Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Arab Education

"Every tree, every growing thing as it grows, says this truth: You harvest what you sow.
With life as short as a half taken breath, don't plant anything but love." ~ Rumi

The first person I met here in my new neighborhood in China was a woman named Miral or Mira for short. It was my third day in my new country and there we were standing at the bus stop. My inner voice told me "Go on, you HAVE to say hello to her! You need to talk to someone, so get to it!" So I looked her way and caught her attention, we both smiled and I said, "Hello." We proceeded to exchange names and basic information, it turned out she has been living here for two years, a "veteran", so to speak, but she had also just moved into this neighborhood or what we call "compound" here in the local vernacular.

She spoke good English but with a pronounced accent which I could not identify. I asked her where she was from and she told me how she is originally from Egypt, but has spent many years living in the United States, and that her family had moved here, to Shanghai, from Michigan. I found her immediately endearing, kind, and exotic. I have never had a friend from Egypt before. Most of all I felt an immediate connection to her, and in these few months we have become friends.

Moving to Shanghai, of course, would be a chapter of life full of new experiences for me and my whole family. I never imagined though, that it would offer me an opportunity to experience and learn, on a personal level, about Arabic culture and people, not book learning, but experiential learning, relational learning.

A few weeks went by and Mira had given me loads of advice on places to go, where to find things and invited me along on outings to some markets. She has been like an angel, truly, I have felt so blessed to have her in my life here and she has made my landing so much softer.

 Then on a bright unusually warm Saturday in March she invited our family to come to a barbecue at her house with her friends. I asked if she was sure, would she have enough food for five more people? She replied that she is an Arabic woman, of course there is enough food. So we accepted the invitation.

When we arrived some of her friends were already there and kids were playing, our three kids just folded into the mix. Then, for the next seven hours we met and socialized with her family and friends who came from Jordan, and Lebanon, and of course her family from Egypt. We feasted on a grand banquet of delicious food, enough for a wedding, dish upon dish of delightful color, flavor and texture. We drank and we laughed. The sun went down, and they lit two big hookah pipes with double apple tobacco. I am an ex-smoker and I usually find smoke repulsive, but this actually smelled mellow and sweet, so I decided to take a couple puffs just for the experience of it all. At one point some of us moms ended up dancing to "Gangam Style" with the kids. An evening of pure, unadulterated fun.

The most beautiful part of the whole thing was that no one in my family felt the least bit awkward or unsure. These people wholeheartedly invited us to their table, to eat, drink and be merry. There was so much newness in it for me, but it felt easy, effortless and natural. I wish the whole world could have been at that table, this is the true human spirit. We are people of common experience in friendship and family, breaking bread and celebrating life. Across cultures we share the need for love and connection, community. This very simple event brought me so much happiness, as well as new insight.

Soon after that night, my husband Stephen came across some information on a Muslim market at a mosque here in Shanghai. I was very interested to go, so I asked Mira about it. She said yes there is a market at her mosque but it is not very big and is mostly vendors selling food. I wanted to go check it out regardless, so Mira offered to take me with her on a Friday, since she goes on Fridays anyways for prayers. She told me I didn't have to go in for prayers though, I could wait outside. I felt a great possibility in this. I asked her, "Can I go inside for prayers with you?". She said that I could if I wanted to. I most definitely wanted to. A door opened to a unique opportunity to once again learn about something so often judged and misunderstood in my home country. I would again be able to learn from first hand, direct and personal experience.

A few weeks passed, and finally, on a bright sunny Friday morning I went to Mira's house to prepare to go to the mosque. There is a bodily cleansing that must be done before entering the mosque. We washed our feet, our hands and forearms, rinsed our mouths and washed our foreheads. She explained to me that this is to enter the sacred space clean and pure and is done for respect of the holy space. She helped me pick out a pretty scarf, or hijab, to wear over my head. The men also wear a hat to cover their hair. She explained to me this is also done as a respect. We wore the scarves around our shoulders for the moment and we headed out.

We arrived at the mosque to survey the market first. We ate some wonderful barbecued lamb with bread for our lunch, and as we ate we strolled and checked out all the meat,vegetables and other foods. We each bought a leg of lamb from one of the vendors to take home. The atmosphere was friendly, lively, and as it got closer to the time for prayers many people were convening there. I was surprised at how many people were arriving and even more surprised at how many Chinese people were there, and they were not there just to look, they were there to pray.

The time came to go inside so Mira helped me put on the hijab and we went to the women's entrance. I was not sure, as we prepared to enter, if I might meet some resistance or disquiet, but I did not feel that at all, at least not here, and Mira explained every detail to me so beautifully that any reservation I might have had melted away.

We removed our shoes and entered the prayer room. There were several long narrow rugs arranged to make rows where we sat to wait. There were strands of prayer beads on the rugs to use and they looked so much like the mala beads we use in yoga, or the rosary beads of the Catholic faith. Some women were already there using the beads or praying on their own.

The formal prayers began and the room was quite full. I was shoulder to shoulder with Mira on one side and another woman on the other side. The prayer was very ceremonial and included words which Mira explained to me were to express gratitude and devotion to Allah or God. The words were accompanied by movements, first standing up, then a standing bow, finally down to kneel and bow to the ground in prostration two times. The prayer was beautiful and the energy in the room was peaceful and reverent. This is the same energy I have felt in churches and cathedrals, at Kripalu, my spiritual home of yoga, and alone in my practices. This is the energy of the divinity that lives in all of us, it is love, it is universal and unchangeable.

I believe it is that love, our higher consciousness, that is at the heart of truth in all religions, all spiritual traditions. The separation we imagine between those expressions of faith is just that, an imagination, an untruth. If we really took the time to know, to inquire, to reach out for understanding before leaping into judgment we would see that the love is what is far more pervasive, but that does not get the attention of the media. We do not get the full story or the true picture. We must seek it.

The bombing in Boston happened just a week and a few days after my visit to the mosque. My heart has broken for it. My heart breaks for the victims and the city of Boston. My heart breaks that this kind of violence continues to happen in my country or in any other country on this earth. My heart breaks to see people seething, angry and vengeful,and directing that anger, in some cases at all Muslims, or on the other side to all Americans. Some terrorists are Muslims and unfortunately they are the celebrities of Islam in the world. They are the exception and not the rule, just as oppressive states that victimize women and say it is in the name of Islam, I believe, do not represent, in truth, the hearts and spirits of the majority of people under that rule.

I am no expert on religion, politics or world affairs. I say this from my felt sense of what I have now experienced directly. It is only what I can extrapolate from a knowing that comes from my own simple practice, prayer and insight, and notably from friendship. It is an offering, and for me it rings true. I pray for peace in this world and for the liberation of all beings.

"If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." ~ Mother Theresa                                     

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