In 1986, when I was eighteen, one of my essays was chosen to
be included in the Centennial time capsule of the Statue of
Liberty. During the official celebration on Liberty Island, I
was designated a "Steward of Liberty for the next hundred
years." I stood below the big toe of the Statue and wondered how
a person could live up to a title like that. I pictured myself
dressed in a catering tuxedo, handing out pieces of liberty like
hors d’ouerves on a silver platter, saying "Hello, I’ll be your
steward of liberty this evening!" I wondered what liberty would
taste like—a spinach puff pastry? A chunk of brie? I couldn’t
begin to process the enormity of the title that had just been
bestowed upon me, and spent the rest of the ceremony staring out
at the Manhattan skyline, instead.
After September 11, 2001, when that skyline was brutally,
irrevocably, changed, I began considering this title more
seriously. I knew it was just a token dubbing, just a sweet
gesture, but I suddenly couldn’t help but feel some
responsibility to live up to the name.
That October, I decided to create a forum to give people the
liberty to express themselves freely and creatively. Mass
destruction, in my mind, called for mass creation. I set upon
organizing a benefit concert. My roster quickly filled with a
diverse mix of poets and musicians and storytellers and dancers.
The local Unitarian church, a gorgeous building with spectacular
stained glass and swoopy beamed ceilings, offered to host the
event. Local arts and peace organizations agreed to co-sponsor
and help spread the word. Things came together easily—everyone
seemed very excited by the prospect of a cathartic, creative,
My friend Karen approached the local Islamic center to see if
they would like to be involved in the program. They generously
offered to co-sponsor, and told us a group of children from the
Islamic academy would be happy to sing. We were thrilled—we
thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to build bridges in
our town, erase fear, open doors for dialogue and connection.
Then things began to get complicated.
Karen heard that at a recent interfaith service in a nearby
community, a Middle Eastern dancer was asked not to perform
because her movements and dress would be insulting to the Muslim
representatives at the event. Other performers had been told to
cover their arms and legs out of respect for Islamic customs. I
hadn’t considered that this might be an issue in our concert; in
fact, I had been thrilled when my friend Nancy had agreed to
perform Middle Eastern dance because I thought it would be a
great way to incorporate Arab culture into the program. Karen
and I decided to investigate; she contacted the Islamic center,
and then called to tell me that they would indeed be offended by
the presence of a "belly dancer."
I found myself thrown into a very awkward situation. I didn’t
want to do anything to offend the Islamic community. I knew how
vulnerable they were already feeling; I wanted them to feel
welcome at the event, wanted them to feel their needs were been
respected. At the same time, I didn’t want to censor any of the
performers who had so graciously offered to share their talents.
I was a "steward of liberty", after all—how could I take away
someone’s freedom to express herself in the way she saw most
fit? Plus, part of the proceeds from the event were going to go
to RAWA, an organization working to help women gain freedom in
Afghanistan—it would be more than ironic for me to take away a
woman’s freedom here, in America, in the process. I had no idea
what to do.
I asked everyone I knew for advice. Some people told me that
I shouldn’t buckle under pressure, that I should produce the
show I wanted to produce, belly dancer and all, that I shouldn’t
let anyone take away my vision. Others were adamant about the
fact that I needed to honor the Muslim restrictions and ask my
friend not to perform. Nancy, the dancer, was, of course, just
as confused as I; she didn’t want to offend any one, but she
didn’t want to be silenced, either. We talked about the
possibility of her dancing in a burqua, with a sign across the
front that read "I am dancing underneath."
Karen and Nancy and I arranged a meeting at the Islamic
Center so we could learn exactly what was problematic about the
dance and try to come to some understanding together. Maybe, we
hoped, it was just the costume that was an issue; maybe if Nancy
covered herself up, it wouldn’t be a problem.
The meeting was scheduled for 2:30; there was just enough
time for me to pick up my kids from school and head over to the
mosque. My son was fortuitously invited to a friend’s house, but
I had to bring my daughter along. I had been careful to wear
long sleeves and pants that day so I wouldn’t offend anyone, but
I had forgotten that Hannah was wearing short shorts, her seven
year old legs bare almost to the hip. I didn’t have time to go
home to change her clothes, didn’t have anything to cover her up
with. I hoped girl skin was not as much of an issue as woman
As we drove to the mosque, I spoke to Hannah about the
importance of being respectful, the importance of being calm.
