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American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

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by Paul M. Barrett

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Vivid, dramatic portraits of Muslims in America in the years after 9/11, as they define themselves in a religious subculture torn between moderation and extremism

There are as many as six million Muslims in the United States today. Islam (together with Christianity and Judaism) is now an American faith, and the challenges Muslims face as they reconcile their


Vivid, dramatic portraits of Muslims in America in the years after 9/11, as they define themselves in a religious subculture torn between moderation and extremism

There are as many as six million Muslims in the United States today. Islam (together with Christianity and Judaism) is now an American faith, and the challenges Muslims face as they reconcile their intense and demanding faith with our chaotic and permissive society are recognizable to all of us.

From West Virginia to northern Idaho, American Islam takes readers into Muslim homes, mosques, and private gatherings to introduce a population of striking variety. The central characters range from a charismatic black imam schooled in the militancy of the Nation of Islam to the daughter of an Indian immigrant family whose feminist views divided her father's mosque in West Virginia. Here are lives in conflict, reflecting in different ways the turmoil affecting the religion worldwide. An intricate mixture of ideologies and cultures, American Muslims include immigrants and native born, black and white converts, those who are well integrated into the larger society and those who are alienated and extreme in their political views. Even as many American Muslims succeed in material terms and enrich our society, Islam is enmeshed in controversy in the United States, as thousands of American Muslims have been investigated and interrogated in the wake of 9/11.

American Islam is an intimate and vivid group portrait of American Muslims in a time of turmoil and promise.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 05/01/2014
In an urgent plea for reform and moderation of extremism, Barrett depicts seven American Muslims from different walks of life, offering a diverse portrait of the ways Islamic faith can manifest in America. (LJ 6/15/06)
Publishers Weekly
Near the end of this fascinating and carefully researched portrait of Islam in contemporary America, a California mosque experiences a surprisingly heated internal debate about whether to host a fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July. Somehow, the "canopies of red, white, and blue that for a moment illuminated the minaret and dome" of the mosque crystallize many of the tensions that Barrett describes, particularly how so many individuals struggle to be faithful Muslims and patriotic citizens during troubled times. One great contribution of the book is the diverse portrait it offers of Islam in America today, but as Barrett shows, such ideological and racial diversity haven't been easy: Pakistani immigrants are sometimes at odds with African-American converts and (mostly white) Sufi spiritualists; feminists draw angry fire as they strive for greater equality; and self-proclaimed progressive Muslims feel at odds as American mosques become increasingly conservative and strident. Barrett is an engaging writer who puts a human face on all of these issues. The book is remarkably evenhanded, but Barrett can also be critical at times, whether analyzing the shortcomings of the Patriot Act or pointing to the inconsistency of a self-starting New York imam who works for justice but also praises Muslim extremists. Balanced and insightful, this grassroots journalistic account mines the complexity and depth of American Islam. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"In America, Muslims do not think and act alike any more than Christians do." So writes Business Week editor Barrett (The Good Black, 1999) in this timely survey of America's six-million followers of Islam. Barrett highlights the diversity of Islam, noting that there are many differences among native-born and immigrant practitioners and even among long-established communities. Some Muslims are committed to liberalizing the faith, such as a young West Virginia woman who insists that she be allowed to pray in the same space as men. Another recounts his transformation from onetime member of the violent Muslim Brotherhood to ecumenicalist; this young man even ventures that he wishes his wife had not taken up wearing the hijab, but adds, "It's no big deal." Others are committed to a more conservative version of Islam, and others even to radical, virulently anti-Semitic brands of Wahhabism, with all their talk of Jews' being "brothers of monkeys and pigs" deserving of slaughter. Interestingly, Barrett notes, Muslim Americans tend to be wealthier and better educated than non-Muslims (59 percent, for instance, have college degrees, as compared to 27 percent of all American adults). They tend to observe the same sharp divisions between Shia and Sunni as can be found in the rest of the world. And, until late 2001, they tended to vote Republican-in heavily Democratic Michigan, by margins of more than three to one, even as George Bush's team actively courted the Muslim vote. Following the attacks of 9/11, however, Muslims of every stripe and sensibility reported feeling singled out; Shiite supporters of the war in Iraq increasingly sided with their Sunni opponents, and it was not uncommon to hearsupport for-or at least a refusal to condemn-Osama bin Laden and his operatives. Necessary reading for police advocates of profiling, and highly useful for anyone wishing a greater understanding of Muslim compatriots. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky/Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency
From the Publisher

