Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

Evil and a Challenge

There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’.” Laurie Penny

I arrived in the country of Oman one day ago for a short vacation. Right now I am sitting in a small slice of heaven on earth. I am surrounded by incredible beauty – palm trees and blue sky are above me and a pristine beach surrounded by a slate-blue sea is in front of me.

Waves from an infinity pool splash behind me and there is just a touch of a breeze, enough to create a perfect 78 degrees.

The ocean is far below me, down some steep steps. It’s a small lagoon surrounded by craggy rocks. Palm trees are scattered across the landscape. There are no flies, no ants, no bugs of any sort. It is as near perfect as life on this earth will ever get.

I am sickeningly aware of the sharp contrast between this landscape and that of the carnage in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a community is grieving after being targeted in a terrorist attack. They were targeted as being unworthy to live. Because that’s essentially what terrorists do – they decide that a group of people are not worthy to live. True, they have their own skewed ideology that tells them this is okay, but that doesn’t make it any less evil. And that’s what it is. Evil. They destroy life, deciding to eliminate that which God created and called “good”.

I spend all day every day with Muslims. They are my colleagues, my friends, my cultural brokers, my students, my community in Kurdistan. Five times a day the Call to Prayer goes off at this mosque behind our apartment. Five times a day I’m reminded of my own faith because of the faith of others.

And so I am deeply saddened by what happened in New Zealand.

If you are as well, challenge yourself to reach out to those who don’t look like you, believe like you, think like you, and behave like you.

Ask a Muslim co-worker how they are doing.

Find out if there is a mosque in your area and call them, expressing your sorrow over what happened in New Zealand.

Call out evil when you see it. Commit to kindness and giving others a chance. Embrace beauty, create beauty, look for the beauty in others.

Communicate across boundaries. It’s not easy, but it will change you and challenge you. You will be better for it.

It’s not enough to write a meme or cover your social media profile with a statement. We must do more.

And remember, evil won’t win.

Lewiston, Maine – It’s a Good Story

FullSizeRender (4)

“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together…” – Coach Mike McGgraw

The story of Lewiston, Maine is a good story. It’s a story of integration and resilience and how a group of refugees and immigrants can revitalize a dying community.

It all began in the late 1990s when Lewiston was a dying city. Historically a mill town, Lewiston had long seen an economic downturn and jobs had vanished like the leaves off a tree in late fall. In 2001 that changed.

An extended family of Somali refugees found Lewiston. They decided it was cheap to live and may be a good place to begin their lives anew, far from the refugee camps that had been their homes for many years. It was a secondary migration from where they had originally been settled. They told other Somalis about the city, stating it was a place with low crime, cheap housing, and decent education. Soon more refugees and immigrants began to arrive from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and more.

It wasn’t all easy. At one point soon after the arrival of the initial group, the mayor wrote a letter to community leaders asking that they discourage others from coming. There was a public outcry to the letter, with community members and supporters rallying around the community and pointing out the gift that they were and could continue to be to a city that badly needed a new face and spirit.

That was around 16 years ago. Today, Lewiston is a picture of what can happen in a community when refugees and immigrants are welcomed and invited to flourish.

By all accounts, most credit the influx of Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese and other immigrants to Lewiston’s successful comeback. Businesses have sprung up, adult education classes are booming, but nothing represents this community more than their champion soccer team.

The change to the team began when a group of teenagers from the community approached the coach and asked about the soccer team. They assured him that they could play, and that they would play and make the team good. In 2015 the soccer team won the state championship and were ranked as high as 17th in the entire nation.

The story of the soccer team has been filmed and is a poignant picture of a group of kids coming together, playing above the fray of national politics and national and local prejudice. It is a good story to remember during a year when good stories are difficult to find.

Changing demographics and communities makes for hard work. It is hard on the newcomers, and it is hard on the old timers. It requires far more than mere tolerance; instead it requires first identifying, and then challenging our own cultural assumptions. It asks that we look at our own values and beliefs, and commit to communicating across those boundaries. It has taken a lot of time, but Lewiston, Maine can teach us much about what this change looks like, and how to continue the hard work of communicating across boundaries in order to make our communities stronger.

When asked about the team, one of the coaches said that though his own background is far from the refugee camps of East Africa, it doesn’t matter. The players bring something to the field that transcends geography.


On Thursday night, I will have the privilege of speaking at a conference in Lewiston and I am honored. I’ll be writing more about this, but for right now take a look at this short film.

You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught


Last night I went to an Iftar celebration. It was sponsored by the Greater Boston Muslim Health Initiative – a group that periodically meets to focus on specific health needs of the Muslim community in the area. It was an eclectic group of people, each of us with strengths in different areas, community members and advocates.

And of course – Nabra’s death came up. You may not know the story. Nabra Hassanen was a 17 year-old who lived in Northern Virginia. Early on Sunday morning, Nabra prematurely lost her life to a man filled with rage and bent on destroying life. She was assaulted and beaten with a bat, her body left in a pond to be found by law enforcement a few hours later.

Nabra had celebrated a Ramadan meal with friends and was on her way to the mosque with the same group of friends when the incident occurred.

Seventeen. Muslim. A young woman. A person of color. Now dead.

A death like this makes no sense – indeed it is put into the album for the unexplainable. Is it road rage? Is it a hate crime? No matter what you call it, it won’t bring Nabra’s life back. She’s gone – gone way too soon.

A song in the old musical South Pacific unwillingly goes through my head:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Taught to be afraid. Taught to hate. Taught to kill. Taught to think of people as less than. Because when you are carefully taught these things, you can treat people as you like without conscience or remorse. 

What might our world look like if we were taught to see the image of God in each person? If we were aware of how bound together we are in our life journey? What might it look like if we saw people as God sees them – beloved and worthy? If we changed our worldview from glorifying the individual to humbly loving collective humanity.

My heart weeps for Nabra’s family and community. This assault must feel so big and so awful, so personal during the month of Ramadan.

My heart also weeps for the cancer of prejudice and racism in our society, that we are so carefully taught to despise and hate, without even being aware. 

And even as I write this, I know I am not innocent. For any time I ignore others, anytime I dismiss another as unworthy, I’m doing the same thing. The consequences are less, the action and heart attitude is the same. When we deem people as unworthy, we can do whatever we like to them. 

