single problem. I realize that if you do a good job, you take care of people, they will come back and take care of you. Patients who bring you homegrown vegetables, zucchini, okra, pickles and homemade jam make you feel a part of a big family. We share the Arab culture with our friends. We have a Christmas party for our staff and my wife cooks all the Middle Eastern dishes and everybody loves the stuff, loves the stuff. My nurses all ask my wife for the recipes for the stuffed grape leaves, kibbe and hummus.

My excitement is my son Tarek. He is starting his urology training in Michigan this summer. As soon as he’s done, he’ll come take over the place and I’ll just help him out. I’d like to spend some time with my grandchildren. But then, I’d also like to keep practicing. To me, it’s kind of sad that you’re a surgeon your whole life and you learn so much and get to be an experienced surgeon, and at that time you decide to quit! So I’d like to stay a little longer, and help my son avoid making some of the errors that I made at his stage. Maybe work two days a week and pursue tennis and my other hobbies. And I’m sure he’d appreciate the time off.

Melanie Mahmoud Teacher
Islamic Academy of Alabama

Melanie Mahmoud

The Islamic Academy of Alabama is a private school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in Homewood. In 1993, two other women were going to start a Muslim school, but one had to drop out, so they asked Melanie to step in. “At that time, we did it for no money,” she says. “We did it four days a week, from nine to one.” Now the school is full-time and fully accredited. Melanie is certified to teach from early childhood through upper- elementary level. For anyone not from the Deep South, the first thing you notice about her is the Alabama accent that flavors her sunny, upbeat speech. Raised a Southern Baptist in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, she met her husband, a Muslim from Palestine, when both were teenagers working at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. They have a son, 20, and a daughter, 15.

I had a teacher who made a very negative comment to me which inspired me to become a teacher myself. I was in the seventh grade. She made the comment I would grow up to drive a garbage truck! I saw it as a challenge. I didn’t want any other children to be having that type of negative experience. So for me, instead of letting it sit inside me, I took it and ran with it. I’ve always loved children; I’ve babysat since I was eleven years old. The negative comment made me want to go out and say, “I’ll show you!” I was unmotivated [in school] and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about learning. I guess that’s why I make my own classroom an interesting, bubbly, lively, “C’mon guys, let’s have some fun while we’re learning” place. And while all learning can’t be interesting, most of it can be. Teaching kindergarten was a major change for me because I wasn’t used to the children being so dependent. But it was a pleasant change because they are so naïve about things in the world versus the fifth graders who had some really bad, negative attitudes about things that went on in the world, things they had seen.

I did my student teaching out in the public school. The children in the Islamic school are very sheltered, which is a good thing, because in the public schools they’re exposed to more life, I guess. The maturity levels are very different. The third-graders in the Islamic school are still very sweet and innocent whereas, when I did my student teaching in a public school, in the third grade, there was a lot of “Will you be my boyfriend?” or “My mom came home and my dad hit her,” and that kind of thing.

But it’s also a joy to teach in the Islamic school because in public school I couldn’t say, “You really shouldn’t tell lies because Allah wouldn’t like that.” Allah is Arabic for God. I enjoy the atmosphere at the Islamic school. Everyone’s there pretty much for the same reason. They want the children to learn in a safe environment, where students don’t feel threatened by other students, where the religion is being taught, the language is being taught. I thought of going to the public schools because of the money and the benefits, but…. [pauses and contemplates] No, I don’t think I want to do that. My heart’s in this and I love those kids so much.

I met my husband and we got married and had our son, and then my husband asked me to just investigate Islam, and if I didn’t like it we would never talk about it again. So I actually set out to convert him, but along the way I read a lot of the material on Islam, and I read the Qur’an, and I felt like it was for me. I think one of the turning points for me was where it said “His money is our money but my money is my money.” I was, like, “But wait a minute, on TV they don’t say that about Muslim women, they say Muslim women are subjected and submissive.”

Donna Dooley Secretary
Islamic Academy of Alabama

Donna Dooley

Donna has a gentle, easygoing manner, the sort of naturalness that automatically puts a stranger at ease. She is married and has four children ranging in age from four to 15.

Last year was my first year here at the Academy. As secretary, I greet any visitors, handle student check-in and check-out. I do all the filing, typing of letters, memos, notifications, answer the phone, and work with the principal.

I hadn’t worked since ’98 since I had small children. I was looking for somewhere to put my children. I applied for this position because I could be at school with them and I didn’t have to worry about having to find after-school programs. Also, this is a Muslim atmosphere so I don’t have to worry about any of the stereotypes that are associated with Muslim women.

I wanted my children to learn more about their religion and not feel different. We have dealt with public schools with my older child and we had issues with different holidays that we don’t celebrate, or with the eating of pork. It was problematic. Not always, because sometimes the people are really good about working with you, but I knew here I wouldn’t have any of those issues. We have all the Alabama core curriculum courses here at the Academy and we have Arabic and Islamic studies. We have rules and regulations like any other school.

