Meeting Muslims, Part 2 – Where Are They?

IdrissMosqueI took off my shoes and put them into a cubbyhole, just inside the front door of a mosque, in Seattle. Was this really happening? I shook off the haze of surrealism and strengthened my resolve.

In 1998, I was about to move to the Middle East. My knowledge of Lebanon was limited to a ten-day trip I had taken previously. My friend Bob questioned my lack of preparation.

“So Nate, how many Muslims do you know?” I had to admit to a goose egg. Zero.

He promised to connect me with an Iraqi Kurdish friend of his, whose family needed tutoring in Conversational English. That was a great start, but I understood that to avoid culture shock, it would be better to have a wider exposure. I summoned the needed courage to visit the one mosque I knew about. Where else could you go to meet Muslims?

Shoeless in Seattle

I was led into the basement of the building. Without having any idea of the Friday prayer schedule, I had arrived late, but just in time for the Qur’an study afterward. I was ushered into a room with fifteen bearded men seated around a long rectangular folding table – exactly like the tables in my church’s fellowship hall. The Imam welcomed me with a smile and bailed on the planned subject of the class in favor of exchanging theological points with me.

The two of us had an informative though somewhat defensive conversation. The others in the room observed silently, adding tension. I managed to escape the torment after an hour and a half and reclaim my shoes. I left with a Qur’an in hand, given as a gift.

Of course it was awkward. How could it be otherwise?

Artificial and Forced

In retrospect, I considered what it would be like to reverse the situation. What if a Muslim walking into church just in time for Sunday School? The novelty would create a host of questions. Is this guy here to try to disrupt our worship? Is he dangerous? Maybe he wants to convert? The emotions would range between fear, distrust, and defensiveness all the way to hopefulness and potentially excitement. But it wouldn’t be comfortable.

How would the pastor respond? Would he patiently explain the Trinity? Would he invite the Muslim to share about his beliefs? How many of the others attending the class would engage respectfully in the conversation?

Do you think it likely that such an exchange would end in friendship?

Alternatives to Mosque Hopping

In contrast, I think of Nabih and Omar. I met with them a couple times a week at the Lebanese restaurant where they worked. I’d drop in at 3:00 PM when there were no customers, and learn vocabulary words from Nabih. One time, Omar agreed to teach me the Lebanese national dance – the Dabke. We stood next to each other between the tables. With fingers interlaced, we moved counterclockwise. Left, right, left, right, left foot kick, stomp.

Playing soccer, shopping at international markets, and watching for cultural events are other great ways to connect. Intentionally deciding to be friendly and slowing down long enough to talk are key components too.

Where have you met Muslims in settings more conducive to friend making?


Relational Reciprocity

AbuAhmeed“I need to borrow fifty dollars,” Abu Ahmeed explained.

He described how expensive schoolbooks for his kids were. He could buy the books used, but he had to pay all at once for his three children.

I had rehearsed how I would say, “No,” to such requests, but hesitated.

I squirmed in the plastic chair in his tiny storefront tailor shop. My Lebanese neighbors believed that all Americans were rich. It was hard to convince them that I was the only exception to that rule. Requests from them for financial help were numerous.

Abu Ahmeed went back to hemming the cuffs of a pair of suit pants that a neighboring clothing merchant had just dropped off. He was promised a dollar or two for the work, but they only paid once in awhile at their own convenience.

Some days at lunchtime, he’d open the cash drawer in his sewing machine table and hand over his entire earnings for the morning so his kids could eat a sandwich. Abu Ahmeed inspired me with his trust that God would take care of his family, though their survival was day to day.

I knew this because I was a daily visitor, trying to learn Arabic. Abu Ahmeed had agreed to let me practice the vocabulary I was learning with him.  My pathetic language learning abilities demanded herculean patience. Frankly, if the roles had been reversed, I couldn’t have tolerated the tedium the way he did.

Abu Ahmeed never thought to ask me to pay him for his language tutoring. We were friends and he wanted to help me. That’s what brothers do for each other in community. After months of gleaning a word at a time, I was finally able to carry on a basic conversation.

“I’ll go to the bank and get the money this afternoon,” I said. “And if you want to pay me back, you can.” I didn’t want an outstanding loan to mess up our friendship, and I also didn’t want to damage his self-respect. Abu Ahmeed’s request was isolated, and I felt privileged by his trust in me to not embarrass him by gossiping about his situation in the neighborhood.

How Can We Be Friends?

I have this theory that you can’t have a real friendship if each friend isn’t prepared to both give and receive from the other in roughly equal proportions. This is especially true in cultures that are based on an honor/shame paradigm.

My Muslim friends always welcomed me with the Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa sahlan.” The literal translation of this phrase is a testament to the desire for equality. It means, “You’re part of the family, and their are no hills between us.” Where the ground is flat, we have equal footing.

Giving Too Much

It’s good to be generous. But if one gives too much, there comes a point where the inability to reciprocate becomes unsavory for the one receiving. Never having an opportunity to give back creates shame instead of gratitude in the heart of the receiver.

Receiving Too Much

Nobody wants to be friends with a leach. On the other hand, refusing to receive anything from friends makes them feel devalued.

I think the theory of relational reciprocity applies to interactions between cultures as well as to individuals. Do you think it also has implications for the level of intimacy that can be acheived with our creator?