How can we change this societal narrative? How can we begin to see ourselves as integrally connected, bound together in this journey? Your grief is my grief, your sin is my sin, your joy my joy, your burdens, my burdens. 

How can we rid ourselves of what we have been carefully taught and soften our hearts? 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monasticism is alive and well. Contrary to what many believe, monks and nuns do not merely seclude themselves from the world. Instead, they align themselves with the world through prayer. They pray for the world. They are “intentional in living this mystery of our mystical unity and responsibility.”*

St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “and what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of merciful men pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grubs his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear if or see any injury or slight suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually…” 

What more is there to say, but that God would “unteach” us that which we have been carefully taught; that he would give us hearts of mercy instead of stone. 

And that we would take seriously our mystical connection and our mutual responsibility and act upon it. 

*Scott Cairns in The End of Suffering

The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship – a Guest Post

human-1230505_1280

Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..

You can read the rest of the piece here!

Passages Through Pakistan is available here for purchase.

I am Not Muslim: On Identiy Confusion Solidarity

Pakistan - Minaret

During the weekend, an “I am a Muslim too” rally took place in New York City at Times Square. A picture of the event shows a large crowd gathered, all mouths opened in unison. A couple of white women are front and center, holding signs of a woman in a hijab made up of stars and stripes – a poster courtesy of the talented Shepard Fairey that has gained popularity from sea to shining sea in the past month. I will spare you and not get into how problematic it feels to create a hijab out of the American flag – that’s another conversation.

For now, I want to focus on the rally. I did not participate in the rally and I’m shaking my head at what I consider the shallow acceptance of the claim:”I am Muslim too.”

Actually, I am not Muslim. I grew up with Muslims as my friends and aunties. I was cared for by Muslim women and learned from them. I went on to raise my children to live and love a Muslim country and the people who surrounded us. Muslims cared for my children when they were small. They were our friends, our neighbors, our babysitters. I continue to count Muslim women as some of my closest friends. But I am not Muslim.

And the grey-haired woman in the forefront of the picture I saw wearing a statue of liberty tiara? I am 99.9% sure that she is not Muslim either.

I am not in favor of participating in identity confusion solidarity. And that’s what this particular demonstration felt like. It felt like a shallow way of showing support. 

By contrast, I had no problem promoting and marching in a pro-immigrant march a couple of weeks ago. The message felt completely different.  It was solidarity without identity confusion.

To say I am a Muslim means that I accept the truth claims of Islam. To say I am a Muslim means that I accept an identity that is far bigger than a sign on poster board. I do not share the identity and I do not share the truth claims of Islam, just as my Muslim friends do not share the truth claims of Christianity. There are many commonalities, many things that can bind us together as friends and neighbors, but there are also key differences.

Why do I have to chant “I am Muslim too!” to show solidarity with my Muslim friends?  There has to be a better way. 

In the past two years I have had the privilege of getting to know the Muslim community in the greater Boston area. I have been doing a health project with foreign-born Muslim women and through it I have been welcomed into several of the many Muslim communities in the area. I have shared meals with Pakistani, Iranian, Syrian, and Somali women. I have been invited to hear their views on health care and learn from them more about how public health can better serve them. I have been to mosques and to homes. The connections and friendships that I have made are a testament to the generosity of the Muslim community.

For me to say “I am Muslim too” feels like it’s an insult to the resilience and experience of the community.

It doesn’t feel like solidarity. Just like it would feel like I was insulting the Black community if I held a sign saying “I am Black too.” Because I’m not black. We cannot assume that we know what the experience of another is just because we march with big signs. I have no clue what it is like to have to flee a country and know I can never go back. I have no clue what it is like to face prejudice because of my skin color. How on earth would I know what it feels like to be concerned for my sons because of their skin color?  I have no clue what it is like to be attacked because I wear hijab. These are experiences that I cannot claim as my own. 

What I can claim is to want to support the community in ways that are lasting and sustainable. What I can claim is a desire to know the community better, to invite people into friendship and connection. What I can claim is to be learning more about my own privilege and how that can be used for good or for ill.

As I looked at pictures from the march this weekend, I wondered how many of the people present actually had Muslim friends. I wondered how many have actually invited people into their homes to share a meal, to share a conversation. I wondered how we can take the obvious energy and time that went into shouting “I am Muslim too” and turn it into something that could help the Muslim community in the long-term.

So – no, I am not Muslim and I don’t believe that this kind of solidarity is helpful for the long-term. I don’t believe that identity confusion will help my Muslim friends. But, because I place high value on my Christian faith, I will do whatever I can in my small spheres of influence to support a community that I love.

A Bigger Picture

I arrived back from Egypt yesterday, bleary-eyed after hours of travel. Having coffee in Cairo, sahlep in Istanbul, and mint tea in our Cambridge living room reminded me yet again of how connected our world is. We fell asleep and woke up on the other side of the world. 

The trip was a gift that will take a while to process, and I plan to do some of that online, but for now I feel like I’ve been invited into a bigger picture. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I have been deeply angered, troubled, and discouraged by the infantile politics that have become an acceptable part of our society. I am increasingly frustrated by how deeply I am connected to social media in all its forms. The trip was a break from all of that and revived me in the best way possible.

Just two days ago I stood in the shadow of a 4th Century church while listening to the Muslim call to prayer. All around me, women in hijab were entering the church to read the history, view ancient icons, and hear stories about this church that has survived centuries of life. The church is known as either the “hanging church” or the “The Church of the Virgin Mary.” Built into the walls of a Roman fortress, this church is considered the oldest in Egypt.

Just down a stone path from the ancient church is the Ben Ezra Jewish synagogue, built in the 9th century over a 4th century church frame. The voices of thousands who had been there before echoed from the silent walls. While leaving the synagogue, we passed a fully veiled woman, only her eyes showing. I had seen her earlier in one of the churches, now she was making her way down the same path we had come to visit the synagogue.

We were in Coptic Cairo, an area known as one of the oldest in Cairo. I have been to Coptic Cairo many times before but I have never experienced the sense of life and God’s orchestration of life like I did.

Throughout the Bible, Egypt is seen as a place of preservation, protection, and testing of God’s people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all played a part in Egypt’s history, each with truth claims that sometimes seem similar and other times are completely opposite and non-negotiable.

