Masjids and more: An American in Lahore

Published: September 15, 2011

I absolutely adore the Quran. It is my favorite text in the world, bar none.

As an undergraduate in college, I spent almost every waking hour learning Arabic—if I wasn’t in my daily Arabic class, I was practicing the language with my peers over a warm cup of coffee. We were given a hefty amount of homework each night, and the wee hours in the morning always found me in the library with my head buried in my Arabic textbook. Still, the effort was worth it, because after three years of learning the language, I was able to do what I had always wanted; read and understand the Quran in its original language, Arabic.

If I may be so blunt, I absolutely adore the Quran. It is my favorite text in the world, bar none. By the end of my third year of Arabic, I was regularly attending the nearby masjid to learn linguistic tafseer in Arabic from the well-loved local Imam.

Did I mention that I am an American? Or, that the university where I studied Arabic lies in the capital of the United States of America? Or that the mosque I attended is located in the heart of the country and probably no more than a thirty minute walk from the White House?

In Pakistan, people are almost always shocked when they discover that I am an American who can read Arabic, that I understand a sizeable portion of the Quran, and that I get excited when speaking about the religion.

Put simply, they are surprised that I, an American, love Islam. After a few months of living here, I realized that perhaps some Pakistanis believe being American and loving Islam are two highly contradictory things.

This came as a major culture shock to me. In the United States, it seemed like a no-brainer that I, a proud American, was learning about Islam.  Few people even thought twice about it. In fact, many of us non-Muslims at Georgetown found Islam, its creed and practices quite attractive. Those of us enrolled in intermediate Arabic—a large percentage of the student population—frequently requested our professors to give us hadith passages to read for homework. Our university’s Muslim Student Association Iftar’s were one of the most popular events on campus—the “place to be” at sundown for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Even outside of Georgetown, no one gave me a hard time for learning Arabic or for trying to read the Quran. Some people did think it was strange, but no one ever dared say to my face that I was being “un-American.” They would simply shrug and mutter:

“Well, this is America. You can do whatever the heck you want.”

That is not to say the American government or society is always tolerant towards Muslims. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. As a previous President of Georgetown’s Students for Justice in Palestine, I know intimately how unjust American foreign policy towards Muslim communities can be. As I had many Muslim friends at Georgetown, I saw firsthand their pain when they spoke of brothers who had been detained by the government without charges. I have hung my head in shame more than once at my fellow Americans’ intolerance towards Muslims—a breach of the principles of tolerance our nation stands for.

However, just as the American media often misreports on the situation in Pakistan, various news channels in Pakistan also misrepresent American society. In American media, you rarely hear about the other side of the story of Pakistani society. You only see, as my Pakistani friends put it, “bombs, guns and radicals”—never the rickshaw walla’s trying to make a living, the women who have jobs outside their homes, and the rich history of cultural centers like Lahore.

The same is true for the Pakistani media portrayal of America. It is true we have citizens who protested the construction of a masjid near Ground Zero, who complained that Obama could be Muslim (though, as my Jewish American friend once said, “Who cares if he’s Muslim as long as he’s a good president!”), and who do not respect the Quran as the sacred text that it is.

But let’s be fair. We, too, have “another side” to our American story: the Georgetown students happily reading hadith passages, the young undergraduates observing roza and breaking their fast with their Muslim American friends, the Jewish Americans who do not care what religion their President is, and of course, that Georgetown student who learned Arabic for three years in the hopes that one day, she would be able to read her favorite Book.

For me, America will always be the place where I was able to reach my dream of being able to read and understand the Quran in its original language and for that reason, America will always hold a special place in my heart.


Elisa Dun

A recent graduate from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service who is currently living in Lahore, Pakistan.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Kashif

    i don’t think Muslims love her. hope she doesn’t get kidnapped etcRecommend

  • M Ali Khan

    That’s all fine and good but, Ghalib film dekhi hai aap ney?Recommend

  • Marc

    Sometimes, a perfectly sane person develops paradoxical emotional bond or affection towards people whom he perceives to be his enemies. So, in order to offset this fear inside him, he starts to develop positive feelings towards the criminal.

    It is the result of the defensive mechanism at work. If you love your potential enemy, then whatever he does to you, will not appear to you as harmful and you will be spared from the traumatic experience. It is the subsconcious way of protecting you from the post-traumatic disorder subsequent to your encounters with your aggressors.

