In a time of fear and uncertainty, a Michigan native is showing how generosity and passion for food can bring people together.
Amanda Saab, 28, a former MasterChef contestant, nurtured a love for cooking as a child, baking tiered cakes and piles of pastries for her family gatherings near Detroit. Her religion then didn't seem to bother anyone, as the region is known for having one of the nation's largest Muslim populations.
But now, as the public becomes accustomed to the rise of fearful rhetoric targeting Islam, many Muslims choose to hide their identities.
To combat fear, Saab hosts a type of gathering she calls “Dinner With Your Muslim Neighbor.” After spending hundreds on groceries, she cooks either in her own home or at a borrowed kitchen, preparing meals that are shared with strangers. At the dinner table, she and her husband, Hussein, answer any questions their guests may have about Islam.
The Washington Post chronicled her heroic endeavor, starting from the moment she left the grocery store with her husband. As they took an Uber to their destination, Saab even invited the driver to come over after she asked what the groceries were for — that's how inviting the couple is. Unfortunately, the Uber driver couldn't make it.
Still, the generosity she displayed on the TV show, baking turmeric-date cakes and French toast with bacon for others (she refrained from eating the bacon dish), didn't keep her from hearing racist and bigoted comments in the real world.
She told The Washington Post that as she received beautiful messages of support while on MasterChef, she was also asked if she had to request permission from her husband to appear on TV. Many even questioned her “true” motivations.
At one point, she overheard a shopper at a sporting-goods counter saying guns on sale were important because they could be used against people like her.
As President Donald Trump called for an absolute “shutdown” of Muslims entering America, she realized that “[j]ust my existence in the world is bothersome to some people,” she told reporters.
Noticing the blatant lack of knowledge concerning what Muslims are and aren't, she said, she realized it was time to do something.
“Have I played a part in that? Have I not reached out to people and given them an opportunity to meet me?” she said she asked herself.
That's when she told her husband they should start inviting strangers over for dinner.
They lived in Seattle at the time and decided to ignore the well-established “Seattle Freeze,” or what locals call the difficulty in making new connections in the rainy city, Saab took to Facebook. On social media, she started to invite strangers over for no-string meals — and it worked.
Suddenly, Dinner With Your Muslim Neighbor became a regular event. However, as their family is expanding, the Saabs decided to move back to Michigan to be closer to family and friends.
In April, Saab asked her followers if anyone would be willing to host one in their Seattle home as they readied to visit. “I’ll do the cooking!” she added. At least seven people said they wanted to host one.
They eventually settled on preparing a dinner at the home of Stefanie and Nason Fox, a Jewish couple they met at a Seattle vigil for victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. For the dinner, which fell during the eight days of Passover, Saab did her homework, studying the Jewish holiday's dietary restrictions at length. For the first time, she purchased a matzoh meal and arranged the menu around rules of chametz and kitniyot.
After an Arabic prayer led by Hussein, Saab's husband then asked his hosts whether there was a Hebrew blessing to follow. As guests enjoyed their meals, the Saabs were bombarded with questions.
Guests learned how the couple met — at their mosque's youth group — and that Islam has sects, just like Christianity. They also learned that, as a rebellious 16-year-old, Saab decided to study her religion in depth after, at first, questioning it. She ultimately decided to embrace wearing a head covering “to wear my faith outwardly, to remind myself of my inward faith and connection to God.”
Sometimes, the conversation became emotionally charged as the couple talked extremism, culture, and other topics. A guest, Greg Pomrehn, said that even his Christian religion isn't represented well in the media, so he can only imagine how much worse it might be for the Saabs. Another guest, Anjana Agarwal, told the cook: “What you are doing, I think, shines a light.”
As the Saabs are expecting their first baby, they want to continue hosting these dinners, even while both working full-time jobs. But that's not all — they are also working with Michael Hebb, a teaching fellow at the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership department, to develop a free online tool kit so others can host their own dinners.
For the Fox family, the Saabs' dinners will help to spread more great stories, bringing people together like never before. If anything, this welcoming gesture shows that, in spite of fear, common people can do a world of good just by being willing to face it head-on. Thankfully, the Saabs will inspire others to continue their tradition, even as they get busy with their growing family.