As the call to prayer rang out from mosques across the city, one beginning as another was ending, I was struck by God’s big view of people and history. I see this pinpoint in time; he sees from beginning to end. I focus on the small things while he calls me to see the big things. I am stuck in time; he is the creator of time. I often see a narrow way to grace; he who is grace personified opens his arms wide as he calls us to himself.

In those moments, I realized yet again the call to a see a bigger picture – a picture beyond politics, beyond the current crisis of the day, and beyond my own inadequacy. I’m called to see the world through eyes of love and grace only possible through knowing the Creator. 

It’s a mystery that will take a lifetime to understand.

 

Three young women asked for photos with me, both individually and as a group. I was completely honored and glad the moment outside this church was captured! 

 

The Bubbles Inside our Heads

stereotypes

Every time I do a workshop on culturally responsive health care, I use the picture above. The audience sees it on a big screen and I give them a minute to take it in. Then I ask them “What’s wrong with this picture?” It’s not long until someone gets it; until someone says “They are stereotyping each other.”

Exactly. It’s pretty simple. 

I have quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and I will continue to quote her wise words: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect; it’s that they are incomplete.” She doesn’t stop there. She goes on to say “No one is a single story.”

The cartoon characters have formed opinions based on stereotypes. Neither of them are capable of complexity, of seeing beyond the surface and trying to understand each other. It’s an excellent cartoon showing the great divide between cultures and the danger of stereotyping.

I call this picture “The Great Divide.” There is this chasm separating these two that has far more to do with the bubbles inside their heads than reality. Indeed, research tells us that if they did get to know each other, they may find they may have much in common.

In the book Who Speaks for Islam, tens of thousands of Muslims, both men and women, were interviewed in 35 countries. Here are just a few of the findings:

Counterintuitive Discoveries in Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think

Who speaks for the West?
Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.

Dream jobs
When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job.

Radical rejection
Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified.

Religious mainstream
Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population.

Admiration of the West
What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.

Women interviewed overwhelmingly said that their top three concerns were political corruption, lack of unity among Muslims, and extremism. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that much of the time we are like this cartoon. We live according to the bubbles inside our heads. None of us are immune. We form opinions and assumptions based on our cultural values, our religious views, our socioeconomic status, the media we listen to, watch or read, our countries of origin, the countries that adopted us, the families in which we were raised, and the list could go on.

Bubbles aren’t inherently bad — often they help us to make good choices; but other times they prevent us from seeing people as they really are. They float down through our brains and cloud our vision.

My African American friends often fall victim to head bubbles. At one time, the director of my program was an African American woman raised in Ohio and transplanted to the East Coast. She was amazing and had degrees after her name that I could only dream about. But no matter where it was, when she walked into a new doctor’s office or clinic, immediately the person behind the desk asked for her Medicaid card. The bubbles above their heads told them that she was black, so she was poor. She was black, so she must have public assistance in everything from food to insurance.

I have met some people who immediately assume if someone is from Mexico, they are undocumented.

Others who get onto planes and fear the woman in hijab who is sitting in front of them.

I’ve had people react to me according to who the bubbles in their heads tell them I am, and I am left frustrated and hurt that they were unwilling to find out more about me, unwilling to see a story beyond the surface.

Bubbles in our heads can convince us of all sorts of things. 

Bubbles 2

The challenge is to be aware of them, to recognize them for what they are: stereotypes and biases that are rooted in our subconscious, and must be recognized and confronted.

I have found that the best way to confront these bubbles is through relationships. Once we form friendships and respect for the one who is other, we are less likely to react according to the bubbles in our heads. We are more willing to see both people and situations with the complexity that they deserve. We see beyond the surface and respond to people as individuals with inherent worth. We learn to love them.

A couple of years ago, Robynn said this on Communicating Across Boundaries: “In the very insightful book, Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer encourages us to ‘suspend judgement’ –which essentially means the same thing as cultural humility. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assign meaning. Don’t guess. Don’t interpret. Instead suspend judgement. Ask questions. Be curious. Learn. Learn. Learn.

As for me, besides being willing to learn and seek forgiveness, more and more, I am asking God to replace the bubbles in my head with the Jesus Prayer – a simple prayer that says “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me — A Sinner.”

It’s the best way I know to clear the bubbles and replace them with the love of God.  

A Challenge to Christians During Ramadan

Roxbury Mosque

I am on the mailing list of a large mosque in the Roxbury area of Boston. While Egypt’s minarets give us a journey through history and Turkey boasts Ottoman style mosques, the mosque in Roxbury is modern. It sits across from Roxbury Community College, its dome and minaret smaller than those in the Muslim world. I’ve been told that there were protests when the mosque opened.

Being able to express and live out our truth claims in freedom is a gift. A gift that I’d love everybody to have.

And because of this I’m glad that there is a mosque in Boston. I’m glad that my Muslim friends and acquaintances have a place to worship. When I lived in both Pakistan and Cairo I was grateful for a space where I could worship; grateful for the presence of churches in a Muslim country. These churches formed a good part of our community.  And controversial as this may seem to some, I want this for my Muslim friends. In a country that claims freedom of religion, they should have a place to worship.

Yesterday began the month of Ramadan for Muslims. I’ve written in the past about Ramadan – about loving neighbors more than sheep, about my outsider perspective. Once again, I find it a good time to bring attention to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who in one way or another will be celebrating the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is a month long period of fasting. It is intended to be a time of spiritual discipline, praying, and generosity. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, liquids, sex, and cigarette from the from sun up to sun down. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and the month of Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year.

There are some good articles that you can read to help understand more about the month of Ramadan, and I have linked them at the end of this article, but today I want to issue a challenge to fellow Christians, those who hold to my faith tradition.

How many of us feel frustration when our faith is misunderstood, when myths abound, when others reject us because they disagree with what we believe?

But being rejected for our faith and truth claims is not fun. It’s lonely. It’s defeating. It’s discouraging. We want to scream when we hear misconceptions about Christianity and shout “No – that’s not the way it is! If we could just have a conversation….”. We long to engage with people about our faith because it’s important, because it’s foundational to who we are and how we live. Engaging with people over their beliefs does not mean we are watering down our own. How do so many come to believe that relationships, friendships and listening to others, means that we will fall down some slippery slope of forsaking our truth claims; of being false to that which we believe?

So as the month of Ramadan comes around, we have an opportunity to engage with Muslims.  We have a chance to live out what we want others to live at Christmas and Pascha or Easter.

