This Muslim chef wants to stop Islamophobia

So she’s inviting strangers to dinner

(iStock/Lily illustration)

Amanda Saab remembers listening to then-candidate Donald Trump calling for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.

Clearly, she said, a lot of people must not know any Muslims.

Her voice cracked as she recalled the realization: “Have I played a part in that? Have I not reached out to people and given them an opportunity to meet me?”

That led her to one day, turn to her husband, Hussein, and say “Let’s invite strangers over for dinner.”

And so began “Dinner With Your Muslim Neighbor.”

Amanda and Hussein Saab. (Meryl Schenker/For The Washington Post)

She cooks — often in her own home and sometimes in a borrowed kitchen — and the couple answers any questions guests might have about their religion.

Saab, who also was the first woman to wear a hijab on Fox’s “MasterChef” in 2015, said her experience with reality TV made her realize her mere existence was bothersome to people. She recalls viewers calling her oppressed, asking if she needed the permission of Hussein to appear on the show and questioning her “true” motivations.

Saab’s exposure to such questions, and the uncomfortable rise in fears about Islam on a national stage has led her to believe the answers — and any changes to hearts and minds — best unfold one table at a time.

Hussein Saab, left, leads a prayer before dinner. (Meryl Schenker /For The Washington Post)

Her social media posts asking people to dinner, with invitations to share them widely, brought more volunteer guests than their dinner table could handle.

“I wish we could say that we don’t have feelings of contempt for Islam and what it appears to represent,” one local commented on Saab’s blog after she wrote about the first dinner. She responded with an invitation to the next.

Here’s a peek into some of the questions the couple received at a recent dinner:

Where’s your family from?

Dearborn, Mich. Both have Lebanese ancestry.

Does Islam have sects like Christianity does?

Yes, Sunni and Shiite are the main ones.

Can I ask how you make your potatoes so crispy?

Bottom rack of the oven, lots of olive oil.

As congenial as it was, conversation throughout the two-hour meal was intense and sometimes tearful, covering doctrine and culture and extremism.

The Saabs consider the investment of time and money worthwhile and plan to continue the dinners, but both have full-time jobs. Their first child is due this summer.

Amanda Saab wipes away tears during an intense discussion. (Meryl Schenker /For The Washington Post)

Partnering with Michael Hebb, a teaching fellow at the University of Washington’s communication leadership department, they’re assembling a free online tool kit they hope others will use to hold their own dinners.

“There’s never been a more important time” for this, said Hebb. “If you give people the right tools, you’ll set them up for success.”

Original story by Rebekah Denn for The Washington Post.