Published: May 23, 2004

United by Faith

Where Two Cultures Live As One

By ROBERT KING

It is Saturday morning in the Eldin household, and the family is running late for a soccer doubleheader that will begin in a few minutes at Anderson-Snow Park.

The breakfast table is heavy laden with bagels, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, cheese slices and bologna. Dr. Adel Eldin pauses to pray with his three young daughters.

"Allah, bless us for what you have provided and save us from hellfire," Eldin says.

His two oldest daughters - Sarah, 7, and Nora, 5 - recite these words with him while dressed in their soccer uniforms. Little 2-year-old Dalia, who nearly died from an allergic reaction to fish the day before, sits quietly nearby. With the blessing said, Eldin turns to a visitor and begins a day of running commentary about the ways of Islam.

"In all situations, we thank him," he said.

Eldin and his wife, Ghada, are eager ambassadors of their faith. And aside from this atypical willingness to open up to outsiders, the Eldins in many ways are representative of most Muslim families in Hernando County.

Adel, 42, is a physician, born and educated abroad, who came to America for the medical training and stayed because of the opportunities.

Ghada, 36, was educated as a doctor and stays home to raise their children.

And, thriving economically, the Eldins live comfortably in a well-apportioned home in one of Hernando County's gated communities, Pristine Place.

The Eldins are typical in other ways, too.

Immigrants to America, they bring with them a strong appreciation for the culture of their native Egypt and an unyielding commitment to Islam, which shapes nearly ever aspect of their lives.

And they are raising children who were born in America, who know Egypt primarily through the eyes of summer visits and who are growing up in America's culture of excess.

And as parents who have established a toehold in America, they hope their children's future will be even brighter than their own.

For 25 years, Hernando Muslims have built thriving medical practices, a mosque for worship and a school in Tampa for their children. But to truly understand their community is to understand how they have built their families.

The prophet Mohammed, whom Muslims revere as God's final messenger, once said: "Among the believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best disposition and are kindest to their family."

Now, more than 200 Muslims in Hernando County are trying to mesh what America has to offer with Islam and the cultures they left behind.

An American flag hangs on the front of the Eldin home, and a statuette of Uncle Sam pokes up from the mulch near the front door. But it is also a home where an open copy of the Koran rests on the treadmill, and TVs frequently are tuned via satellite to the Arab news network Al-Jazeera.

It is a home where Barbie dolls are sometimes adorned in glittery prom dresses with plunging necklines or covered modestly with a Muslim head scarf.

It is a home outfitted with a standard wooden Home Depot swing set in the back yard. But it is also a home custom built to Islamic codes, with special attention to the privacy of house guests and multiple sitting rooms that allow men and women to congregate separately.

It is a home where the kids enjoy watching the movie Shrek, a raucous Hollywood production about a flatulent ogre, and a home where children's books tell stories about the major characters from the Koran, including Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.

It is a home where the school projects on display regard subjects such as Helen Keller and John F. Kennedy, and the framed calligraphy on the wall recites verses from the Koran.

In some ways, it is two worlds melded together under one roof.

This is carried over to the soccer field when Sarah Eldin shows up to play for the Patriots dressed in red, white and blue.

Though the game has begun when Sarah arrives, she is quickly ushered in to play center. Her first shot on goal strays wide, and it will be as close as the Patriots come to scoring all day.

Interestingly, plastered across the Patriots' jerseys is the name of the team sponsor - Brooksville Cardiology, her father's medical practice. Eldin said he had no part in choosing the Patriots name. But as someone who never misses an opportunity to play up the patriotism of Muslim-Americans, he is fond of it.

Yet as the team breaks its huddle for the second half, the coach leads Sarah's team in a cheer that Eldin might have written himself.

"We are the Patriots. We love America."

"We are the Patriots. We love America."

Still, the cheers produce no points. And Sarah, who soon moves over to play goalie, seems less concerned about the score than the conditions near the net.

"I smell dog poop," she yells to the bench. "I smell dog poop."

"One who does fairness or justice'

Over on the sideline, Sarah's sister Nora is bent on pushing the boundaries of fan participation. Repeatedly, she steps onto the field during the game.

Her father and coach Ralph Brown urge her to stay back. But Nora keeps crossing the line - putting two feet on the playing field as her own personal act of defiance.

