An Arab Muslim in Aspen
September 10, 2003
At a corner cafe in Aspen, on a chill and bright September day, Aisha Semmah picks at her salad, thinking of her childhood home. Even with her dark skin and foreign features, she is indistinguishable from the tanned, prosperous middle-aged women who sip cappuccinos, enjoying an afternoon break before picking up the kids from school. On the table in front of her is a major news magazine, with a headline about September 11 (“Two years on”) emblazoned across the cover.
Aisha asks, “When you have a rotten fish and you put it in a barrel of fresh fish, do you know what happens? The whole barrel begins to stink.”
It is a proverb of Islam that you never know on what soil you will die. Aisha Semmah was born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco, an Arab Muslim. She was one of 24 children her father had with two different wives. She has lived in America now for 20 years, Aspen for 13, and is an American citizen. At the moment, she is trying to explain how the actions of a few extremists have perpetuated a misperception of Islam as a violent religion. She disputes the common view of Muslims – wolves of the desert, lean, ascetic, dangerous.
“We are a peaceful people,” Aisha says. “After the Twin Towers fell, I called my family in Casablanca and we cried together. It was a terrible event, whether you were Muslim or not.”
Aisha works as a nanny for a local family. She dresses like a Westerner – two hoop earrings dangle elegantly from each ear – but a neat, white shawl still covers her head, the only piece of religious dress on her person. She practices Islam here in Aspen, making time to pray five times a day even while caring for a house and family. As often as she can, she goes to Lakewood to pray at the local mosque. There she joins an international array of followers that includes everyone from Pakistanis to black Americans – in prayer, a line of backsides and bare feet.
“You should see how many different people there are at the mosque. All sorts of people. Islam is a religion that treats everyone equally. And on the whole this is true for non-Muslims as well. When I was a child in post-World War II Casablanca, the city was full of Westerners and non-Muslims, but they were treated with respect. It is only in a small part of the world that non-Muslims are treated with disrespect.”
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Islam was a born at a time when courtesy was a matter of survival. In the desert, the traveler would always find refuge – in the welcoming homes of locals, in the beauty of the Quran script, in the cool, dry air of the mosque. Ibrahim Kazerooni, the imam at Aisha’s mosque in Lakewood, believes that Westerners will begin slowly but surely to understand Islam’s true nature.
“September 11 was a terrible event for America and Islam, but there was a silver lining. People have become curious about Islam. They want to be educated. And the aura of misunderstanding and secrecy is beginning to lift. The violent followers of bin Laden will not be allowed to hijack Islam.”
In the Roaring Fork Valley and around Colorado, Muslims like Aisha Semmah and Imam Kazerooni are doing their part to educate. Aisha spoke recently to students at Aspen Country Day School. Imam Kazerooni has spoken at schools and community meetings in Basalt and other areas of the Western Slope.
Residents of the valley are responding as well. Ben Bohmfalk, a local high school teacher, now offers a class on comparative religion at Basalt High School. Woody Creek resident Ed Bastian has set up a foundation that brings together leaders from all major religions (including Islam) in dialogue over common religious questions such as faith, devotion and meditation. This summer’s seminar ended with a multifaith service on Aspen Mountain where a rabbi, a nun, a Buddhist, a Hindu and an imam all worshipped together.
“At the Spiritual Paths Foundation, we deal with faith at the deepest level,” Bastian explains. “We are not interested in religion per se, but the spiritual core behind all religions, the impulse to ask the spiritual questions. What we’ve confirmed through our work is that in all the world’s religions, but especially the Abrahamic tradition – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – there are a lot of deep and penetrating similarities. It’s been very encouraging.”
As a North African Arab who has lived in Paris, Aisha knows firsthand the religious and racial tensions that can occur in larger cities. But in Aspen, she finds people on the whole to be courteous and understanding. “People here are wonderful,” Aisha says. “I know there are problems in some of the bigger cities. But here in Aspen everyone has been wonderful and supportive. It is a very spiritual place, Aspen. People respect religion.”
Every other year, if she can put the money together, Aisha returns to Morocco. She loves it there, the familiar culture, the climate, being again among family and friends. Still, she knows she can never move back.
“I am American now. Here in Aspen I feel free. I can talk on my cell phone, have male friends, enjoy my life. In Morocco, I wouldn’t even be allowed to talk to you, a reporter, here in this cafe.”
It is true that in certain parts of the world, even in moderate Arab countries like Morocco, Islam has problems. But in certain parts of the world, so do all the world’s major religions. As the sun begins to dip behind the mountains, Aisha Semmah gathers her things. As she walks out into the street, the air is crisp, almost desert-dry. It is time for prayer.