Opening Books, Opening
Minds at the Festival
By Louis Sahagun
Times Staff Writer
A copy of the Quran for an understanding
of the holy
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
"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
"We are not terrorists," she added, "and we're
here to spread that message."
(Courtesy Los Angeles Times)