The (Global) Wisconsin Idea [Madison Magazine]

The university may draw them here but Middle Eastern students are forging connections – and creating a special community – throughout Madison

By Jennifer Page, for Madison Magazine

The growing crowd gathers in the sparse room devoid of any decoration save for two plaques on the wall quoting the Koran. Mimicking the neat lines of shoes by the door, nearly 150 Muslims are drawn together for the Jumma, or Friday prayer. As the second of five daily prayers starts, Sarrah AbuLughod, head wrapped in a bright blue scarf to hide her hair, joins in the rising drone of the crowd giving thanks to Allah.

It’s a scene AbuLughod, a recent UW–Madison graduate and former vice president of the Muslim Student Association, has been a part of her entire life and as long as she’s lived in Madison. But the Islamic faith is but one component of Madison’s growing and active Middle Eastern community. Just like the geographical region of the Middle East, the community has distinct parts, coming from both Persian and Arab backgrounds with no one country overly represented in the city.

The progressive attitude of the city, along with the presence of the University of Wisconsin, may be one of the reasons people of Middle Eastern decent are choosing to settle in Madison. The region’s cultural landscape, originally known for its hardy German and Scandinavian pioneers, is evolving into a melting pot of Middle Eastern cultures and customs that can be seen through myriad restaurants and stores throughout the city.

Making the Melting Pot

The first real wave of migration to Madison by people of Middle Eastern descent began in the late 1970s. They were UW–Madison students, and most lived in the famously diverse Eagle Heights neighborhood. After graduation, few would set down roots here, choosing instead to return to their native countries. Ibrahim Saeed, a faculty member of UW’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, says it was in the late 1990s when immigrants were drawn here for other opportunities.

“This latest trend also brought with it doctors joining the UW hospital and more immigrant families settling in Madison for employment,” says Saeed, who is also president of Madison’s Islamic Center.

For AbuLughod, who grew up in a small farming town north of Madison and was the only girl there who wore the hijab, or headscarf, being active in Madison’s Islamic community provides helps her retain her ethnic and religious traditions in a progressive city. Interestingly, though, it’s also a means to connect with people and ideas that are very different from her own.

“The Muslim community here is one of the most diverse I have ever seen,” AbuLughod says. “Nowhere have I seen a community that can bring Malaysians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, the Sudanese and white Americans together,” says Rizwaan Akhtar, a member of the MSA. “Being bonded by a common faith really allows for the vibrant brotherhood and sisterhood we have.”

Adjusting to Midwest Life

Three mosques for worship are probably the most visible stake the Muslim community has in Madison. But like any newcomers, putting down roots is often a balance of maintaining comfortable customs and lifestyles while taking in what’s new around you. Muslims hold major holiday celebrations in the Alliant Energy Center, where all are welcome. There’s a traditional Muslim K–3rd-grade school called Madinah Academy, and Al Jumuah, an international magazine on Islam with subscribers in more than a hundred countries, is headquartered in nearby Middleton.

Members of Madison’s Middle Eastern community also have opened some of downtown’s best-loved restaurants and retail stores. Caspian Café is a small restaurant busiest at lunchtime, with professionals and students ordering Iranian dishes with a Chopin symphony backing up their conversation. Mohila Nateghi, a diminutive figure in a black chef’s uniform and sole cook at the restaurant, runs in and out of the kitchen, making sure her friendly, stately husband, Mir, is keeping tea and water glasses full.

The Nateghis moved from their native Iran in 1976 before the revolution, when Mir says “so many families were destroyed.” He says the political situation between the U.S. and Iran now is a misrepresentation of the majority of the country.

“People see Iranians through their government,” says Mohila. “Before the revolution, women were completely free. Everyone was free. We were on the border of Russia and felt like a Western country.”

Like political misunderstandings, Mohila says westerners tend to associate the Muslim religion with all of the Middle East, even though the region is both culturally and religiously diverse. She will be sure to correct anyone who calls her Middle Eastern, too, although in a soft accent that hides any annoyance. “Iranians are Persian,” she explains. “We are more westernized than traditional Arab countries and we speak Farsi.”

Like the Nateghis, the Muslim students we spoke with, many of whom asked not to be identified, are familiar with being misunderstood. Being a religious Muslim can be difficult, and AbuLughod says, “Sometimes it is hard to fit into college pop culture when you don’t drink or party.”

Finding a place to pray can be a particular challenge, students say.

“I’ve prayed in a movie theater once during Lord of the Rings,” says AbuLughod.

“Dressing rooms are great to pray in when you’re shopping,” says another.

“Once I prayed at Six Flags.”

“I pray in the back stairwell of my dorm since it would be awkward doing it with my roommate there.”

Unfortunately, these common experiences pale in comparison to insults thrown at Middle Eastern students. Hussein Sharif says he’s been told to “go back to Pakistan,” or called “terrorist.”

“It isn’t discouraging so much as it is sad,” Hussein says.

Creating Community

But Sharif thinks the stereotypes surrounding Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent are changing as the next generation makes its mark on the world. “We are the first generation of Muslims in this area and are starting to define the American-Muslim identity and culture,” he says. “We have no people to imitate or model–it’s a completely novel experience.”

Many students say the benefits of having a community and traditions far outweigh any sacrifices they make. They are also willing to share their beliefs and customs in the hopes that fewer misconceptions and less animosity will go a long way toward change.

For her part, Mohila Nateghi says she has never regretted leaving her home to come to Madison, where her husband attended college.

“Madison is so diverse and welcoming,” she says. “There is no better place for me to have a restaurant and keep both my Iranian and American cultures.”

Mohila is in the final stages of writing a book about her experiences of coming to Madison without knowing much English and starting her own business. “I am very proud of the Persian community here,” she says. “And I am the only restaurant owner. Most people are doctors and lawyers.”

Despite preconceived ideas and differences between the Middle East and the Midwest, the community here continues to grow and change. Students and other new immigrants bring their own traditions, creating diversity and openness. In the process, they strengthen bonds through the common thread of living in an environment so different from home. And people such as student Akhtar form new kinds of families.

“The community was an instant network of people that were willing to help and something to fall back on when family is far away,” he says.

Jennifer Page is a UW–Madison graduate now a freelance writer in Chicago.