Against the Wall

Praying, eating and bowling with the most hated student group at UC Irvine

"There is a time when they will leave the campus and go into the world, and society will exert those limitations and restrictions on them," he says. "I think if we deny students this right, it would be a great injustice."

This year's Anteaters for Israel president, Isaac Yershalmi, says he and other group members met over the summer with the MSU, in hopes of co-sponsoring an event. The Muslim Student Union suggested a debate between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine guest speakers.

But a debate didn't seem like the right choice of events, Yershalmi says. "I feel like a debate sort of separates people rather than brings them together."

MSU members at afternoon prayer. Photo by John Gilhooley.
MSU members at afternoon prayer. Photo by John Gilhooley.

Instead, Yershalmi suggested the two groups have a social event to just get to know one another. The MSU refused.

Zarka said the MSU's priority is getting its message heard, rather than making peace with other campus groups they feel do not respect their religion. "We've gotten a lot of attacks religiously . . . and then somebody wants to come and shake our hand. It's like, 'I'm going to talk trash on you, and then I want to work with you.'"

Yershalmi believes the MSU doesn't necessarily want to improve relations. "I don't want to speak for them, but maybe easing the tension is not part of their purpose," he says. "Maybe they're so focused on what they're doing that they want to ignore all of the externalities."

Although he hasn't changed his views, Yershalmi says he does have a broader understanding of the conflict because of the MSU. "I can't say that they have influenced me," he says. "But one thing I have to give them credit for is giving people something to think about."

*     *     *

After a night of uneasy sleep, I make another attempt with the MSU. The group plans to hold its new-student orientation in a large meeting room. Through glass doors, I see probably around 100 Muslims, most of the men with beards and most of the women wearing hijabs. I recognize most of them now, which adds to my anxiety. The seed has been planted in my mind that some of them don't want me around.

When I enter, some of the women from the bowling trip smile and wave. That settles my nerves. I enter a room where chairs are set up in two sections, one for the men and one for the women.

I find Omar, who says he spoke to whoever raised concerns and all should be fine. Some of these students are the children of immigrants who escaped dictatorships, he explains. They have an almost ingrained mistrust of media—and especially recording devices.

Inside, the meeting room is buzzing. The group presents a short comedy skit for a group of jittery transfer students and freshmen who have come to learn about the MSU. The students giggle throughout. It's a self-deprecating parody in which a naïve college student convinces his thickly Middle Eastern-accented father he will stay away from those "dirty" Muslims he saw on the news.

After the skit, Elsayed, a recent graduate, speaks to the group about the MSU's reputation. Whatever their message, he says, Muslims in America are considered the "other." A distinction that many minorities have had to endure throughout the country's history. But, he says, that shouldn't make them afraid.

"You would think that with everything that's being said—about the Muslims at UC Irvine in particular—that the Muslims would be so scared," he says. "'Oh, my God, they're saying all of this stuff about us; we can't do this anymore. We have to, like, hide, you know, and let's put our heads in the sand. Let's not do anything, or let's not say anything. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.'

"But it's the complete opposite. We have self-confidence and self-esteem. We know what's the right thing to do, and we do it. We're not scared of anything or anyone, or whatever anyone can say," Elsayed says. "Some people said the FBI is watching us. The FBI is not watching us; Allah is watching us. That's what we think."

When the meeting ends, the group heads to a courtyard in front of UCI's new Student Center. Some students are bringing large pans of food for the Iftar, the breaking of the fast. First, the students must pray.

Elsayed leads the prayer again, while foot traffic heads in every direction.

"Pray as if this is your last prayer," he says before beginning the suras in a heartbroken melody.

Some students walk by and stare at the Muslims. They are lined up in three rows, with the men in front and the women behind.

Some students ignore the scene. Some stop and watch. Some walk almost directly into the middle of the group as if they're blind or just don't care. One young man sips a large soda and looks askance at a buddy walking beside him. They snicker.

The Muslims don't notice. They bow and pray in unison.

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