Opening Books, Opening Minds at the Festival
By Louis Sahagun
Times Staff Writer


A copy of the Quran for an understanding of the holy
book

With critics pointing a harsh finger at Muslims and the Arab world, Alia Dada and Shahid Ali could not have been more pleased with the crowds gathered around their little information booth at the 11th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on last Sunday.
By day's end, they had handed out more than 1,500 free paperback English translations of the Koran (Qur’an) and answered hundreds of sometimes tough questions about their faith.
Refilling the diminishing stack of Korans on her display table over the weekend, Ali said a few visitors even "came up to apologize for having said negative things about Islamists in the past."
Theirs was one of 350 booths visited by an estimated 127,500 people during the two-day book festival, a community event designed to celebrate the written word and bring together a critical mass of readers and authors to develop ideas and discuss the hottest topics of the day.
On the sprawling grounds of UCLA, thousands of readers listened in on crowded panel discussions and packed book booths in search of their own special interests.
On a panel titled "Unearthing the Roots of Religion," Dennis MacDonald, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology, presented a riveting account Saturday of how the Gospels were "deeply indebted to Homeric poems," including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."
The scholar also lamented that although publication of the blockbuster works of fiction, including "The Da Vinci Code," has revived public interest in the world's enduring traditions, they blur the lines between scholarly investigation and pop culture.
His audience roared with delighted approval when he pointed out that such books "are crossing over into my territory and they are not helping…"
Before joining a panel with a particularly intense subject: "Under a Crescent Moon: The Changing Shape of the Middle East," Iran expert Reza Aslan said the "future of Islam is underway in the United States."
"Islam is no longer a foreign, exotic religion. It is an integrated part of US society," he said. "Eventually, I believe we will see a much more gender-neutral interpretation of the Koran and Muslim superheroes in sit-coms." Confided Aslan with a smile, "In fact, I'm working on a sit-com proposal now." Dada and Ali would not argue with any of that.
"It's amazing, almost a miracle, that people are so interested in Islam right now," said Ali, a 24-year-old college student majoring in international business. "The fact that so many people are taking Korans will only help dispel misconceptions.
"We are not terrorists," she added, "and we're here to spread that message."
(Courtesy Los Angeles Times)

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