Barry Saunders

Saunders: Proud, Muslim and eager to talk to you

Most of us have had it, a time we wouldn’t leave the house for fear of someone looking at us.

Oh, so I’m the only one?

Mine was the early ’80s, and if you ever saw me during my high-top fade and blue Member’s Only jacket phase, you’d understand why.

It’s a good thing Nazeeh Abdul-Hakeem doesn’t have a similar complex about people looking at him.

He knows people are going to gaze when he walks down the street, browses in a bookstore, shops for groceries – and he’s used to it. Especially now.

Over 6 feet tall, bearded and dressed unmistakably like a Muslim, he was garnering suspicious glares even before some Republican presidential candidates decided to make Muslims Public Enemy No. 1 in America – the great, fearsome “other.”

Nazeeh Abdul-Hakeem will be reading at 7 p.m. Thursday from his book, ‘The Athaan in The Bull City: Building Durham’s Islamic Community.’

“I always wear my Muslim garb, even when I wear a sport coat,” he said. “I have a beard. I wear a kufi hat.”

So what does Abdul-Hakeem do when he catches someone glancing furtively at him?

“I try to break the ice ... I don’t allow them to run away with their fears,” he said. “I’ll speak, say, ‘Hello, how ya doing?’ If I see someone dressed like a hunter, I’ll go up and say ‘Hello’ and ‘So, you’re a hunter. What do you hunt?’”

Warm, sometimes congenial conversations result, he said – conversations that would’ve never occurred had he merely let their gazes and unasked questions go unanswered.

“People really cast some strange looks at you. I don’t like that. I don’t like people to be afraid of me. Particularly, I don’t like people to be afraid of my religion, like there’s something weird about it,” he said. “So I engage them so they won’t come away with a bad feeling about me or my religion.”

Abdul-Hakeem will be engaging people at The Regulator Bookshop on 9th Street in Durham on Thursday at 7 p.m. That’s when he’ll be reading from and discussing his book, “The Athaan in The Bull City: Building Durham’s Islamic Community.”

Athaan translates to “Islam call to prayer,” and the book is about the now-growing international Muslim community in Durham and how it got its start among black Americans. The book was published in September, so it predates the violence of Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. It also predates the demonizing of Islam by politicians trying to ride fear of Muslims into the White House.

I want people to know what it is, that it’s not a bunch of crazy people trying to blow up stuff.

Nazeeh Abdul-Hakeem, who has written a book about Durham’s Muslim community

When asked if he sees himself as an ambassador for Islam, Abdul-Hakeem was succinct. “If I’m serious about my religion, I have to be,” he said “I want people to know what it is, that it’s not a bunch of crazy people trying to blow up stuff.”

He said he’s not surprised that some people have that worldview. The demonizing and persecution are “not surprising, especially if you study history, and it’s not just happening with the Muslims,” he said. “It happened to Jesus and anyone else who invited people to join their religion.”

People who’ve known Abdul-Hakeem for decades – such as those with whom he worked as an assistant city planner for Durham for nearly 30 years or attended N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill – consider him gregarious, outgoing. “I have very good relations with the people of Durham. I’ve been involved in a lot of city government stuff, and people know me from those interactions.”

The Goldsboro native was born Ezekiel Louis Becton and converted to Islam in 1979 after years of studying the religion. He was a geography major at NCCU – “I love the world and was very curious,” he said – and was drafted into the Army.

“My draft number was ‘one.’ That’s the only lottery I’ve ever won,” he said with a laugh, “and the only one I’ll ever participate in, despite that $1.3 billion.”

Hmmph. I reckon some people just don’t need all of that moolah. We all, though, need a better understanding of Islam and its believers. Thursday night seems like a good time to start.