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An American girl

Is how we pray what makes us American? Or is it the sum of all the other moments in life that we share?

By SUSAN ASCHOFF
Published December 2, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Sarah Zaki, 11, dances with one of the dogs while tending to Buster, the 17-year-old horse she has been riding during her lessons at Bryan Stables. Sarah asked the Hillsborough School Board to include days off from school for important Muslim holidays.

After a year of study, the Hillsborough School Board recently decided to no longer tie vacation days to religious observances. Board members left Christmas Day as part of the winter break, but removed the Jewish Yom Kippur and Christian Good Friday from school calendars. The board also rejected a request from area Muslims to add a day off for Eid al-Fitr.

A more secular calendar, board members reasoned, would separate church and state and not favor some faiths over others.

Area Muslims feared they would somehow be blamed because they began the discussion by asking for Eid al-Fitr. They were. More than 3,500 e-mails and phone calls protested the change, some of them suggesting Muslims were not Americans and had no right to even ask.

After a raucous meeting Nov. 8, the school board voted to reinstate Yom Kippur and Good Friday and not add Eid al-Fitr. A number of speakers implied that if a person is not a Christian, he or she is not an American.

Meet Sarah Zaki. She is one of the estimated 30,000 Muslims in the Tampa Bay area. She is an American.

* * *

Sarah Zaki was born in Brandon on May 15, 1994. This year on her birthday she went bowling with girlfriends. As a toddler, she hated riding in the car. She cried and would not stop. She got carsick and threw up. She and her big sister, Nora, played in an empty box, and Sarah made faces through a cutout window.

* * *

Sarah lives in Lithia and is a sixth-grader at Williams Middle Magnet School. Her toughest class is advanced math. She likes science, because she is learning about bacteria and viruses and she says it is interesting to find out how they multiply. She loves the computer, and she likes to write. She says her teacher sometimes gives them a topic and she thinks it's awful and then she writes something interesting.

* * *

She is in a club called Kid Connection. The middle schoolers work on projects with kindergarteners and first-graders. This month Sarah and the little kids made a booklet comparing Taiwan to the United States.

* * *

Sarah takes riding lessons once a week. Today she is wearing a red T-shirt with two horse heads printed on it. Her favorite horse is a paint named Buster. She likes Buster, because he is small and she says she can feel in control. And because he's not crazy. She rides English saddle. Sarah loves to practice jumps. So she does not fall off, she keeps her toes up and her heels down.

Nora, 14, and brother Adam, 12, say Sarah is sometimes too goody-goody. A teacher's pet. But Nora says it is because Sarah is mature for her age. Nora says her sister is serious about things.

* * *

Sarah's best friends are Alyssa, Taylor, Sierra and another girl whose name she is not sure how to spell. She says seeing her friends every day is what gets her out of bed at 5:15 a.m. They make her laugh. They talk at lunch and go outside on the patio. Sarah brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Alyssa brings mini cookies, which are really good.

* * *

Sarah says her favorite food her mom cooks is grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice. Her mother says it is a lot of work to make. Sarah's mom is Joan Mulrennan Zaki. She is a veterinarian who is a stay-at-home mom. She drives Nora to basketball practice every day. Sarah's mom was born in Tampa. She was Catholic and converted to Islam in 1989. When she met Sarah's father, Ezzat Zaki, she liked his sense of humor. Sarah's father was born in Egypt and has been a U.S. citizen for 25 years. He is a doctor.

* * *

Sarah's mother is the lone Muslim on the school board's calendar committee and the only person who voted against removing the Judeo-Christian holidays. Muslims, Sarah's mother told the board, are only asking for equal consideration.

* * *

Sarah's sister Nora is a freshman in high school and plays basketball. Nora likes forward because she can make layups and because she likes to take command. She wears soccer socks pulled up as far as they will go and a long-sleeve T under her jersey to dress modestly. Sarah's brother, Adam, is the only boy in the family and picks on his sisters, says 6-year-old Deena, the youngest. Sarah says Deena bugs her and takes her stuff.

* * *

Sarah's favorite television show is That's So Raven. She listens to Bowling for Soup. She hops on a pogo stick in her cul-de-sac. She thinks it's fun to make business cards and Power Point presentations on the computer.

* * *

She thinks she will be a journalist or do something with animals when she grows up. Deena says Sarah loves cats. They have two cats, named George and Peaches. Peaches doesn't like Adam because Adam teases. George is a snuggler.

* * *

Sarah talked to the School Board when Eid was first requested as a holiday last year. She says she thinks it has more impact when a kid speaks. This year Eid was Nov. 3. Sarah says she fasted every day of the monthlong Ramadan except for a half-day when there was a Willy Wonka reward party at school with desserts and candy and a chocolate river. Her culinary arts class made Red Lobster cheddar biscuits on another fasting day and she says the smell of warm bread made her crazy. Her family got up at 4:30 in the morning to eat breakfast before sunrise marked the beginning of the daily fast.

* * *

Sarah says the kids at her school are very tolerant. It is the parents who have problems with different religions.

* * *

Some Muslim girls cover - wear a head scarf - and some do not. She and her mother and sister do not. It is a personal choice. They cover their heads when they pray. Muslims pray five times a day. Nora has taken her shawl and prayer mat on a basketball road trip. Her teammates and coach are used to her praying. Sometimes it is difficult to find a quiet spot.

* * *

Sarah says she wants people to know that she is an American like everyone else. She says she just prays a little differently.

[Last modified December 1, 2005, 09:44:01]


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