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Backstory: A dorm room big enough for two major faiths

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2006


Several times a day, Atena Asiaii pulls her maroon prayer rug from under her bed and lines it up on the scuffed linoleum floor, kneeling on it to face northeast, the direction of Mecca. She has figured out which corner to turn toward without the help of a compass because her roommate, Yael Richardson, prays facing East, the direction of their dorm-room door. Far beyond it lies Jerusalem.

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They're both college sophomores. They like gossiping about guys and eating ice cream. They're taking beginning Arabic. But what unites them most is the very thing people might expect to keep them apart: their religious devotion.

Living together as a Muslim and a Jew wasn't intended to be a statement. Yael and Atena met as freshmen at Brown University and decided to request a room together the next year in Interfaith House - a dorm where matters of faith are the stuff of spontaneous conversations in the halls.

The house was especially appealing for Atena, who had had a chilly reception from her freshman roommate. They were mismatched on everything from sleeping habits to moral values, Atena says. But worse, her roommate was bothered when Atena prayed silently in their room. Atena tried her best to time her prayer for when her roommate was out.

The awkward situation made Atena, the American daughter of Iranian immigrants, acutely aware of her Muslim identity. It made her feel different. Now she feels blessed to be free from that burden. She prays in her room whenever she wants to, and she never feels "different," because Yael does the same. At times they even find themselves praying simultaneously.

Among the books on the shelf above Atena's desk is a paperback Koran, its spine cracked from use. Yael's side of the room is a mirror image, except that her shelf bears a Torah. Both their walls have posters of events they've helped plan for their respective religious organizations.

As with any roommates, they had to make a few adjustments at the beginning.

Behind their closed door, Yael suddenly realized she was seeing Atena's hair for the first time. Atena wears a scarf over her head and around her neck in the presence of men she could potentially marry - even to walk to the women's bathroom in their coed dorm. But it's one of many elements that Atena has discovered are shared between Islam and Judaism. "Some Jews wear wigs and some wear scarves," she says. "The idea of modesty is common in both." [Editor's note: The original version included a description of Ms. Asiaii's hair. It has been removed from the article at her request.]

Yael doesn't cover her head. So she had to retrain herself to ask who it is when there's a knock on the door, instead of saying 'Come on in.' If the visitors are male, Atena needs to put on her hijab.

Atena was intrigued by Yael's practice of not turning electric switches on or off between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Lights can be on, but Atena has to flip the switch. The few times Yael has forgotten to adjust her alarm clock before the Sabbath, Atena has turned it off for her.

The two friends say they often stumble into learning about each other's faith and culture. One day Yael showed Atena some words in the English language that derive from Hebrew, and Atena, in turn, gave examples of words that derive from Persian, her ancestors' tongue.

They've also made the effort to attend each other's religious services, and have visited Christian churches with other friends.