    This is not exactly Stockholm Syndrome but similar to that, known as ‘Identification With Aggressor’ syndrome. Recommend

  • Adnan

    Dear Author, We know what is American society and we know that you have right to do what ever you want to, our media never portray negative pictures of American society, in fact they portray it as an ideal society.

    The reason to dislike America in Pakistan and many other countries is their foreign policies not Local policies for their citizens. What do you say about innocent families killed in almost daily Drone Attacks in Pakistan? What do you say about Vito in favor of Israel? What do you say about unjustified, interference in Libya and many other Arab countries?

    Americans are really good people but Not American Government. And you know that.Recommend

  • Faiz

    The author is right and we Pakistani also believe that American people are very nice. But let me say that American people are also very innocent and misinformed. Actually, the policies of USA are designed by CIA, not by democrats or republicans. USA invaded Iraq because of CIA false reports. CIA generated 9/11 as an inside job but the government of USA attacked the innocent people of Afghanistan.

    So, USA government accept the the nation of a superpower is hijacked by a tiny group called C.I.A.Recommend

  • Omer

    as you are living in lahore, you must have realised by now that overall we are a hypocrite society. we would abuse america in public, but line up infront of american embassy to get a visa :). so just dont worry over the fact that our Pakistani media does not portrays the “other side” of America, as apparently most of us know that life in USA is much better with lot more religious freedom.
    stay safe in Pakistan, we are a society with million faults, but we are moving towards a better future, we just need the world to be patient and understand us.Recommend

  • Muddy Abbas

    How cute! lol..Recommend

  • optimist

    What a lovely piece! After reading this, I thought maybe I should look for Arabic course in SOAS London! I envy that a non Muslim has achieved something that I haven’t achieved despite being born in a Muslim family.

    ….Shame there are such immature comments above (including by Omer and a ‘philosoper’ Marc)!!Recommend

  • Omair

    Wonderful pespective and well written. Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    I get the feeling that Elise is bending over backwards to appease the sensibilities of the pre-dominantly hyper-Islamic, anti-American Pakistanis.

    Also, what religion do you actually subscribe to (if any), if you don’t mind me asking? Are you a Muslim?Recommend

  • Usman Rasheed

    Elisa, I must say that I am greatly impressed to know that you learnt Arabic in order to understand Quran. You beat my passion for the book although reading relegious scriptures in not unusual, but learning a foreign language for it deserves approbation. Lets just leave the discussion at the inspiring note that you being an American non muslim hold respect and love for Quran, more than me, and many others around us. However, I must say that the attitude towards America is not because of its internal policies but instead its foreign policy as pointed out by Adnan above but that is an endless debate. Recommend

  • Janjua

    Very well Written Blog Elisa! I agree with you. Both U.S and Pakistani media are showing only one side of the story which their readers and their governments want to read.Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    One of the better blog posted in many daysRecommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely written. You are fortunate to have had a proper education where you realised that if you had to know what Islam was all about you must first learn Arabic and read the Quran for yourself and not let someone else impose his understanding of it on you. Recommend

  • Mariam Khan

    Very enlightening indeed…but i fail to understand, when Americans can let Muslims to practice their religion (Islam) in America, then why do they not let us practice our religion in our country…why do they interfere in every matters of ours to an extent that it become a reason for religious extremism in our country.Recommend

  • Ahmed Malik

    Hahaha Enjoy your free for all American life style but if you think that after knowing about the central mosque of Washington DC and the Quran being taught there, Muslims gonna love america, you are totally at fault.People hate America for other reasons. American citizen should stand against their government for their inhumane behavior towards rest of the world rather than glorifying the freedom that it has given to only to its own citizens and not to the rest of the world. Recommend

  • NFI

    A lovely piece! Well written and is an honest, refreshing read!Recommend

  • Godhpur

    “I love Islam”???? What do you mean by that? If you really love it, convert and face the music. See for yourself what hudood ordinance is! You learn Arabic and think you can tell us that incidents of Shahbaz Bhatti, Salman Taseer and Asia Bibi have nothing to do with religion! Sorry but that’s not the case. What else are you doing but pandering to Pakistani Islamists? Stop contradicting your own self………….either uphold Islamic values or secular ones.Recommend

  • sairah

    elisa, i commend your effort for writing such a piece. it was very moving and truly speaking from your heart; the plain and simple truth about your love and dream to read the holy qur’an.

