The Chosen One

One Sunday evening in February, Deedra Abboud serves dinner at her north Phoenix home. The first course is lentil soup and lamb, followed by a dish of pickles, carrots and olives. Falafel, hummus, crab samboosa, cucumber sauce.

And then, pot roast and mashed potatoes.

You can take the girl out of the South -- Little Rock, Arkansas, to be exact -- and put her in a headscarf, but she'll bring her cookbook with her.

Deedra Abboud just gets more interesting from there. She's got a copy of the Koran, too.

Abboud is a Muslim, a self-proclaimed feminist, and she does the dishes. She defends her husband's right under Islam to have as many as four wives. "But I wouldn't want that," Abboud says, her hands deep in soap suds, her pastel blue headscarf, or hijab, hugging her round face. "I wouldn't agree to it. Not right now, anyway."

A lot of multicultural couples have blended their beliefs to make a marriage work, but Deedra Abboud's not just a Southern girl who converted to Islam and married a guy from Iraq. She's the director of the Arizona chapter of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based civil rights group.

Abboud is 34. Not so long ago, she was a Southern Baptist, a business major at the University of Arkansas, where she warned Muslim students that they were going to Hell for treating women poorly.

Now, she prays five times a day, but chooses which interpretations of Islam work and don't work for her, personally. In conversation, she admits she doesn't understand the fuss over the Danish cartoon controversy that's sparked violent protests around the world.

"If Muslims want to protest," she says, "why don't they protest Guantánamo?"

But her press releases say something else. "The [Danish] paper wanted to instigate trouble by disrespecting Muslims from the very beginning," she wrote in an e-mail to local media on February 9. But, she also wrote, "Deliberate provocations like these cartoons only gives additional power to extremists -- who we are all attempting to fight in the 'war on terror.'"

Her measured diplomacy is an asset, as well as a burden.

Still, Deedra Abboud is the chosen one, picked by Muslim men to be the face of Islam in Arizona. A white, fair-skinned face with ocean-blue eyes and a disarming smile.

And that's just about the only thing that makes perfect sense.

The youngest daughter of four born to a Methodist mother and a Southern Baptist father, Abboud hasn't been in touch with her father -- who Deedra says was a cheater and physically abused her mother -- since she was a kid.

"I never really knew him," Abboud says. "I didn't care to."

She hasn't spoken to her mother, Jean Fullbright, in a year. Fullbright could not be reached for this story, although Abboud says she's living somewhere in the Valley. Fullbright came to live with Abboud and her husband, Ali, but moved out after she and Ali quarreled not about religion but over Fullbright's untidy habits, like eating in bed. The following account is Deedra Abboud's own.

Her parents divorced when Deedra was 4. Abboud says her mother was awarded custody of the children as well as child support that Deedra's father never paid. In 1976, Arkansas law enforcement officials weren't rounding up deadbeat dads.

So Jean became a deputy sheriff, Abboud says, to go after guys like her ex-husband. Jean even spearheaded a state law, according to Deedra, that allowed the state to garnish the wages of noncustodial parents in 1979.

Jean remarried. But when Deedra's father was kicked out by his second wife when Deedra was a teenager, her mother welcomed him back into the house -- forcing her new husband out. Deedra's mother and father parted ways for a second time, though -- and for good -- four years later.

Abboud used to think her mother was a man-hater. Now she knows it's not that simple -- she calls her mom a feminist, instead.

"I learned from my mom that you don't need a man to make it in this world," she says. "My mother was very self-sufficient and taught us girls that we needed to be as well."

And so she was turned off by Islam -- or "Muhammadism," as one of her junior high teachers called it -- when she was told that Muslim women were neither self-sufficient nor capable of being so.

"My teacher also taught us that Muslims were going to Hell. And I think I believed her at first," Abboud says. "But I also wanted to know how this woman knew who was going to Hell and who was going to Heaven."