I converted to Islam in August of 1998. I started reading the Qur’an in March or April, and it was confusing to me. I was getting to the point of frustration because I couldn’t understand. One day I just stayed up all night and prayed. I cried because I was so upset that nothing made sense to me. The next day I opened up the Qur’an and read some verses that I had read before and couldn’t understand. Suddenly they were crystal clear. It was like a light bulb had gone on and I was seeing things through different eyes. At that point I knew Islam was for me. My oldest daughter [who was born to a non-Muslim union] was six at the time, and my boys weren’t born yet. Initially there was resistance from my oldest. My husband, who is Muslim, and I explained everything to her so she understood, and things changed for her. My goal is to introduce my children to as much positive as I can in the faith to help them to grow up to be responsible, productive Muslims.

Gigi Douban Free-lance writer
Former Birmingham News reporter

Gigi Douban

Gigi worked the daily newspaper’s city beat for six years, then—shortly after we interviewed her—left to pursue a free-lance career and spend more time with her daughter, nine, and her son, five. She has a brightness, an enthusiasm, an understated confidence.

Writing has always been a reality for me ever since I won an essay contest in junior high school. It was about Rosa Parks. I thought I’d be in psychology but I married a doctor who was just starting out. We made a lot of moves, so it wasn’t good to go to grad school.

I got pregnant just out of college. I tried my hand at free-lancing and that was fun. I applied for a part-time gig at the newspaper, and for the last six years I’ve felt this was my calling, this is what I was meant to do. It’s a public service. Some of my favorite stories are the investigative things where you’re putting something out there that would have remained hidden otherwise. Whenever you interview someone, you’re testing your ability to get to know that person, if you do it right and paint an accurate portrait of that person, without that person getting too annoyed. [Laughs.] If you’re relaxed, they’re relaxed. People pick up on your mood. We’re pretty animal-like in that sense.

There are no set hours. Last week I ended up coming in after I put my kids to bed, arriving at 8:45 at night and leaving at 12:30, because I had a story I wanted my editor to look at first thing in the morning. I’m comfortable there. I feel like I could walk in in my slippers and nightgown and no one would notice. It’s hard being a mom and doing this because you don’t want to take away from your kids.

It’s always a challenge. If my daughter has a performance in the middle of the day, I can take time out for that, but there are meetings, long meetings. I take it one day at a time.

Ashfaq Taufique Mechanical engineer
Southern Nuclear

Ashfaq Taufique

For 26 years Ashfaq has overseen the delicate maintenance of three nuclear power plants, two in Georgia and one in Alabama. With a manner that is both formal and outgoing, he seems made for such responsibility, and he finds it satisfying. “It’s not a cutthroat job where you compete and do things that are not good,” he says. “This is something that is improving the quality of the life of people by power generation and distribution of the power to homes.” As president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, he is also overseeing the construction of a new mosque and community center. He is married with four grown children. He came to the us in 1975 from Karachi, Pakistan.

I worked the last 26 years of my life in an environment where public safety is number one, both from the industrial-accident and nuclear-accident points of view. We all work together, so it’s not just my responsibility. If I’m going to make an evaluation or a design judgment, then somebody’s going to come behind me and verify what I’ve done. That leaves you with the confidence that it has been adequately reviewed by people of expertise, so you don’t get stressed and bogged down with it, or else you won’t get anything done. The nuclear industry and my company specifically encourage us to balance our work and our personal life so we don’t get into a stressful situation where you make wrong decisions.

We’ve got piping that ranges from 200 degrees to 500 degrees Fahrenheit [93–260°C], with a pressure of about 2200 pounds per square inch [15,170 KPa] in that pipe. So when you subject materials to that kind of temperature and pressure, they give in sometimes. We do everything to make sure that mate- rial is maintained properly. If it does fail, we repair it properly.

How has your employer accommodated your needs as a Muslim?
My employers in my department and my organization are very, very accommodating. It’s summertime; I do at least two of my prayers during work hours, in a conference room or an empty room. And my employer has also accommodated me with flexible time to take an extended lunch hour for Friday prayer. As far as I’m concerned, the accommodation has been above my expectations. And I get similar reports from other professionals who work around the area.

What kind of issues are on your mind as a leader of the Muslims in Birmingham?
This is a very dynamic environment these days for Muslims in this country and all over the world. The issues are to provide a harmonious and a central platform for Muslims to become a social identity, a political identity, an identity as a group. To give them the sense of being American but maintaining the identity of Muslims, and let them accept that they are different in terms of the bigger American society—in terms of their festivities, in terms of their worship. But it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have a different political opinion than your neighbor or your co-worker. The challenge is to get the Muslims out of their cocoons. The people of Birmingham, the people of the South, have been most wonderful in accepting the Muslim religion, the Muslim community. And as far as our relationship with the local authorities is concerned, they have shown nothing but support. We just won a fierce battle with the neighborhood to start a mosque and a community center in the Hoover area. We went through the zoning process, and the zoning board and the city council were very objective in their decision-making, and did not give in to the stereotypes that were brought up. There were some people who had legitimate concerns about the traffic issues, and we are appreciative that the board and the city council only paid attention to what was technically correct from an ordinance point of view. It’s not the same as some people in the world may think of the life of a Muslim in this country.

