The country of Jordan is a very special place to me, for many reasons. A year ago, I was in the middle of my second trip to Jordan, spending a month with no real agenda except to spend time with my friends who I had met on the previous trip and to understand the culture, the country, and the regional dynamics better, while also processing my own life and future.
I arrived in Jordan just days before the celebration of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. My great friend, Ayah, invited me to spend the holidays celebrating with her family in a small town, al-Karak. This invitation soon grew into a larger invitation to stay with her family in Amman for the rest of my time in Jordan, and this time I spent with Ayah, her family, and my many other friends defined my trip and left a lasting impact on me.
I could talk for days about the unfortunate chasm between Islam and the West; it's a subject I'm quite passionate about. But I've found that rationality can do little while realationality can do much. I doubt I can calm the fears through argument of those whose hateful and ignorant posts about Islam show up on my Facebook newsfeed, but my hope is through sharing about the incredible relationships I've formed across this division in our world, I can make you think twice about those posts.
There is so much to say, really. I want to go into every detail about how Ayah's extended family welcomed me into their celebration with open arms, how her parents kept getting excited calls from neighbors when they heard they had an American visitor, and how we stayed up late playing cards and eating the most delicious food made by Ayah's mother, Maisoon. "Koli!" she kept telling me. "Eat!" Ayah's father, Younes, was a total ham and kept wanting me to take his picture. He'd often interrupt a conversation just to say, "I love Ayah." I laughed a lot with Ayah's sisters, who always wanted to share their jewelry and clothes with me. Her older brother, Khaled, owns a successful shop selling construction materials and has two beautiful children and her other brother, Mohammed, is a brilliant engineer who was offered jobs in America and Dubai.
I was simply overwhelmed with their hospitality and friendship. They took me all around al-Karak and Amman, wanting to pay for everything. They gave me my own room in their home, and Maisoon made sure I was never hungry. They asked me much about my own family, my community, my life. I wanted to share it all with them the same way they were sharing their life with me and I dreamed about Ayah someday coming to Indiana with me. But as soon as that thought surfaced, I stopped my dreaming. I started to ask myself if Ayah would ever be welcomed into my community the same way I was welcomed to hers. If we walked into a restaurant in Indiana and people saw her hijab, how would they react? Would Ayah leave my community having experienced the best of Midwestern hospitality and the goodness of our people? Or would hate and ignorance rear its ugly head and be directed toward her for her religious beliefs and heritage?
This question remained with me during the rest of my month in Jordan as I spent time with my many other friends. Rawan took me around downtown Amman and told me about her efforts volunteering in Syrian refugee camps, Kawthar told me over dinner about her new job as a lecturer in architecture at a university, and Rasha took me out to her family's farm in Madaba and told me about a project she wanted to do with women. Susan invited me along to a baby shower, Hassan filled me in on his recent engagement, and I talked politics with Tawfiq over coffee. In short, I deepened so many friendships. These great friends reached out to me, paid for me everywhere we went, and shared their lives with me. The fact that they were Muslim hardly entered my mind until I wondered, once again, if they would ever feel so welcomed where I come from.
So before you speak about Islam, before you make a remark about Muslims, before you even post something on Facebook, I ask you to consider that you are speaking about my friends. Before you come to any conclusions about Islam and/or the Arab world, I will happily connect you to any of these friends, who I know would be love to talk to you and get to know you. I know you will be shocked by the depth of their genuine spirits and I also know that these friendships are exactly what is required to heal the horrible divisions we find ourselves in. Before you say something else that will further division, consider friendship instead.
*Update* - I recently came across this beautiful piece from the On Being blog and would love to share it with you:
"We live in a world in which there is often much heat, and all too little light, in our public discourse. How do we bring a sense of sanity and humanity to these conversations about difficult issues?
But here is the one thing I do know works: face-to-face, human-to-human interactions — getting to know people on a personal level, getting to know each others’ families and breaking bread together. There is a beautiful transformation that happens when we sit down across a table from one other and share a meal. Lo and behold, we find that we all love our children, that we all want the best for them, that we all share many of the same fears about our kids.
I think about that woman in the Amsterdam hotel and wonder what would happen to her if she had some Muslim friends, and how she might have treated the next set of Muslim hotel guests.
I think it would make a difference. There is a grace, a magic, that happens in that face-to-face encounter."
- Omid Safi, in "Is There a Bomb in Your Suitcase?"