The $200,000 Conversation

This afternoon, while wandering the garden of my favorite, secluded hangout on an otherwise crowded hillside in Amman, I discovered the ruins of a Christian church and Islamic shrine. The site, which is still strewn with stone columns and pebbled with pale mosaic tiles, was home to an ancient church, built in the 500s and dedicated to St. George. Though the church was abandoned two hundred years later, the place remained a shrine to the saint until the 20th century. St. George—who is also revered in Islam as al-Khidr, meaning “the green one”—is a towering mythical figure in the Middle Eastern spirituality, and countless churches and holy sites in the region purport to be the location of his miracles and appearances.

An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.
An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.

As I was reading the brief plaque explaining the history of the site, which was excavated by Americans in the 1990s, I began a conversation in Arabic with a young pharmacist named Osama. I anticipated the conversation would consist only of small talk, but we quickly launched into a conversation about…surprise, surprise: Muslim-Christian relations. But this conversation was different than my usual ones, which usually involve talking about interpersonal relations between the two groups here. We began discussing  big theological questions between Christianity and Islam. He pulled out his smart phone to show me that he has both the Qur’an app and the Arabic Bible app, and asked why the Bible is composed into separate books with separate authors. I expect this a common questions Muslims ask, since their text, the Qur’an, has a single voice and author: God’s. I explained the ‘what’ of the New Testament—that people after Jesus wrote about him—and then attempted to move to the ‘why.’ I began to feel giddy as I brought up my favorite Islam-Christianity comparison explanation, where I compare the functions of Mary and Muhammad, Jesus and the Qur’an, and the Bible and the Hadith. (For many of you students and scholars of Islam out there, you might disagree with those comparisons. They may be simplistic but they’re good starting points for dialogue I think.) I’m not sure Osama really followed what I was saying, but I was proud of myself for trying to explain it—in Arabic.

What made this half-hour encounter so thrilling was that it was 98% in Arabic. Osama doesn’t speak much English from what I could tell, so it challenged me to stick to colloquial Arabic. It made me grateful for and proud of my Arabic program and professors at Georgetown. Those nights during my freshman year when I slaved away for hours on my beginner Arabic homework paid off in this one conversation (not to mention the countless more basic ones I’ve already had here.)

Osama and I then moved on to other topics including Islamic beliefs about al-Khidr, what determines prophethood in Islam, and the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He used very technical, theological terms like ‘aqida (“belief”), fiqh (“jurisprudence”), and wahy (“revelation”), and I could follow what he said and interject my thoughts because of my very strong education in Islam at Georgetown. Without my classes with Dan Madigan, Jonathan Brown, John Esposito, and without the many lessons and sermons from Imam Yahya Hendi, and without the many conversations with Muslim friends, I could never have dreamed to have such a meaningful, deep, and heady conversation with Osama.

As we swapped contact information, I was flying as high as the pigeons overhead. I was bowled over with gratitude at the education I received at Georgetown, realizing that so much of what I learned in classrooms there was put to use in this single conversation half the world away. I felt that my four years of study—and the thousands of dollars paid by my parents—were more than worth it. So many people feel like their undergraduate educations are barely useful, hardly relevant, in the real world. But for me, alhamdulilah (thank God), that is not the case. Every day my Hoya education informs my experiences, but today I was especially conscious of my education’s remarkable impact.

As Osama and I parted, I not only felt grateful to Georgetown, but also to St. George, who, on the crumbling ruins of once-holy ground, is still making miracles.

Ruins of the church.
Ruins of the church.

Peeling Kiwis: “Peeling Oranges” Series

October 27, 2013

This afternoon I found myself sitting on the front porch of a woman named Maggie. No, I wasn’t with my own mother on our front porch on Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, but it was about as close as I could get here in Amman.

I had been walking to the Vatican library by a new route, enjoying the sun, the warm wind, and the cloudless blue sky, when I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw a woman waving from her window, and realized it was Maggie, an employee from the library I have met many times. She called me over and, as Arabs do best, invited me in.

