LAS CRUCES, N.M. - The mother and daughter arrived just before 8 a.m., unpacking the table and folding chairs from the back of a white minivan. It was a chilly 43 degrees, and the sun cast long shadows between the farmers market stalls and the funnel cake truck, the smell of grilled meat and wood smoke hovering.
Sureyya Hussain carefully laid out the Korans.
Soon, the curious passersby began to approach with their questions, their comments and their concerns. The answers, Hussain hoped, would inform and enlighten - or at least spur constructive conversations about being Muslim in America.
"We wanted to have a voice about what Islam is for us," said Hussain, 50, who organizes the monthly table, where anyone can come to learn about Islam.
Muslims have been facing what they see as a tide of vitriol against them during the past two years, which has included hate crimes and harassment. Muslim leaders say that sentiment is fueled by the policies of President Donald Trump's administration, including attempts to ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
Add to that the terrorism done in the name of the Islamic State extremist group - including a deadly truck attack on Halloween afternoon in New York City - and many Muslims feel like there is a constant need to defend their identities and religion from suspicion.
For some of the nation's small-town mosques and groups of recent immigrants, the instinct has been to turn inward, keep a low profile, buy security cameras, and tell young people to avoid confrontations. Other communities have tried the exact opposite: public engagement.
The Islamic Center of Las Cruces, the only mosque in this desert town of 101,000 about an hour north of the Mexican border, is one of them.
Hussain and other members of the mosque's Dawa - or outreach committee - come here, to the town's farmers market, and set up a sign that says "Know Islam" amid the stalls hawking apples, kettle corn and handmade soaps. They provide free Korans and pamphlets on different Islamic beliefs, and then they sit there for five hours, offering themselves up for whatever comes their way.
They want to get out in front of the hate, nip it in the bud before it starts. Let them come with their stereotypes and their fears, but give them answers.
The questions on a typical Saturday have range: "What do you worship?" "Do you wear your scarves in the shower?" "Do you walk behind your husband?" (The answers to the last two were "No.")
Sometimes the conversations get difficult - maybe even a little uncomfortable or combative - but the volunteers do their best to stay calm and friendly.
"I could very easily sit in my house and hang out, but I've decided to do something, and this is the consequence of doing something," said Mustafa Azimi, 27, a nurse, who joined Hussain and her daughter, along with his wife and another member of the mosque. "People are going to ask you questions. The goal is showing the community that Islam is not what the news portrays. If people knew that Muslims are also - like, that I'm a nurse who also knows how to cook food - that would be awesome."
Las Cruces, the state's second-largest city, sits on the desert's edge against the backdrop of the jagged Organ Mountains. It is home to New Mexico State University, a 101-year-old church and the thick adobe walls of the old town Mesilla.
More than half the population here is Hispanic, and Radwan Jallad, an electrical engineer and member of the mosque's Dawa committee, estimates there are about 500 Muslims, most of them foreign exchange students at the university. Approximately 200 show up for the Friday prayer at the Islamic Center of Las Cruces, founded in the early 1980s, where Jallad, Azimi and others take turns delivering the weekly sermon because there is no regular imam.
The Muslims of Las Cruces say they have been spared the xenophobia and racist violence that they hear about elsewhere. There have been no slurs spray-painted on the walls of their mosque; no women in headscarves who have reported being attacked while shopping. Shortly after 9/11, someone threw a bunch of beer cans and a wooden cross onto the grass outside the mosque, but otherwise they consider themselves lucky.
As they sensed the national political climate shifting a few years ago - and as they perceived there was an increasing amount of misinformation about Islam - someone broached the idea of having a table at the farmers market.
"Overall, it's been wonderful," said Hussain, a lawyer who grew up in Wyoming and is a mother of three. "People are friendly. People have a lot to say. Even people who disagree with us."
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The visitors on this Saturday included dog-walkers, families and elderly couples. There was a man with a bicycle who asked if all Muslims are required to make the hajj pilgrimage - no, they said - and another man who asked if it was appropriate to address Muslims with "Salaam" - sure, they said.
At one point, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., trailed by a small scrum of aides and local TV reporters, stopped by and greeted everyone at the table.
Then came the two heavily tattooed, bearded men in motorcycle apparel who wanted a copy of the Koran. And then there was the woman wearing a small dog in a pouch, who asked whether anyone was interested in puppy adoption, before adding a comment they have heard from others in this liberal-leaning city that backed Hillary Clinton: "I want to apologize for this president. He does not represent us."
One woman, who introduced herself as Hannah, a recent college graduate and a Christian, asked if they had ever read the Bible and whether Muslims view it as "corrupted." She also wondered how Muslims think about sin if they don't believe Jesus died for them.
"For us, prophets die, prophets sacrifice, and that's what makes them great," Hussain explained. "We disagree on the fact that human beings carry the stain of original sin. But that doesn't mean we can't converse and can't be friends."
