December 21, 2006
Jewish and Muslim students at USC share dorm and friendships
The fact that the Taj Mahal was built by a Muslim Mughal is news to one Jewish student, who asked not to be named. The student and Asad Hasnat, a sophomore from Pakistan, have been talking about architecture in India during one of the weekly Monday Munchies socials put together for the Shalom-Muslim floor in USC's Parkside Apartments, where both live.
Theirs is a fairly typical exchange between students on a campus as large and diverse as USC's. But at a time when Jews and Muslims in other parts of the world aren't having much luck learning from one another, the conversation and the setting for it are both quietly revolutionary. Here Jewish and Muslim students live together in harmony.
Levran and Hasnat are parked on the sofa in Alnatour's apartment. Nobody's watching the television, which flickers and hums in the background, and some of the guys are clumped around a counter loaded with ice cream and cookies like a pack of young lions taking their time with a fresh kill.
"Back then the Mughals ruled everything," Hasnat said. "They were civilization in India."
Levran nods, taking in the new information.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of Religious Life at USC, says the name "Shalom Housing" came to her about a decade ago, when she was head of USC Hillel. Several students had sought her advice about finding a way to keep kosher while living on campus.
"None of the dining halls served kosher food," Laemmle said, "and finding dorms with individual kitchens seemed like a good way to help observant students who still wanted to be part of campus life."
Soon after Laemmle moved from her role at Hillel to become dean, a group of Muslim students enlisted her help with a similar project. Laemmle worked with Ken Taylor in USC's Office of Residential and Greek Life to find space to create a Muslim floor. As it happened, a wing of the residential hall where Shalom Housing had been established was available.
"The original concept was not a Jewish-Muslim floor," Taylor said. "That was the creature of the [Resident Advisors] and the students themselves."
Alana Bubis and Sahar Alnatour, the floor's RAs, are the unassuming but earnest current stewards of this legacy. Bubis, a junior majoring in business and film studies, is a California native, like most of the residents on the Jewish wing of the floor.
"The Muslim wing is more international," she said, "and it has more guys. There are more girls on the Jewish wing."
There are 50 students on the coed floor. Two men or two women share each room. A handful of students who are neither Jewish nor Muslim also choose to live on the floor.
"A lot of people keep coming back," said Bubis, who's marking her second year as a resident.
It's year three for Alnatour, whose family moved to the United States from Kuwait after the end of the first Gulf War.
"As a freshman, you have something in common with the people who live around you," Alnatour said, explaining why she was attracted to the floor. Although she laughs when she recalls her surprise at learning she would have Jewish neighbors, too.
"It's not very clear in the housing brochure that the Muslim and Jewish wings are together," Bubis said.
The fact that USC's Shalom-Muslim floor has evolved both organically and unofficially means that, like Alnatour, many of the students who arrive on move-in day are surprised when they meet some of their neighbors.
Traditions like Monday Munchies and the floor's open-door policy -- if your door's open, company's welcome -- are designed to help newcomers quickly adapt to the novel environment.
And both the temperament of the current generation of students and the culture of the floor tend to discourage the kind of fiery debates over politics that would disrupt the mellow culture of the floor.
"Politics never comes up," said Amir Yassai, a junior from Orange County. "I think it has to do with the fact that people my age are more open-minded."
When he returned to school soon after last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah had subsided, Yassai's Iranian-born parents asked him whether there was any tension on the floor.
"It was hard for them to believe it just isn't an issue," Yassai said.
Still, some residents perceive an underlying tension on the floor -- not between Jews and Muslims, but between the ardor that attracts students to the community and the tacit détente that helps to sustain it.
"It's true that people stay away from political conversation," said Hasan Qazi, a biology major whose parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. "But that doesn't mean that people don't hold deep political convictions. Everyone chooses to live here because they're passionate about their identity as Muslims or Jews."
Laemmle describes this situation as "the elephant on the Shalom-Muslim floor."
"Eventually I think students will find a way to engage each other at that level," she said. "If you build a tradition of trust, political discussion can be safer."
Bubis and Alnatour have already laid the foundation for what could become the next stage in the growth of USC's Shalom-Muslim Floor. Together they've successfully lobbied for a greater selection of kosher and halal food at a nearby dining hall. The precedent of that small collaboration could help other residents of this quietly revolutionary community find common ground in a passionate, ice cream fueled conversation on some future Monday.
If Laemmle's elephant analogy is apt, it's likely just a matter of time.