With this in mind, I would challenge you to engage with Muslims. Get to know someone who is a Muslim.  Ask them about Ramadan and what it means to them. Ask them about the traditions that surround Ramadan. Just as Christians are not monolithic, so it is with Muslims, and traditions change according to country and family. Wish Muslims at your work place “Ramadan Kareem” or “Ramadan Mubarak.” Or better still, ask them – ask them what to say. We have the choice to engage with others and learn about what they believe. Are you willing to engage people during Ramadan?

We live in a world that quickly rejects based on appearance, religion, actions and more. How do we learn to live in truth to what we believe – which means that at some point we will disagree – and yet not be afraid to engage?  How can we remember the importance of friendships and relationships in living out our faith?  

I ask myself this question all the time – how about you? 

Aticles on Ramadan:

*An earlier edition of the post omitted the important detail of Muslims fasting only during the daylight hours. The piece has been corrected to reflect that fact. 

 

Beware: the Language of Heaven is Hell for the Passenger

no arabic

While living in the Middle East, we would often quote Islamic scholars and proclaim that we were “learning the language that we’ll all speak in Heaven.” We were not joking. With its rich phrases and flow, Arabic is a beautiful language.

After five minutes in a taxi in an Arabic speaking country, the beautiful sound of Oum Kalthoum’s voice will lull you into relaxing and enjoying all that surrounds you. You would never say a mere “Good Morning” in Arabic; rather you would say “Morning of Goodness!” to which another would respond “Morning of Light!”  You don’t say the mean-spirited “She talks too much!” Rather, you would say the descriptive “She swallowed a radio!”  And nothing so plain as “He’s crazy!” Instead, you would say “His brain is like a shoe!”

Twenty six different countries speak Arabic. It is a language that is centuries old, spoken by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is used in worship by both Christians and Muslims. It is a language with a history of narrative and poetry, a language of song and speech, a language of expression and beauty. While sometimes I shake my head at the impossibilitiy of the ‘ta marbuta’ and the fatḥah(فتحة) /a/, ـِ a kasrah (كسرة) /i/ or ـُ a ḍammah (ضمة) /u/, I absolutely love this language and I will continue trying to learn it until the day I die. 

Evidently, not all think as I do. Earlier this month, a student from University of California, Berkeley was removed from a flight. A passenger heard the student speaking Arabic and reported him. As reported by the New York Times, the student was from Iraq and had been to an event where the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had spoken. The student called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about this event. Unfortunately for the student, an arguably sheltered, bigoted, and clueless fellow passenger headed to the front of the airplane to report him. The rest, we might say, is history.

When I first read about this story, I thought I had no words. Anyone who reads CAB knows that I speak out about these things regularly. And there are times when I want to hear other voices, I want others to do the talking, the writing, to ask the hard questions. But there is a dearth of Western, White People willing to speak into the current climate of fear and xenophobia that creeps like a cancer through our country. This climate is perpetuated by ill-mannered politicians who vow to police Muslim neighborhoods; who ‘one-up’ each other on who can be the most bigoted.

When did we decide that Arabic was the language of terrorists? When did the 295 million Arabic speakers in the world become suspect? A passenger made an assumption based on limited knowledge and world view. An airline heeded that assumption. Instead of questioning her further, asking her if she knew Arabic, finding out more, a decision was made by the airline to remove a man because of the language he spoke. Deanna Othman says this in an article on Alternet: “Southwest Airlines has set a precedent with its action on that flight. It has validated the insidious paranoia that has become rampant in our society. It will unjustly lead Muslims and Arabic speakers to rethink their language of choice when boarding a plane.” 

This should trouble, if not terrify, all of us. It’s one thing when a passenger is misinformed and foolish. It is entirely another when a corporate entity asks no questions and falls into the reactionary fear that causes poor decisions. 

Because here is the truth: 

Unbreakable stereotypes, xenophobia, racism, bigotry, and fear of the one who is ‘other’ – all of these are far more dangerous than any language will ever be.

To you I pose these questions: When did fear begin to replace common sense? How can we change this? What can we do indivdually and/or collectively to respond? إن شاء الله [Insa’Allah] we will find a way to move forward together.

“Go and Do Likewise”

good-samaritan-1037334_1280.jpg

Almost every week I see some sort of announcement on social media about an event that speaks to Christians responding to Islam. Generally, these announcements add the phrase “in light of [insert phrase].”  The [insert phrase] has been everything from “recent attacks” to “current political climate” to “refugee crisis.”

But never have I seen an announcement that reads this: A Talk on Christians responding to Islam in Light of the Good Samaritan.

***

When I was twelve years old, my mom and I were in a bad car accident. It was the monsoon season in Murree and we were driving in the rain. In the best of times, these were winding mountain roads. During the monsoons, they were also wet and slippery. We were headed to my school for an event when a can of brake fluid slid under my mom’s foot. She veered and we went over the cliff. Miraculously, what stopped us from rolling over to a certain death was thick barbed wire. I knew my mom was hurt and that we needed help. There were no cell phones. There were no pay phones. We knew that we were in a precarious situation, where abrupt movements could mean that our heavy Landrover would slide further down the cliff. The area was isolated; it could be minutes or hours before the next car came by. Out of nowhere came a public bus, filled with Pakistanis. I will never forget the kindness of the men who peered in through the window and pulled us out of the car to safety. We were other. We were not Pakistani, we had no citizenship, we did not share the same beliefs, we did not share the same customs. But that didn’t matter. We were in trouble, and they rescued us.

This is the story that I think of when I think of the well-known parable that has lasted through the ages. A parable that inspires Good Samaritan Laws across the world. The parable of the Good Samaritan.

***

The parable lies in the Gospel of Luke, the 10th chapter. We are told that a teacher of the law came to Jesus. He asks a question about eternal life. Jesus, the one who sees hearts and hears the real questions, the questions of the soul, poses the question back to him. After all, the man is an expert when it comes to the law, schooled in Rabbinical studies. We can be sure that he knew the Ten Commandments and more. So the teacher of the law says something that he has known and memorized for a long time. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus answers in the affirmative. “You’re correct,” he says.  In other words, “You got this. Go do it and you’ll live.”

But the man presses further. “Who is my neighbor?” Who do I have to really love, and who can I dismiss. Who is my real neighbor?