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A lot of people have questions about what Muslims believe, especially when it comes to violence, Christianity and America.
So the group hands out pamphlets such as "What do Muslims think about Jesus?" and "Muslims stand against terrorism if they stand with Islam." And they display a collection of books with titles including "All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim" and "The Muslim Next Door; The Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing."
Sometimes though, there are the people who don't have any questions, just opinions.
It was late morning, with throngs of people growing between the stands of pecans and dried chile peppers, when a man with a black Chihuahua in a pink sweater walked by. Azimi immediately felt a surge of anxiety.
The last time this man came by the table, the conversation quickly got heated and voices were raised.
But John Thomas and Robertita - the Chihuahua - wandered over anyway. Thomas is a member of ACT for America, a group that has accused U.S. Muslim organizations of supporting terrorism and of trying to impose Islamic law across the country.
He wanted to talk about "political Islam," which he believes is "a threat to our Western values."
Azimi told him there wasn't really anyone at the table who could help - they had no idea what Thomas was talking about. He suggested that Thomas should talk to a national Muslim group instead and eventually, Thomas walked away.
"We get more people that are stopping just to tell us that they either love us being here, or, like ACT for America, yell us down," Hussain said. "We get more of that because both sides feel the need to tell us how they feel."
As 1 p.m. approached and the farmers market began to wind down, a man in a cowboy hat, lugging a large metal washtub, walked up, looked at the sign and struck up a conversation with Jallad.
"So, detractors say your holy Koran says it's okay to kill non-Muslims," said the man, who introduced himself as "Washtub Jerry."
"The Koran says if you kill one soul, it's as if you've killed all of humanity," Jallad answered.
Jerry considered this, but said it has been difficult for him to get the right information on Islam because there are so many conflicting voices out there.
"What's the word Muslims use for us because we're not Muslim?" Jerry asked. Jallad knew he was talking about the word "infidel," so he got right to it.
"I'm an infidel," Jerry said.
"No, you're not." Jallad said, noting it's more complex than that. "The Koran describes the infidel from the time of the prophet - idol worshipers - that's where the word infidel comes from. But the Koran does not put infidel on Jews and Christians."
Jerry continued with a question: "Do you follow sharia law? Do you want sharia law? Because it's not compatible with the Constitution."
Jallad explained: "Sharia law says you're required to follow the law of the country."
Jerry seemed satisfied. He accepted a Koran, and said he would visit again.
The group handed out 10 Korans and about as many pamphlets that Saturday. They answered tough questions. They heard words of support.
"The thing about doing the booth is it doesn't matter if we get a lot of people. It just picks me up," Hussain said. "Especially after the election, when we heard all the negative rhetoric, it really makes me feel good to be a part of the community like this."
By day, he was a clerk to a federal judge, a Harvard Law School graduate at the start of his career. By night, he was a ghost hunter and a devotee of the macabre.
Brett Talley is now President Donald Trump's nominee for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench as a U.S. District Court judge in Alabama.
Few in memory have been nominated with credentials quite like those of Talley, 36, an Alabama native, a political speechwriter, an author of horror books and a fledgling lawyer who has never tried a case.
In 2009 and 2010, he was a member of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group, a volunteer operation that since the early 2000s has held all-night vigils and used infrared cameras, handheld sensors and other devices to search for spectral entities in plantation mansions, abandoned hospitals and other buildings.
"He was a real help. . . . He was quiet and real smart," David Higdon, the group's founder and leader, told The Washington Post. "We try to do everything scientific."
Talley did not respond to requests for an interview.
In 2014, when he was a speechwriter on Capitol Hill, Talley took a Post reporter ghost hunting in a District cemetery. As he paused at graves, Talley said he always maintained a level of skepticism during the paranormal outings.
"I tend to believe there's a good scientific explanation for the weird things people see and hear," Talley said at the time. "But I'm open to the idea, and it's fun."
Talley's nomination has been received with some skepticism.
In recent days, he has drawn heat from multiple Democrats in Congress for failing to disclose in a Senate questionnaire that his wife, Ann Donaldson, is chief of staff to the White House counsel. Critics said her position could present a conflict if issues related to the White House were to go before the district court.
Last week, an American Bar Association review committee gave him a rare "not qualified" rating because of his lack of legal experience. He is one of four Trump nominees to receive "not qualified" ratings this year, the first such ratings to be disclosed by the association in more than a decade.
In October, during a nomination hearing, some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether he could be an impartial judge, citing posts he made as a conservative blogger several years ago. One blog post he wrote after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre was titled, "A Call to Arms: It's Time to Join the National Rifle Association."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the hearing: "I have never seen anyone in 24 years before this committee with the strong statements that you have made on weapons. And when I think of what just happened in Las Vegas, it makes it very difficult for me."
Talley responded that he wrote the blog to stimulate discussion. "If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will take an oath to set aside my own views and to do justice," Talley testified.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, recently praised Talley as a good choice, saying in a statement he "has a wide breadth of various legal experience that has helped to expose him to different aspects of federal law and the issues that would come before him."
