Backstory: A country-western Muslim

With Egyptian roots and a southern drawl, Kareem Salama sings at a very American crossroad.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Kareem Salama – the main act on this evening's Muslim Student Association program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – nervously sips a bottle of water backstage as his guitarist/producer tunes a 12-string guitar.

The crowd buzz softens to a deferential hush as a bearded student takes the stage to start the evening with readings from the Koran in an Arabic melody that sounds like a medieval hymn.

It's Koranic recitations like these that inspired Mr. Salama, the son of Eygptian immigrants, to become a musician. But it's the peculiarly American circumstances of his life that drove this devout Muslim with a Southern drawl to his musical passion – country.

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And so on this evening Koranic verse dissolves into the main act: the upbeat twang of what is perhaps the first Muslim country singer. In a down-home sound that seems at total odds with his look – an elegantly built man with a goatee style popular with young Arabs in his parents' Middle Eastern homeland – Salama croons to the enthusiastic audience. "Baby, I'm a soldier and I hear those trumpets calling again ... It's time for this simple man to be one of the few good men," go his original lyrics to a war ballad about the shared humanity of two soldiers on opposing sides.

As any musician emerging at the grassroots level, Salama performs mostly at smaller, niche events like this one. But he clearly has a growing following. Mariam Kandil, an MIT brain and cognitive sciences major who first heard him at another Muslim conference, says that Salama "got me to like country music."

But further, adds Ms. Kandil, a Muslim who wears hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, "What really caught my attention was his voice. But also the lyrics of the songs ... cater not only to the Muslim population but to a more universal group of people because of their meaning."

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Salama's attempt to break into country music may seem bizarre to many outsiders. Even his guitarist/producer Aristotle Mihalopoulos – himself the son of Greek immigrants – admits it's a little odd: "He's doing country influenced music as a Muslim and has one of the thickest Southern accents I've ever heard."

"It doesn't feel strange to me," says Salama. "But it certainly is a novelty for other people to see someone who's Muslim and whose family didn't grow up here getting into something like this."

It's also fairly normal from his family's perspective, he says. Though his parents grew up in Egypt, they spent most of their adult lives in the US and raised Kareem and his two brothers and a sister in Oklahoma and Texas. Most of them enjoy country music. But, he adds, "that I'm choosing to put together a CD and go around performing the music ... might be a step outside the norm."

Though most country music fans would tell you nothing is more American, the genre has a reputation for being ultra patriotic, often to the point of bigotry.

Salama, however, is proving that country music might be America's real melting pot.

Especially since the September 11 attacks, some country songs tread the line between music and jingoistic calls to arms. In the controversial "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue," Toby Keith describes the "American way" as giving the boot to anyone who messes with America. In Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" he surmises that America is rightly looking for a fight and encourages replaying the 9/11 footage daily.

For a pious Muslim with traditional Arab tendencies, country music is a natural choice.

"The last bastion of ethical tunes," as Salama terms country, tends to focus on a deeper meaning. Listening to a Southern tune, Salama likes to imagine an old man sitting by the fireside telling "a story that means something to him."

Traditional Arab music follows a similar pattern.

Given Islam's strict moral guidelines, few songs have quite the illicit content you'd hear in some American pop songs. Instead, Arab music, like country, tends to focus on issues like unadulterated love, family, and religion. According to Salama, these common themes attract a number of Muslims.

The connection has allowed Salama to freely mix Islamic ideas into his music, while ensuring that it maintains broad appeal.

"Even my hard-core right, Christian buddies are like, 'This is great! This is excellent!'" says Mr. Mihalopoulis, who has bridged his own musical tastes – his main gig is a heavy metal band, the stylistic opposite of country music – to team with Salama.

In a song about the virtues of tolerance, for example, Salama quotes the noted Islamic scholar and poet Imam Shafi'ee's version of the turn-the-other-check proverb: "I am like incense; the more you burn me the more I'm fragrant." Like most of Salama's music, the song emphasizes dealing peacefully with people in an evenhanded manner.

"I don't like to be preachy," he says. "My ideas and thoughts change all the time. So for me to preach something very adamantly and try to force a view down someone's throat implies that I'm very confident. I change my views all the time, especially being a young man."

The attitude has won Salama praise in a variety of circles. He was invited to perform in London at the "Radical Middle Ground" annual conference, sponsored by the British government.

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Salama's laid-back and open attitude reflects life in his family home. In Ponca City, Okla., the Salama family was often the only Muslim family in town. Christians seeking converts visited them nearly every weekend.

"Frankly, I always used to enjoy visits from Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, and other denominations," says Salama's father, Mamdouh, an engineer in the petroleum industry. He often invited them in for friendly religious debates. "You know, a lot of people actually hate it when they come, but I always enjoyed having them."

Despite stereotypes of the South as a region struggling with race issues, the Salama family experienced limited discrimination. Salama remembers only a few incidents when people shouted ethnic slurs and believes they were isolated occurrences. His mother, who wears hijab, once joined a women's painting group and initially experienced friction from suspicious members. However, once they got to know her, they became close friends.

"The South embodies so many Islamic values," says Salama. As an example, he cites the prophet Muhammad's command that good Muslims must greet their neighbors, also a common Southern practice, he says.

So far Salama and Mihalopoulis have performed almost exclusively at Islamic gatherings, largely with rave reviews.

"This is certainly one market, but we want to expose our music to a larger audience," says Salama.

While Salama's Muslim background may attract a very particular audience, both he and Mihalopoulis hope that it also might provide them with a hook capable of snagging the attention of more diverse listeners.

In the meantime, the two keep their day jobs – Salama studies law at the University of Iowa, and Mihalopoulis is a substitute teacher.

"I don't have a definite goal right now as to what I want to do with [my music]," says Salama.

But, he optimistically jokes, "If the Dixie Chicks would need someone to open for them, I'd be happy to."

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