Maggie and her adult nephew, Elias (Arabic for Elijah), were sitting on her porch smoking argeelah, the water pipe, passing the mouthpiece between them. Maggie reminded me that the library was closed (Christian organizations take Sundays off, although the official weekend is Friday and Saturday), so she told me I should spend the afternoon with her until Mass at 6pm. I put aside my research goals for the afternoon, and reminded myself that impromptu, unplanned experiences of hospitality are the reason why I’m here.

Elias and I began an extended conversation about everything from my research to our families—all in Arabic, which was refreshing. Because I don’t live with a host family this time around, my conversations in Arabic are usually short snippets with cab drivers or shop owners, and those habitual requests of “take me here” and “can I buy this?” do little to improve my complex speaking abilities. As I spoke with Elias and discovered myself using new words or verb conjugations with ease, I felt proud and that my colloquial Arabic lessons are paying off.

“Taghadaiti?” Maggie interjected after she exhaled white smoke from her mouth. “Have you eaten lunch?”

“Shwayeh,” I responded. “Sort of.” I had eaten some trail mix and crackers earlier in the morning, but was quite hungry. She heated up some fusulia, a dish of beans, rice and beef, and brought me into her kitchen, which glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I sat alone and ate in silence. Occasionally, Maggie would come in to refresh the argeelah by heating up coals on the stove and stuffing a lemon-flavored something into the pipe. Maggie’s family is Roman Catholic and her home is decorated like those of many other Catholic families here. A sculpture of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper sits on the dining room table, and a drawing of Mary, with the caption, “Mystical Rose” (one of her name titles), was pasted above the counter in the kitchen.

I had spent my morning at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, researching the history of Christians in Jordan. So it felt good to finish my day not immersed in a book, but immersed among the people who I’m trying to learn more about. Hearing about the experiences of Maggie and Elias informs how I read history books or academic papers, just as those materials help me better understand the lives of those I meet.

After spooning the last of the rice into my mouth, I rejoined the couple on the porch, and was presented with a plate of fruit: two plums, a nectarine, an apple, and a kiwi. I chose the kiwi pressed a dull knife into its fuzzy skin to peel it. As the juice seeped onto my fingers, I was reminded of a time in the cold winter of 2012 when I peeled oranges with my host brother and I discovered a paradoxical truth: that ordinary moments can often be the best vehicles for revealing God’s presence. Sitting with Maggie and Elias, watching people walk by as wind moved through the olive trees, was one of those simple moments that speaks simultaneously of God’s closeness and unexplainable grandeur.

As I pulled the knife toward me, I was taken aback by the bright green fruit that emerged from behind the skin. The kiwi was especially green, almost neon, and juice sparkled on its flesh. The contrast between the rough brownness of the kiwi’s skin and the bright, moist greenness inside revealed a new message, too: that the dullness and hardship of our days give way to a newness of life, a surprising Joy, that cannot be expected or planned. The most beautiful and most joyous experiences often emerge out of the most scratchy, sand-papery parts of life. The green fruit is so much sweeter because it’s hidden beneath abrasive rinds. This is a truth I’ve known but one that I’ve experienced most palpably during my time living in Jordan.

With the cold winds blowing in, there will be fewer afternoons on Amman porches and fewer fruits to peel. I’ll have to look harder to find reminders of these important lessons. So on the grayest of days, when I’m wandering unfamiliar streets under a melancholy drizzle, I’ll watch for mothers waving from their windows. And I’ll try to catch raindrops on my tongue, and pretend they taste more like juice than dust.

The souls of our shoes: A reflection on Egypt

On Thursday night, as Mubarak defiantly refused to step down from the presidency, the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held their shoes high above their heads, making

Egyptians holding up their shoes in Tahrir Square on Thursday night.

visible their soles and directing them symbolically toward Mubarak.  In the Arab world, this action—showing someone the sole of your shoe— is a sign of upmost disrespect.  Raising these shoes seemed to be a final act of frustration in a thirty-year, and a three-week, struggle against the Mubarak regime.  And as we saw yesterday, Mubarak has left (Alhamdulilah!/Thank God!).

