When they met at a 2007 Washington camp for scholarship winners, Bashair Alazadi was 16 and wore the traditional headscarf of all Muslim women. Carlos Sandoval was 17, Catholic and a smartass.
“I grew up in Tacoma, and I’d never seen a Muslim,” said Sandoval, a graduate of Mount Tahoma High School. “To me at the time — Arab, Islam, Muslim — it was all the same.” Born in Iraq, relocated with her family to Everett at age 4, Alazadi was used to questions about Islam. Especially after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. She wasn’t all that impressed with the depth of Sandoval’s inquiry.
“He asked why I wore the scarf,” she said. “He wanted to see my hair.”
The two stayed in touch — first by email, then telephone — and went to college together at Pacific Lutheran University.
He kept asking her out. She always said no, but the two would spend hours on campus talking to each other.
“I went to Everett to meet her father,” Sandoval said. “He was open to me learning Islam. He was not happy about my interest in his daughter.”
Alazadi, on the other hand, made an impression with Sandoval’s mother. Along with Arabic and English, Alazadi spoke Spanish.
A relationship that began as a challenge, Sandoval admitted, changed his life. “Initially, I hated Islam. I tried to convince her she’d been brainwashed, that her religion was oppressive,” he said. “I bought a Quran so I could read it and stump her with questions. The more I read, the more I learned, the more I came to appreciate Islam.”
He did something more. He fell in love.
“Bashair was smarter than me, more articulate. She was more assimilated to this country than I was,” he said. “I grew up a Mexican, and there was a stigma attached to that. She grew up Muslim, and there was a stigma for her, too.”
Alazadi loved him, too, impressed by the growing depth of his inquiries and commitment to her culture.
A year and a half after their relationship began, Sandoval and Alazadi asked her father for permission to marry.
“He wasn’t happy, but he was supportive,” Alazadi said.
Sandoval had to complete a transition that had begun with him teasing her.
“I converted to Islam just before the wedding. I didn’t do it just to marry Bashair. I considered it the final step in my study of Islam,” he said. “It’s not the right path for everyone. It was the right path for me.”
They married on Aug. 29, 2009.
Last year, a group of PLU filmmakers had traveled the country putting together a documentary on how Islam is defined in America. They had questions and footage but no central hook.
“In June, we had all this info but no real main focus,” said co-producer JuliAnne Rose, a PLU senior. “A member of our team had Bashair in a class. We thought she could help us find other Muslims. We met her husband and realized we had a nugget and made it the central piece.”
The documentary that followed, “Beyond Burkas and Bombers: Anti-Muslim Sentiment in America” premiered on the Parkland campus April 11. It has been nominated for an Emmy and booked into film festivals around the country.
“Our hesitation when they first approached us was we didn’t want to represent all Muslims,” Sandoval said. “There were only a few on campus, but there are a lot in Tacoma. We were just two of them. We were willing to show them how the two of us lived.”
Alazadi graduated in December and is working as an accountant in Seattle, studying for her certified public accountant credentials. Sandoval graduates next weekend and wants to work in juvenile detention.
“If someone says something that isn’t true about Islam, I might ignore them. Carlos will take them on,” Alazadi said. “I grew up Muslim, but he knows more about it now than I do.
“My father didn’t like him when he first met him, but now he treats him like a son.”
“My parents love Bashair, too,” he said. “We’re proud of the way both our parents accepted us and our decisions.”
Part of that transition was made easier, Alazadi said, because Islam is more inclusive than many Americans know.
“There is so much misunderstanding,” she said. “Muslims believe Christians and Jews are on the path to heaven, too. It’s just a different path.”