By Jennifer Sunami
Eat With Muslims is a project devoted to educating people about Muslims by bringing people together over community meals. Recently, I had a chance to ask Eat With Muslims co-founder Fathia Absie how she got started, and she shared some of her fascinating story. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
On Wearing the Hijab
I've lived in this country for over 30 years and came here as young girl, but I didn’t wear the hijab. I was 14 when I came to this country, and I had long, wavy hair. I was seen as a citizen of the world. It was a lot of fun to have people ask me “Where you from?” And when I would tell them where I’m from, they would always say, “Wow, you look like you could be from South America, or the Middle East, or mixed, or whatever.” I don’t ever remember feeling discriminated against. I’ve always had this genuine love for humanity and felt like everyone was my brothers and sisters, and for the most part I always received that back.
But in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2012, I had to move to a new state, and there was a lot going on in my life. My hair literally started falling off of my head because I was going through a lot of stress. I wanted to have a fresh start and shave my hair off completely, and let it grow back. In the meantime, I had to do something with my bald head. So I covered my head with a piece of fabric, not necessarily thinking of it as a hijab, and immediately people just started seeing me differently. I remember taking my oldest daughter to school. I had a ponytail and everything was lovely. I came back, shaved my hair off, and I had to pick up my daughter with a scarf on and everything changed. The way people looked at me, people started honking at me, giving me the middle finger and even calling me names. Obviously not everybody was doing it, but for someone who never noticed anything like that before, it was a pretty big deal. In the beginning I was thinking, “Maybe this is not—is there someone behind me? What’s going on?” Then eventually I realized, oh, it’s because of my hijab. And then so I started thinking, “I have not changed. I'm the same person. I bet if you knew me you’d love me.” After a year and half of covering my hair, I decided to keep it permanently. I love my hijab so much and feel naked without it.
But I started thinking more deeply, “I need to do something, I need to bring people together, Muslims and non-Muslims, especially women who wear the hijab, so they can get to know each other and build understanding.
Coming to Seattle
In 2016, of course, the presidential election was making things worse and there was all this heightened rhetoric and hatred. So when I moved here I knew I wanted to do something in Seattle. Coming back to Seattle after 13 years, I knew Seattle is a pretty open space and place, that people are open-minded. But within being here for two weeks, I was in my car waiting for my brother in front of a store, when this young White gentleman walks in front of me, coming towards me. I looked at him and I smiled at him. And then he walks back and holds his hand, his right hand like a pistol and goes, “Bang bang bang” to me. And that sealed the deal for me. I said if this is happening in Seattle, of all places, something’s happening. So Ilays Aden and I got together, my partner in this project, and I talked to her and she loved the idea. She said “Yeah, I think we should do it.” So we came up with the name Eat With Muslims, which sounded ridiculous at the time, because it's the twenty-first century and people eat with Muslims every day! So that’s how it got started.
Our first official dinner took place January 15th, 2017. We didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. Then, immediately, there was a story on KUOW—they did a story on the project and it took off. Everyone wanted to meet a Muslim, we got calls from small-town America where people have never actually met a Muslim in real life. This is the America I know and love. People for the most part are kind, generous, decent human beings who love their neighbors and take responsibility for taking care of one another. But we still wanted to broaden the conversation and give even the people that don't see us as the enemy more information about our faith and our culture.
Because even if it’s preaching to the choir, when you find people that are around you who already like you and don't have a problem with you—when you teach them more then they become your advocate. They go back to their neighborhoods and maybe to their families. We’ve had people who have very conservative relatives and friends in different parts of the country, and they go back and tell them, “You got it wrong.” These people sometimes invite us and say, “OK, you keep preaching to us, bring [more Muslims] in, we want to have dinner with them too!” And so they become our friends and our advocates too. In our own small way we're doing what we can to spread the word.
It’s making a huge difference. Why do we have to hold Muslims accountable for crimes or violence committed by people who share their faith when we don't do the same to any other group? We don't go around holding ourselves accountable for the actions of a crazy White person committing a mass shooting. When somebody that looks like you or shares your faith commits a crime and you are held responsible or seen as part of the problem, it becomes part of you. Every time something bad happens now, we, all of us Muslims, say, “I hope it’s not a Muslim that did it. I hope it’s not a Muslim that did it.” It shouldn’t be like that. Muslims belong to every shade and culture in humanity, and Islam teaches peace and compassion, just like Christianity.
Filmmaking and Storytelling
Before I started this, before I became a co-founder of this project, I was a storyteller and filmmaker. A particular film we’re showing (First Person Plural) is directed by a friend of mine, Eric Tretbar. I play the mother of a young man who falls in love with this Caucasian, Christian girl. It’s kind of a parallel to my own work of dismantling the artificial barriers between people.
I’ve made two films. One is a documentary called Broken Dreams, which is about the Somali youths that left from Minnesota and went back to Somalia to join the radical group, Al-Shabab and the impact the whole scenario had on the Somali community. I had another story, a narrative love story between a Muslim woman and a Christian man who are neighbors. They never talk to each other, but one day he takes the leap to ask her some questions. It's called The Lobby, and I’m in that film too—I’m the writer, producer, director, and the star! I also wrote a graphic novel called The Imperceptible Peacemaker, and I'm finishing up my third film, it’s a spiritual story that’s only 8 minutes long.
My stories and everything I do are all about building bridges between brothers and sisters in humanity. I know this culture—American culture—and I know the culture of my background and there’s definitely a misunderstanding. I try to bridge that gap and say, “We belong together. We are brothers and sisters, we have so much more in common.” I don't even like the word tolerance, because you tolerate a salad or a crazy cat or whatever. We don’t need to tolerate each other, we should love each other. We have everything in common, and it's just that artificial barrier of the unknown that’s dividing us. Storytelling is what makes us meet each other even if we don't meet each other in real life. It helps us walk in each other's shoes and experience each other. I really love that.
Somali-American writer, actor, filmmaker, and Eat with Muslims co-founder Fathia Absie works to spark conversation, community, and learning along with a delicious meal. Learn more at EatWithMuslims.org.