In the face of such open rebellion, Adel offers only the mildest suggestion that his daughter reconsider her actions. And this seems in line with the 7-7-7 rule, a commonly held philosophy on child rearing in the local Muslim community.

As various people explain, it isn't so much a rule as it is an Islamic custom:

During a child's first seven years, she is so young and unable to reason that misbehavior doesn't warrant much of an effort at discipline.

During the second seven years, with the child capable of reason and rationalization, discipline enters the picture, and parents correct misbehavior.

Finally, by age 14, parents should be seen as their child's friend.

Nora's boundary pushing comes to an end only when it comes time for her game to begin on the other side of the park. Since Ghada stayed behind at home to clean up the breakfast dishes, Adel must leave Sarah's game for a moment to deliver Nora to her game.

In transit, Adel mentions that his name means "one who does fairness or justice." He says it applies to his girls and their simultaneous soccer games.

It also applies to team sponsorships; Brooksville Cardiology sponsors Nora's team, too.

But then, when it comes to advertising his business and getting his message out, Eldin has proved himself to be a dynamo.

Eldin's smiling face looks down upon traffic from billboards and has appeared on the big screen at Zota Beacon Theaters before the previews roll. His ad banners have hung above the pins at Mariner Lanes. His index card-sized ads have appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.

To local politicians, he is the most visible Muslim in Hernando County. He has raised money for state Rep. Dave Russell, flown on a plane with U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite and shaken the hand of President George W. Bush.

For Eldin, it is all part of his pursuit of the Muslim-American dream.

"I do believe in America and freedom and the greatness of this country," he said.

Modesty seen as spiritual maturity

Among the soccer moms of the First Hernando Youth Soccer League, the late-arriving Ghada Eldin is a strikingly unique figure as she makes her way across the vast expanse of green.

A blue scarf is wrapped around her head. A dark blue blouse allows no sign of her neck. A black skirt drapes down to her ankles. And the web of fabric around her torso hangs in such a way that the curves of her body are totally obscured.

That, essentially, is the ultimate goal of the Muslim attire that is collectively known as hijab - to be modest, to be well-covered.

Ghada first wore the hijab back in Egypt when she was 16 or 17. Like much about Islam, "covering" is a practice that is phased in as a child matures.

Typically, girls start by covering their heads and wearing long sleeves. Most eventually wind up wearing the long, flowing robes known as jilbab.

In many corners of the Muslim community, the progression from covering less to covering more is seen as a sign of a woman's spiritual maturity.

The prophet Mohammed said the innate character of Islam is modesty. And, in different ways, that idea is echoed among Hernando's Muslims.

"A woman's modest dress is done to prevent temptation and to preserve the woman's dignity so she is not viewed just as a body or as a sex object," said Ghiath Mahmaljy, one of the community's spiritual leaders.

The Eldins consider modesty a matter of protecting something valuable.

"A woman is like a jewel and should be put in a case and protected," Adel said.

"When you have something so precious in life, you will cover it," said Ghada. "If you look at your body, your brain is covered."

As Ghada sees it, Muslim ideas on modesty aren't so foreign to America. She points out that many American women once wore head scarves to church. Nuns still wear habits. Others point out that the Christian apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about women covering their heads.

Issues of modest dress aren't confined to women.

Local Muslim men, whose knees are not supposed to be revealed, are rarely seen in anything but long pants. As he cheers on his daughters, Adel's lengthy shorts set an example that, in the Eldin household, modesty is important for everyone.

"Somebody is going to have to sacrifice'

With Nora's soccer game under way, little Dalia has emerged from her stroller and begins toddling on the sidelines. She seems no worse for the wear of having been rushed to the hospital the day before with her allergic reaction to fish. At one point, she had nearly stopped breathing.

Ghada, trained in Egypt as a pediatrician but not licensed in Florida, was at home when Dalia's reaction occurred. Having faced the problem before, she quickly gave Dalia a Benadryl injection that may have saved the child's life.

Such potential emergencies are one of the main reasons Ghada stays home. Nora and Sarah had their share of severe allergies. For their mom, being at home is not just practical, but often a matter of life and death.

"Somebody is going to have to sacrifice. And it's not going to be my husband. If it is not me, the children will be the ones to make the sacrifice," she said. "It is unfair for me to take care of other people's children and not my own."

