Sunday, October 5, 2008


Tonight we – Khadija, Alma, Fatima, Amma, Mustafa and I – went to visit that friend who had returned from Mecca. Driss, another one of Alma’s/the family’s friends, drove us there in Fatima’s car, but waited downstairs at a coffee shop while we went up. Upstairs, this woman’s sitting room was full of women (is the social world divided by gender after all, and is my host family just an exception?). Visiting Moroccans is a lot like going to a family gathering in the Netherlands. When you arrive, everyone sits in a circle on couches or chairs around a coffee table, and you have to make the rounds and greet everyone individually. This woman’s coffee table was full of cookies in all shapes and sizes (though I didn’t see the ones we made). The host took each tray and went around with it, urging us to take more and more. But here’s where this is different from the Netherlands: in Holland, you take one cookie and that’s it. Here, you pile your plate full of them, and still the host will tell you to take more.

Before we were served cookies, the host went around with plate of dates and a tray of what looked to me like shot glasses with a transparent liquid in it – I was confused; what else would you serve in glasses like that but vodka, or gin? But Alma told me: these are dates and water from Mecca, and it’s tradition to bring some back and share it with guests. The water is blessed; a shot of it is believed to bestow blessing on the drinker as well. So when you drink it, you make a special request to God; because of the water’s power that request will have particular force. I’m not sure if telling someone about the request invalidates it, but very selfishly, I wished for my research here to go well.

This water comes from the spring at Zemzem, which is one of the stops on the pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s the site where Hagar (apparently she’s called Hajar here, with a soft, French j: ‘hazyar’), Abraham’s slave who gives birth to his son Ismail (Ishmael), finds water after she’s been banished to the desert.* I double-checked this with Alma, who was so impressed that I knew this that she told everyone around her three times in a row that I knew the story better than she did. In the car on the way back to the Medina, she and Mustafa asked me what other prophets’ stories I knew. We went over Mohammed, obviously, and Yusuf (Joseph – does the Bible also claim that he was more beautiful than anyone else in the world? Apparently that is the crux of the Muslim version: that he had been given 99% of the human beauty in the world, and the rest of humanity had to share the other 1%). Then we got to Jesus, and the conversation I had dreaded came up: do I believe in Jesus? Am I religious? I hate answering this question because I don’t want to lie, and I don’t want to say something that they won’t understand or accept. At first I hedged again. Did I believe in Jesus? Well, I said, Catholics do. Oh, they responded, are you Catholic? Well, I said, … my family is Catholic. And then came the moment of truth (or rather, of lying); Alma asked me, are you Catholic? And I said yes. Because I think it’s better, in their eyes, to be a part of a defined religion than to float amidst abstract beliefs of your own, and if I admitted to having my own version of spirituality, I fear they might not be as open toward me anymore. If you’re Christian, at least they can categorize you as someone who believes in the same God they believe in, even if you’re wrong in believing that he had a son. You’re cousins in religion, so to speak, part of the same tradition. But if I try to explain my own views, I'm afraid it'll sound like an instant dismissal of what they believe in. And because those beliefs are precisely what I’m interested in, I want to make sure they remain willing to share those beliefs with me – which means no dismissal, even if that means lying. Though maybe it wasn’t a complete lie. Culturally speaking, I’m more catholic than anything else.

And I don’t dismiss what they believe in. I have a different worldview, but I still respect theirs – it’s just a different way of looking at the same basic values, as far as I’m concerned.

*Incidentally, Muslims believe that while Jews descend from Abraham’s son Isaac, they themselves are descendants of Ismail, his first son by Hajar. They also believe it was Ismail, not Isaac, whom Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice.

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