It's always hard for me to quantify the impact that the reception discussion has on guests. Typically people feel shy to speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing and appearing ignorant or offensive. That is why the comment / feedback forms are so valuable; I savor each note and look to them for guidance on how I might improve and reach people more effectively. Even more satisfying are the one-on-one conversations held after the presentation. When strangers share their personal stories, and are at once eager to be heard and afraid of how they might be received. Sometimes their anecdotes relate to Muslims. More often they do not.
The stories expressed in the "Just a Peek, Please" paintings are universal and rooted in the human condition.
Love. Anger. Fear. Loneliness.
The ecstasy of deep, resounding faith.
The trauma that comes from losing one's faith.
It is this universality that allows viewers to connect to the stories, and helps them realize that the chasms dividing people are not quite so deep and wide as one might think. With that, I will share with you two stories that were shared with me at the DSC reception.
The first was offered by a young woman who tearfully recounted being yelled at to "Go back home!" just three days before. She was driving with her boyfriend back to Florida from an out of state trip and someone screamed at her as they drove by. You may be wondering what her family heritage is, and truthfully I cannot say. But does it even matter? My heart broke for her as I felt her sadness, and read the shame and indignation on her face.
"I am American! I grew up here! This is my home, where am I supposed to go?"
I could barely hear her voice as she whispered her experience to me. How many times have I heard my Muslim brothers and sisters say the same exact words? Express the same pain and outrage?
She smiled. Wiped her tears and tried to show me that she was ok. She said that she was glad that she came out to see the paintings and hear the talk. How she had never really talked to a Muslim or considered their experiences, but that now she felt connected. That she understood. Alhamdulillah.
The second reflection was offered by a young man who told me that he had worked in Afghanistan in recent years. My own views on politics and war aside, I can appreciate the sacrifices that are made by people in the military so:
"Thank you for your service!" I said.
He reluctantly replied that he was in the war, but not in the military. I wasn't sure how to respond to that, but after a brief moment of uncertainty he went on to tell me that his only experience with Islam was through the very strict interpretation practiced in rural Afghanistan. He was surprised by, and appreciated learning about, the widely ranging opinions and perspectives expressed by the collection. Incidentally, he is the only guest who asked me to translate the ayah on this painting (now completed and hanging in the show, but here shown in progress):
The ayah states (Chapter 49, verse 13 of the Quran): "O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware."
I have been criticized for presenting Islam in a grayscale as opposed to in a crisp black and white. Some prefer that I would create something akin to an "Islam 101" course with rules clearly stated and boundaries definitively drawn. But life does not exist in black and white. Humans are imperfect creatures, weaving their way through diverse experiences and struggles. It is not my intention to use this series to proselytize perfection, but rather to humanize a shared struggle. To help strangers see themselves in each other, and through that exploration, draw closer in understanding.