Who wears head scarves?

Bahiraa Abdul Rasheed is folding tall piles of scarves into perfect rectangles, preparing them to hang on a thousand hangers around The Islamic Place, a shop in West Philadelphia.

She’s wearing a scarf – a Muslim head covering called a hijab – in a blend of greens, yellows and tans.

Hijab means to protect or cover, and it relates to far more than clothing. Hijab is personal, says Aleem Choudhary, the Pakistani native who manages the store. It’s about one’s personal relationship with God, he says. “In Muslim culture, women have very high status. They are considered sacred. They represent the honor of society. Hijab is about protecting that honor.

“Some societies turn that ‘protection’ into a method of suppression,” he says, and non-Muslim people often look at women in hijab and think of them as repressed. But that’s often not the case. In the Pakistani town where Choudhary’s wife grew up, the women jointly decided to wear hijab. “My wife has a master’s degree, so no one is suppressing her, but she prefers to wear hijab.”

Rasheed, born Christian in the USA, explains how she began wearing. (“Wearing” is short for “wearing hijab.”) “I was working at Rite Aid,” she says, and I wanted to know why I saw sisters covering up. So I asked one sister, and she told me about the Muslim religion. I asked more questions, and she said she would help me.”

Rasheed’s journey began. “I feel Muslim in my heart,” she says. “I want to know more about Islam. As I submit to Muslim law, one condition is covering my hair.”

The hijabs most popular among Western women are square scarves that cover the head and neck but leave the face clear. Although women wear hijab to maintain modesty, available colors range from somber black, brown and burgundy to fashionable lime, hot pink, brilliant florals and tailored geometrics.

Aaliyah Hamid, shopping at The Islamic Place, grew up singing in the choir in her grandmother’s Catholic church. “Now my family are all Muslims, but we are not strict,” she says. “As my faith has increased, I cover my entire body.” She wears a khimar, too, which covers the head and neck, and a jilbab, a neck-to-shoes over-garment.

Mohamed Elcheikhadi, of a Philadelphia suburb, is a single, practicing Muslim man. His mother and sister, who remain in his native Lebanon, wear hijab, but his Philadelphia sister does not. “My family does not restrict our women. Our values do not require that women cover themselves. But a woman who covers is not at risk of getting negative attention from strange men, which would be bad.”

Before visiting this store, I asked a dozen women wearing traditional head coverings if I could talk with them. On a bus, I met two women wearing hijab: one, wearing pastel pink, teaching her mom, all in black, to navigate Philadelphia on her cell-phone map. Daughter said that some veiled women tend to wear a lot of makeup, “And if they have money, they get nose jobs, too.”

But she never returned my phone calls. Half the women I approached said no and turned away. Half said yes – and then failed to respond on the phones or e-mail addresses they had shared. The consensus in The Islamic Place was that that was not surprising, that the women were maintaining their privacy, their cover, their hijab, by refusing to talk.

A study guide accompanying a PBS show called “Suppression or Liberation: Islam, Hijab and Modern Society,” says that countries vary in defining women’s garb. Iranian women must wear a hijab, and Saudi Arabian women must veil their face. In Turkey, the government outlawed women from wearing hijab in public places.

Aleem Choudhary’s sister Wajeeha describes herself as “A 25-year-old hijab-observant Muslim woman born and raised in the Philadelphia area. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. 26 years ago.” She is a PhD candidate, writing her dissertation on the visual representation of South Asian Muslim women in American mass media.

“At age 14 I started wearing hijab,” she says. “My mother does, but she questioned me, wanting to make sure I was doing it of my own volition. I was. Wearing helped me grow with my friends, and I am glad I did it early. I grew comfortable and confident in it. If you’re looking for a job in your early 20s, you wonder if hijab will get in the way. Women who are denied employment because of wearing hijab can always go get another job.”

Choudhary is focusing on Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old, scarf-wearing Pakistani who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. “She wears the garb that is local to her community, but she is the opposite of how Muslim women have been represented. There seems to be a tendency to exceptionalize her, to say she is a celebrity, that she is not like other Muslim women.”

Choudhary finds Philadelphia “a very Muslim-friendly city. I don’t see any Muslim hatred here.”

Elcheikhadi says, “If I marry, I could ask my wife to cover herself, but I would not demand it.” In fact, he has never dated a woman wearing hijab, and a woman who covers all but her eyes would seem “too strict” for him. “To Americans she looks old-fashioned, even like an outcast. But an educated woman with hijab is a plus. You know she will care deeply about her husband and that she will be faithful.”

Local resident Hakima Ewida, a native of Morocco, has a different, perhaps unique, perspective on covering. Her father was an imam, a leader of prayer in mosques. His lesson guides her daily behavior: “Cover your heart with good deeds. God sees your heart.” She has never worn hijab, but she considers herself fully wrapped.

