Backstory: A dorm room big enough for two major faiths
Several times a day, Atena Asiaii pulls her maroon prayer rug from under her bed and lines it up on the scuffed linoleum floor, kneeling on it to face northeast, the direction of Mecca. She has figured out which corner to turn toward without the help of a compass because her roommate, Yael Richardson, prays facing East, the direction of their dorm-room door. Far beyond it lies Jerusalem.
They're both college sophomores. They like gossiping about guys and eating ice cream. They're taking beginning Arabic. But what unites them most is the very thing people might expect to keep them apart: their religious devotion.
Living together as a Muslim and a Jew wasn't intended to be a statement. Yael and Atena met as freshmen at Brown University and decided to request a room together the next year in Interfaith House - a dorm where matters of faith are the stuff of spontaneous conversations in the halls.
The house was especially appealing for Atena, who had had a chilly reception from her freshman roommate. They were mismatched on everything from sleeping habits to moral values, Atena says. But worse, her roommate was bothered when Atena prayed silently in their room. Atena tried her best to time her prayer for when her roommate was out.
The awkward situation made Atena, the American daughter of Iranian immigrants, acutely aware of her Muslim identity. It made her feel different. Now she feels blessed to be free from that burden. She prays in her room whenever she wants to, and she never feels "different," because Yael does the same. At times they even find themselves praying simultaneously.
Among the books on the shelf above Atena's desk is a paperback Koran, its spine cracked from use. Yael's side of the room is a mirror image, except that her shelf bears a Torah. Both their walls have posters of events they've helped plan for their respective religious organizations.
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