Muslim Journeys: Reading/discussion program to start at Stair Public Library 2013.08.14

Falling in love, coming of age, making difficult choices—they're part of life from all cultures around the world. Those shared experiences may not come to mind when thinking about vastly different cultures around the world, but a new program at Morenci’s Stair Public Library may help readers see the similarities.

Stair is one of more than 950 public and academic libraries across the country awarded the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, a 25-book collection from the National Endowment for the Humanities' Bridging Cultures program.

Bridging Cultures is designed to use the humanities to promote the understanding of and the mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures and perspectives.

Bridging Cultures has addressed various themes in the past, such as the role of women in war and peace; the role of civility in democracy; religious pluralism in the U.S.; and U.S. history in global perspective. The current program is intended to break through stereotypes about Muslim cultures by supplying trustworthy resources about the cultural heritage associated with Islamic civilizations.

National Public Radio reporter and producer Deborah Amos, who helped develop a segment of the program, wrote about how Westerners often fail to realize there are aspects of our daily life shared with the Islamic culture.

"The most recognized narratives of the Islamic world often come to Westerners in the daily news," Amos said. "The drama of conflict, chaos and war abruptly arrives in the morning newscast or paper along with the toast and coffee. But the 'news' gives us scant details about how people live their lives in Islamabad, Fez, Cairo or Tehran.

"The human experience—loves, losses, births, deaths—is the currency of the novel, the memoir, the personal history. These stories can provide the riveting and recognizable details of falling in love, coming of age, navigating irreconcilable loss, or making difficult choices."

The 25 books are divided into five themes:

• American Stories, relating the lives of Muslims living in the United States;

• Connected Histories, showing the intertwined past of Islam and the West—connections that existed long before modern times;

• Literary Reflections, highlighting through literature Muslim piety and communal concepts such as ethics, governance, knowledge and identity.

• Pathways of Faith, depicting Islam's principle of following the correct pathway to spiritual fulfillment and success. Islam takes its place as the youngest religion in the extended Abrahamic family of Jews and Christians. 

• Points of View—the focus of Stair's program—filling the gap between news accounts from the Middle East and the knowledge of how the people of the region live their lives. The five novels and memoirs show how Islam as a religion often fits into story plots in the way that a local church community might play a role in an American work of fiction, Amos said.

"Understanding and examining Islamic culture through memoirs and fictional works can bring a new awareness of our shared values and difficulties, as well as our shared successes," she said.

Muslim Journeys also includes three films: "Islamic Art and Architecture;" "Prince Among Slaves" about a West Africa Muslim who was captured for the slave trade and sold in Mississippi; and "Koran by Heart," depicting children competing in a Koran memorization contest. The movies also are available at Stair Public Library.

Let's Talk About It

Many public libraries are involved in the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf award. Only 54 of those were selected to receive a National Endowment for the Humanities programming grant to host a reading and discussion series. (71 academic libraries and state humanities councils also received the grant.)

Stair Public Library director Colleen Leddy and the program scholar—Adrian College history professor Michael McGrath—will attend a national workshop in Denver this week where scholars, librarians and organizers will help participants prepare their local presentations.

Leddy is scheduling a kickoff program next month with personnel from the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. The evening  event will feature an overview of the Arab world and Arab Americans; a debke dance demonstration (a traditional folk dance in several Arab countries); a light meal featuring food items common to many Muslim countries; and a cultural sensitivity presentation that addresses Arab Americans' cultural norms and behaviors.

An exhibit of the world's three major monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—will be on display throughout September, along with some artifacts of Arab and Muslim culture.

Starting Oct. 3—the first of five monthly programs—Dr. McGrath will lead a discussion about one of the five books listed from the Points of View collection.

“The ‘Points of View’ segment is the easy way in,” Amos wrote. “The selections are ‘good reads’—exciting narratives, great story telling—from writers who don't pound out any particular ideology. The writers wear religion lightly. The characters observe religious holidays, struggle with community norms, in the same way that American writers capture the character of a place by describing religious practices.”