This article appeared November 24, 2015, on Huffington Post.


Howard Haas wants to save the Boyd Theater

This article appeared December 29, 2013, on Broad Street Review.

A tiny King Kong on his desk holds Howard Haas’s business cards. Although Haas’s life involves movies, movies, movies, nothing else in his office symbolizes his passion.

Haas, the mind, spirit, and oomph of the Friends of the Boyd, spearheads the battle to save the historic Boyd Theater, 1910 Chestnut Street, from disappearing — again. Opened Christmas Day 1928, closed in 2002, the Boyd has faced a handful of wreckers — uh, developers — who want to pave paradise and put up a multiplex.

The developer du jour, iPic Theaters, a Florida company, already owns 11 theaters (three not yet open) in 8 states. It promises a movie “auditorium” with pillows and, according to photos on their website, big burgers, beers, and breasts — plus a pricey Italian restaurant and “chef-prepared grab-and-go food.” You’d be able to watch vampires, Jack and Jill, or men in black while downing an $18 sandwich.

Haas believes Center City needs mainstream movie theaters more than it needs restaurants. He grew up a half block from a Philadelphia movie theater. “When you’re five,” he says, “and you see 1,500 seats, it seems huge. There was such a long lobby, you had to hike from the entrance to the main art-deco screen.”

Attending movies while relishing the architecture became Haas’s lifetime pursuit. Even today, “My primary entertainment is to go off and see a movie.”

In 1988, after college and law school, after a job in the federal government in DC, Haas moved to Academy House in Center City. He chanced upon the Sameric, formerly the Boyd, one day and was amazed. “The foyer was so grand, even in its period of decline, that I was awestruck,” he says. “I figured that since Philadelphia had built this theater, there must be others like it, but no one knew about them.” In the American Institute of Architects bookstore he found a book on Philadelphia movie theaters and learned that all of the other local movie palaces had disappeared.

Even then, a demolition sticker marred the Boyd façade. Haas began researching the salvation and reuse of other cinematic palaces. In1998, on vacation in Los Angeles, he watched flicks in lavish downtown theaters. When he encountered the Theatre Historical Society of America, he joined on the spot.

When the Sameric closed, Haas initiated triage to save the Boyd, with the avid support of film fans and historic preservationists. “It was too important not to organize a movement. I still feel that way,” he says.

The Boyd effort sometimes consumes as many hours as Haas spends practicing Social Security law. While other volunteers contribute significantly, Haas remains the towering force. Compare him to Clark Kent, a man with two lives? “That’s funny,” he says. “Clark Kent is pretty dweeby, like me. I don’t see myself as a superhero, though.”

Haas adores movie palaces, especially the “drop-dead lobby” of the Tuschinski in Amsterdam. In 2013 alone, he visited Seattle and London and spent one day touring five movie palaces in New Jersey.

Sometimes Haas feels that his life resembles the movie Groundhog Day, as he repeatedly tries to Save the Boyd.

Death of SAT essay doesn’t matter

Samson Street closed


Since people can’t write when they graduate from college, what difference does it make whether they can write when they enter?

People earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, build profitable careers in business, the arts, whatever — and still don’t know a command verb from a comma.

Having taught a thousand adults to write nonfiction — and that’s the truth — since 1988, I know that basic grammar is a lost art. It kills me. Doctors can’t write, lawyers can’t write, chiefs of staffs can’t write. I wonder how they communicate with patients, clients and the rest of the world.

Each year I notice a marginal decline in writing literacy. Recently it’s getting worse. Many people are victims of inadequate educations, even from name-brand universities.

Once a man hired me to train his advertising staff to write better. We did 10 hours of classes. Soon after, I encountered him in a movie theater. He introduced me to his wife, an English teacher in a Philadelphia high school. “My students don’t like grammar,” she said, “so I don’t teach it.”

Flabbergastation overwhelmed me. I thanked her for breeding my future students.

Not that a good grasp of grammar guarantees good writing. It don’t.

Good writing matters. Many people claim writing skills they clearly lack. Whom to blame? One high-school teacher? College professors focus on their courses’ content — even instructors of English literature, and even in schools with writing-across-the-curriculum programs — and sidestep plain, ordinary writing skills. Whether profs don’t know or don’t care about grammar, the results are the same: unschooled writers at graduation.

The ones who gall me the most are those who call themselves professionals and charge for their services. Those who passively accept passive voice because they don’t recognize the alternative.

Even though I write for a living, I don’t claim to be the best writer on my block. But since I cannot subtract or divide, I don’t promote myself as a bookkeeper. I hated science classes, so I don’t consult on bridge construction, electrical engineering or ravaging influenza viruses. How can someone who cannot organize a three-sentence news release earn $$$ to write website copy?

