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Originally published May 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 12, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Middle Eastern travels inspire a book, a life

Seven years ago, bored and unfulfilled with her tech-sector jobs, 28-year-old Maliha Masood quit, bought a one-way ticket, strapped on a...

Seattle Times religion reporter

Other books of interest by local authors


"Fasting" by Lynne M. Baab (InterVarsity Press, 151 pp.). Baab, a Presbyterian minister and author, writes about the discipline of fasting as a practice toward "spiritual freedom beyond our appetites." www.lynnebaab.com

"Through a Screen Darkly" by Jeffrey Overstreet (Regal Books, 351 pp.). Writer and film reviewer Overstreet touches on more than 200 films, highlighting "the ways in which art and entertainment can both harm and heal." lookingcloser.org

"Lessons of the Soul" by Rodney R. Romney (Xlibris, 188 pp.). The Rev. Romney, who now lives in Idaho Falls after retiring in 2000 from 20 years leading Seattle First Baptist Church, writes about personal spiritual growth, seeing it as "something that transcends denomination or any kind of barrier."

"The Culturally Savvy Christian" by Dick Staub (John Wiley & Sons, 232 pp.). Staub, an award-winning broadcaster, writer and host of live forums and podcasts on faith and culture, pens "a manifesto for deepening faith and enriching popular culture in an age of Christianity-lite." www.dickstaub.com

Author appearance


Maliha Masood will give a talk on her book "Zaatar Days, Henna Nights," 3:30-5:30 p.m. May 23, University of Washington Women's Center, Cunningham Hall, UW campus, Seattle. Free and open to the public. More information on the book and upcoming events: www.maliha-masood.com.

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Seven years ago, bored and unfulfilled with her tech-sector jobs, 28-year-old Maliha Masood quit, bought a one-way ticket, strapped on a backpack and set off to Europe.

Six months later, feeling Europe hadn't been enough of a challenge, she decided to travel through the Middle East — no firm itinerary or specific task in mind, other than to grow, satisfy her wanderlust and explore her Islamic roots. She recounts her adventures with the everyday Muslims she meets in places such as Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in the engaging book "Zaatar Days, Henna Nights" (Seal Press, 299 pp.). Her interactions and observations result in some piquant anecdotes about how Islam is lived by ordinary people.

Masood — who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, moved to the United States at 12 and grew up in the Seattle area — also writes about how her journey affected her own identity as an American Muslim, with influences both Eastern and Western.

Other books of interest by local authors


"Fasting" by Lynne M. Baab (InterVarsity Press, 151 pp.). Baab, a Presbyterian minister and author, writes about the discipline of fasting as a practice toward "spiritual freedom beyond our appetites." www.lynnebaab.com

"Through a Screen Darkly" by Jeffrey Overstreet (Regal Books, 351 pp.). Writer and film reviewer Overstreet touches on more than 200 films, highlighting "the ways in which art and entertainment can both harm and heal." lookingcloser.org

"Lessons of the Soul" by Rodney R. Romney (Xlibris, 188 pp.). The Rev. Romney, who now lives in Idaho Falls after retiring in 2000 from 20 years leading Seattle First Baptist Church, writes about personal spiritual growth, seeing it as "something that transcends denomination or any kind of barrier."

"The Culturally Savvy Christian" by Dick Staub (John Wiley & Sons, 232 pp.). Staub, an award-winning broadcaster, writer and host of live forums and podcasts on faith and culture, pens "a manifesto for deepening faith and enriching popular culture in an age of Christianity-lite." www.dickstaub.com

Now 35, married and a resident of Kirkland, she spoke recently about her book, the trip and what she's working on now.

Q: Why did you choose to travel to the Middle East?

A: I wanted to challenge myself as far as having an adventure. It's not an area known for being hospitable for women traveling alone. I wanted to know if I could do it. ... The other half [of me] wanted to come to terms with how I felt as a Muslim. I wanted to go to the Middle East because I'd always associated it as the birthplace of Islam. The idea of having it be both adventure and spiritually grounded is kind of why I thought I wanted to go. ... [Another] key reason is to make concrete all the abstractions I had about the place. I wanted to see for myself what the region and people were like.

Q: How and when did the idea come for you to write about the trip?

A: It was a very rude welcome home because of Sept. 11. (Masood arrived home from her trip on Sept. 1, 2001.) Dealing with the two different realities — it was too close to me personally. So I decided to go to graduate school. I purposefully wanted to do my master's in international affairs because I wanted to put into context what were the roots of these conflicts that I saw and was a part of. The deeper I went into the study of the region, the more I realized I had a powerful story to share. My entire intent in writing it was to focus on the human stories underneath the headlines and stereotypes ... humanizing the Arab Muslim world. They're worried about job security, paying bills, putting kids through college. They're not as different as we think.

Q: You say one of your goals is to act as a bridge between East and West, between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures. What insights did you gain on that trip about the Muslim world and how it's portrayed in the West?

A: The more I traveled, the more I learned that people are essentially the same everywhere. There's a big difference between perception and reality. ...

I also saw a lot of tensions between what people believe and what governments do. A lot of what I saw over there [involved politics]. There's a need to differentiate. ... A lot of it is politics, not religion.

I saw a lot of double standards and hypocrisy within [the practice of the faith]. And knowing a lot of it is cultural and political. Seeing teens in Egypt wearing veils and tight jeans at the same time was contradictory.

Author appearance


Maliha Masood will give a talk on her book "Zaatar Days, Henna Nights," 3:30-5:30 p.m. May 23, University of Washington Women's Center, Cunningham Hall, UW campus, Seattle. Free and open to the public. More information on the book and upcoming events: www.maliha-masood.com.

Q: What did the journey mean to you in terms of your own faith?

A: I feel very grounded in Islam now. I felt grounded when I was living in Muslim countries and hearing the call to prayer. It made me pray more. It made me realize faith is within. It doesn't need to be dictated by the so-called guardians of faith, whether government or clergy. It became very personal to me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm a full-time writer. And I'm founder and president of Diwaan — it's a cultural institute (founded in September 2006). I want to have a dialogue about interfaith issues. My whole passion is interfaith diplomacy. The cultural side of Diwaan — I'm trying to put together dialogues, forums. I might do a literary festival, symposium, etc.

I'm a playwright. I'm working on plays that shed light on Muslims and Islam. We're not just ethnic minorities hovering on fringes. We're part of mainstream America. ... Let's do cultural and interfaith diplomacy but also entertain, so these things are tolerable. This bridging of East and West can be very highbrow and academic. I can say that coming from Harvard (where she did graduate studies), but I don't think that connects to people at a gut level. So I want to do things that make people laugh. Theater can do that.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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