Firas AL-Tarawneh Architectural engineer
Williams Blackstock Architects

Firas AL-Tarawneh

Firas is a big man who gives a feeling of expansiveness, of going out into the world, building tall buildings and gathering large groups of people. Exuberant, he likes to talk about plans and ideas. He came to the us in 1997. His father was a diplomat, and he speaks well of the family travel that profession involved. “We became so open to dialogue with many, many cultures and civilizations.”

I initially wanted to be a pilot, inspired by one of my older cousins who was a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force in Jordan. Such a beautiful, interesting fellow. It was about the time I graduated from high school that his plane crashed and he lost his life at the age of 24. [But] I’ve always had the habit of science, math. How do you put an engine together? How do you put a car together? There’s such a keen power inside you that drives you to the things that are being built. I didn’t want to go to a straight structural-engineering or mechanical-engineering course, which is very specific. My abilities were always bigger than the subject I wanted to study. I have wide-angle vision.

When I came here it was the opposite, because the position I was put in was very specific, project management, project by project, building by building. Intense focus, time-consuming. It kind of conflicts with my inspirations but I have learned a lot from it. One of my dreams is to start a school of cross-cultural architecture that has both American and Middle-Eastern values. The construction methodology and technology here are huge, way advanced. We can use that. But you can also go back to the basic ethics and morals and design schemes of the East, which are lost in a lot of the built environment here. Space and sense. I want to be in a space that’s really working, that’s inspiring. It is a cultural space, rather than just a utilitarian vehicle for work.

A building is a gesture above the ground. It’s not something you can hide, like the emotions. People have an interaction with it. Schools and communities and architects and engineers need to know that there is a new and advanced movement of understanding other cultures in the world through their built environments. [It] is another aspect of diversity, which could lead to a common-ground understanding.

It’s difficult in some aspects to migrate and to bring a fish from one type of water to another. But the good thing about my family is we’re very hard workers, dedicated and driven. This country welcomes that. Our heritage as Muslims and Middle-Easterners strengthens the value of hard work and setting your goal. It’s a very old civilization, and it encourages success, because our history is full of success stories.

Karim Shamsi-Basha Photographer and publisher
Karim Shamsi-Basha

Smiling easily and widely, ebullient, charismatic, Karim in his gravelly voice jokes irreverently one minute, talks seriously the next of affairs of the heart, faith, the globe. Born in Damascus, he came to the us in 1984 when he was 19. Although he obtained a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee, he quickly moved into photography, working as a staff photographer first for the Knoxville Journal and then the Birmingham Post Herald, and now working independently. His images have appeared in national publications, and his personal journal of a homecoming to Damascus appeared in this magazine in May/June 2005. Five years ago, he helped found a stylish city magazine called Portico. He also has his own art gallery and has produced several books. He has children aged 14, 10 and six.

The uniting theme of my work would be people—features, sports, fashion, news, commercial advertising. I truly love people, finding out about them. And I make friends in minutes. I think of it as an anthropological experiment, finding out about people with a camera. I love tearing off the layers, the personal space and layers of pretending, and digging into the personality, learning from it and finding out about it. And then portraying that to the readers of the magazine, or the newspaper, or whatever I’m shooting for. I don’t know if there’s any better job than this.

The first thing you have to do is, you have to find out who this person is, in a matter of, literally, less than five minutes. At the same time that you’re trying to find out their personality and what makes them click, you’re aware of the light, the composition, the moment, all these.

I absolutely love the challenge of meeting the people, like, every day. I think if you’re not intimidating—if they think they know you, then they’ll let you know them. Still, there’s always a lot of Karim in the picture—with the lighting, with the composition, with when I push the shutter, the moment, the emotion I’m conveying. But it’s also a very documentary style, where the personality comes out.

The books are another thing. I’m hoping that one day I’m going to change this world with a book. Of course it’s a dream, and I’m a dreamer. [Laughs] I’m starting a foundation, where children write essays about how we can achieve world peace. It’s a huge thing and slow going, but I have my board and we’re applying for our nonprofit status. You know we’re going to do a book in three years with all these children from all over the world talking about world peace, and then I’m going to mail it to every president of every country, every governing body. Humanity is the bigger picture.

Ann Walton Sieber

A journalist for more than 20 years, Ann Walton Sieber livesin Houston, Texas, and is an enthusiastic admirer of Studs Terkel.

This article appeared on pages 33-43 of the November/December 2006 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2006 images.