But, you might say, one can tell a great story without writing well. Yes, and think how much more compelling the tale would sound if one tightened the copy and used more-precise words. Writing is a dying art, you say. True. But so are penmanship and steam engines and virgin weddings.

Someone still needs to write manuals for the next generation of tech tools, speeches for not-yet-elected officials and books and magazines for your pleasure. Writing can never die. It can get weak and powerless and boring and fuzzy. Wait: That’s where I started.

Try this at home: Think of a story you tell often: an anecdote about driving, diving or donuts. Write it. Can you make it sound as fun, as poignant, as energetic as the one you recite?

When organizations invite me to review their existing written material, I cannot believe that no employee nor expensive consultant has noticed that they spell their town’s name wrong on their stationery. That their website never specifies what the company does. That they omit the dollar amount in their requests for funding.

Too many Americans fail to organize their writing projects, covering all necessary points, focusing on the essentials, eliminating the chaff.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to write a eulogy, a love letter, a plea to an elected official, flyers for a nonprofit or sales reports to the boss — it helps to be able to link sentences together into cohesive, coherent paragraphs and pages. The writer has to do the work, I tell students, so the reader doesn’t.

SAT essays are still optional. College applicants can write them in crowded spaces surrounded by other terrified teens, using No. 2 pencils on lined paper. How anachronistic. Even though teachers have quit teaching handwriting, adolescents have to write legibly — now, under extreme pressure.

The anxiety to write neatly, filling a random but fastidiously strict length, can kill the creativity and writing ability in most candidates.

In 2012, Les Perelman, then a director of writing at MIT, met with David Coleman, soon to become president of the College Board, which owns the SAT. He recalled the conversation in a New York Times Magazine article:

“When is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” Coleman asked. “I’ve never gotten an e-mail from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes.’ But that’s what the SAT does.”

Since these essays prove little about the writing ability of future freshmen, dropping them or making them voluntary changes nothing.

Once I taught “effective writing” (an ineffective title), in a non-credit program. In the first session, each person submitted a paper proving that their grasp of writing resembled my grasp of sub-quantum kinetics. Before the evening ended, I mentioned my decision to amend the syllabus to include a session on grammar. One woman, the worst offender, actually, rose and headed for the exit. I asked if she would be returning. No, she said. “I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with A’s in English. I don’t need to learn grammar.”

I responded that I had graduated from the same U with B’s in English, but that it seemed as though some remediation was in order. What must she have written on her SAT essay?

A woman in an essay-writing class once brought a haunting piece about the graveside funeral for her cranky grandmother. Everyone at the funeral was welcome to speak, but no one did. After several awkward, silent moments, a boy said, “She made good cookies.”

At the funeral for the SAT essay, I am keeping my mouth shut.


NOTE: This article appeared March 26, 2014, on Newsworks.org.

Resurrecting the Roxy Theater, Philadelphia





This article appeared February 4, 2014, on Broad Street Review.

The newly reborn Roxy Theater is the baby-bear of Philadelphia-area movie theaters. With the same two tiny rooms, it came back to life last December with 
Saving Mr. Banks. Within a week, The Wolf of Wall Street began creating a dramatic contrast. Just a hop, skip, and a box of popcorn away from the dearly-beloved-but-dark Boyd Theatre, the Roxy has risen like a phoenix after one long, dark year.

The Roxy is now under the aegis of the Philadelphia Film Society, aka Filmadelphia. The primary motivator for the total upgrade was the lack of digital projectors. As the film industry began releasing more, then all, of its products electronically, the Roxy, like other small theaters around the country, couldn’t show new pictures. Now it boasts a digital cinematic projection and Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound.

Movie theaters first began installing digital projectors in about 2001, says The Atlantic. Going digital, it says, creates a “generally clearer” picture and radically lowers the financial and logistical costs of distribution. A single copy of a 35-mm feature film costs studios more than $1,500, while digital copies could cost a tenth of that, with prices falling fast.

One of the Roxy’s theaters has a 35-millimeter reel-to-reel device to show classic films like On the WaterfrontRashomon and Cat Ballou.

The larger theater? (Larger, of course, being a relative word here.) The Roxy’s chambers, 74 and 75 seats each, feature new ceilings, floors, acoustic paneling, painted drywall, and one cleaned-up interior brick wall. The front of the house sports updated washrooms, a new stand selling Dots and Raisinets, and ADA-compliant ramps to accommodate everyone.

The theater, technically at both 2021 and 2023 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, a few minutes’ walk from the highly populated Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, has admirers and detractors. (What else? It’s Philadelphia.) Some prefer its storied older lives, beginning with its 1975 dawning: art-house and independent movies. Or its 1984 incarnation, which offered new releases. Other folks, pleased to lose the musty smells and leaky ceilings, look to a future of popular live-action, horror, and zombie flicks.