This is when Jesus begins to tell a story.  It takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a windy narrow road and a perfect place to be robbed.  A man is beaten up, left naked and almost dead. A priest who serves in the temple in Jerusalem walks by, sees him, and crosses to the other side. Then a Levite, who also serves in the temple, walks by. The same thing happens. The man who is beaten up is one of them, he is not ‘other,’ yet they don’t stop. So along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans were despised and detested. Jews of the day would not associate with them. Jewish travelers would add 40 kilometers onto a trip rather than go through Samaria. They considered Samaritans heretics and enemies. The Samaritans had equal animosity toward the Jews. They could not stand them. But Jesus gives us a counterculture picture of a Samaritan who sees the one who is ‘other’ and has deep pity on him. He can’t leave him there. So he bandages him up, he pours oil and wine on his wounds, and he puts him on his donkey and takes him to shelter. He pays the innkeeper and asks him to take care of the man. “I’ll return,” he says. “I’ll come back and I’ll pay any extra expense.”

It’s at this point that I realize this: We just don’t get it. We don’t get the weight of this story. This was huge.  Loving others isn’t about loving those who are like us or who believe like we do. In God’s sight, loving and caring for others is not defined or confined to ethnicity, religious belief or lack of belief, nationality, lifestyle, or any other category.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” Jesus finishes his story with a question. A question with a simple answer: “The one who had mercy on him.”

The hardest part of the story comes in the final four words: Go and do likewise.

The words are not a suggestion or an idea. The words are a command.

Why is it so hard? Why is our default pattern to think of our neighbor as someone who is like us, someone who we like?

Throughout the Middle East, I watched Christians who were not afraid of their Muslim neighbors. I watched Christians who had lost everything, yet still they prayed for those who had hurt them. I heard powerful words of love and grace. I heard the words:“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches. Love is stronger than hate.” Throughout my life, I was given grace by Muslim neighbors and friends, I was literally rescued from a car accident by men that I never saw again, Muslim men with long beards and prayer beads.

But I watch now and I shake my head. We in the West somehow don’t think the story of the Good Samaritan applies to us. “What about national security” “What about preserving our ‘way of life’” (whatever that means) “What about the sacredness of our soil?”  I have heard these cries in the past few years. These words make me shake my head in dismay and disbelief. These are the cries of Christians.

If we would stop to listen, the words of Jesus come quietly, insistently:

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?

The one who had mercy on him.

Go – and do likewise.

How to Build a Bridge

constructing-a-bridge-v2

In an old book titled Observations on the Re-building of London Bridge by John Seaward, he says this:

It is generally acknowledged that the construction of a commodious bridge over a wide, impetuous river is one of the noblest efforts of human genius. In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected. On the contrary, it has everywhere been esteemed for its great utility and has engaged the attentive care of enlightened men.

I want to focus on these words: In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected.  I’m struck by how much this applies to work of non-physical bridge-building and how wise we would be to pay attention to these words. If we have any hope of moving forward, bridges need to be built. We need to learn the art of bridge-building.

I sat in a clinic this morning talking to a man who is building bridges in the Muslim community. He builds these bridges person by person, activity by activiy, conversation by conversation. His passion is contagious and everything he says reflects a love for this community.

As we talked he told me some things about the community that I hadn’t heard before. A young Muslim man, beaten to a pulp while he was walking down the street; a Muslim mom in hijab out walking with her baby in a stroller, assaulted in broad daylight; Muslim food service workers being told they are “F%&*in terrorists” as they give change back to their customers. Those are only a couple of the stories that I heard.

Every single one of the people we talked about came from Syria.

Think about that for a minute. You have to be an ostrich to not see what is going on in Syria. Ghost towns with bombed out buildings; people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs; stories of families separated, of children lost. It challenges every notion we have of humanity.

And all of them came from Syria. 

At one point he said: “Few people have any idea of the extent of stress present in the Muslim community.” 

I came away wondering “In what universe is this okay?” I came away wondering how this is any different than ISIS. I came away choking on rage. I came away thinking that “bridge-building” is no longer just a nice idea, it’s an essential part of civilization. You don’t ignore the art of bridge-building.

“Bridge is not a construction but it is a concept, the concept of crossing over large spans of land or huge masses of water, and to connect two far-off points, eventually reducing the distance between them.”*

There is an art to building bridges.

I am not an engineer, but I do know how to look things up on google. And there are a few things about physical bridges that can be used when we think about bridge-building in our communities.

Know what you want your bridge to accomplish. Understand why it is important to build a bridge. Maybe it’s easy to understand, maybe it’s about making a community stronger, or offering health care services. But maybe it’s more difficult to know what you want to accomplish. Be able to say in clear language why you think bridge-building is so critical in our world.

Phrases to use: “I’d like to understand” “How can I help you understand why this is important?”

Understand the ‘load point’. The load point is the area on a bridge that needs to be able to sustain the most stress. This is critical. What are the areas where you see the biggest gap or divide in thinking? Those will take the most work, so start with the easier pieces. Perhaps the easy points are around food and kids — focus on the commonalities and then move into the harder things.

Phrases to use: “Tell me more.” “What do you think?” “How else can I help?”

Gather the materials – or the right people. Everyone doesn’t know how to build bridges, but gathering the right people gives credibility and strength to your bridge.

Phrases to use: “Can you help?” “Thank you for being a part of this.” “Thank you for going out of your comfort zone.”

Build the bridge step by step, activity by activity, conversation by conversation. Bridge-building doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people died building the Golden Gate Bridge until the bridge builders put a safety net under it. Be willing to be patient. Rejoice in small victories and progress that seems slow.

Phrases to use: “I want to learn.” I want to understand.” “I trust you.” “I’ve got your back, I’ll stick up for you.”

Evaluate and learn. Test your bridge, and if it breaks look at why and how. Ask questions, and humbly admit what you don’t know. Keep on building and learning and growing. An Arab proverb says this: “Those who would build bridges, must be willing to be walked on.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that proverb.

Phrases to use: “What else might work?” “What have we not thought of?” “How can we do it better?”

And now I speak to fellow Christians.  Frankly, I’m tired of excuses, I’m tired of fear mongering and hoarding, I’m tired of people saying “we must be practical.” I can’t help thinking what our world would be like had the God of the universe decided to be practical. He surely would not have decided on a virgin birth; he definitely would have dismissed the idea of death on a cross; and as for loving the likes of us? Forget it.

Because this I know, and I know it well: We know the ultimate Bridge-designer who bridged heaven and earth so that we could find our way. So we are called to build bridges and tear down walls. There is no other way. 

