Six months ago, I noticed a photographer tweeted about my TEDxtalk, so I clicked on her twitter profile.
Neat! She was in Kuala Lumpur!
I went to her site, Shuhada Hasim Photography: Specializing in women's portraits. I saw exquisite headshots of women wearing hijabs.
I tweeted her back and we had a lovely exchange:
A few weeks later, I asked if she would be willing to do a Skype interview and she enthusiastically agreed.
At the end of a candid and inspiring conversation about the global struggle women have accepting their self-image, we were eager to team up and create an event.
I would do the make-up for a one day-Shuhada-Hasim-marathon-photoshoot, and the next day give a talk to WIN MALAYSIA, a women's entrepreneurial organization in Kuala Lumpur.
Thanks to a commission from Virginia Repertory Theatre's New Works division, we made it happen, and Malaysia officially became part of the IN MY CHAIR research tour.
Initially, I wasn't at all worried about visiting Malaysia. But when people in the U.S. began to ask me which countries I’d be visiting as part of the tour, I began to notice a strange pattern.
The moment I mentioned Malaysia, people’s faces began to fill with grave concern. Their brows furrowed. Their voices lowered. They all offered me the same advice:
I know they meant well, but-- can I please just get it out in the open and say it? It's because we've been conditioned to be afraid of Muslims and Muslim majority countries.
After hearing this stern warning over and over and over, even I started to think:
“Maybe they're right... Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m missing something everyone else can see so clearly… I could be intercepted at the airport by a van of angry extremist men who have gotten wind of my desire to empower women in their country...
Maybe I'll be beheaded…”
Yep, I went there. (Not proud.)
Suddenly, fear had a firm foot in the door-- allowing her BFF, doubt, to creep in.
“Why did I agree to visit a woman on the other side of the Earth that I met by TWEET?”
In spite of everything I was told by well-meaning friends and family, and in the face of my own rising anxiety, I took the leap.
Shuhada Hasim caught me.
The night I arrived in Malaysia, Shuhada and her fearless team- Norhimah (President of WIN), and Zuraida (communications director) -- met me in the lobby of the incredibly hip KL Journal Hotel They greeted me warmly, with welcoming smiles of joy. We were excited and so happy to finally meet, face-to-face.
“It's really you!" Shuhada said in her dreamy, buttery voice. As we embraced like old friends she said, "We did it."
"Welcome! Salaam, Eva!," Norhimah bellowed confidently, as she kissed one cheek, then the other. As I started to pull away, she returned to the other side and laughed fully, "We kiss three times in Malaysia, we love to kiss!"
Zuraida- more comfortable behind the camera- was busy documenting the meeting. She waited her turn to hug me, and with a glimmer in her eye and the biggest smile I'd seen , she whispered, "hello."
Norhimah told me to go to my room and freshen up because she had made arrangements with the head chef to make a traditional fish-head curry.
From the moment we sat down to eat, I knew these women were kindred spirits. They were warm and welcoming. They laughed at my jokes and showed me the proper way to eat fish-head curry with my hands. (Heck yeah I ate the eye!)
I pushed the rice around the plate with my messy fingers and began the clumsy conversation about the current state of xenophobia in America.
“Were you afraid to come here?,” they asked.
“Well I wasn’t afraid,” I said. “...Until people kept telling me I should be.”
I confessed to the panic I’d felt after the numerous warnings I'd received.
Their response was emphatic, and surprisingly sympathetic.
"People in Malaysia say the same thing about America!
We hear it's not safe for us to go to the U.S because we will be attacked if we wear our hijab."
This hit me-- hard.
“Wait, what? Huh?
They're afraid of us?”
I thought about my Muslim students in the School of Business at VCU and all the dedicated women in our country who proudly wear a headscarf.
"Yes, you can absolutely wear a hijab in America,” I said to them. “Our country was founded on religious freedom."
This was the beginning of a heartfelt dialogue.
The fearful assumptions we’d made about the people of our two countries began to disappear because we got in a room together, spoke with our hearts and ate with our hands.
I wish the whole world was at that table.
I couldn't guarantee they wouldn't experience discrimination in the USA, but still I urged them to spread the word that Americans want to live a peaceful coexistence with people of all religions. The actions of the current administration and a few angry individuals do not speak for the majority.
The next day, Charlottesville happened.
In my state of Virginia - in my neighboring city, where so many of my accomplished, wise, and compassionate friends live, work and attend university, white supremacist Neo-Nazis caused a riot, injuring dozens and killing a young female activist named Heather Heyer.
I watched the BBC coverage from my hotel room.
That very same day in Malaysia, women of different races, religions, and political affiliations gathered and cheered each other on in unison, celebrating inclusion while these male white supremacists marched in the name of hateful exclusion.
The next morning, Shuhada sat in my chair. As I did her makeup, I found myself desperately grasping for any solution to the hate and discrimination in America.
"What can non-Muslims do to connect with Muslims?," I asked.
"Just say Salaam," said Shuhada.
"That's it?," I said. "Salaam? It's so simple."
"It's a start."
Up next...my 'lil Vlog from Malaysia!