PLEASANT HILL -- When the Pleasant Hill Library was selected as one of 125 libraries and humanities councils to receive a grant supporting the scholar-led discussion, "Let's Talk About It: Muslim Journeys," the East Bay joined an international conversation.
In a five-title series taking place monthly at the Pleasant Hill Senior Center on Tuesday evenings, members of the community will explore books and themes leading to a greater understanding of the histories and cultures of Muslims in the world and the United States.
Supported by funds from he National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, the 90-minute discussions are led by Dr. Hatem Bazian, co-founder of Zaytuna College and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.
The series debuted Jan. 14, with a review of "When Asia Was the World," by Stewart Gordon.
Bazian, whose 2013 Bay Area Muslim Study showed that 23 percent of Bay Area Muslims report they have been victims of hate crimes, said dialogue, not debate, was the program's goal.
The first 30 minutes of each event consists of a lecture by Bazian, outlining the major theme of a featured book, followed by a 45-minute small group discussion and a come-together wrap-up.
And understanding that busy lives may preclude some in the audience from completing the book before attending, he said, "As a professor, I understand the theory of reading doesn't always lead to the reality of reading."
While answering questions he himself posed -- What is history? What is a historian? -- Bazian quoted University of Rochester Professor Dexter Perkins and said, "History is an introduction to more interesting people we can meet in our restrictive lives."
His larger point, that understanding one's narrative is not a one-person act, shaped much of his commentary on Gordon's book, which follows real-life merchants, monks, scholars and warriors through Asia between 500-1500 CE.
"History has meaning only in relations and entanglement with others," Bazian said. "We are all acting as supporting casts in the play that is instantaneous. Seven billion actors, all connected."
Jill Brock of Walnut Creek, said the overall subject attracted her.
"The entire Muslim society, well, I didn't realize how little I knew until I recently read the Koran," she said.
At her round-table, Elise Kuzbari of Clayton, had two reasons for attending.
"I'm married to a Middle Easterner. And Westerners think differently than Easterners: finding a meeting ground is difficult. That interests me too."
Katheryn Martinsen of Pleasant Hill, said she is simply fond of history, especially when it involves learning about people from different cultures and ethnicities. Gay Jegbrs said she believes strongly in making connections, continuous learning, and "expanding my world view."
Shaymaa Mahmoud of Vallejo, a discussion facilitator who recently graduated with a degree in Gender Studies and English from UC Berkeley, grew up in a home with an American mother and an Egyptian father.
"I guess I'm a liberal Muslim," she said, "but labels are hard. Outside of the box, what is the box? People telling their stories, especially for minorities, (is how) we find our place in the world."
Bazian, showing a map of the world, reiterated Mahmoud's assertion.
"We forget we all belong to the same family. Assembling stories will give us a narrative."
Even thinking of how products are interwoven will reduce social barriers and misunderstanding, he said, using the chocolate product Nutella and the iPhone as examples, and noting how they use manufacturing processes from around the world.
"We must think about the people who made the parts and how they were treated," he said.
"Let's Talk About It: Muslim Journeys" is a series of lectures through the Pleasant Hill Library taking place at the Pleasant Hill Senior Center from 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Feb. 11, March 4, April 8 and May 6. For information, visit guides.ccclib.org/journeys .