    i, being a born and practicing muslim may be unable to understand the qur’an as fluently as you can as you have taken the effort to learn its every meaning. may Allah also help me in achieving this goal of understanding His Book in its truest form – arabic.

    my only prayer for you is, that after reading and understanding a major portion of the holy book, to will revert to islam as this is the only religion that will give you peace and contentment in this world and on the Day of Judgement.
    like you, i have lived amongst people of all religions and nationalities, islam is the only One Religion that will make you closer to your Creator, Allah.

    may Allah guide you accordingly.Recommend

  • Ahmed Malik

    @Godhpur: Why do you think Islamic values and secular values cant coexist?? I mean Islamic values fall under religion and secular ones under politics.Recommend

  • KolachiMom

    Awww, now let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ and ‘God Bless America’Recommend

  • Waqar Ahmed

    A very good perspective. Keep up your good work.

  • BraveHeart

    Please do write more articles about the condition of muslims in America
    i would like to know more someone not influencedRecommend

  • Ali

    Thumbs up for you. Its being unfortunate that except Muslims all other religion followers understand the core and real meaning of Quran :(Recommend

  • malik

    As Marc has beautifully noted, the author clearly suffers from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ !Recommend

  • mashal

    Very well written Elisa, and I particularly appreciate the personal touch and perspective of the article. Thumbs up!! :)
    To all readers, I just have a personal observation to share. Many are talking about macro issues that we’ve had and still have endless debates about. The US foreign policy, its interference in the world, the war against terror, etc.
    However, all of us go through different experiences in life and in different places of the world. This article has been written as an attempt to share that personal experience with everyone. Could we leave aside the most controversial global issues for a minute and just view things at a micro level, just like we do at our home or in our neighborhood?
    Of course, all these global factors play a significant role when talking about such sensitive issues, but I just hope I could get my point across. :)
    Come ahead and share your personal experiences rather than quoting what everyone in the media is talking about.Recommend

  • Aasif H Malik

    If only America exercised as much freedom, justice and liberty in its foreign policy, much as it does to provide the same for its own citizens, the world would be a much better place to live today. Recommend

  • Godhpur

    @Ahmed Malik:
    No, who says that? Islam is every bit a complete system… has something to say on every issue. Adultery: stone the girl, Rape: Stone the girl, Economy: tax minorities, Politics: exclude non-Muslims from the political process. Elisa Dun upholds virtues like freedom……..which Islamic law grants that? Why, we banned satanic verses, killed Salman Taseer, condemned Shahbaz Bhatti……Sorry but these are not secular values!Recommend

  • Javeria M

    Good job… keep it upRecommend

  • abid wali khan

    Dear ,
    You have in fact written a very good article . I really applaud your efforts you have put in to learn Arabic and read Quran in the language in which it was revealed from heaven. And I wish that I could do this much effort to understand the Holy book , but despite being Muslims, this worldly creed and the glitter of these mortal things have lead us to a life where we have lost everything for the sake of worldly pleasures . We lost almost everything .
    I had tears in my eyes reading the portion of your article where you mentioned iftaari with the Muslim brothers and sisters . But still there is a lot that US needs to do because they do not treat all nations and humans equally . They don’t care for the thousands of innocent men , women and children dying in their predators attacks in Pakistan , Palestine and they just name it as collateral damage. How much lives are lost in Afghanistan , Pakistan , Palestine , Libia ,Iraq after 9/11 ??? and how much were lost on 9/11 ???? Killing a thousand innocent people for a sin that they themselves have committed ?

    You have done a great job . Bravo :)Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli

    We all know this but Rona hi foriegn policy ka hai
    & unwarrant arrests and deportations………………Recommend

  • John B

    Ironically it is always the secular society that helps one to achieve the quest for knowledge. Can Muslims honestly say non Islamic religious education can also be achieved in Islamic society and one has the freedom to discuss, analyze, argue, compare and contrast the Islamic theology with other theological beliefs?

    I wish the author touched this subject also in her write up. Recommend

  • Ahmed Malik

    @Godhpur: Actually you are right about this one but see its not Islam what says that its the Interpreters.Just the way you talked about the taxing minority thing. Islam talks about providing security to Non-muslims and then asks for the tax in return. But the case today is opposite the clerics talk about the jaziya tax not the security thing. Similarly the other things. My point actually is that you cant tell a Muslim that your religion is preaching you the wrong thing.. What you can do is that you can tell him that you can be a better Muslim and a good human at the same time by doing so and so staying within your religion. Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli

    @ Marc
    in reverce u got same syndrome i will called macaroni syndrome………..Recommend

  • salman irshad

    Something to be inspired of in order to bring our destructed concepts of Pluralism and get rid of Fake mullas by learning Arabic & books of Fikkah and Hadees atleast for understanding what the person is saying is either true or not ??Recommend

  • Anuar

    Good day! May Allah bless you.
    Really open minded, lovely writing from your heart. Your time spending to learn Arabic language have to give thump up with my respect because not many can do.