Largely overlooked in the controversy is perhaps the most remarkable detail in the professional history he gave the committee - that he was a member of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group for two years.
Talley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1981. He attended the University of Alabama, where he earned top marks, and then went to Harvard Law, serving as an editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.
He graduated in 2007 and, while clerking for U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler in Tuscaloosa two years later, asked Higdon whether he could join the paranormal group.
Higdon recalled Talley as a bright and charming guy with a budding interest in the supernatural. For all that, Higdon said he was a little wary with Talley, as he is with other volunteers. Higdon wanted to be sure Talley was joining in earnest. The group had about 15 members.
"I wouldn't have someone as a joke in my group. We do go out and have fun. But there's a time to get down to business," Higdon said. "The whole time, I don't think he was doing it as a joke."
The group went out once or twice a month to investigate old plantation mansions, abandoned prisons and other buildings they had heard might be haunted. Higdon said Talley joined them at least a dozen times.
The group does not try to banish ghosts, Higdon said, only to identify them.
"All we can do is say yea or nay - you have something, but we can't get rid of it," he said.
He said Talley helped carry and unpack cases filled with thermal sensors, infrared cameras, tripods and K2 meters, handheld electromagnetic field devices favored by paranormal investigators. Talley helped monitor the all-night "investigations," Higdon said.
Just as Talley's interest in the horrific was blossoming, he left the paranormal group behind. He went to work for Judge Joel Dubina of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, headquartered in Atlanta.
About the same time, Talley was writing horror fiction, including novels. In 2011 his novel "That Which Should Not Be" was published by JournalStone and was semifinalist for the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award.
In a Q&A with Talley at the Unlocked Diary website, an interviewer wrote that the book has "awesomestastic gooeyness oozing from every page to where you will be licking it off your fingers and savoring it for days to come."
The interviewer asked Talley for his advice about the best way to get into trouble on a Friday night.
"I love old, abandoned buildings. Factories, insane asylums, that sort of thing," Talley wrote in the exchange. "I am always trying to get people to go with me, but no one ever does. You have to watch out or you'll get arrested for trespassing."
In 2012, Talley and Higdon co-authored "Haunted Tuscaloosa," a short book of stories about ghostly doings in Alabama. At the time, Talley was working as a speechwriter for Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Higdon said Talley wrote the book using Higdon's recollections and ideas. In the introduction, Talley raises questions about the line between personal experience and verifiable fact.
"In this book, there are children who died too early, professors who never left the classroom and even the spirit of a collie that still serves its master, long after his death," Talley wrote in the introduction.
"Some will criticize these stories, saying they are not real history," he wrote. "But that raises a question. What is real history? Sure, we know the dates and the major players, but the color, the heart of the matter - that we see through eyewitnesses."
Talley describes himself as a Christian in his Twitter profile.
"I personally believe in good and evil," he said in an online video interview about his books. "Sometimes good and evil are sort of shades of gray and they're all matters of perspective. And sometimes things that seem evil may be good."
From 2013 to 2015, Talley worked as a speechwriter for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. In a statement to The Post, Portman said, "Brett Talley is one of the smartest, most talented lawyers that I know, and I have no doubt he will be a terrific district court judge for Alabama."
Talley then took a job as deputy solicitor general in the office of the Alabama attorney general.
He and his wife, Ann, were married in 2015 in Tuscaloosa, where they met as undergraduates at the University of Alabama. She also attended Harvard Law School.
Talley came to Washington with the Trump administration in January, and he was named deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.
In the recent hearing held by the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., asked Talley about his background as a horror fiction writer.
"How does that come in?" Flake said, according to a video of the hearing. "That's an interesting background for a judge."
Talley grinned broadly and said he would try to draw on his horror background when writing legal opinions.
"Well, Senator, I would hope that would at least make for some interesting opinions," Talley said. "And I will try to sneak in some horror references if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed."
Not everyone is amused. A scientist and a historian of science told The Post that Talley's activities and writing raise subtle but powerful questions about his views on science and the value of verifiable facts. Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University, studies science and technology, and the cultural production of ignorance, which he has termed agnotology.
"I don't think it's a good sign that a judge would embrace the reality of ghosts. What other parts of modern science would he be willing to reject? Climate change? Darwin's theory of evolution?" Proctor said in an email. "The judge will presumably be ruling on 21st-century disputes, not questions from the Middle Ages."
Higdon said he understands the skepticism about Talley's interest in the supernatural. He said that no one can prove ghosts exist. But he recalled the intensity he felt on a night not long ago when he had an "oh-my-gosh moment" in an old hospital, when a "full-blown shadow person" crossed his path in a basement corridor.
He said that many respectable people have believed in ghosts and that people like him across the country remain hopeful.
"We hope one day we can prove it," Higdon said. "It's faith."