Backstory: A dorm room big enough for two major faiths

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Yael is well known by now at the 1 p.m. Friday Jumuah prayer service in a cheerful basement room at Morris-Champlain dorm, where the Muslim Students' Association meets. Attending her fifth service recently, she jokes that some think she wants to convert. She slips off her shoes and sits against a column, stretching her legs out while others kneel on prayer rugs, the women in rows behind the men. Atena disappears to wash her hands and face - ablutions required before she prays - and then settles in, bowing her covered head to the floor.

As a visitor, Yael isn't expected to do ablutions or wear a scarf. After listening to the sermon in English, she sits with eyes closed as melodic Arabic prayers are called out and answered with a collective "Ameen." The first time Yael came she could relate because that response is so similar to the "Amen" in Judaism. The service is a restful and sometimes prayerful time for her, she says. "It's a bit of a relief to go to a spiritual service where I'm not in a leadership position."

The daughter of a Conservative Jewish rabbi, Yael grew up attending a variety of Jewish schools and living on and off in Israel. The year before she came to Brown, she studied Judaic texts in Israel. "Oftentimes I chant Torah reading on Shabbat morning," she says. Memorizing the readings the night before, she sits in the dorm hall and enjoys talking about the ritual with housemates who stop and ask what she's doing.

After the Muslim gathering, Yael changes into a long skirt and heads to Hillel, the campus Jewish center, for Havurah, a service where people sing and pray aloud together. Mid-service, Atena arrives and slips into a chair next to Yael. Atena is trying to sing along for the first time. The music isn't written out, and she has to sound out the transliterated Hebrew. When she loses her place, Yael puts a guiding finger on the page, all the while lifting up her clear soprano with the confidence of someone who has internalized the songs.

The dynamics of Interfaith House shift with who moves in and out. Atena is currently the only Muslim out of 33 residents, and Muslims are only 2 percent of the student body at Brown, which hired its first Muslim chaplain last winter. The house served suhur, a predawn breakfast for Muslim students fasting during Ramadan. That kindness helped Atena recruit three Muslims to move in next fall.

Atena is in an eight-year program at Brown that combines undergraduate work with medical school, but she also hopes to learn enough Arabic to study Islam more deeply. For now, she says, it's good to learn about other religions while she's still solidifying her own beliefs. With a smile that never seems to fade, she declares with utter sincerity, "I love it here."

Yael is considering attending graduate school to study ancient Judaism. But she, too, has enjoyed living with people who feel free to probe one another's convictions. "It's really wonderful to be challenged," she says.

To Atena and Yael, there's nothing unusual about their friendship. Their parents support it, and they aren't the first in their families to forge Muslim-Jewish bonds. But they also know that their choice to room together carries symbolic weight in a world where communities are torn apart by religious strife.

"We often think that we're solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Yael says wryly.

Atena recalls earlier this school year when she was painting a mural at an Islamic school with friends from a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group on campus: "A reporter there was asking me, 'Do you think Jews and Muslims can get along?' And I was like, 'Well, I live with a Jew, and we get along just fine.' ... [Yael's] one of my best friends. It gives people hope, I think, in a way, to see Jews and Muslims living together."

Part 1 appeared in Monday's Monitor.

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