She can be a wild child, and I worried that if she started to
get wired, it would disrupt what I hoped would be our peace
talks. I talked about how this was a great opportunity for us to
begin to understand another culture. I suppose Hannah took this
to mean that the people there didn’t understand English, because
as soon as we walked into the office of the Islamic academy, she
gaped at the women in their hijabs as if they were
displays in a museum and said "I like the green lady best" like
they couldn’t hear her at all.
Then she pointed to their feet and yelled "You said they
couldn’t show skin!" Indeed, most of the women were wearing
toe-baring sandals—stylish platform ones, for the most part. I
wondered if Islamic women expressed themselves through their
feet, but I felt too shy to ask, and whispered to Hannah to be
Everyone was more than kind to us, more than sweet to Hannah;
no one seemed to mind her bare legs or her outbursts.
"They have Oreos," she said in awe, pointing to the shelf of
bulk snack foods in the hallway. "They have Nutty Bars."
Sometimes I came home from the local Middles Eastern market with
jars of rose petal jam and tins of cumin-scented fava beans,
which Hannah had been more than willing to try, but the sight of
"American" food in the Islamic center seemed to comfort
her--junk food as common ground.
Karen and Nancy soon arrived, followed shortly thereafter by
the Principal of the Academy, a woman in her sixties wearing an
ivory hijab shot through with gold thread. We gathered
around a table by the much-used copy machine. The Principal was
very gracious, very interested in our event, and glad that we
asked the Center to be part of it. She was more than willing to
share information about Muslim culture, from the five periods of
prayer a day, to the importance of only eating meat that has
been bled a certain way. We were grateful for the education.
Then we started talking about dance.
Belly dance is a definite no-no, she told us. I could feel
Nancy blanch beside me.
We told the Principal that a modern dancer was planning to
perform in a long sleeved leotard and asked if this would be
appropriate. She shook her head. "A woman should not show any
contours of her body. She should not show her waist, her…" She
gestured to her chest.
"What if she wore loose clothing?" we asked.
"No dance," she said, smiling.
"No dance at all?"
"No dance at all. A man should not see a woman dancing."
We had four dancers scheduled to perform. I couldn’t imagine
asking all of them to drop out of the program. I also couldn’t
imagine doing something that would cause discomfort among the
Muslim members of the audience. I tried to control the hysteria
I felt building inside of me.
"There is one dance," she said. "The debka. Do you
know the debka?"
Nancy nodded; she was familiar with all forms of Middle
Eastern dance. The debka, she later told me, is a fairly
stiff folk dance, done in lines, with everyone wearing long
"We would like to see the debka."
Nancy and Karen and I nodded, unsure how to respond. Hannah
walked around the room in circles, sighing loudly that she was
bored. I shot her a warning glance and put my finger to my lips.
She collapsed onto one of the black leather couches.
One of us raised the subject of music. The Principal shook
her head again. "No music," she said.
"No music at all?" we asked.
"There is one type of drum," she told us. "It can be played
She said that people from the Islamic Center did listen to
some music, but it was calm music, quiet music, nothing too
jazzy, nothing that would excite any emotions.
"What about a person playing the guitar and singing?" I
She shook her head.
She shook her head again. "Only religious music," she said.
How could I tell the musicians they couldn’t share their
work? I felt my show beginning to slip away from me, note by
We thanked the Principal for taking the time to talk with us.
I deeply appreciated the fact that she was willing to share her
concerns, raise our awareness, but I felt more conflicted than
ever. She suggested we speak to the Director of the Islamic
Hannah whined that she wanted to go home; I told her it would
be just a little bit longer. As we walked across the parking lot
to the mosque, I was filled with confusion. Part of me wished we
had never asked the Islamic Center to get involved in the first
place; then another part of me was horrified I would even have
that thought. I felt like a spoiled child, wanting to do things
my way or no way at all. I took a deep breath and made a
resolution with myself to keep an open mind, an open heart.
