An e-mail came to my inbox about two months ago. It was from Ari Alexander, co-executive director of an organization called Children of Abraham. It's an organization that fosters dialog between young Jews and Muslims from all over the world. This project is based on the Internet, so we can enter the dialog from any place in the world. I've been a member since 2004.
In his e-mail, Ari, an American Jew, asked me if I was interested in attending the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, due to take place in Seville, Spain from March 19 to 22. When I read his e-mail, my first reaction was: Is this a joke? We all know there are problems between Muslims and Jews, which cause us to fight and hate one other. I have met a lot of imams in my life and they all agreed that Jews are the enemies of Muslims. They are infidels. We cannot be friends with them. I remember an imam saying in a sermon, "Jews are our biggest enemy. We have to kill them, or they will kill us first." Scary. And now this congress will gather together imams and rabbis and hope they will make peace? Interesting!
I replied to Ari's e-mail immediately, telling him that I'd love to attend the congress as a Children of Abraham student, and see how the imams and rabbis made peace -- instead of killing each other. In response, Ari sent me a list of questions and said the Children of Abraham could send four (of its 147) students to the congress. The list of questions would help them choose the four lucky students. They would judge us based on our answers, so I gave them the best answer I could possibly give.
It took almost a week for them to decide who the lucky four were. I got more nervous by the day. I checked my e-mail every morning and evening with no avail. Finally, on March 3, I received an e-mail from Ari saying I had been chosen to represent Children of Abraham students at the congress. I was speechless and jumped from my chair to run around my house. I was very happy! March 3 was also my 19th birthday and Ari's e-mail was the best birthday gift I've ever had. Later, Ari told me that Children of Abraham could only send two students, not four, to the congress, and they chose me to be one of two. It was indeed an honor for me. I only had two weeks to get everything ready for Seville. It was probably the busiest two weeks of my life, and my excitement grew.
It stayed with me until my flight to Seville from Madrid. I was on the same flight as some rabbis -- an Indonesian traveling alone. When I saw the rabbis on the plane, I suddenly felt hesitant. I'm going to meet the enemy, I said to myself. Will the imams and the rabbis make peace? Are we going to be OK during the congress? Before we landed in Seville, I asked God to fill the hearts of the imams and rabbis with love, so they could share it with each other.
The congress organizer picked us up at the airport by bus. When I entered the bus, I felt like a stranger. The bus was full of bearded old men in black suites, and they were all staring at me, a girl wearing a brown sweater, jeans, sneakers, backpack and a look of exhaustion. A complete stranger. Some of them smiled and some of them gave me a "who-the-hell-are-you" look while I struggled to find a seat. Finally I found a seat beside a man with a white beard and black hat. He introduced himself as a rabbi from Israel. "You should come to Israel someday," he said. "You'll learn a lot of things there. I can arrange a visa for you if you are interested." I smiled at him and thought, a rabbi has just offered me a visa for Israel. Please tell me, God, is this reality or am I hallucinating after a 20-hour flight?
When we arrived at the hotel, we didn't have much time to rest because we had to attend the opening ceremony. I was very sleepy, so I took a shower to refresh myself and prepare for the ceremony. I met Ari and Gul Rukh Rahman at the ceremony. Gul, a Pakistani Muslim, is a co-executive director of Children of Abraham too. I was very happy when we met. I've been working with them for two years via the Internet, and it was the first time I'd met them in the flesh. Ari also introduced me to Yasser Salimi and Pearl Gluck. Yasser is a Children of Abraham student like me, and Pearl is a filmmaker. She was going to make a documentary film of us during the congress. They are my good friends. They knew that it was my first time to meet Jews, so they encouraged me to talk to the rabbis. I was pretty scared at first. Talk to the rabbis? What if they don't want to talk to me because I'm a Muslim?
Ari and Gul introduced me to some rabbis during dinnertime, and I was surprised when I found out that the rabbis were very nice and friendly. They were just like my grandpa, wise and full of love. I remember a rabbi held my hand with his trembling hand and smiled. We did not speak -- there was no need. We just smiled at each other, which was worth more than a thousand words for me. The imams and the rabbis sat together during dinnertime. They talked, laughed, even hugged each other. It was amazing for me to see an imam and a rabbi embrace and laugh together. So we're no longer enemies, I thought. We're friends now.
The next day, I noticed the congress organizer had designated a room of the hotel for praying. I was surprised to find that Muslims and Jews would be praying in the same room. The Muslims used the room early in the morning. We laid out our prayer mats and joined together in prayer. After that, we folded up our mats so the Jews could use the room. When the Jews finished, they readied the room for the Muslims. They put everything away so we could put our prayer mats back. One day, I asked one of the Imams about this, and he told me, "I believe we're not just sharing the same prayer room. We share the same prayer too -- to let peace rule the world."
I knew he was right, somehow. We had a chance to go to the city that day. I went with Pearl and Yasser, but I lost them in the city. I panicked.Thankfully, two imams and a rabbi found me and took me with them. We found an old cathedral and went in together. The cathedral was very old and beautiful. We spent some time in the cathedral before we realized we might have missed the shuttle bus, so we rushed back to the bus shelter. When we were in the bus, I realized something and started to laugh. I went inside the cathedral with two imams and a rabbi. How cool is that?
I usually stayed in the lobby with my Children of Abraham friends at night, after the congress session finished. Sometimes an imam or a rabbi joined us, and we had a discussion together. I enjoyed my time with them. One night, when we were having a discussion, I saw some Imams gathered in the lobby. They sat in a circle and started to sing a song in Arabic. Some of them clapped their hands. The circle grew larger and larger as they sang, and I noticed some rabbis had joined the circle too. Someone brought a flute and started to play. The rabbis clapped their hands with the imams. The singer sang another song, and suddenly some of them stood up and started to dance in the circle. They danced and sang together all night long. It was funny to see how the imams and rabbis danced together and laughed. They were like brothers.
Some imams and rabbis were very concerned about Indonesia. They asked me a lot of questions about Indonesia, about the tsunami, the political situation, the economy, the bombs and the terrorist attacks ... everything. They also asked me about Judaism in Indonesia. I told them that I had never met a Jew in Indonesia, and most people in Indonesia are prejudiced against the Jews; that Jews are bad people, infidels, the enemy. I've heard these things said since I was a kid--I was raised in a Muslim family and attended a Muslim school for 12 years--kindergarten until senior high school.
I also realized that it's hard to talk about promoting a Jew-Muslim relationship in Indonesia. I've tried for two years, since I joined Children of Abraham, and people made me stop. I think it's impossible to promote a Jew-Muslim relationship in Indonesia. When I told this to an imam at the congress, he smiled at me and said, "It takes time and a lot of patience. But it's worth trying. Regard this as a challenge, and don't give up. Ever."
I met a lot of great imams and rabbis there, and I learned a lot of things from them. I learned that we can always turn our enemies into friends. I also learned that we may be different, but inside we're brothers. The imams and the rabbis have shown us. And now it's my turn, and your turn, to show the world that we can come together peacefully instead of killing each other.
On my way to the airport, I sat beside a rabbi on the bus. He didn't offer to arrange me a visa or give me the "who-the-hell-are-you" look. And I wasn't a stranger anymore. The rabbis were smiling at me and greeted me. "So little girl, tell me," a rabbi asked me (and yes, he called me little girl) "How did you enjoy the congress?" I smiled at him and said, "I met a lot of grandpas at the congress. How do you think I enjoyed it?" He held my hand and we laughed together.