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Arab Engineer Becomes Fluent In American

WHEN Khalid Diab came to America in 1951 he knew English only through the Shakespeare he had studied in Palestine, where he grew up. "For several days I greeted people by saying 'How art thou?' Finally somebody corrected me."

Now a retired aerospace engineer, Dr. Diab is typical of the first wave of Arab Muslims to come to America. Like many Muslims, he is neither secular nor assiduously devout. The Koran is displayed several places in the house where he lives with his wife, a quiet lake-front residence here. It is the same house he bought in 1965 when, as a scientist at Sylvania he was wooed by Martin Marietta Corp. to head a team working on a defense-missile project.

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But Islam is not the shaping force in Diab's life. Rather, it is hisexperience of dispossession and flight. Diab came to the US after his village was attacked by the Israeli Army in 1949. The town fell in one day, and he left that night for Syria. He remembers the attack - "the pathetic defense" against a modern army. And his father, the local imam, "surrendering with a white bedsheet."

From Syria, Diab traveled to Iowa State University in Ames. He arrived two months late for classes with $149. He recalls the November cold, buying a coat at J.C. Penney's, and begging his professor to let him study over break to make up lost work. When he scored the highest on the final exam, the professor made him a teaching assistant.

Diab feels Muslims must find a "different way to live Islam" in America. He let his daughter, for example, marry a non-Muslim, something not acceptable in Islam. "What could we do?" he asks. "We asked for a Muslim, but she insisted on her boyfriend. We did not want to lose our daughter."

Diab says the wisdom he needs is found in the Golden Rule and the Mosaic Law - which Muslims honor. "It is summed up in the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would treat yourself."

Ironically, while Diab's firm was glad to have him as a top scientist, it did not want him as a top manager. At a party in the '60s he was told, "You aren't going to make vice president, and we both know why." Diab says discrimination has increased recently. The police searched his house during the Gulf war, he says, after he made comments on local TV. After hearing Muslims were not responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, he asked: "What if a Muslim did do it? What about the rest of us who never would? Why should we pay?"

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