They are best friends who love basketball, roller coasters and the same television shows. They would rather talk, preferably to each other, than read. Both dream of becoming doctors. And for eighth-graders Mariam Abdelgawad and Israa Ahmad, the Granada Islamic School in Santa Clara has been a cornerstone of their lives. It's where they started kindergarten, memorized their first Koran passages, learned fractions and became teenagers who wear the traditional head scarf.

Lately, it's also become the place where they explain to visitors from the press and the neighboring community just what it's like to be both Muslim and American. Straddling two worlds is something they used to take for granted.

Before Sept. 11, the biggest events at the school were holidays and well-attended family nights when students and their parents met to socialize. Now, students have spoken and sung at open houses at the mosque next door and have been urged to write to magazines and talk to outsiders. They've sent thank-you letters to New York firefighters and have raised $4,500 for children in Afghanistan. No one was surprised to see television cameras in the hallway at the start of Ramadan. "After Sept. 11, some people might have a different idea of who Muslims are," said Abdelgawad, who stayed late one day to talk about the school. "There are some people out there who don't like us."

Granada, one of 436 Islamic schools in the country, is the largest in California. It's easy to pass the cavernous, nondescript building in a high-tech business park without noticing either the school or the adjacent mosque of the Muslim Community Association of the San Francisco Bay Area. Mosque members started the school in 1988 as a place to educate their children in the traditions and teachings of Islam. Many saw it as a safe alternative to regular public and private schools where kids might be exposed to drugs, alcohol and other influences prohibited by their religion.

Nuzhath Quadri, who grew up in a traditional Indian Muslim family in Chicago, toured other schools before deciding to send her two children to Granada. She and her husband, a software programmer, wanted their kids to know Islamic culture. "I'm second generation, and when I look at each generation, I see it gets more diluted," said Quadri, who heads the Parent Teacher Organization. "I always felt like I knew less than my mother. But now my third-grader can make better Arabic sentences than I can."

When the school was founded, the Muslim community in the region south of San Francisco known as South Bay was small. The school opened with just 25 students, and mosque members wondered if they'd ever need the entire building. Now, with Silicon Valley drawing high-tech workers from myriad Muslim cultures, the school has 380 students in kindergarten through eighth grades. More than 2,000 people from the South Bay--home to an estimated 50,000 of the Bay Area's 200,000 Muslims--worship at the mosque.

Granada is the biggest and oldest of five Islamic schools in the Bay Area. It is run by a board of directors, but is tethered financially to the Islamic Community Association because the $4,600 annual tuition covers only about three-quarters of the school's costs. The association makes up the difference, with no outside funding. To do so, said Principal Khalil Obeid, would create political and practical complications.

All but a few students are Sunni, the world's largest Muslim sect. The parents come from 25 countries, including the United States, and varied backgrounds. They are Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Latino, African American and Arab--some born here, some not. "This is the beauty of California," said Obeid. "You don't feel like you're a stranger here. You feel you are part of society."

What unites students is Islam. Each afternoon they cross the connecting corridor and remove their shoes to pray in the mosque. In class, they study not only the standard California curriculum in math, science and English, but also Arabic, the Koran and Islamic history. To do that takes from 8 a.m. to 3:15 each day, an hour longer than most other schools. The older students have so many books that they store them in milk crates by their desks rather than cart them around all day. The school plans to start standardized testing soon so students can be compared to others around the state.

On one fall day, the strains of second-graders singing about Ramadan could be heard in the hallway. Another class in the computer lab tapped away at a typing program. Students passed by in the hall, hands clasped behind their backs or a forefinger held to their lips - - reminders to keep from making too much noise.

Posters in the hallway showed the melding of the secular and Islamic worlds. There were notices for Boy Scouts, student drawings of animals and lakes and signups for basketball next to billboards with explanations of the six articles of Islamic faith and why Muslims don't celebrate Halloween, despite the lure of candy: "Islam encourages reason, not superstition."

Obeid, the principal, said he wants the best of both worlds for students: a firm background in Islam and a top-rate education. "I tell my students I want you to be the best lawyers and doctors and run for the Senate," he said. "Why not? But at the same time, be a good Muslim. I want them to keep their identity." The school is, in many ways, like any other. Harry Potter, basketball and video games are popular. The youngest students carry Scooby-Doo and princess lunch boxes. The older kids wear name-brand sneakers and backpacks and get in trouble for giggling too much in the lunchroom.

But there are no baggy skateboarder pants and logo sweatshirts. The girls wear navy-blue uniforms and leggings and, upon entering fifth grade, scarves. The boys dress in navy blue pants that fit. Boys and girls sit separately. Note-passing isn't allowed, just as later there will be no dating or going to dances, both prohibited by Islam.

Students said they didn't feel different until after the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, when school closed for four days. Families, worried about being blamed, kept women and children indoors. At an assembly after school reopened, students struggled to understand why some innocent people died and others were targets of hatred, said Obeid. Islamic studies teachers devised projects so students could write about what happened. "They still talk about it," said Obeid. "Even time will not take care of it."

Abdelgawad and Ahmad said their lives mostly have returned to normal, but they also wonder what the outside world holds for them. "Sometimes, I think all I want is to just grow up and not be known as a terrorist," said Ahmad.

In Islamic studies classes, they continue to learn about Muslim history and culture and the teachings of the prophets. Part of that, on a recent day, was a review of the concept of jihad for a forthcoming test. "Allah permits use of force when peaceful ways fail," said Islamic studies teacher Ghaida Mousabacha. "Jihad is not just a war. It's to struggle and strive in every way."

Any struggle in life is a kind of jihad, she said. "To be a good person," she said, "that's the highest level of jihad."

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