At age 26, Dawood Yasin was almost killed. Three times.
Back then, his name was not Dawood. He was not yet a teaching assistant in Yale’s Arabic Department, the imam of the Masjid Al-Islam mosque on George Street in New Haven, or the chaplain of the Muslim Student’s Association of Yale.
Instead, he was a nation-hopping male model, a man whose face and body splashed Paris billboards and Vogue fashion spreads. His name was David and he was Roman Catholic.
But three near-death experiences in the span of six months changed all that
In 1996 he was living in South Africa modeling in photo shoots. One night, he said, he got into a heated discussion with some South Africans vocalizing their unhappiness with the end of apartheid. Threats were issued. Tensions boiled. Then the aggressors pulled out weapons.
Luckily, a member of the group talked them out of a fight. But just a few weeks later, something else happened. Yasin was driving from Capetown to Johannesburg. At one point the fog thickened dangerously. The car behind him began to pass him and, at the same time, a truck approached from ahead. His own car narrowly avoided the horrific crash that followed.
Not long after, he witnessed another crash — one he might have been in had he arrived at the scene 30 seconds earlier.
Many 26-year-olds may have brushed off the three incidences as merely unsettling. Not Yasin.
“Thinking that you could check out at any time made me think about spirituality,” he said, sitting in Au Bon Pain Oct. 27, a dark beard covering his once-famous face.
Because his cousin had converted to Islam two decades before and become a better person for it, he said, the religion was already in the back of his mind. So when his brushes with death made him reconsider spirituality, he had no qualms about taking a look at the Koran.
“It worked for me,” he said. “I find there to be justice. In the prophetic tradition, there’s no preference of the Arab over the non-Arab, white over black, black over white.”
But not everybody sees that side of Islam. Twice since Sept. 11, 2001, Yasin and his wife, dressed in traditional Islamic garb, have been almost run off the road, he said. Once, the driver shouted at them to “go back to your country.”
“And my mother, my grandmother, they were born in America,” he said, shaking his head.
Rather than let such ignorance get him down, though, Yasin said he focuses on raising understanding of Islam. His Arabic students said he was always very open about his life and religion. They could ask him delicate questions — what the Koran says about homosexuality, for example — and get a straightforward answer.
And because Yasin is American, students seem more receptive to what he has to say, said Bassam Frangieh, a professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department.
“The students identify with him,” Frangieh said. “He has a very, very beautiful relationship with them.”
Yasin has even welcomed his class into his mosque. Last year, 40 Arabic students took a class trip to George Street during the month of Ramadan. They covered themselves appropriately, the women in head scarves. As they walked, they stopped traffic, Frangieh said.
After attending services, which included a sermon by Yasin, the students ate a traditional dinner in his home.
Teaching about Islam and the Koranic tradition is important, Frangieh said. After all, one requirement of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major is “Arabic and Islamic Studies.”
Despite such glowing reports from students and colleagues, Yasin was not always so focused on Yale. When he came back to America after studying Arabic for five years, teaching at Yale was not the job he had in mind, he said.
Hardly the typical teaching assistant, Yasin does not even hold a college degree. He briefly attended Southern Connecticut State University, but he was discovered by a Wilhelmina Models agent during one summer break in Nantucket. At 19, his life turned into a whirlwind of runways in Milan and Paris, photo shoots with Christy Turlington and Brooke Shields.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, do I shoot a Levi’s campaign and make a lot of money, or do I go back to school and get a degree?’” he said, chuckling. “You think about it for about three breaths.”
And although he studied at a religious seminary in Damascus for five years after “embracing Islam,” the events of Sept. 11, 2001 interrupted his education. In America at the time of the terrorist attacks, Yasin and his then-pregnant wife decided not to return to Syria.
A friend at the Yale Divinity School told him there was an opening in the Arabic department. At the time, Yasin said, he laughed off the suggestion, intimidated by the idea of teaching Yale students in a language that was not his native tongue. But when a few weeks went by and the position remained open, he decided to apply.
Rather than a one-on-one interview, Yasin presented himself to one of Frangieh’s Arabic classes. They loved him. Yasin was hired.
This year, though, Yasin is on leave. Recently appointed as imam of Masjid Al-Islam, Yasin said he is now too busy to teach classes. As religious leader of the 300 people in the congregation, he has more responsibilities than he had even expected.
“I’m dealing with everything from the jurisprudence of someone’s marriage, to someone asking you on the end-of-life decisions for their two-year-old child,” he said.
And he has taken on a new project, as well — managing a fashion company geared toward traditional Muslim dress. The former model described the clothing line as modest, but sophisticated and practical.
Running a clothing company is only the latest phase in his life. From modeling, to studying, to being a TA, he said each experience has made him who he is today.
But if his now-2-year-old daughter were to grow up and tell him she wanted to strut down the runways in Milan, Yasin knows exactly what he would say:
“I’d say, Tell me when you want to go and we’ll go together.”