Hailey Woldt put on the traditional black abaya, expecting the worst.
The last time she'd worn the Muslim dress that, with a head scarf, covered everything but her face, hands and feet, she was in Miami International Airport, where the stares were many and the security check thorough.
This time, she was in a small town called Arab. Arab, Alabama, no less.
"I expected people to say, 'What is this terrorist doing here? We don't want your kind here,' " said Woldt, a 22-year-old blue-eyed Catholic, recalling her anticipation before stepping into a local barbecue joint. "I thought I wouldn't even be served."
Instead, Woldt's experiment in social anthropology opened her own eyes. Apart from the initial glances reserved for any outsider who might venture through a small-town restaurant's doors, her experience was a pleasant one.
On her way to the bathroom, Woldt said, "One woman's jaw dropped, but then she smiled at me. ... That little smile just makes you feel so much better."
This unexpected experience has just been one of Woldt's takeaway moments on her current journey. She is one in a team of five mostly 20-something Americans, led by an esteemed Muslim scholar, who are crisscrossing the nation on an anthropological mission. Their purpose: to discuss American identity, Muslim identity, and find out how well this country upholds its ideals in a post-September 11 world.
Leading this six-month charge, which began in the fall, is Akbar Ahmed, the Islamic studies chairman at American University in Washington. His drive to do this was beyond academic.
"As a social scientist ... as a Muslim, it was almost my moral duty ... to be involved in some way in the exercise of talking about, explaining, debating [and] discussing Islam," explained Ahmed, 65, who took a year's sabbatical to focus his energies. "After 9/11, Islam became the most talked-about, controversial, debated, hated and, really, mystified religion in America. I just couldn't sit it out."
So Ahmed devised the project that's been dubbed Journey into America. This "voyage of discovery," as he called it, is an offshoot of a 2006 endeavor that took him, and a few of those traveling with him now (including Woldt), into the Muslim world abroad. That initial trip involving visits to mosques, madrassas (religious schools) and private homes from Syria to Indonesia became the basis of Ahmed's book, "Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."