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Kris Kerzman, Published March 16 2014

Points of view: Book series encourages readers to discuss voices of the Muslim world

FARGO – It’s a quiet Thursday evening at the downtown Fargo Library. A small group of people trickle into the library’s community room, pour a cup of coffee and take a seat for a book discussion.

As the program begins, it’s apparent that this isn’t your typical book club. The book up for discussion is the memoir “House of Stone” by Anthony Shadid, a former New York Times journalist who documented his experience moving into his family home in Lebanon and attempting to rebuild it.

The group here is reading it as part of “Points of View,” a discussion series aimed at acquainting participants with individual voices arising out of Muslim culture.

The discussion delves deeply into geography, vocabulary and cultural norms. Moderated by Miriam Mara, an English professor at North Dakota State University, the group begins by each talking about the cherished items in their homes: their children’s artwork, family photos, decorative pumpkins and crystal bowls. This discussion of material culture – how objects, buildings and possessions can carry a sense of memory or identity – leads into a discussion of Shadid’s pull toward the physical space of his home.

That level of interaction and discussion turns on a lot of light bulbs, says Beth Postema, Fargo Library deputy director. It counteracts the lopsided view of Islam from Western media and popular culture while establishing connections to ideas that exist across all cultures, like family and home.

“There is understanding in exposing yourself to other ideas and breaking down previous conceptions,” Postema says. “We like to be the place where those conversations happen.”

Mara, who researches global literature, says the writings of others hold tremendous power to break down cultural barriers.

“Texts and literature are amazing ways to transmit different ideas and different kinds of understandings and approaches to cultures and ideas,” Mara says. “Humans are narrative creatures. Telling stories, listening to stories and making contact with characters is part of what humans do.”

Through the literature humans create, she says, we focus less on what makes us different from other cultures and empathize more. That empathy is a key part of the process, and the “Points of View” group, she adds, exhibits plenty of it.

For one participant, Nesreen Eldoliefy, the discussion group takes on another level of significance. Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Egypt, Eldoliefy is a practicing Muslim studying literature as a research assistant under Mara. Like the rest of the group’s participants, she says she has enjoyed learning new perspectives from these cultures. Meanwhile, she’s been able to offer first-hand experience to the other participants, reminding them that “there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers” in regard to their curiosity.

“What I like about this project is how it gets people involved in knowing ‘the other’ and has less ‘othering’ of themselves from them,” Eldoliefy says.

“It differs from what the media is doing. It pushes back, giving people a new consciousness of other cultures – that they exist and they’re not evil. They’re OK with what they are.”

Eldoliefy said she also is an example of how one person’s perspective can challenge the notion that Muslim culture – or any culture for that matter – is a single, simple concept.

“I have been different in every place I’ve lived, and as I grew up I never felt ‘different’ is bad. I’ve felt difference is very good,” Eldoliefy says. “Maybe people would see different Muslims as identical, but they don’t know their stories and they don’t know what kind of choices they’ve made.”

The book discussion series continues for another two installments, discussing “Dreams of Trespass” by Fatima Mernissi on March 20 and “Broken Verses” by Kamila Shamsie on April 3.

If you go

What: “Points of View” book discussion series

When: “Dreams of Trespass” by Fatima Mernissi will be discussed at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, “Broken Verses” by Kamila Shamise at 6:30 p.m. April 3.

Where: Main Fargo Library, 102 3rd St. N.

Info: For more information, visit www.fargolibrary.org or call (701) 241-1492. For those unable to attend, the resources and books will remain available through the library’s Book Club in a Bag program.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.