“Paul M. Barrett has written a rich book full of insights into a religion many Americans don't know enough about.” —Chicago Tribune

“A thoughtful exploration that is both comforting and alarming . . . American Islam reveals the variety of Muslim experience in the U.S., as well as profound aspects of Islam that are underappreciated in this country.” —The Wall Street Journal

“These seven lives, and all the others they represent, heighten my sense that we should be practicing a more complicated patriotism, one with a pluralistic gaze.” —Los Angeles Times

“Well wrought and engaging . . . A welcome antidote to the wide spread Islamophobia that has infected so many Americans over the last five years . . . The book makes a compelling argument that the greatest tool in America's arsenal in the 'war on terror' may be its own thriving and thoroughly assimilated Muslim community.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Timely and engaging.” —The New York Times

“This is a smart, careful look at America in the post-9/11 world. It is definitely worth the time of anyone wondering where the country is going.” —Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

“[American Islam] fills a real need and does so remarkably well. . . . It delivers a set of powerful insights about Muslim life in the United States and the tensions that are shaping the community . . . Barrett's carefully crafted approach is a smart one.” —Slate.com

author of Fiasco: The American Military Advent Thomas E. Ricks
This is a smart, careful look at America in the post-9/11 world. It is definitely worth the time of anyone wondering where the country is going.

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The Publisher

When Arabs arrived in Dearborn, Michigan, in the 1920s and 1930s, they encountered a complex cloud of bigotry mingling with the smoke and soot of the Ford auto factory. Henry Ford hated Jews and fretted about their influence. He had unflattering ideas about blacks as well but was willing to hire them as assembly line workers. By doing so, he helped accelerate the migration of southern sharecroppers to the North. This alarmed Dearborn’s city fathers, who made it their business to bar blacks from settling within city limits. "They were so busy watching the front door for blacks," says Osama Siblani, a present-day newspaper publisher in Dearborn, "they didn’t see the Arabs coming in through the side door."

The Arab migration from poor provinces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, areas now within the borders of Lebanon and Syria, began in the late nineteenth century. Most of the transplants to the American Midwest were Christian; Muslims didn’t become a majority of the continuing Arab influx until the 1980s. Mostly uneducated, the early immigrants worked in factories and sold housewares door to door. By the early 1900s some were marrying American women and bringing over relatives. "Peddlers were becoming store owners, and the Arabs found they could do business here and settle down," says Don Unis, a retired firefighter in Dearborn. His grandfather, a Lebanese tailor, operated a clothing factory in Mexico at the turn of the century before the family headed north toward the American industrial belt.

Some of the earliest accounts of Muslim immigrants gathering for communal prayer in the United States come from unlikely places to which intrepid Arab salesmen hauled suitcases filled with fabric and buttons to sell to farm families. By the 1920s tiny Ross, North Dakota, had about thirty Muslim families originally from Damascus by way of Minnesota. They built one of the country’s first mosques, although it later fell into disuse, a victim of assimilation. Mosques also appeared in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Michigan City, Indiana.

Henry Ford’s legendary five-dollar-a-day wage for autoworkers drew Arab émigrés along with Italians, Germans, and Poles. In the 1920s Ford had moved his main manufacturing operations from Highland Park, Michigan, to a complex on the Rouge River in his native Dearborn, west of Detroit. In contrast with his anti-Semitism, Ford displayed a paternalistic interest in non-Jewish immigrants. His company instructed them in English and personal hygiene. Syrian and Lebanese workers moved into Dearborn’s heavily immigrant South End near the Ford plant. In 1938 the founders of the city’s first mosque broke ground along gritty Dix Avenue. Today that mosque, expanded over the years, serves a religiously conservative Yemeni congregation, some of whose members assemble pickup trucks at the still-functioning Ford Rouge plant.

