“Big things have small beginnings.” – Lawrence of Arabia
In Islam, as in every other religion, there is the saying reminding us to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And I always believed that wholeheartedly. I considered myself an incredibly tolerant, open-minded person; someone who loved learning about other countries and cultures and delighting in the myriad of ways people lived.
That was true until I attended my first sex-segregated party. The day I was told to ride in the backseat of a car and leave the front seat empty because I was not the male driver’s blood relation or wife. Or when I gushed over an engagement ring only to feel outrage when I was informed the marriage was arranged by both sets of parents.
How do we love what is not like us? Where do we even start?
The first time I ever saw someone from Saudi Arabia was through a plate glass window of a McDonald’s in downtown Boston in 1989. I stood wide-eyed, peering inside the restaurant at a man no older than my father who was wearing a white thobe and red and white shemagh (a traditional Middle Eastern headdress). As he drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup and chewed a hamburger, he noticed eight-year-old me staring at him. The unknown man smiled and waved. My mother laughed at my startled expression. I remember wondering two things: where did this person come from, and how did he know about McDonald’s?
Saudis like when I share this story because who in the world doesn’t know what McDonald’s is, even in the desert on the other side of the world? Over the years my friends and I have had many such moments; our conversations about music, movies and food have shown us that the most normal of things are truly normal everywhere. Yet when I mention my closest friends are from Saudi Arabia, I often receive puzzled expressions by both Muslims and non-Muslims, sometimes followed by derisive laughter or an incredulous “How does that even work?” Frankly, it does work, but it’s sometimes very hard.
Although I am Muslim, I was born into an Irish-Italian Catholic family with no ties to the Middle East. I identify as a feminist and support LGBT rights. This year I ran my first marathon, went skydiving, and quit my executive job to return to graduate school. I’ve lived on my own since I was eighteen, never having to answer to anyone about anything. This, I was convinced, was the ideal lifestyle that everyone wanted. I had never truly understood the words “culture clash” until my Saudi friends and I began discussing basic political and pop culture events. Then came the shrill voices, the tears, the teeth-sucking and finger-pointing. I had never encountered a group of people so opposed to things I considered normal. My first love was a rabbinical student, so how could some of them harbor such deep hostility against Jews? I had grown up with gay and lesbian family members, friends and teachers, so why did one of my Saudi friends condemn homosexuality as a criminal act? Drinking alcohol seemed to me an individual choice, so why did they insist it ought to be banned?
After a particularly nasty fight I cried my frustration to my mother on the phone. She listened quietly, then asked me “Lee, do you believe these people have love in them? And that they show it to you?” I had to admit that yes, they did. “Well, then if a person is sincerely giving what they can, be it 50% or 75% of themselves to you, because that’s all they know how to give, are able to give, or are allowed by their culture or religion to give, then ask yourself if that love is any less worthy?”
I had to come to terms with families and traditions that were not like mine. I had to accept that although my friends didn’t want what I had, they didn’t see me or my life as any less. Their version of happiness simply did not match my own—that there were women in the world truly content with never leaving home until they got married, that some parents knew who would make the best match for a man old enough to have children and that there were people who saw family not as something to rebel against or outgrow, but to cherish and revere. My mother’s advice about the worthiness of love reminded me of the American film “A River Runs through It,” in which a minister reminded his congregation about difficult relationships: “We can still love them–we can love completely without complete understanding.”
If I chose to love completely without complete understanding, I had to realize that love could be given and received in ways I was not accustomed to. The patient boy with his hands resting on his knees bent over next to me, hoarsely repeating prayers for an hour until I could recite all of them on my own. His sister’s small manicured fingers gently wrapping my hair in front of the mirror at a snail’s pace until I understood how a hijab can stay on without pins. The Bedouin couple who enthusiastically invite me to every dinner party, firmly ignoring the glares of their friends who don’t like my jeans and exposed ponytail. And the quiet boy who sat next to me on a couch when I cried bitter tears after a family fight, not touching me, respectfully staring at the ground, simply repeating in his soft voice, “It’s okay…don’t cry…it’s alright.” These individuals had all shown me love, even when it would have been easier to walk away. Some use the word love or friend. Some use respect. Some use teacher. They are all good. They are all sincere and real.
This past Eid al-Adha, being the unmarried head of my “household” and the only Muslim in my family, I decided to slaughter my own sheep. I saved the money, cleansed and prepared myself in the appropriate ways, and drove with my Saudi friends and their children to a halal farm to perform the ritual sacrifice. Although I was nervous, one held the sheep still on the butcher block for me, nodding at me to take up the knife and make the first cut. “Don’t be afraid”, he said calmly. “Go ahead, you’re okay.” After we had skinned and butchered the animal together, he grinned, saying “Mashallah, good job, that’s my girl!” I smiled back, my jeans stained with mud and grass, feeling tired, my face sunburnt. Claiming, being claimed. Feeling loved.
(Photo Source: Leanne Scorzoni)