Note: When I first wrote this, I didn’t realize that I was writing it on the anniversary of the Chapel Hill Shootings. One year ago on February 10, 2015, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were shot in their apartment complex. Shot for being Muslim.

*The History of Bridges

In the Face of Hate – Love Out Loud

minaret

in the face of hate – Love Out Loud by Robynn & Marilyn

In Philadelphia, a severed pig’s head is thrown at the door of a mosque.

On the street in Boston a man tells a Muslim woman walking with her children that he hopes her children burn in hell.

A Somali restaurant in North Dakota is burned.

A Muslim shopkeeper is beaten.

Our Muslim friends say they are “laying low.”

And so we need to speak out. This is outrageous and offensive. This must stop. There is no “other side” to this debate. We speak as women who have lived in Muslim majority countries collectively for too many years to count and were treated with dignity and hospitality. But even if we did not have that background, as Christians we are compelled to speak out.

We are saddened and we are angry. How is the hateful behavior described above any different than that of ISIS? ISIS hates that which is different. They want conformity of thought and behavior. ISIS despises all those who disagree with them. But isn’t that what a mosque burned down and a beaten shopkeeper says? Doesn’t the threat of hell for small children and a massacred pigs head reveal the same heart? Don’t those vile actions declare that our culture too hates what is different, wants conformity and despising anyone who dares to disagree with us? Make no mistake, the roots of this behavior come from the same place as violent terrorism–hearts steeped in anger and hatred and fear.

One of the saddest parts of all of this is that Muslims have experienced both sides of these horrors. They’ve suffered the majority of the violence of terrorism and they’ve endured the terrible violent reactions to terrorism.

Muslims all over the country have spoken out against this barbarity, stating that this does not represent the majority of Muslims nor of Muslim cultures. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center says this on their website:

“The ISBCC, an American-Muslim institution, deeply grieves the loss of life by extremists who use a twisted interpretation of our faith to justify heinous acts. This tiny handful of extremists does not reflect our values of peace and justice, and our commitment to the freedoms that make America great. We are also deeply troubled by bigots who would attempt to tie the entire American Muslim community in Boston to those who carry out acts that run counter to everything we, as Americans, stand for…”

But it’s not enough. They need others to speak up for them. They need sympathetic allies who bravely stand with them.

Marilyn and Robynn belong to a group of people who have lived life beside Muslim friends and neighbors. We have birthed babies, gone to funerals, celebrated at weddings, and cried at sick beds together with Muslims. We have recognized and respected each others truth claims, even as we choose to disagree, but we have remained friends. We have those who we would give our lives for, and we know they would give their lives for us.

And frankly, we are done. Enough is enough. These types of reactions have got to stop!  It seems to us that in the face of so much hatred it’s time to love out loud! Inspired by a letter by Sofia Ali-Khan, where she writes to Non-Muslim Allies asking us to stand up for and with Muslims (a letter gone viral now and one which we highly recommend tracking down!), we’ve compiled our own list of ways you might intentionally take action. (https://www.facebook.com/sofia.alikhan.7/posts/10153301068060893?fref=nf)

in the face of hate… Love Out Loud

Speak up against hate wherever it surfaces: in the lunch room at work, on the bus you ride, in the foyer at your church, in your living room, around your dining room table.

Host a discussion group at your local library. Invite a Muslim friend or two to share their story.

Host a book club. Read a book by a Muslim author. Check out goodreads for ideas (https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/muslim-author).

Talk to your kids. Teach them how to respond to hate speech. Instruct them how to love out loud. They are watching you react. Let them see a heart that cares and defends the oppressed and ill-treated.

Offer to talk to your kids youth group, or to a social studies class at school. Share your story of growing up with Muslims. Or share a story you’ve read of others who have grown up with Muslims.

Intentionally sit next to someone on the bus or train wearing a hijab.

Deliberately greet someone in a hijab. Be warm. Be welcoming.

Do you know Muslims that live in the US? Write them an email. Tell them how much you hate what’s going on. Tell them how much you appreciate them.

Cook Pakistani food…or Arab food…..or Afghani food for Christmas. Take pictures post them with recipes on Facebook.

Forgive ignorance when you hear it….but also bravely speak out. Tell a story. Educate gently.

Get together for coffee with Facebook friends who are different from you. Hear their stories. Listen to how they grew up. With relationship comes acceptance. With acceptance comes opportunity.

Invite a Muslim family over for a meal or for dessert. Reach out. Just your invitation alone says you reject the message the media is feeding you.

Write letters to public figures that insist on propagating falsity and calling it truth. Stop donating money to organizations that have spoken out with hatred. Distance yourself from people that refuse to engage the conversation with kindness.

Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper welcoming Muslims to your town. Say something like, “I want you to know that in the face of so much hate speech in the media, I’m glad you’re here. Welcome!”

Stop by your local mosque. Apologize on behalf of the ignorance and fear in the recent media. State humbly and quietly that you appreciate the diversity a mosque brings to your community. Declare that there are people in your community who love and respect Muslims. Feel free to admit confusion over recent events but also say that you know that all Muslims are not terrorists. Say it out loud.

in the face of hateLove Out Loud

Related Arcticle: What Growing up in a Muslim Country taught us about Christianity.

Here is an excellent article we highly recommend that is refreshingly honest and free of politically correct speech.

A word about fear: “Fear looks to others to justify itself. Fear sees conspiracies in every corner. Fear gets caught up in group-think which, in our saner moments, we would scratch our heads at and wonder how we sold our thoughts in the slave market of sheep herders.” We are selling our thoughts in the slave market. Here are some other thoughts about fear:

Refugee Facts & Resources

Office of resettlement

I thought it would be helpful to compile resources here for those of you who are looking to know more about resettlement and how the refugee process works. The resources are a mixture of those found in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.

Refugee Information:

How to Help: 

  • Make Refugee Kits! Family and Infant Refugee Kits I cannot stress enough how useful these kits are. We have taken over 100 to Iraq and Turkey and sent even more. It’s an excellent Christmas project. I reached out to the folks at Medical Teams and here is what they said:“Thank you so much for your email – and your support for our mission. We will gladly accept shipments at our Tigard Oregon Distribution Center – 14150 SW Milton Court, Tigard OR 97224. Again, thank you for your interest in our project – We are so touched by the kindness and compassion from people around the US!”
  • Conscience International
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities
  • Heart for Lebanon

Note: I purposely did not put in the typical large organizations, namely because I think it’s easier to know where your money goes with the smaller organizations. I can absolutely vouch for the low overhead of these organizations as well as seeing in person the work that is being done with refugees.