For Arabs, more distinctly than other immigrant groups, Dearborn has served as an Ellis Island, their point of entry into American society. More than a third of its hundred thousand residents today are Arab, the heaviest concentration of any place in the country. About 40 percent of the Arabs are Muslim; the rest, Christian. There are neighborhoods in Dearborn that feel closer to Beirut than to Detroit.

Warren Avenue, a wide commercial boulevard, is lined with Lebanese restaurants and butcher shops selling halal meat (the Islamic version of kosher), as well as hardware stores, mobile phone outlets, and pharmacies with signs in Arabic as well as English. A dozen mosques welcome worshipers on Friday afternoon, the amplified call to prayer sounding from all directions. The public school cafeterias stopped serving pork in 1993, and varsity football heroes have Arab names. Across Michigan Avenue from City Hall, near where the overnight stagecoach from Detroit to Chicago once stopped, is the nation’s only Arab-American museum, a modernistic stone and glass structure opened in 2005 and a source of tremendous local pride.


Another leading Dearborn institution is The Arab American News, founded in 1984 by Osama Siblani, who had arrived eight years earlier from Lebanon. The bilingual weekly newspaper chronicles life in Baghdad and the West Bank and watches events on Warren Avenue. Buying advertising in its pages are local mosques and Islamic schools, Arab-American car dealers and accountants, government agencies looking for Arabic speakers (including the CIA), and a nightclub featuring belly dancers. Siblani, now in his early fifties, is more than a publisher and editor. He is a driving force behind the local Arab-American political action committee. Because of the growing size and cohesiveness of the Arab-American vote, his backing is sought by county sheriffs, congressional representatives, and even candidates for the White House. He lobbies the school board (successfully) to name buildings after Arabs and leads protest marches against Israel. A Shiite Muslim, he rarely attends mosque but serves as a tenacious watchdog against anti-Muslim bias. His caustic wit surfaces even when the topic is deadly serious, as when he alluded on national television to his suddenly problematic first name. "Not everybody sitting there on their couch in the living room," he told ABC News on September 12, 2001, can "distinguish between Osama bin Laden and Osama Siblani, and that is scaring the hell out of us here."

As a business venture his newspaper has seen some lean times. But Siblani, a bulky man who dresses in grays and black, seems to be doing well enough. Like a number of Dearborn’s influential Arab-Americans, he actually lives in a wealthier town farther out from Detroit. His spacious home has white neoclassical pillars in front and a large, well-tended yard in the back. His wife, Raja, serves sweet tea in a living room crowded with heavy, ornate furniture. Next to Osama’s formidable Mercedes in the garage is Raja’s gold Lexus SUV She has a teenage son from a prior marriage, but Osama has no biological children, an absence he ascribes to his hectic schedule and one he now regrets.

Siblani speaks English in a rich baritone colored by his still-strong Arabic accent. He owes a lot to America, he says. "Here is where I established myself. Here is where I have been given opportunity." When he gives luncheon talks to local Lions and Rotary clubs, he tells them, "Arab-Americans understand more than anybody else how valuable is this freedom," because so many come from countries ruled by repressive governments.

But values and loyalties line up differently in Dearborn from most other American locales. Siblani, a man wooed by American governors and senators, openly endorses Hezbollah, the militant Shiite faction whose name means "Party of God." In Lebanon, Hezbollah fields political candidates and runs schools and orphanages for its supporters. But it also has provoked bloody conflict with Israel—most recently, in the summer of 2006—and has sponsored suicide bombers who have killed hundreds of Americans, including 241 peacekeeping marines in Beirut in 1983. The U.S. government brands the Iranian-backed group a terrorist organization. Siblani disagrees. Without applauding the deaths of U.S. soldiers, he nevertheless sees Hezbollah as having served as a legitimate liberating force and foe of foreign occupation. A naturalized American citizen, he says he loves his adopted country—and he is persuasive on the point—but his is a complicated kind of patriotism, to say the least.

