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Thursday, October 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Arab Americans: a cultural dialogue

Seattle Times staff reporter

This is one in an occasional series of stories looking at how our lives and our communities have been transformed by the terrorist attacks on this country Sept. 11.

A fire burning in a wood stove crackled in the den of Kay Bullitt's Capitol Hill home, emitting warmth up to the arches of the room's rustic ceiling. The sweet, smoky smell of a fireside chat lingered on the visitors' clothes several hours after they had left.

As America ramped up its war on terrorism with airstrikes over Afghanistan, Bullitt opened her home this week to about 20 people, some of them strangers. Muslims. Jews. Arab Americans. Peace activists. Seattleites.

A Palestinian woman who had just returned from burying her mother in Jerusalem. A Palestinian student at the University of Washington. Another UW student, originally from Morocco, troubled that terrorists have hijacked Islam's good name.

"As Muslims, we need to be more hospitable to all religions and all beliefs," said Taufik Ridani, who came to Seattle three years ago. "That's what I know from Islam."

Different people with a common thread.

"All the fear in us," said Afifi Durr, a native of Lebanon and an American citizen. "I think our fears get in the way of good communication."

As they did during the Gulf War, Bullitt and Durr have organized opportunities for people to talk freely with the hope that the conversations will lead to a better understanding of Arab culture. The first set of chats occurred 11 days after the World Trade Center was attacked. All of the Arab Americans attending those meetings were Christians.

Misunderstanding No. 1: All Arabs are Muslim.

"There's a lot of misinformation about who we are," said Maha Boulos, 25, a UW dental student. A Palestinian, she has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. She attended Sunday's U.S.-Middle East gathering to get ideas for organizing a similar group at the university.

"Our mission would be to educate the campus community first and then the broader community about Muslims and the Arab world, and about civil liberties and civil rights," she said.

The timing seems right. Durr, who runs Arabic Language & Translation Services in Shoreline, recalled her early days in the U.S. when she would tell people she was Greek or Italian because it was safer than telling them the truth. Now, she said, "we need to identify who we are and face our fears."

Americans are more interested than ever in Arab culture, and Arab Americans should seize the opportunity, she said.

"It's so important now to tell who we are," she said. "People are more aware. They want to understand. It's wonderful."

Durr, a founding member of the Arab Center of Washington, said she received many requests to speak at schools during the Gulf War. But when the war ended, so did the schools' interest.

Husniyeh Kouttainay, a Palestinian from Seattle, suggested that schools need to teach more about Arab culture and the Middle East.

"If you want to put some seeds of love between countries, then in schools you need to study the history and geography of all nations," she said.

Kouttainay was in Jerusalem Sept. 11, having rushed to the city to visit her ailing mother one final time. She said the city was paralyzed with fear that day.

"They were really scared that something bad would befall them, on top of all the other bad things happening over there," she said. "If (Osama bin Laden) thought he would be helping the Palestinians or helping Islam, he's wrong. Maybe he's interested in helping himself only. I don't know. I don't understand it."

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293.

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