We were about to go into the door marked "Sisters Entrance"
on the side of the building when the Director waved to us from
the main door. He and the leader of the youth program ushered us
into the office, and we began to talk about our program.
My voice was shaky as I spoke. I told them what an
uncomfortable place I found myself in. "I want to respect your
needs as a community," I said, "but I also want to respect the
needs of the artists. I don’t want to restrict anyone’s
expression, and I’m feeling so confused about how to reconcile
these things." Despite all my efforts to stop myself, I started
to cry. I apologized for being so emotional; everyone was very
kind. The leader of the youth program left the room and came
back with cups of sweet orange drink for all of us.
"You’re right—you can’t restrict an artist or a philosopher,"
he said. "There is no way to do that. But if you want us to be
co-sponsors of this program, we need to let you know our
"We think what you’re doing is a beautiful thing," he said.
"We appreciate that you want us to be involved." He said the
mosque continued to receive threats. Someone had recently
called, growling "I’m going to get you. Just tell me how to get
there!" He laughed, then said he had been touched by how many
people had called offering their support, as well.
The Director’s daughter poked her head, with its lacy
hijab, into the office; she and Hannah began a game of long
After over an hour of talking, we finally reached a
compromise: the first half of the show would be aligned to
Islamic mores, so those who wished to do so could leave at the
break; the second half would contain the more "controversial"
performances. That way, we wouldn’t have to censor any of the
artists, and we could still respect the needs of the Muslim
community. It was something we could all live with.
Later, I told Nancy and Karen how I had been worried at first
that my vision of the performance had been limited, restricted,
but I came to see that it had been expanded. In working to find
common ground with the Muslim community, I knew the evening
would ultimately be more meaningful than it would have been if I
had just assembled a collection of like-minded folk. I couldn’t
comprehend a world without music and dance, a world where a
woman’s body needs to remain hidden, unspoken, but I knew I
needed to find a way to respect the needs of those who live
within that world. I went home and changed the order of the
I named the concert "Speaking to Thunder: Local Artists
Respond to the Events of September 11th", adapting
the title from Stephen Dunn’s poem, "To a Terrorist", which
reads, in part, "The first poet probably spoke to thunder/and,
for awhile, believed/thunder had an ear and a choice."
Through our art that evening, we spoke to the thunder of
planes turned into bombs; we spoke to the thunder of bombs
raining down from planes; we spoke to the thunder of racism, the
thunder of hatred, the thunder of intolerance and fear. Thunder
may not have an ear. Thunder may not have a choice. The roar of
war may threaten to drown out our voices, but as artists we need
to keep singing, we need to keep writing, we need to keep
dancing and making our music and telling our stories and praying
for peace, and that is what we did that night.
The event was a huge success. The performers were incredible,
the audience was warm and supportive, and we raised hundreds of
dollars for relief efforts in both America and Afghanistan. Many
people came up to me later and told me the event was just what
they needed. It was an inspiring evening, a healing evening, but
an evening not without its sadness.
The Muslim community never showed up. The Principal had
decided the day before that the children couldn’t perform
because the event was too late in the evening, but she assured
us that she would be there, that the Director and the leader of
the youth program would be there, that other members of the
Islamic Center would be there. They didn’t come. Karen called
the Principal a couple of days later to see if maybe we had
offended them in some way, if perhaps they had never intended on
participating at all. The Principal assured Karen that she had
planned to attend, but she had fallen ill that day. We were
unable to reach any one else from the Center.
I was concerned that perhaps members of their community were
worried about coming to a public event where emotions were sure
to run high; it may have felt too vulnerable, too risky. They
would have been welcomed with open arms—it was such a generous
crowd—but of course they couldn’t have known that. Whatever
their reasons for not coming, I vowed the door for dialogue
would remain open. I vowed my own heart would remain open to the
possibility of further connection. I vowed that as I continued
to try to live up to my steward of liberty title, I would
remember to also be a steward of compassion, a steward of peace.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of
Inspiration for Women Who Write (Harper San Francisco),
The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel (Harper Collins), which won
Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of
a Literature of Social Change, and the forthcoming novel,
Self Storage (Ballantine, 2007.) She was named a "Writer Who
Makes a Difference" by The Writer Magazine, and lives in
Riverside, CA with her husband and their two children.