Some of Dearborn’s Arab-Americans are more determined to detach from the ingrained antagonisms of the Middle East, an inclination that can bring them into conflict with Siblani. But his outlook isn’t unusual in Dearborn or in Arab and Muslim communities elsewhere. He and others say they are frustrated to see American perceptions slipping back to those of the 1970s and 1980s, when the word "Arab" automatically conjured up hostage takers or car bombers. Yet Siblani and others like him, who seem in some ways very comfortable in America, retain their respect for certain extremists in the Middle East.

The contradiction surfaces in the routines of Arab comedians who play on the theme of being an outsider in an era of fear. Entertaining guests at the twentieth-anniversary banquet of The Arab American News in December 2004, a comic from Chicago named Ray Hanania joked that his hobby is hanging around airports: "I’m not traveling; I just go there to scare the crap out of people. You guys should try it. It’s a lot of fun." This brought guffaws. The comedian noted that his wife is Jewish. "She’s turned me in to the FBI three times in the past week," he said, provoking more laughter.

Siblani’s newspaper, especially in its local articles, tries to replace violent stereotypes with images of integration and ordinariness: successful Arab schoolteachers, store owners, and county prosecutors. Some of the paper’s analysis of foreign events offers the valuable skepticism of writers who do not take American support for Israel as a given. But at other times Siblani and the writers he publishes project a grim conspiratorial world-view In June 2005 the guest columnist Gary Leupp summed up American involvement in the Middle East in this way: "Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed a Crusade, an anti-Muslim project conducted from a Judeo-Christian command center of a particularly unholy type."

Siblani was born in 1955 in a poor village near Beirut. Birth records weren’t kept, so he doesn’t know the date. He was the youngest of the eleven children of a seamstress and a policeman. His father later became the village’s mayor and, to Osama’s disapproval, took a second wife. Osama’s mother was the family’s mainstay. "She was not really a designer, a Versace," he told me. "She was working for the very, very poor and making a living to support us." For a time Osama attended a two-room school in Beirut owned by an older brother. At night he slept on a thin mattress on the school’s cold floor.

Even as a child he followed Lebanese politics and world events, especially the Arab fight against Israel. In high school he became a leader in

student government and idolized Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian military ruler who promised to build a strong, modern Arab bloc. But not long after Siblani graduated, Lebanon’s civil war erupted, the division among Arabs providing one more reminder of Nasser’s failure. Enlisted in the national army, Siblani "was sitting there in the middle of all the fighting," a confusing clash of Christian, Muslim, and secular forces. "I was in the crossfire," he recalled. "All of the army was in the crossfire."

In 1976, when he was twenty or twenty-one, his family sent him to the United States, where another brother was living. He arrived in Detroit with $180 in his pocket and little else. Within days he had three jobs: parking cars, pumping gas, and delivering pizza. At the same time, he earned a degree at the University of Detroit in electrical engineering, one of the practical fields preferred by male Arab immigrants whose families expect them to send money home. Upon graduation, he took an entry-level engineering job at General Motors. He "wanted to be the president of GM the next day," and when, after six months, he hadn’t moved up quickly enough, he quit. He eventually joined an import-export company that served as a broker between American manufacturers and Middle Eastern contractors. Siblani jetted to Riyadh, Cairo, and Beirut, selling ventilation and air-conditioning equipment. He earned more than enough money to fix up his childhood home in Lebanon, where his aged mother still lived. He bought her new furniture, a washer-dryer set, and a television.

"This is the American dream," Siblani said years later. "It doesn’t matter who you are or whether you have anything to start. You can make something of yourself." He bought a comfortable suburban home near Detroit and a vacation condo near Lake St. Clair. He dated American women, including, for a while, one who was Jewish. Probusiness and anti-abortion, he looked forward to gaining American citizenship and supporting Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign.

