Twenty years ago, a former foreign-exchange trader on Park Avenue became the chaplain of Stony Brook University’s Muslim Student Association. When asked how such a transition could happen, Sister Sanaa Nadim, 56, paused for a moment and pointed up.
“Destiny,” she said. “Destiny prevails.”
Destiny put Nadim on the second floor of Stony Brook’s Student Union, among the offices of the Interfaith Center, as the first female Muslim chaplain for any Muslim Student Association in the country. It has been a departure from a “well-off” childhood spent in private school and her time in the private sector.
Nadim grew up in Cairo, Egypt, as the youngest of seven children of a father who was a poet and businessman and a mother who was “big on charity and family.” She spent summers at a home on the Mediterranean Sea, wearing shorts and mini-jupes, playing sports and never getting negative comments from men. Cairo was like any city around the world, except for traditional music, she said.
“It was the most amazing childhood, not simply because we were well-off, but just the time was beautiful, the world was beautiful,” she said. She called it a non-judgmental time when people did not think about appearance as a fundamental issue of faith.
Everything changed with start of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Nadim said. She recalled one day at her French private school when she was told that Egypt was at war. Life was not as happy as it was, she continued, because her family lost a lot of its wealth, people were suffering and it was a time of war, but she did not understand why.
“We were never taught anything about differences between us and other people,” Nadim said. “It was one world and people lived in it and that was it. And I think I took that with me forever.”
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