    There is no one should stop you from understand meaning of Quran. You will find the truth which been stated in Quran more than 1400 years ago, now people start finding the fact since several year ago.

    In Muslim country, other religion will have peaceful living because it call tolerance in Muslims but some people have negative thinking. Would rather to say ALL of it because of American Govt Foreign Policies. Taking advantage from other country either Muslim or Non Muslim country as long American Govt can have benefit to them.

    In Malaysia you can see Mosque, Buddha Temple, Hindus Temple & Christian Church in every city and we are living here in harmony. There is no religion issue, as long we respect each others.
    Even in my resident area, my neighbours are Buddhist and Hindus but our child are playing together at school and home.
    Wish you all the best, Aminnnn!!!!!
    Anuar – Love n peace!!!!Recommend

  • Adeel Suhail

    Dear Author,

    Nice to know your appreciation for the Holy Quran & Muslim world. There will always be two sides of story & not one can be wrong all the time. Why we hate Americans? Below is the nice piece of words/quote – wateve u call it came up in Sept 11, 2011 in Pakistani social media which summarize the whole deal for me: Here it goes:

    “‎21,672 Civilians dead 2,795 Soldiers dead,6,671 wounded 3,586 Bombs 283 Suicide attacks 3.5 million people displaced Since 9/11 Pakistan has been fighting the war on terror within its borders. This nation has bled more than any other in the world. If YOU think the people of Pakistan haven’t done enough, think again…3000 people died on 9/11, nearly 24,000 have died in Pakistan since”Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli

    @ John B
    Yes we do we reconized christianity and jewism when we say they are peoples of book
    and even allow to mary too what else you want in west there are so many missconception
    exist about muslims its by media Recommend

  • Pigeon

    are you kidding me??? We know her at the work place and we love her a lot and I am a pretty decent practicing Muslim (and so are other friends who just adore Elisa)Recommend

  • Eva

    Elisa this is a great piece! Thank you for writing this I’m proud of you! :)
    I myself have been living in Lahore for quite some time, and I totally agree with Mashal. This article is the opinion of one person who has nothing to do with politics. So let’s leave it aside for one minute, it’s sad enough to think about it all the time.
    Someone above blamed American citizens of not speaking out against their government. I’m sure many people in the US don’t agree with the foreign policy of their country. So why don’t they do anything? The same question could be asked here. I’m sure most Pakistanis don’t agree with the ideas and tactics of the radicals that shape the outside picture of their country. Then why do so few of them only speak out against them?
    This is just how people are. Most people here and in “the West” first care about their families and friends. Most of them aren’t even well informed about what’s going on in politics.
    For that we should try and not mix up the people of one country and the politics that their governments follow. I know it’s hard but it’s the only way. Recommend

  • Usama Khawar

    Nice elisa! i didn’t know that you were President of Students for Justice in Palestine!! We have a very active SJP at AU too! :)Recommend

  • Omar

    Our news channels portray an image that our people ‘want’ to see. It doesn’t have much to do with facts. Our channels provide a stream of mostly nonfactual BS, not too different from what Fox News has in store for it’s viewers.Recommend

  • Samual

    Georgertown University is a catholic university that allows Islam as a subject. Would an Islamic university allow the study of other religions.Food for yhoughtRecommend

  • Usama Khawar

    @Samual you can teach virtually anything at LUMS ( if you can attract enough studentsRecommend

  • http://hotmail nazir alam

    the majadeen and cia are the joint adventure to stop the human developing in the world both the majadeen and cia trading is continues from the cold world war and latest war aganist terror in the north waziristan of pk but now the masses and deprived working class know the great game of majadeen and soon it will be endRecommend

  • http://hotmail nazir alam

    majids and cia both are the plar of great game Recommend

  • http://hotmail nazir alam

    we the pakistani see the one side of the picture and we do like to chacke the onather side of the picture so we thank that we should see the both side of the wall so that we could know the real sitiuation of groud Recommend