Helpful Articles: 

Why You Should Care: 

In closing, I want to say this: there’s an acronym in social media “smdh.” It stands for “shaking my damn head.” As I see the reaction to refugees by fellow Christians as evidenced by statements by Christian leaders, I am literally shaking my damn head. I don’t get it.  We have made refugees the scapegoats for egregious, condemnable acts of violenceSo I issue three challenges:

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6: 26-31

*******

Purchase Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and all proceeds will go toward Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced people! 

no to refugees
Photograph courtesy of Ed Brown

Memories of Eid Celebrations عید مُبارک

Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends and readers today.

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.The second Eid celebration is always held on the tenth day of the Lunar month. This Eid celebration is called Eid al Adha or “Feast of the sacrifice” and is usually celebrated by sacrificing a goat.

Today is Eid al Adha and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations.  I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up. 

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand. We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Whoo. whoo. whoo. Slow and steady, make it through this pain. I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed. I look at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. It’s about me, damn it, and ‘they’ all better know it. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I can’t give in to my deep feelings of loss and grief. The call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, will no longer be heard echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge on what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays like Christmas and Easter when you are far away from family. Thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and I am blessed.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.”  The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him “Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

My heart travels far away during times of celebration and holiday, but today, in the place where I am learning more about writing my name in the land, I can come back to earth and connect in real time. It is a gift. 

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift. 

Related articles

On Prayer and a Pakistani Childhood

  
Before my family moved to Pakistan, prayer was relegated to the Sunday morning church service, the evening service and Wednesday night prayer meeting at McLauren Baptist Church. Our family had “family devotions–a daily time for short Bible readings and prayers–and we prayed before each meal. However my perspective on prayer was largely first formed in Pakistan—the place where most of my childhood was lived out. Remarkably, these were lessons which Muslims who prayed taught me. Even now when I pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am nonetheless grateful for what I learned about prayer as a practice from my Muslim friends and neighbours.


I remember vividly those first weeks after our move to this unusual and new land. New sounds, new sights, new smells affronted my small self.
Overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all I remember tears and a funny feeling in my tummy. I felt ill at ease as new friends prattled away with extraordinary sounds in an unaccustomed language. I felt disconnected and disjointed as I tried to make sense of it all. In the middle of all the chaos there was one sound, poignant, and pronounced, that I loved from the start and that was the Muslim Call to Prayer. Five times a day, loudly and intrusively, there came from the loudspeakers the invitation to pray from the muezzin. Chosen for his melodic voice, and possibly his volume, he called out the need to pray.

Admittedly it was bewildering at first. I remember playing during those first few days with some neighbor girls on my auntie’s front verandah. We were colouring, if my memory serves. Suddenly, out of the awkward silences that form when little girls who don’t know each other and can’t talk to each other, there was, what felt like, a cacophony of noise. I remember being startled by it. Soon the entire sky was filled with layer on layer of sound as other muezzins joined in from other mosques. As soon as it started the crescendo mounted, and equally suddenly it was over! Normal sounds of camel bells, and vegetable sellers and donkey brays and barking dogs quickly filled the space.

The call to prayer punctuated my childhood. As I look back on it now there are a few striking lessons I learned during those years. Here are a few of my thoughts on prayer and my Pakistani childhood–

1. Pakistani Muslims, like their counterparts around the globe, bow to pray. Prayer is living and it involves motion and movement. There is a specific posture to each phase of the prayer. They stand, bow deeply, lower their foreheads to the floor, and sit. Pakistani Muslims understand intuitively the deep connection between body and soul and spirit. Their whole bodies are involved as they prostrate themselves humbly before God. They know they were created to worship and for them prayer is worship.
The older I get the more I am realizing the profound truth that was modeled for me as a child. We are whole people. Our bodies are not disconnected from our inner reality. We go together, my body and I. As I watched Pakistanis, with their heads lowered before God, as they kept their bodies in line with their spirits, in seeming submission, I was challenged to bring my own self in alignment. Nowadays I occasionally raise my hands in supplication. Often I sit. Occasionally I pace out my petitions, walking back and forth before the Holy Throne of God. Often I kneel. Occasionally I bow face down before God, acting out what is true—that He is God and I am not. My prayers are directed to a Living God and often they are moving and motional.

2. My entire theology on prayer expanded as I watched with childlike curiosity my neighbors pray. For them, prayer wasn’t static and quietly compartmentalized. Prayer was a part of every single day. There were no exceptions. If you were in the middle of something, you stopped to pray. If you were busy and distracted, you were called back to prayer. No one was exempt: the rich prayed, the poor prayed, the villager prayed, the city dweller prayed, the tribal elder prayed, the plains person prayed. They were a praying people and that influenced me in significant ways. Prayer became for me a normal requisite to a normal day.

3. Pakistanis also understood the benefit of community in collective accountability. It was assumed: you pray, I pray, we all pray. Business contracts were paused while prayer mats were unrolled. Conversations over tea, kitchen gossip, homework all took a break for prayer. If your brother-in-law wasn’t praying you knew something was amiss. Everyone prayed. I love that community element. I love the structure that provides for a populace. There is routine and rhythms built around the call to prayer.
I think it was this measured out, predictable schedule that warmed my heart to liturgical prayer. The stage of my heart was set for the high church’s loyalty to traditional written prayers. I love that those words have rung out in churches around the world and around the centuries. What stability is procured in that! I’ve always been intrigued by the monastic commitment to praying the liturgical hours. This official set of prayers marks the hours of each day and sanctifies the day with prayer: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. There is regularity in it. There is holy rhythm and purposeful pacing.

4. The muezzin begins with a recitation of the Islamic creed. Millions of Muslims repeat back to themselves, no less than five times a day, what they believe to be true. There is great benefit in learning this lesson from our Muslim friends. We have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. What if we too deliberately remembered what is true? What if we recited back to our weary-from-life souls the character of God, his faithfulness, his sacrifice, his provision? Imagine the reassurance that might wash over our reactive emotions, our crises, our desperations, our superficial happinesses? We could learn a lot from this repetition of doctrine throughout each of our days.