Around the Muslim community, women stay home for different reasons. But most choose to stay home with the kids at least while their children are young.

Dina Kanawati, 32, is a trained pharmacist staying home while her youngest son gets settled in school. But she plans to go back to work soon.

Samar Shakfeh, 38, stayed home with her kids when they were babies. But when they entered school, she began managing her husband's medical office. Now she is three years into a political science degree at the University of South Florida. She plans to go to law school.

With children so young, Ghada Eldin is still a few years away from returning to work. Both she and her husband say they recognize her career is being sacrificed. But Ghada says it is a matter of priorities.

"Family, for us, is like everything. Just look at why the divorce rate is going up. Everybody is thinking about themselves and not thinking about the children," she said. "For us, the family is like the core of the community."

Behind the modesty, liberation

Repression of women is one of the primary criticisms levied against the Islamic world.

But many women in Hernando's Muslim community say they don't see it that way. They say people too often assume their lot in life is similar to the horror stories from repressive Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Local Muslims point out that Islamic law for centuries has allowed women to keep the property they bring into a marriage, something they say American law recognized only in the 20th century.

They point out that, according to Islam, women may keep every penny they earn while married, yet men are obligated to use their earnings to support the family. They point out that women can actually demand a salary if they choose to stay home and be homemakers.

Where women suffer, they contend it is not because of a repressive religion, but repressive governments.

"I'm an educated woman. I know my rights," Ghada said. "Islam was the first religion to establish women's rights. In the United States, women got rights in the 1920s. We got our rights 1,400 years ago."

When it comes to finding a mate, local Muslims say their family members frequently influence whom they choose as marriage partners, but by varying degrees.

Some say their marriages were cooked up by mothers and sisters and aunts who acted as matchmaking services, screening prospective mates based on appearance, financial standing and family background.

Mayssan Shuayb, 32, said her parents, who immigrated in the 1980s from Syria, simply told her whom she would marry. At age 14, after her freshman year at Hernando High School, she was wed to a doctor who took her to California. Shuayb was unhappy in the marriage, and it ended in divorce - a rare and highly frowned upon occurence among local Muslims. She recently married a man she found through an online dating service.

Although women in the community say forced marriages are rare, teenage brides are not.

Nada Hamoui, originally from Syria, married when she was 14. Nada's sister, Samar Shakfeh, married at 17.

"In Islam," says Hamoui, now 43, "once you reach puberty, you are accountable for your actions."

For Adel and Ghada Eldin, the story was a bit different.

Ghada was a pediatrician in Cairo and, compared to some of the other women in Hernando's Muslim community, she was older and more educated at the time she wed.

At their introduction, Ghada and Adel didn't hit it off. She found him to be in too big of a rush. They exchanged words. He left.

About 10 days later, he came back with a calmer approach. Giving him points for being able to admit his previous mistake, Ghada accepted his proposal.

"It worked out," she said. "He's a very sincere man as a dad, as a husband, as a friend, as a doctor and as a human being."

Finding security in separation of sexes

With two soccer games in the books, the Eldins head for home.

Ghada has plans for the afternoon to welcome a woman and her child over for a play date. As is typical for Saturdays, Adel ducks out to make rounds at the local hospitals.

Before he goes, Adel asks two male visitors who had spent the morning with the family to leave until his return. Separation of the sexes is an essential social more in the local Muslim community, and it just wouldn't do for the men to linger behind.

This separation is vigorously honored among local Muslims.

When the community's 50-some families and more than 200 individuals come together to celebrate an iftar feast, which marks an end to a day of Ramadan fasting, men and women part company upon entering the door of their rented banquet hall.

Via separate buffet lines, they load their plates with dates, stuffed grape leaves and lamb, among other delights.

"When there is too much mingling, you hear about it all the time," says 34-year-old Mohammad Shuayb, a local dentist who is Mayssan Shuayb's brother. "People fall in love with their friends' wives. This kind of minimizes the chances of that."

The same separation was evident when the Eldins hosted a Labor Day picnic at Ernie Wever Park near Brooksville. Women congregated on one side of the picnic shelter while the men gathered around the grill. When a Times reporter hinted at visiting the female side of the shelter to talk, Adel gently discouraged him.

