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Syrian-American seeks to unite faiths
The Middle East is no place for optimists, many foreign policy experts say.
Well, conventional wisdom meet Farah Atassi, an Arab woman too hard-headed to give up on hope.
Her monumental goal is nothing less than promoting understanding among Middle Eastern Muslims, Christians and Jews and explaining the Arab world to Americans, even if that insight takes root in a small but swank cultural center and cafe she opened eight months ago in the heart of Georgetown.
“I’m very optimistic,” Mrs. Atassi said in a recent interview on the patio of her Arab Information and Resource Center, which includes the Zenobia Lounge cafe. “I think change will come. I can see it.”
Her customers also can see the change she envisions when they walk through the door of 1025 31st St. NW. In an exotic contrast to the normal Georgetown hangout, pulsating Arab music greets customers as they browse displays of Arab handicrafts such as elegant perfume bottles, paintings and hookahs.
One wall is crowded with framed photos of Mrs. Atassi with American politicians including Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, military leaders such as Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, Arab officials including Saudi Prince Faisal and even an Arab-American actor, Tony Shaloub, the obsessive-compulsive TV detective Monk.
Shelves are stuffed with books on Arab culture, history and politics and compact discs of Arab music and documentaries. Her library includes books on Christians, Jews and Muslims of the Arab world and information on doing business in the 22 nations of the Arab League. One bookshelf is topped with a row of small flags of the Arab League nations and an American flag at each end.
“This represents the heart and soul and mind of the Arab world. We are trying to be a mirror to show how Arabs think,” Mrs. Atassi said. “My dream is to have something big here.”
It was a dream that took a young Arab scholar and prize-winning author from Damascus, Syria, to Grand Rapids, Mich., and later to Georgetown University with a stop in Greece, where she met a professor who changed her life.
“I was raised in the Arab and Western cultures,” she said. “I took the best of both worlds.”
As a college student in Syria, Mrs. Atassi wrote a graduate thesis on the impact of Greek mythology on modern literature. She also discovered T.S. Eliot and remains fond of his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Mrs. Atassi’s journey took her to Greece to study in an American program where her professor, Anthony Sullivan, noted that she had read a definitive study of Eliot by the noted American conservative thinker, Russell Kirk.
He recommended she pursue her studies at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Grand Rapids, where she arrived in 1999, five years too late to meet Mr. Kirk, who died in 1994. However, she became close to his widow, Annette.
Mrs. Atassi, who comes from a long line of politically prominent Syrians, could have stayed in her homeland and tried her luck in government. Instead she came to America.
“I jumped on a plane. I left everything behind,” she said.
Mrs. Atassi was the first Middle East scholar at the Kirk Center, and she taught Mrs. Kirk about the Arab world while Mrs. Kirk taught her about Americans. She later met many conservative leaders and had a private lunch with Nancy Reagan at the historic Rancho Del Cielo in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“I became like this with Annette,” Mrs. Atassi said, crossing two fingers. “This is how I came to love America. I lived with an American family. We cooked together. We laughed together.”
Mrs. Atassi also discovered what she called “similarities between Islam and the American conservative movement, especially concerning morality, family, religion and [opposition to] abortion.”
She soon got a scholarship for postgraduate studies in international relations and public diplomacy at Georgetown University, which brought her to Washington where she later worked for the Voice of America and for the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. She became an American citizen, met her husband, Charif Khanji, a Lebanese-American with a doctorate in computer sciences, and had two children, a boy, Hadi, and a girl, Aya.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mrs. Atassi decided she had to do something to combat the clash of cultures and explain Arabs to Americans and Americans to Arabs.
“There was a big shift in public opinion [about Arabs]. It was like a big earthquake,” she said.
She realized that Arabs knew as little about Americans as they did about them.
“Many Arabs know nothing about American culture, the rule of law, the friendliness of the people,” Mrs. Atassi said, adding that they get most of their image of Americans from violent Hollywood movies.
Americans, likewise, think Arabs “ride camels and only care about oil,” she said.
Mrs. Atassi knew she had to explain to Americans that the vast majority of Muslims are not obsessed with blowing them up. Her disgust was evident when she talked about Osama bin Laden or the medieval-minded Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
“They don’t speak for the vast majority of Arabs. They only speak for themselves,” she said.
She makes no excuses for Islamic practices in some countries where women are treated like chattel, and she condemns the religious extremism in the Arab world. Those misogynistic laws are based on cultural tradition, not on the Koran, she said.
“Religion is a personal thing, and you should not impose it in political life,” she said.
Mrs. Atassi lectures at interfaith forums and has appeared on the ABC television network, the British Broadcasting Corp. and on French TV to talk about Arab issues. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair just invited her to address an interfaith conference in London in September.
“I want to tell people about Islam,” Mrs. Atassi added. “Let’s build bridges.”
About the Author
James Morrison joined the The Washington Times in 1983 as a local reporter covering Alexandria, Va. A year later, he was assigned to open a Times bureau in Canada. From 1987 to 1989, Mr. Morrison was The Washington Times reporter in London, covering Britain, Western Europe and NATO issues. After returning to Washington, he served as an assistant foreign editor ...
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