The Chosen One

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"She's been fine with my being Muslim ever since."

When she returned to Arizona, Abboud struggled to find a job where she would be welcome to wear the hijab. She came across a Muslim-owned construction company whose owners actually wanted a secretary who wore one.

Her boss was a guy named Ali Abboud.

Seated at the dinner table in their home, Deedra recalls the first time she met her husband. Ali listens, smiling. After Ali showed her to her desk the first day on the job, Deedra says, he turned away while keeping his eyes on Deedra, and slipped -- headfirst -- over a Persian rug.

Deedra tried not to laugh until Ali picked himself up and left the room.

"I always tell friends of ours that Ali fell for me the first time he saw me," Deedra says, giggling.

But Deedra refused Ali's courtship.

In Iraq, Ali admits, he was "a bit of a playboy." He had had several girlfriends, but hadn't wanted to settle down. Under Saddam Hussein's control, Iraq was a far more secular country than it is today, and Ali wasn't used to traditional courtship prescribed by Islam -- with a chaperone present -- nor did he spend his time praying, ever.

"I wouldn't give him the time of day until he started praying, and I told him so," Deedra says.

The morning after that conversation, Ali called Deedra to tell her he had prayed for the first time. Soon, he was praying to Allah five times a day.

And now, Deedra says, "He's surpassed me in piety."

They've been married for seven years.

Like most Arizonans, Deedra and Ali Abboud were asleep when the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at more than 400 miles per hour on September 11, 2001.

"I was in bed, and my sister called me and told me I needed to turn on the TV," Abboud says. "I got up and turned it on and was like, 'Oh my God.' It looked more like a Hollywood thing."

As soon as the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the south tower, she feared who the culprits might be.

"I hope it wasn't a Muslim," she thought, watching the tragedy unfold with Ali.

She got dressed, put on a headscarf, and went to work, employed in the accounting department of a manufacturing company. She'd recently left her job working for Ali and his brother. "Ali and me and his brother's family all lived together and worked together," Deedra says. "It just was not a good situation not being able to separate work and home."

Shortly after she arrived at work on September 11, the company's human resources manager met with her and, she recalls, told her, "If anyone says anything sideways to you, let me know."

She says, "They didn't know how people might react."

At the time, Abboud was also on the board of directors of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, which was attempting to start an Arizona chapter. Abboud got involved in CAIR because she'd wanted to establish a career and an identity within the Muslim community separate from her husband.

She was politically savvy, with strong communication skills, according to her friend and spiritual adviser, Ahmad Al-Akoum. She had already established contacts with the local media. And, like most converts, she had the enthusiasm and zeal to defend Islam -- and its 3 to 8 million practitioners in America, depending on whom you ask -- at all costs.

So when CAIR looked to hire an Arizona staff, Abboud applied and was hired as the chapter's director.

"Deedra was somebody we saw as already widely respected within the Muslim community," says Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's national spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Of course, it was impossible not to see her for what she was:

A white woman with a seemingly sweet, Southern disposition -- a face for Islam in America that looked nothing like the mug shots of the 19 hijackers.

Yet Hooper says that neither Abboud's race nor her gender had anything to do with her hiring.

"It's always valuable to have people who can relate to the community that you're trying to reach," Hooper says. "But if that assisted her, it was just a side benefit."

CAIR has several women of Middle Eastern and Arab descent in leadership positions within its organization, from national spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed to chapter directors and board chairs in Texas, northern and southern California, and Ohio.

The Muslim American Society has women in high posts as well, such as its outreach coordinator in Chicago, a regional spokeswoman in Richmond, Virginia, and a new youth board chairman here in Arizona.

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Joe Watson