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Finding the similarities in a sea of differences

Published November 30, 2003

It was an accident of the calendar. The feasting and celebration that marked the end of Ramadan coincided with the buildup to Thanksgiving. Jamel Jemni found another piece of common ground between his culture and America's.

Yes, he is a Muslim, but in this religiously and politically overheated world, that is not the first thing you should know about him. Jemni is among the recipients of the prestigious Fulbright scholarships, a program funded by the federal government that sends scholars to and from the United States to foster greater international understanding.

Now that's something we could use more of.

Jemni came from his native Tunisia, a small north African country that borders on the Mediterranean Sea, to spend the academic year at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. We met Monday at his small St. Petersburg apartment, where he welcomed me with a cup of coffee unlike any I had ever had.

The coffee beans were ground with coriander, and the brew was sweetened with a little sugar and orange blossom water that he had carried, along with the coffee, all the way from home.

Then we spoke. We ended up where you'd think we'd end up, talking about politics and war. He is no supporter of what the United States is doing in Iraq. He sides with the Palestinians. And yet he talked repeatedly of the need for cultures and religions to see each other's similarities, not their differences.

"All prophets are grandchildren of Abraham," he said. "All (religions) are rooted in one book."

I asked him to explain the meaning of the word that so sets American nerves on edge, when the subject of Islam arises: jihad. No, he said, it did not mean have to mean holy war. If a man lives his life responsibly, working hard and supporting his family, Jemni said, that is carrying out jihad.

The Fulbright scholarship, though prestigious, still has Jemni, 40, living close to the bone. He has no car, no phone, no cable. He spends most of his time in the university library.

He is a slightly built figure who moves with gentle gestures - one of eight children and the only one to be so educated that he is, back home, a college professor. Jemni speaks Arabic, English, French and a little Italian. The whole time I listened to him, I found myself thinking of all the people I hear from, ordinary Americans, who would not believe a word he said or who would at least be deeply suspicious.

This is the fallout of 9/11. Jemni feels it, too.

Two summers ago, he took his wife and two young sons to the Mediterranean island of Malta for a vacation. All the kids wanted to do was eat at the local McDonald's. All their father could do was feel anxious. A McDonald's would be a terrorist's perfect target. "The whole world has become a battlefield," he said.

Also like the rest of us, Jemni looks to children to do what the adults around them have failed to do - in this case, one day make peace. To that end, for the past couple of years, he has organized groups of Tunisian teenagers to study in English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom. He puts great faith in these exchanges. He wants to organize one in the United States, maybe through USF, as another step in his campaign to open minds and change the course of world events.

Thursday, on Thanksgiving, Jemni shared a meal with his American friends from the university. He had the usual - turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing - and enjoyed it all.

The next day, he cooked lunch for me. He dropped an egg and some seasonings into what amounted to a super-thin tortilla and fried it. It was like a Mexican omelet, all the way down to the hot sauce I could add, if I chose.

He asked me at one point if he struck me as an extremist. No, I said, he did not. He came across as the soul of moderation and graciousness. Only his frame of reference was different. It was a small compass that he consults whenever he needs to know where the east is, so he can pray.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]

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