Quba’s involvement with Penn actually goes back to the 1960s, when Penn international students came to the IMB to teach Arabic to non-native speakers. In the 1970s the University’s Muslim Student Association sponsored a mentoring project there.

Penn and Quba students lost contact for a while, until Matt Malone, now a senior in the College, came to tutor through the Center for Community Partnerships a few years ago. “I’ll never forget the day he got off the trolley,” Abdul Aziz says. “He was white as the driven snow, and it was a very hot day. I thought, ‘This kid needs some sun block.’ He looked so out of place.” Malone’s first assignment was to work with a Cambodian student who barely spoke in any language, and to “teach him how to speak English and to be an American,” she explains. “Right away Matt embraced us and embraced these children.”

Under Malone’s tutelage that student “has excelled and his parents speak better English,” Abdul Aziz says. “Matt made our community accept Penn.”

By the time Muller’s students came along, “It was, ‘Oh, you’ve got some more Penn kids. Are they like Matt? Are they going to tutor?’ Now the neighbors start to look out for the kids from Penn and welcome them.”

As a community with its doors propped open a little wider than the average mosque, Quba draws its share of curious visitors—from Christian ministers to college students, even a mother-daughter pair trying to learn more about different religious traditions. One young, non-Muslim man who recently dropped by with a friend admitted, “We heard you were all terrorists. So we wanted to see what it was like to be around terrorists.” He immediately looked horrified at what he’d said.

Rather than get mad, they welcomed his bluntness, Abdul Aziz says. “We all laughed and we were like, ‘See, no bombs!’”

“We tell people to ‘Ask the things you’ve always wanted to ask Muslims.’ Maybe you never knew anybody [who was Muslim], you just see people on the street and of course you’re not going to ask them something that may be offensive. You just walk around Philadelphia filled up with fear and questions.”

One person who seems to have spent a lifetime overcoming fears and asking questions is Muller, whose family interacted with black South Africans during apartheid in ways that many whites did not. Muller’s father was involved with a ministry of reconciliation and ordained the first black elder in a white Presbyterian church. “Just to have black South Africans in your service was a radical idea,” she says.

As an ethnomusicology student, Muller studied with gumboot dancers, and later, with a religious community, in the black townships around the city of Durban. The states of emergency declared by the South African government and the oppressive tactics used to deal with political unrest sparked flashes of violence inside the townships, and Muller relied on residents to look out for her safety. “There were times when my mother thought I’d never come home alive,” she says.

“Carol’s great,” says graduate student Jennifer Kyker. “I feel like her work and way of thinking is really unconventional and pushes you to think beyond the limits.” She adds: “The reason I’m an ethnomusicologist is that I feel like being involved in someone’s cultural expression is a good way to break down barriers that might otherwise exist between people and communities.”

When she enrolled in Muller’s field-methods class last spring, Kyker was already familiar with the basics of fieldwork. “For me the most interesting experience [in Muller’s class] was connecting with [a Muslim] community and learning more about that particular reality in Philadelphia,” she says. As an undergraduate at a women’s college, Kyker had watched Muslim friends pray in their dorm room, but she had never been to a formal prayer service. “I was anxious about coming to Quba, but from the first time I went there, I felt very welcomed by the community, especially the women who were there.”

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Music Lessons By Susan Frith


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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06