What is amazing about this revolution is that it wasn’t only the Egyptians holding up their shoes—the world was doing it with them. By Tweeting messages of solidarity, watching live Al-Jazeera coverage in Arabic class, and posting relevant articles on our Facebook pages, we were virtually shaking our shoes and shouting “Huria” (Freedom) along with the democracy protestors across Egypt.  If the Iranian protests of 2009 showed us the potential of social media in fighting oppression, Egypt showed us social media’s power in action.

Youtube clip: American girls protesting in solidarity

My favorite example of Internet solidarity was a YouTube video posted by an American family.  After watching the protests on TV, the man’s four daughters didn’t want to go sleep; they were too excited and wanted to participate in whatever way they could.  So these four little blonde girls marched around their living room with signs of support and shouting Arabic phrases, and their dad taped it. I almost cried while watching it.  I commend these parents so much for educating their young children about current events and the importance of standing in solidarity with others.  As a parent, I hope I can encourage this kind of curiosity and compassion in my kids.

While the Egyptian people did receive support from many Americans and others around the world, their movement lacked support from most democratic governments, most notably the US, who claims to be a beacon of democracy.  Our government has advocated democracy in word and in deed in other countries, yet regarding Egypt, the US government’s support of the democracy movement was weak.  The Obama Administration was unwilling to criticize Mubarak’s regime (an old ally), and the administration’s call for non-violence rightly fell on deaf ears when discarded tear gas canisters were found bearing the words “Made in the USA.”

Despite the fact that these demonstrations lacked institutional support and rejected violence except in cases of self-defense, the Egyptian people were able to successfully oust their president, the symbol of their oppressive regime.  This fact is utterly mind-blowing and gives me and so many others a renewed belief in the power of grassroots organizing and non-violent responses to oppression.

This event should also prove something to America and the West: that democracy can grow organically from within Arab countries; rather than being imposed on the West’s terms, internal efforts for democracy should be supported.  The US must realize and be willing to accept that the new Egyptian government is likely to be anti-American in some form.  If I were one of the Egyptians, who have experienced how American tear gas and tax dollars have been used to bolster the Mubarak regime for 30 years, I too would want my new government to have little to do with the US.

Many others and I have also been struck by the lack of formal ideology that has fueled this democracy movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the protests initially, and though they joined later on, they were not motivating the demonstrations.  The protesters were driven to stand in Tahrir for three weeks straight—some of them even living there—because of purely practical political, economic, and civil grievances.  Even if the democracy movement becomes more ideologically driven and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the West doesn’t need to worry as much as I expect it will.  The Brotherhood is portrayed in Western media as being more radical than they are, according to a Georgetown professor who talked a few weeks back on the Daily Show.

For me, the most powerful images of the past three weeks were these:

Qur'an and Cross held high in Tahrir Square
Christian+Muslim=Egypt
Christian and Muslim women in Tahrir. (Photo credit: Joel Carillet)

On Friday, February 4th, while Muslims prayed in Tahrir Square, the Christians made a human barrier around the worshipers, who then reciprocated for the Christians as they prayed on Sunday the 6th (which was dubbed “Day of the Martyrs”).  Throughout the demonstrations, Muslims and Christians have been standing aside one another, defending one another, in order to help achieve their common goal of a free and unified country.

We in America and the West must look to and learn from this example of solidarity. Despite the tense and dangerous situation in which they find themselves, the Egyptian people, both Christians and Muslims, are able to put aside their differences and become unified.  If they, while defending their lives in a violent and hostile environment, can come together in decency, respect, and friendship, why can’t we?

In this era of mistrust and hostility between Muslims and Christians in the West, I urge all of us to lower our shoes, which we’ve held up for so long in disrespect.  Instead, we must put our shoes back on and stand side by side, so our true souls can be seen.

 

Note: I’ve also wanted to write about the journalists who have bravely covered the protests, but that will probably come at another time.  In the meantime, I thank them for the sacrifices they made and the risks they took.  Many have been violently targeted because of their noble and important work.

Also, the events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world may have massive implications for many college students’ study abroad plans–including my own.  Hopefully I’ll post on that topic as well.