Growing up, Arif Choudhury’s often had to explain American cultural traditions to his parents, who emigrated from Bangladesh before he was born.
Take, for example, Easter. Because Bangladesh was once a British colony, they were familiar with Christianity and with the holiday—but not some American traditions.
“They said, ‘What’s the Easter bunny for?’” recalls Choudhury, who grew up in Northbrook. “I would go to school and ask my friends.”
Today, Choudhury is an interfaith storyteller who explains his experience growing up Muslim in the midwest at storytelling festivals and speaking engagements around the country. He’s scheduled to appear at the Levy Center on Sunday, Sept. 8, as the opening act to a year-long program called “Muslim Journeys” at the Evanston Public Library. The program includes book discussions, films, theater and readings, all designed to promote understanding of Islamic culture.
“Often when people hear my stories, they realize they have similar stories in their lives, even though they may be different than me faith-wise,” Choudhury says. “We find that we have more in common than people may think.
Choudhury was born in Chicago, and later moved to Northbrook with his family, where he graduated from Glenbrook North in 1993. Growing up, he says, he was the only brown-skinned boy on his block, and one of only two Muslim children in his school. The other was his sister.
He remembers playing in the sandbox with other boys during recess at Wescott School, and rolling up his pant legs to put his toes in the sand.
“I noticed after a few moments, my friend Timmy, he was staring at me, he was staring at the dark skin on my knees,” he recalls. “And then he asked, ‘Arif, are you black?’”
“I looked down at the dark skin on my hands. I knew I was not white, but I wasn’t sure that not white meant black,” Choudhury says.
So when he went home he asked his mom, who said, “We’re not black, we’re Bangladeshi.”
The next day at school, he told his friend he was Bangladeshi.
“What’s Bangladeshi?” his friend said.
“I don’t know, but I’ll go home and ask my mom,” Choudhury replied.
Choudhury started out as an improv comic, at the Player’s Workshop of Second City, and eventually had his own nightclub act, called “Don’t Beat Me Up, I’m Not a Terrorist.”
He got into storytelling, he says, after he was invited to participate in a storytelling festival at Techny Towers in Northbrook. He spoke on a panel of Muslims and Arabs who were asked to give some perspective on life after 9/11.
“I spoke at the panel and I was telling true stories at the mic, and I noticed people were laughing,” he says.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a double-edged sword for Muslim Americans, explains Choudhury, bringing more attention to the group than they had ever had before.
“Now Muslims are way more visible…and now some people are fearful of them,” he says.
On the flip side, that means people are also making an effort to learn about Muslims in America.
“Hopefully they’re finding good sources, reliable sources of information,” Choudhury says.
He will speak about his experiences at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, at the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave. in Evanston.
Following Choudhury’s talk, there will be five community book discussions on the theme “Pathways of Faith,” beginning this fall and running through April 2014, according to library spokesperson librarian Lesley Williams.
The first book discussion is about F. E. Peters’ Children of Abraham, which explores the connections between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That discussion is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sept. 15, at the main library, 1703 Orrington Ave.
The rest of the discussion schedule is as follows:
- Oct. 6: Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan A.C. Brown
- Nov. 17: The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson
- March 9: The Art of Hajj by Venetia Porter
- April 6: Rumi: Poet and Mystic edited and translated by Reynold A. Nicholson
The Evanston, Morton Grove and Wilmette public libraries are among 840 libraries and state humanities councils around the country that were selected to receive funding for the Muslim Journeys program through the National Endowment for the Humanities, according to Williams. Residents interested in registering for a discussion can do so by visiting epl.org/calendar or calling 847-448-8620. Copies of all discussion books are available on the second floor of the Main Library.
More information about the Muslim Journeys program at all three libraries is available on the “Muslim Journeys at Your Library” blog.