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Snapshots of the Muslim World

By Wendy Grossman
Special Correspondent

Washington — The average American doesn’t typically vacation in places like Tajikistan — but photographer Derek Brown thinks they should. He hopes his photographs will inspire Americans to travel to Muslim countries around the world.

“I want people to go see it for themselves,” says Brown, 40, whose work has appeared in publications ranging from The Economist to the cover of American Airlines’ in-flight magazine. He and a companion started out in India in 2008, wanting to demonstrate the diversity of the Muslim world “because it’s a huge part of the world and it’s very poorly understood... . We were part of those who poorly understand. So we wanted to change that in ourselves first.”

He spent 14 months photographing people in 28 different countries, including Pakistan, Senegal, Jordan and Turkey, which gave him “a snapshot that covered a lot of countries — all from the same time frame.” His exhibition of photographs from the trip, Imagining the Muslim World, is on display through mid-November at a popular downtown Washington bookstore and restaurant, Busboys and Poets.

Brown photographed everything from girls turning cartwheels outside a mosque in Damascus, Syria, to boys playing soccer outside a mosque in Dakar, Senegal. His goal is to illustrate the different shades and faces of Muslim people.

“There are times in my past that I would have thought Muslim equals Arab, which equals Middle East,” he says.

This is one of the reasons he approached Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, about doing the exhibition. At the café, the bright colors in Brown’s photographs jump off the walls — and have sparked many conversations about Muslim life.

“When we talk about Islam, we tend to think in a very monolithic way. This cracks that myth and makes people see that Islam goes far beyond Arabs or Palestinians or anything we’ve been accustomed to hearing,” says Shallal, an Iraqi American.

The exhibition, Shallal says, “makes people take a second look at what they perceive Islam to be. A lot of Americans have had a very skewed idea of what Islam is. This helps dispel some myths. He has more than 20 countries represented on the walls. It makes people realize the Muslim world is beyond the Middle East — it’s far beyond that.”

Standing in the restaurant, Brown points to a picture of white-haired men at a funeral in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are carrying a plain wood coffin out of a mosque. “This could be in Wisconsin,” says Brown, who grew up in that Midwestern U.S. state. “These guys could be anywhere across Middle America.”

In another photo, smiling boys are running through a school in Jaunpur, India, which has a historic mosque attached to it.

“The kids had such joy to see us there,” he says. When they spotted him, and his camera, they rushed toward him.

Brown especially likes showing images of ordinary Muslim women and girls. “Because they’re one of the larger catalysts and focuses of misunderstanding,” he says. “The idea is a Muslim girl could never run and have fun in public. She could never have her headscarf off. Or have a headscarf on and do flips. I want to show all these things.”

In one photo, he shot a picture of a woman in Vitchkut, Tajikistan, breaking a loaf of bread with her daughters in the background. The woman invited Brown to share the bread and offered him tea and some hard candy; her friendly gesture remains a favored story from the trip.

No matter where he went, he felt welcomed — and safe — he says. He traveled light, taking only two sets of clothes with him on his journey, along with his camera gear and two laptops. His favorite spot on the trip was Fatehpur Sikri, India, where he said he loved the way the mosque looked at sunrise and sunset. He was equally enthusiastic about Turkey: “People are incredibly friendly,” he said.

Brown’s journey was a whirlwind of activity, in and out of each city in a matter of days as he kept to a long list of places he wanted to go.

“I didn’t camp out in these places and wait for a shot,” he says. “They’re everyday pictures.” He points to a man praying at a mosque about an hour away from the Taj Mahal in India, noting that the man is at the mosque praying every day. “If people want to see these things,” he says, “they’re there.”

Brown included a small picture of the Taj Mahal itself in the exhibition as a reference to the Muslim ruler who had it built in the 17th century, noting that many people overlook that part of the structure’s history. “It seems so obvious,” he says. “But it’s not to many.”

Brown also included in the exhibition a photograph of a mosque that surprised him: The Islamic Center in Washington. He was stunned to find such an intricate, beautiful mosque in Washington, and impressed to see how intimate the large mosque felt.

“I wasn’t expecting this to be so elaborate and this old,” he says. “The only places I’d seen these elaborate, well-funded mosques were in all these other places we’d gone. A lot of it’s just me and my own ignorance. The vast majority of my Muslim world travels took place outside the U.S.,” so a photography trip exploring Muslim culture in the United States could be next.

Brown first started taking travel pictures in the mid-1990s with a 1.2-megapixel point-and-shoot camera. Every year, when he went on vacation, he bought himself a better camera. He worked a variety of jobs, ranging from managing a Starbucks coffee shop to doing customer service for a website. In 2005, he moved to Hong Kong and started working as a travel photographer full time. He never studied photography officially, aside from a single class.

Brown moved to Washington in mid-2010. He started hanging out at Busboys and Poets, originally because it had a fast Internet connection for uploading pictures. But the more time he spent in the café, the more he realized it was the perfect place for his exhibition.

“Take a look,” he says, gesturing to a corner of the restaurant where two Buddhist monks, clad in their bright orange robes, are standing near other patrons wearing jeans, chatting and eating sweet potato fries or drinking coffee and working on their laptops. “It’s the real deal.”

Brown hopes that his exhibition will help change the way people think Muslims are, and the way they actually live their lives. “I want to try to close this gap,” he says. “People think, ‘Muslim equals terrorist.’ That isn’t true.”

Shallal, the Busboys and Poets owner, said he’s heard many positive responses from customers and visitors who’ve come to see Brown’s work.

“It’s been very thought-provoking for a lot of people,” he says. “I’ve been really heartened by the response that we’ve received. People have really enjoyed looking at it and talking about it.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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