2016-06-30
I grew up in New York City, and like a lot of native New Yorkers, I was given one unbreakable sidewalk commandment as a little kid: "Thou shalt not talk to strangers."

This commandment had corollaries. Accepting rides from strangers was prohibited. Eye contact was a no-no; taking food from strangers was out of the question. These rules were essentially non-negotiable. They had been conceived, we were told, with our best interests in mind and they existed, we trusted, for our own good.

I have a confession to make: I've been talking to strangers. And they've been talking to me. They have cooked for me, and I have eaten with them. I have even ridden with them.

Last June, I graduated from Harvard Divinity School. A month later, I started school again, but this time homeroom was my '94 Nissan, minus both hubcaps on the passenger's side. My coursework was conversation.

I had entered Harvard to learn about the place of religion in America. There, I had an epiphany: There was another way to do that, and it wasn't by sitting at a desk. I drove for four months around America, listening to people I had never met tell me about the place of God and the role of spirituality in their lives. I traveled to hear Americans talk their religious walks.

In school, I had prepared for my trip by paying attention to episodes in various religious traditions in which speaking and listening play central roles. I underlined a sentence at a time, writing notes in the margins of paperback copies of sacred scriptures. Soon, what I intuited as threads of connection between traditions bulged into more durable twine. Whole worlds have been formed from words, I learned, and everlasting covenants from attentiveness.

The holiness of conversation in the world's religions is both common and camouflaged.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates the world by speaking it into existence. In ancient Mayan tradition, too, the engine of the world's creation is the spoken voice.

The Qur'an is Allah's revelation, heard and transmitted word-for-word by the Prophet Muhammad. Its first word is "Recite." The biblical Hebrews, whenever called upon to enter covenantal agreements with God, are commanded to "hear."

The Sanskrit word Upanishad, the central text of the sacred Hindu dialogues, is literally defined as "to sit beside and listen." It can also mean, "sitting at the foot of the master." In living rooms, on side streets, in church pews, and diner booths, I encountered all kinds of American masters ready to teach. For impromptu curricula, they used their lives.

Buoyed by my findings, I set out to listen to people. I didn't seek one answer. I drove to hear many. Amid a seemingly splintered and increasingly fractious unum, I sought the pluribus. I cannot recount for you what I found without showing you who I found. So I will share the words of strangers. And I will retrace my progress as an unlikely pilgrim who grew up thinking not only that strangers were to be feared but that religion was a joke and believers its punch lines. I have been on a pilgrimage, and strangers have been my meccas. A few days into my drive, I am on an interstate cutting through Dayton, Ohio. I have never been to Dayton, and I know nothing about the city, clueless about where to go, who to see, and what to hear. The highway, though, leads me to an answer. Of half a dozen possible exits, I select one in the middle. When the exit forks, I go left, and soon I find myself stopped by a red light at the corner of 5th and Keowee. Across the street, lime-green Arabic script runs from right to left across the pediment of a white-stuccoed corner store.

Maybe I'm supposed to go in. No, dummy, of course you're supposed to go in. Pulling the vertically barred door, opaque, ominous, I summon my courage and step inside. There, I am welcomed by smells, Middle-Eastern smells, an Arab shuq in eastern Ohio.

A mechanical grinding, the sound of a butcher's saw, clears its throat to screech from time to time. Somebody unloads a basket of olives and sweets at the front counter. I pick up bottles of artichoke hearts and canned cherries, turning them upside down, blowing off dust. Procrastinating, basically. The customer turns to leave, we nod at each other, and, inhaling deeply, I amble nonchalantly the 30 feet up the aisle to the counter.

"How's it going?" I ask.

"Hi."

"I'm a, I'm uh"--good start, promising, professional--"here's the thing. I've been working on a project, see, where I've been talking to Muslims all over the country about Islam." This is more of a prediction than a fact at this point. "And I just got into Dayton, and, uh, I pulled off the highway, and there I was, with Arabic right in front of me. And so I'm wondering if you maybe might have any time to talk."

"We'll, it's Thursday, you know, so it's going to be very busy." The Muslim day of rest is Friday, and folks do their shopping the day before. "But if you do not mind the crowd, then yes," he says, flattered, "we would love to."

I stand at the side, so as to interfere as little as possible in the commercial transactions. But Hayder Almosawi, the bright-eyed 22-year-old Iraqi behind the register, keeps introducing me. "Brother, please, won't you talk to this friend." "Sister, if you have just one moment, here is Tom."

A global sampling of Muslims, natives of Bangladesh, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Dayton, converge at the halal market on 5th and Keowee every Thursday afternoon. Roxanne Masni has overheard me introducing my road trip in a nutshell. She is fair-skinned and tall, cloaked in a cream-colored, body-length hejaz that covers her head without masking her face. I ask if she has a moment. She nods. Hayder keeps a steady stream of banter next to us--sometimes in lilting Arabic, often in choppy English--with customers at the register.

"Is it difficult to be a Muslim in America?" I ask Roxanne.

"No," she answers firmly. "OK. I was born Christian. I grew up as a Christian. In Jersey, South Plainfield. But it's not. Because if you go back and read, everything that's in the Bible is in Islam, exactly the same thing. The covering of the hair is in there. Modesty is in there. They're no different. In the New Testament, Corinthians talks about women covering the hair, and the modesty, and the dress. Everything's the same. No man makes me cover my hair. I cover my hair on my own. It's what we call iman: how strong you believe in Allah, His book. And if you believe that's from God, you follow it. This," she touches her head, "is from Allah. This is why it's covered. No man told me to dress the way I'm dressing," she repeats emphatically.

"Excuse me," Hayder chimes in, "if I could interrupt you for a second. If you don't mind. There was an Indonesian lady, she was an exotic dancer. Then she converted to Islam. She got covered and everything. And they asked her, 'How come, from exotic dancer to covered and wonderful Muslim lady?' She said, 'You know, being a Muslim is so much wonderful. It's like beyond things. She said, 'Being naked and exotic, it's like old-fashioned. But being covered, where no one can see your body, this is a new fashion.'"

"So the covering is an innovation?" I wonder out loud, directing the question to Roxanne. "Do you see it that way?"

"Modesty's a very, very big part of Islam. Men have a code of dress, too, and a code of conduct. And both have codes of punishment. When it comes to men and women, and what they look at, I'm not going to care about what my husband looks at. He's responsible to God for how he behaves," she says with a sort of finger-wagging swagger typically reserved for the sets of daytime talk shows. "And I'm responsible to God for how I behave."

Hayder nods his head energetically. "When you see a lady which is covered," Hayder says, "a Muslim lady--you know, to us, when we see a Muslim lady..."

He isn't finished with his thought, but Roxanne completes it for him. "That's respect," she pronounces proudly. "This is a shield for me. This is honor." I suddenly have the feeling Roxeanne is the featured guest on some Rikki Lake episode about women and religion.

"Exactly," Hayder nods.

"It's not anything to make me less of a person. It's none of that."

"They do it from their heart," he says.

"From the heart," she confirms. "You have to understand," Roxanne makes her point plain. "This is religion. To understand Islam, you have to know the religion and not the culture. The converts, we practice the religion and leave the culture out. We try the pure form. My husband is Egyptian. If I know Qur'an and hadith, and the sayings of the prophet, and my husband is behaving a certain way, and he says, 'That's part of Islam,' I can say, 'No, it's not.' That's part of culture. This," she says knowingly, not without a hint of defiance, "is part of Islam."

I nod, although what I am tempted to offer is a simple piece of praise, an idiomatic amen, a daytime hallelujah. I want to say, "You go, girl!"

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