Regardless of popular opinion, though, the Roxy is the sole movie provider within the official boundaries of the Center City District. The 12 Ritz/Landmark screens lie east of its borders. Occasionally the Prince Music Theater and the Kimmel Center screen films, and the IMAX in the Franklin Institute shows family-friendly, science-related stuff. Only the Roxy shows mainstream movies in Center City.

According to its website, Filmadelphia aims “to utilize film’s unique capacity to engage a broad cross-section of the community, while further providing access to powerful films from around the world in order to increase education and understanding.” It runs the Philadelphia Film Festival, scheduled for next October.

PFS executive director Andrew Greenblatt studied political science at American University and law at George Washington University. He produced a few films and moved back to Philadelphia. He says he always loved movies but prefers not to name names.

The film society manages but does not own the Roxy. The landlord does. In some ways, though, it belongs to all of us. See you after the credits.

7 amazing Philadelphia libraries



This article appeared January 31, 2014, on newsworks.org.

Recently I attended a computer workshop in a classroom at Philadelphia FIGHT, an agency that immerses itself in AIDS, providing primary care, consumer education, advocacy and research on potential treatments and potential vaccines. And I learned that FIGHT has a library devoted to treatments, nutrition and the history of AIDS, and referrals to regional and national resources. Who knew?

So I began to wonder what other Philadelphia libraries I have neither heard of nor visited. I found 36 members of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, plus some other remarkable contenders.

In no particular order, here are seven favorites:

1. Philadelphia FIGHT AIDS library

Originally the Field Initiating Group for HIV Trials, FIGHT houses the largest of three AIDS libraries in the country. (The Boston AIDS Information Outreach Project and, Wayne State University in Detroit have smaller collections.)

Mignon Adams, librarian emeritus at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, says the local AIDS library has a national reputation. It is located where its constituency is, she says. “If you notice the folks who go into the FIGHT building, you know some of them would not be welcome on a college campus,” she said, which is where the others are.

Adams notes that the FIGHT library serves not only AIDS patients but also the gay, lesbian and transgender population — and, of course, everyone else. The library opens its computer lab to its constituency.

1233 Locust Street, second floor.
Monday and Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.

2. Philadelphia Museum of Art Library

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, I found publications by my college classmate Clara Bargellini, Italian born, Philadelphia raised, Mexican by choice and marriage. Having earned a Ph.D. in Italian art, she moved to Mexico and taught at a university, which wanted her to teach Mexican art. So she learned that, too.

Perelman Building
2525 Pennsylvania Ave.
Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturdays from mid-September until mid-May
Free if you ask the guard for a research pass.

3. Jenkins Law Library

Every Philadelphia lawyer knows the Jenkins Law Library, but its collections are available to the rest of us, too. To learn about legal ethics, current judicial cases or campaign finance, non-attorneys can use the library for only $5 a day, including an hour on the computer. Want to represent yourself in a court of law? Go to Jenkins without passing Go.

Jenkins is one of 1,600 members of the American Association of Law Libraries. What’s great about Jenkins, says Adams, is its staff of “great reference librarians” to guide you through the legal literature.

833 Chestnut Street, 12th floor
8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays
Open until 7 p.m. on Wednesday

4. Krauth Memorial Library, Lutheran Theological Seminary

The Lutheran Theological Seminary’s collection contains religious literature. Typical users are seminary faculty and students and regional clergy. It holds books from the time of Martin Luther.

7301 Germantown Ave.
Hours vary with academic schedule

5. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Want to know how to prune a fig tree, grow an avocado plant or keep their river birch from losing its leaves? Visit the library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society online or in person. The library serves members and non-members, though only members of the horticultural organization can borrow books.

100 North 20th Street, fifth floor
Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

6. Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library Image Collections

The image collections in the University of Pennsylvania libraries contain scads of online pictures you can watch in your jammies. One selection shows photos of performing artists that a single photographer, Allen J. Winigrad, shot between 1973 and 1989. Find Van CliburnEdgar “Charlie McCarthy” Bergen and Henry “Pink Panther” Mancini here.

Elsewhere at Penn, search for pix of John Philip Sousa, performers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or the DVD art for the 1953 Disney classic “Peter Pan.”

Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center
Locust Walk between 34th and 36th streets
Hours vary with academic schedule

7. Philadelphia University’s Paul J. Gutman Library

Since Philadelphia University grew from the 130-year-old Philadelphia Textile School, you may not be surprised to find a stunning reference library on the history of textiles. Since the website lists holdings without linking to them, a personal visit may be in order.

The Arlen Specter Center for Public Policy has a public exhibit her right now called Single Bullet: Arlen Specter and the Warren Commission Investigation of the JFK Assassination — weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through April 11.

4201 Henry Avenue (at the corner of W. School House Lane)
Hours vary with academic schedule