In early June 1982 Siblani wrapped up some business in Saudi Arabia and went to Lebanon to visit his mother. The civil war continued: Christian factions fought Muslim. Palestinian guerrillas in the south attacked Israel, drawing Israeli retaliation. Ordinary Lebanese lived in chaos. On June 6, Siblani said goodbye to his mother and boarded a flight to Paris, beginning the trip back to the United States. That day Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, seeking to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization and install a friendly Christian government in Beirut. An Israeli aerial bomb destroyed Siblani’s mother’s house. She and other family members survived unhurt, but the dwelling and its contents were left in cinders. "The furniture was burned," he told me. "My letters from lovers I had when I was in school, my pictures. I don’t have any pictures from when I was little." How many thousands of times had he told this story? "Who burned it?" he asked. "Israeli jets."

He has never forgiven the country that attacked his family, even though Israeli pilots surely had other targets in mind. He sees Israel as the illegitimate offspring of European colonialism and Zionism, a combination that, in his view, has devalued and destroyed Arab lives for sixty years. This opinion pervades Dearborn’s Arab Muslim circles. Compounding the hatred for Israel is the sense of humiliation over feckless Arab leadership. And making the frustration even worse is that the United States has chosen to protect Israel and prop up repressive Arab dictators. Siblani sees American Middle East policy as a form of bipartisan moral corruption, attributable, above all, to the influence of Israel’s American Jewish backers. A 2003 headline in his Arab American News: "U.S., U.K. and Israel: The Real Axis of Evil."

After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Siblani recalled searching American newspapers and television for accounts of what was happening there. Lebanon "is a country that is independent and another state is invading its capital," he said. "Nobody is defending the Arab point of view, saying you can’t do that." In fact there was some debate, but overall Israel received its usual respectful coverage from the American press. In Siblani’s eyes, American journalists were too lazy or co-opted, or both, to present a balanced picture of Middle East events.

Then he had an idea. "I said, instead of waiting for someone to step in, why don’t I do it?" He decided to start a newspaper. "I would never pretend that I am a journalist out to tell the story without feelings, without bias," he said. "I am a biased journalist. I am a journalist on a mission. I want to tell my story. I don’t want somebody else to come and tell it." He also had a political goal: "to bring the Arab-American community together, to form a bloc, and to start generating organizations and lobby.

"I believe in the philosophy [that] the United States is a corporation," he said. "You need to buy shares in order to have influence." The newspaper would be his investment.

Fellow Arab immigrants predicted he would fail and make a fool of himself. The lack of confidence had some foundation. Siblani had no publishing experience. His main deputy was his girlfriend, an American and a Christian who knew little about the Middle East or journalism. Early Arab-immigrant hires brought credentials of varying sorts to the task but shared a churlish resistance to working with a woman, let alone a non-Arab. Siblani had to go to England and Saudi Arabia to find Arabic typesetting equipment. In Dearborn few Arab store owners wanted to pay for newspaper ads. Siblani poured almost all his own savings as well as bank loans—hundreds of thousands of dollars, all told—into the long-shot venture.

The first regular issue of Siblani’s newspaper appeared on February 11, 1985. It was then called Sada Alwatan, or "The Nation’s Echo," which is now the name of only the Arabic-language section. The paper opens like a book. The English version begins on the front; the Arabic section, with writing from right to left, starts from the back. In its inaugural edition the paper covered topics that became staples: Lebanese strife, Palestinian strife, and Iraqi strife. Looking back, Siblani told me, "It seems like it’s today. The same things are happening."

Less than a year after the newspaper’s start, a standoff that transfixed the Middle East and much of the rest of the world provided the story that put The Arab American News and Osama Siblani on the map. On June 14, 1985, armed men seized control of TWA Flight 847, which was taking 153 passengers and crew from Athens to Rome. The hijackers forced the plane to Beirut instead. They released most of the passengers but kept 40 Americans, whom they proposed to swap for hundreds of Lebanese being held prisoner by Israel. Demonstrating their seriousness, the militants murdered a U.S. Navy petty officer on the flight.