In general, the rule is no physical contact between men and women if they are not related by blood or marriage. That goes for swimming in the same pool or dancing in the same room.

Local Muslims say they understand that every physical interaction doesn't have to lead to a dangerous liaison. But when it is avoided altogether, the chances for it happening are zero.

A menu with one notable limitation

Once he completes his hospital rounds, Dr. Eldin returns home and welcomes back the male visitors. And he is eager to talk about his role as an active father and husband who lightens the burdens of home that his wife has carried all week by herself.

He changes Dalia's dirty diaper and comforts her when she wakes early from a nap.

He gets meals on the table.

"We work together," Ghada says.

On this Saturday evening, Adel's menu choices include spaghetti, weiners and Taco Bell gorditas. An unusual combination, perhaps, but Eldin proudly points out that his family, though Muslim, eats the same types of foods any other American family eats.

Except for pork.

One thing you will never find on the menu in the Eldin house - nor on the plate of any observant Muslim - is pork. Adel reviles pork. When he talks about pork, his eyes flare.

Adel says Americans spend $28-billion a year on pork products. Aside from the fat and other blood pressure-raising properties of pork that Eldin decries as a cardiologist, he has personal concerns about the meat.

He says pigs are repulsive because they eat "garbage."

He says most animals will protect their females, but not the pig.

"If you eat pig, you become like pig," he said. "This is a very filthy animal."

Pork rants aside, the discussion around the Eldin table is generally very hopeful. Ghada and Adel talk wistfully about a future when the children will not face the anti-Muslim bias that sometimes exists now in America. In some ways, they see the hard times American Muslims have faced in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, as their time of testing.

But their daughters, still too young to understand the weight of the world's troubles, let such sentiments fly over the heads.

Sarah holds a paper napkin over her face as if it were a veil.

"I'm going to wear my hijab," she says coyly, before bursting into laughter.

Ending a full day with a time of prayer

Once the dinner dishes are put away, the Eldins gather in their living room. The volume on the television, which has been tuned to an Arab station available via satellite, is turned down low. Outside, the sun has dipped below the horizon, and it is time for the family to pray.

Muslims pray five times a day. The prayers are supposed to fall within specific windows of the day, a schedule that changes as the days lengthen or contract.

Part of the ritual, Adel explains, is to give thanks to God 33 times.

Adel prays in Arabic - the language he grew up with in Egypt, the language of the Koran.

As he begins, little Dalia clings to his back. This is part of her introduction to the Muslim prayer ritual that she will carry with her throughout life.

Nearby, the two older girls share a prayer rug and mimic their father's movements as he bows his forehead to the floor. Sarah, now wearing purple pajamas, follows closely. Nora, ever active, begins to wander.

Ghada does not join in this prayer. Seated in a chair at the back of the room, she comments only that it is customary for Muslim women to sit out when they are menstruating.

With the family prayer complete, the girls get shuffled off to bed.

Leaving home to visit native lands

Imad Tarabishy, one of the early Muslim arrivals to Hernando County, says that if there is an area where Islam is glorious, it is in its attention to taking care of family.

He proudly boasts of how the Islamic world has a relatively low divorce rate and that most Muslims see it as a duty and a blessing to care for their elderly parents. Nursing homes are rare in the Muslim world, he said.

"If you lose your parents, if you lose your children, you've lost everything," he said. "You can't enter heaven if your family or your neighbors are hungry."

With its children soon out of school for the summer, the Muslim community that has immigrated to Hernando County over the past three decades will turn its attention to the family it left behind.

While most of the physician fathers will stay here and tend their patients, many mothers will take their children back to Egypt or Syria or other nations around the Muslim world to give the kids a taste of another culture.

It is a time to tie the two worlds together.

But make no mistake: The Muslims of Hernando County consider their homes to be in America. Despite the uncertainties of these troubled times, their lives have been woven into the American quilt. And their children see these summer journeys largely as vacations or sightseeing trips.

Ghada Eldin proudly displays on her wall a photo from the day she became a naturalized American citizen. And despite the obstacles Muslim-Americans still face, she says she feels no different than any other American.

"I feel like a part of this fabric," she said.

Times researchers Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and Jenny Lichtenwalner contributed to this project.
Robert King can be reached at 352 848-1432.
Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com
[Last modified May 20, 2004, 06:00:12]