5. “The Arabic word for prayer is salah and interestingly it is a word that denotes connection. Prayer is our way of connecting with and maintaining a connection with God. Prayers at fixed times serve as a reminder of why we are here and helps to direct a person’s thoughts and actions away from sin and onto the remembrance of God.” (source:www.islamreligion.com)
Growing up, I watched a whole community decide collectively to connect with God. They were given regular opportunities to have their obsessions with fickle and frail things pried away. I would love to claim that I learned this lesson as a child. I did not. But as I think of it now and reflect on it more, I wish I had. How often I’m distracted! How often I forget to remember my living connection with the Living God. I wish to live spiritually connected to the God who loves me and initiated relationship with me. I long to live from that reality all day long! Punctuating my day with intentional prayer would certainly help.
6. The idea that we can talk to God baffles me and strikes me as marvelous. I firmly believe that every prayer need not start with “Dear God” and shouldn’t necessarily end with “Amen”. Some of our deepest groans and yearnings float up as prayer. A thought unbidden of a faraway friend surfaces memory and prayer. To-do lists sighed over are heard by our kind Father as the true prayers of our overwhelmed hearts. Tears and sorrows become intercessions and laments. If we bounce our hearts up to the divine we live out our prayers. I watched my Pakistani Muslim friends stop, toward the end of their ritual prayers, for the silent session of “dua”. This was the space in their recitations for them to lift up their hearts in prayer. They prayed for whatever was on their minds: a sick relative, a final exam, a financial need.

I love to pray. I don’t understand how it works but I believe it does. This is true, not because of who we are and how we pray, but because of who God is and how he receives the “earnest prayer of a righteous person (which) has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16). I realize now that a lot of our thoughts on prayer are developed while we are yet formative—and for me that was when I was surrounded by Pakistan and her people of sincere faith. My theology on prayer is wider and deeper for having learned from them some on what it means to pray.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:4-7

What has influenced your views on prayer, in positive or negative ways? We would love to hear from you through the comments. 

A Life Overseas – Freedom from the Silence of Shame

I’m at A Life Overseas today, talking about a hard subject. I hope you’ll join me there! silence of shame

Long ago on a spring day in Cairo, I was walking across a small footbridge to the area of the city where I lived. I had crossed the footbridge hundreds of times, usually with one or three children hanging on to my skirt and in my arms. This time I was alone, lost in my thoughts and enjoying the walk.

I had single-parented four kids for ten days, and I was pregnant with our fifth child. I was tired, lonely, and hormone-infused.

There was minimal traffic on the foot bridge at this time of day, but as I began heading down toward the street, a man started walking up the other side. I thought nothing of it, until out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking directly toward me. Before I could react, he had reached out and grabbed my breasts. I began screaming like a mad-woman. I shouted in Arabic at the top of my lungs “Shame! For shame! You are a Muslim? You are not a good Muslim!”  He had picked a lonely, hormone-infused pregnant woman to harass, and my anger knew no bounds. Hearing the commotion, some men on the street began walking towards me. They were clearly concerned. “What happened?” “How can we help?”

While some people share stories of their language skills improving when they share the gospel message, mine always tended to improve when I was angry. My Arabic was perfect as I screamed and cried my distress. The men could not have been kinder. “We’ll find him! We’ll get him! This is not Islam, he is not a good Muslim!” they assured me. I remember their kindness and concern in vivid detail.

Shaking and crying, I continued on my way. The walk was ruined, the bright spring day dark with shame and anger. Read the rest here at A Life Overseas.

Wrapping up the Week – January 17, 2015

I have some great reads to share with you today! These are pieces that resonated with my soul in many ways. From depression in an immigrant mom to a dying mom’s prayer, there is a lot to read and take in and process.

Excerpt: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.

I was born in London to South African Jewish parents. We left almost immediately for South Africa, lived there for two years and returned to Britain. Although the word was never uttered, we were immigrants. Our priority was assimilation into Englishness. Pogroms and penury had been left far behind. The past was as silent as a village at the bottom of a dam.”

  • From Teenage Angst to Jihad: The Anger of Europe’s Young Marginalized Muslims by Abdelkader Benali in New York Times Opinion. This is a powerful piece that looks at the struggle of immigrant teenagers as they come of age and face people and opinions who they feel don’t understand where they are coming from. Jhumpa Lahiri talks about being raised by immigrant parents and says it’s like being raised in an alternate universe. It is a difficult journey for any teen in the western world to work through their identity. For the teenager who is an immigrant, there are some unique challenges.

Excerpt: Something snapped. I was 13 years old, dreaming of books and girls and nothing else — a healthy Dutch kid with a Moroccan background who freewheeled through life. Then something happened that made me feel different from the pack. One day in history class, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie became the subject. Our teacher talked about freedom of expression; I talked about insulting the Prophet. There was an awkward silence. What was that Abdelkader guy talking about? Fatwhat?

  • By Degrees – Living and Dying by Kara Tippetts. Trigger Warning: Tears, maybe sobs. A mom is dying and her husband does what he has to do – calls hospice. This is a beautiful, deeply vulnerable piece about dying – but also about living. Grab tea and tissues.

Excerpt:So, there it is. My little body has grown tired of battle and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over heaven. I do not feel like I have the courage for this journey, but I have Jesus- and He will provide it.

Excerpt: It is time to start examining our books, our traditions, our hearts. I don’t know what it will take for violence to end but I know one of the first steps needs to be developing compassion.

Compassion: to suffer with.

I don’t mean developing an emotion or an inner attitude of compassion. I mean active, engaged compassion. Intentional. In order to suffer with we have to look at each other and engage with each other. We have to know each other’s stories. In order to do that we have to get into relationships, we have to meet people. In order to do that we have to take the gigantic risk of stepping outside our homogenous circles.

On my night stand: I’m continuing with On Immunity by Eula Biss that I wrote about last week, but I’ve begun I am Malala and that is the book traveling with me to a wedding in Florida! I am loving reading about this young woman and her family. The things about Pakistan are both familiar and remind me how much I don’t know about this country.

Travel Quote: Today’s travel quote is from Robynn and it’s perfect! 

suitcases with quote

How about you? What have you read? Seen? Heard? Any new travel quotes? We would love to see them in the comment section.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/airport-travel-traveler-business-519020/ word art by Marilyn R. Gardner