It turned out the hijackers were Shiite Muslims with ties to an organization called Hezbollah, about which most Americans knew very little. Lebanese fundamentalists backed by the Shiite government of Iran had formed Hezbollah in the early 1980s to drive the Israeli military out of Lebanon. With Iranian arms and financing, the group rapidly gained strength in a lawless country. Hezbollah challenged Israeli forces in southern Lebanon and lashed out repeatedly at American civilians and soldiers, including, in 1983, killing the 241 marines sent to Beirut as peacekeepers. Viewed as terrorists by Washington, Hezbollah fighters were hailed as heroes by many Lebanese Muslims.

For three weeks in 1985 the taking of TWA Flight 847 was the lead news story around the world. Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, another Shiite militia, ended up with control of the plane in Beirut. His relationship with the hijackers was murky. At times he seemed to be mediating between them and the United States; at other times he appeared to be negotiating on the hijackers’ behalf. As tension built, Berri had passengers removed from the plane and scattered to secret locations. American journalists desperate to sort out the Lebanese connections discovered that Berri had family ties to Dearborn. The media eye turned toward the American Rust Belt.

A commercial lawyer by training, Berri had lived in Dearborn in the 1970s. His ex-wife and their children still lived there, along with a much larger circle of Berri relatives, some of whom had Americanized their name to Berry. Sought out by reporters and television crews, Dearborn’s Berrys and their neighbors admitted ambivalence over what was going on in Beirut. "Maybe the hijackings were wrong. We didn’t choose that way, but the cause was just," one local leader told the Chicago Tribune. A member of the Berry clan posed for a picture holding an AK-47, which the New York Post used to illustrate a dispatch about a supposed fifteen-hundred-member Shiite militia in Dearborn. Embarrassed Berry family members said the man had been joking. But the Post article, headlined "Beirut, USA," helped fuel hysteria about what turned out to be a nonexistent Muslim paramilitary force in the Midwest.

In this hectic atmosphere, reporters found their way to the still-new Arab American News. They discovered that its publisher and editor in chief, Osama Siblani, could provide pithy, informed explanations of his homeland’s convoluted politics. In interviews, he condemned the taking of hostages while defending the hijackers’ demand that Israel free its prisoners. "I think we should be more evenhanded in the Middle East," he told one local television station. "I think we should look at the Palestinian question and resolve it and put some pressure on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, to have good allies in the Middle East. It will increase our friends and decrease our enemies."

U.S. State Department officials decided they too could learn something from Siblani. The government brought him to Washington, where he was taken to see Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost and then, briefly, Secretary of State George Shultz. American warships were massing in the Mediterranean, but Siblani urged the officials to let Nabih Berri sort things out. What the American officials didn’t know was that Siblani’s older brother Ghassan was one of Berri’s top aides. Osama told me that no one at the State Department asked him about the family connection, so he didn’t bring it up. He and his brother weren’t talking at the time, he said, because they disagreed over the hostage taking.

After seventeen days and the release of thirty-one Lebanese prisoners by Israel, the last of the American hostages were finally freed. During a subsequent visit to Beirut, Siblani said, he lectured his brother that the hostage affair had alienated Americans and confirmed the image of Arabs as fanatics.

For the publisher, the TWA 847 hijacking marked a turning point. His expertise and availability won him a place in journalist Rolodexes nationwide. The Arab American News became an "address," as he put it, where mainstream reporters could go for authoritative analysis on how international events played among Arab-Americans. Locally, his small paper gained stature as its circulation grew from five thousand to ten thousand and then higher.

Excerpted from American Islam by Paul M. Barrett.
Copyright 2007 by Paul M. Barrett.
Published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

Paul M. Barrett, for eighteen years a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, where American Islam originated, currently directs the investigative reporting team at Business Week. He is the author of The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America.
Paul M. Barrett, for eighteen years a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, where this book originated, currently directs the investigative reporting team at Business Week. He is the author of The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America.

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American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cool and entresting