A goodbye hug

As Salma spoke, I noticed her finger nails were tipped magenta. What surprised me about her disclosure wasn’t that Muslims could have differences, but that such differences might exist within a unit as intimate as husband and wife or dad and daughter without it threatening the familial bond. If ever there were negotiations, it seems they long ago ceased, and now the family members lived in harmonious dissent. Perhaps this was a lesson for unity on any scale.

“It’s important you know that not every Muslim agrees,” Salma told me. “I don’t cover my head in public, but I don’t believe this makes me less devout.” On this last point, she was clear: she considered herself faithful. She performed her daily prayers, and she was true to the other pillars. “It’s important that we educate ourselves and do what we feel is right for us as individuals.” I thanked her for sharing her perspective, and silently wondered if voices like hers might help make some aspects of Islam more compatible with contemporary tastes.

By the time I was ready to go, Raj and his family had showered me with so many gifts that they also had to give me a shopping bag in which to carry them. I received a beautiful Quran, much nicer than the cheap paperback version I had been using. They gave me a box of sweets to share with my grandmother; they were delicious, like extra-rich and dense donut holes. Before his departure, Abdul handed me a jug. It was the shape of a canister one might use for gasoline, but much smaller and made of clear plastic. “It’s Zamzam water,” he said of the liquid inside. It took a moment for his words to register: I was holding water from Mecca. Aside from the Kaaba, the spring from which this water comes is perhaps the most important site in all of Islamic history. Like the Eid itself, its significance is tied to Abraham’s son, Ishmael. It is said that when Ishmael was an infant and desperate with thirst, the earth gurgled forth at this spot and has offered precious life-sustaining water in abundance ever since. “I brought it back from my Hajj,” Abdul told me. “You may have it.” I couldn’t believe this precious item was mine to keep.

After I thanked everyone profusely and promised to stay in touch, Raj walked me outside. At the car, I set my bag of gifts down. I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the effort Raj had made to get my phone number that first day. I was grateful to his family for including me in their Eid celebrations, and for everything they had taught me. If I was to follow Islamic norms, I would have taken care not to touch Raj. I would have driven away with a wave. But that felt all wrong: too formal and not at all indicative of the fondness I had developed.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. I was emboldened by Salma’s advice. Each person has to assess guidelines for themselves and make judgments about what is and isn’t applicable. Raj seemed pleased by my question. “Yes,” he answered. He smiled and I went in for an affectionate squeeze that perfectly fit the situation.

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13 thoughts on “A goodbye hug

  1. How wonderful!! I found my heart in sync with yours as you left this Islamic family visit. It also made me journey through my memory of the many visits you have made to other faiths. I couldn’t remember a single one that hugged you as you left or offered gifts to share. I wondered at your first encounter with the nuns at the retreat site and how you might have felt if they, at the end of your visit, formed a circle and hugged you and any one of the subsequent visits to other denominations where, so often, you were treated pleasantly but as a stranger. Sometimes we know all the right words to say in defense of our faith but what are we outwardly demonstrating to the “strangers” in our midst. You are giving us some life lessons in faith in ways we could not have otherwise learned them. How valuable the lesson of Jesus and the good Samaritan story more interested in caring for and binding his wounds as opposed to his genealogical or religious line. I wonder sometimes if you recognize the wonderful work God (in whatever form we believe) is doing through you.

    • Ah, thanks Frank. Yes, Raj family was particularly warm…yet I don’t want forget that I did have many warm encounters in every faith–maybe with fewer gifts, but still a generosity of spirit.

  2. Great thoughts Frank. The lessons in this post are profound. It is not just religious people who need to hear this, but our whole society, which reflects such deep sickness in its inability to not only see the good in those who do not think like one’s own beliefs but also to speak and listen to each other civilly. The respect, affection, and camaraderie offered here among Raj and his family members and toward you certainly touches the heart.

    Recently I became aware of a photographic exhibit by Pieter Hugo, which was commissioned by Creative Court, an arts organization, as part of “Rwanda 20 Years,” a program exploring the theme of forgiveness. It is currently on display in The Hague, but will travel to Rwanda in the future. Below is the link.

    Thank you Corinna for allowing us to share in your search.

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?_r=0

    • Thanks, Ginger, for this….a powerful testament to forgiveness.
      PS: looking at these photos reminded me of our time in West Africa….for people, having a picture taken is a very solemn occasion, and you won’t see a “smile” for the camera. Very formal and very reminiscent of photos from 19th century America.

  3. Thanks, Ginger. The pictures and stories are profound. Thanks for sharing. Sending a hug….((((Ginger))))

  4. Oh my! I’ve been out of touch for the last week….need to catch up on a few posts and am going away for the weekend…again. Do I’m just dropping in to say hi/bye! Looking forward to some interaction with all of you again… 🙂

  5. You experience in Raj’s home shames my New England reticence to express warmth and generosity. I will remember this now with every encounter with newcomers/visitors at my own church.

    And, like others have commented, I wish for the tolerance for difference were more the rule than the exception in our society.

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