According to a poll conducted last year, only 27% of Americans view Muslims favorably. After living in a predominantly Muslim country for three years and getting to know Muslims as friends, coworkers, and students, the only way that I can understand this statistic is to assume that 73% of Americans do not know any Muslims. I know that the way Muslims are portrayed in news stories, on TV shows (Homeland), and in movies (American Sniper), has affected the way that Muslims are viewed in the West, making many people believe that Muslims are violent, extreme, barbaric, and old-fashioned.
On the contrary, I have found that Arab Muslims are some of the most humble, social, considerate, generous people I have ever met. Coming to understand more about their religion and culture has undoubtedly been one of the best aspects of living in Kuwait.
Before I continue praising Muslims, I feel the need to say two things. 1. Just because I am defending the reputation of Muslims does not mean that I am interested in converting to Islam. 2. Obviously there are also many wonderful things about Christians (and I know that many of you reading this are Christians), but just now when I searched “Christian approval rating in the US,” guess what? I couldn’t find anything. Why? Because Americans are not afraid of Christians. Christians don’t need defending.
Just two days ago, three exemplary Muslim students were executed in their own apartment by a man who identified as an atheist. Some are saying the motive was a parking dispute, but judging by the killer’s facebook page and history of harassment, this was actually a heinous hate crime. Dental student Deah Barakat (23), his wife of six weeks Yusor (21), and Yusor’s younger sister Razan (19) happened to be dear friends of some of my friends here in Kuwait, Omar and Khalid, who lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina when they were in high school. On Wednesday, when they heard the news, we sat together in my apartment, somber, angry, and trying to make sense of what had happened. “You don’t understand, Tricia. These three were cream of the crop,” Omar explained to me.
In case you have not read much about this case, Deah and his wife Yusor were dental students who went regularly to Syria and Turkey to provide free dental care to refugees there. Deah had created a video about an upcoming mission trip and was aiming to receive $20,000. I’m sure it would please this selfless man to know that in the wake of his death, Project: Refugee Smiles has raised nearly $300,000. Apparently Deah, Yusor, and Razan did nothing to provoke their killer, other than be Muslim. After nearly fifteen years of the mainstream American media marginalizing and dehumanizing Muslims, going out of its way to use the words Muslim and terrorism in the same sentences, the hatred and fear that some Americans feel towards Muslims is not surprising. I recently found an old post in this blog in which I admitted that the Middle East was one of the only regions in the world where I was not considering teaching. Like most 24 year old midwestern Americans, I expected that the Middle East was a place of extremism, oppression, terrorism, and instability. When I reached Kuwait, I began to understand how mistaken my perceptions had been. Allow me to share just a handful of stories about Muslims that you probably won’t see on the news. If even one reader comes to view Muslims in a more positive way after reading some of the anecdotes I share, this post will be more than worth the time it takes me to write it.
I’ll begin with the most recent episode of kindness. “Oooh, are there any zataar ones left? I love zataar!” I exclaimed as my eyes combed through the fatayer at a staff meeting on Sunday. Zataar is a spice mix and fatayer is kind of like Arab pizza (see the photo above). “Do you like zataar?” the computer teacher asked me. “I love it!” “Well, we have the best zataar in Palestine, so I’ll make sure to bring you some.” she said with a smile. I told her she didn’t have to, but as the words were coming out, I knew that they were for naught. Zubaidah was definitely going to bring me zataar, and honestly, I didn’t mind. The next morning as I was preparing my lessons, Zubaidah’s slim figure appeared in the doorway of my classroom. She was holding a recyclable grocery bag full of food. “Zubaidah! What is all this?” “Well, here is your zataar, here is some olive oil [“some” meaning a liter of pure Palestinian olive oil], some green olives, I wanted you to have some pomegranate molasses, and here’s dried mint and sumac for making fattoush [a type of salad].” I was speechless, but not surprised. This is the same woman I’ve gone shopping with who insisted on buying me the hat I was trying on in H&M. And it’s not only her. I made the mistake of saying I liked zataar to a kindergarten teacher whose name I didn’t even know (I do sometimes say things other than “I love zataar!”- actually it’s funny to think that this has happened to me more than once) and a few days later, she found my classroom and interrupted my lesson to deliver a bag of Jordanian (“the best!”) zataar. Be careful before saying you like anything around Arab Muslims! They will go out of their way to give it to you.
Here is a shorter example. It’s simple, but it never ceases to make me smile. Whenever any of my students find money on the ground, they always bring it to a teacher and say, “Miss, I found this.” Then, they nervously hand it to their teacher. This has happened to me half a dozen times, and the money is never over 1 KD ($3.50). I have tried to say to them, “Well, because of your honesty, you can keep it,” to which they look at me with horror and shake their heads. Clearly Muslim children are taught to not take what does not belong to them.
I think that one of the hardest things to do is comfort a friend who has just lost a loved one. My style of comforting mourners has generally been to let them know I’m thinking about them, but give them some distance. After all, I think to myself, if I had lost a relative or friend, I would not want people around me. I would want to process by myself. How very western/ individualistic of me. Arab Muslims are very community-oriented people who share meals, stories, laughs, and even tears. During my first year in Kuwait, a coworker of mine went through a very difficult pregnancy that resulted in a risky, premature birth. The tiny baby, whom she poured all of her prayers and love into, survived for two months in an incubator before passing away. This was Zeina’s first born. She was beside herself with grief. When I heard what had happened, I had no idea what to do. What use would words of condolences be? What could I possibly say that would make her feel better? Then an American friend of mine who had already lived in Kuwait for a year said, “You want to go over to Zeina’s house to spend some time with her?” I couldn’t believe it. Visit her the day that her baby had died? Wasn’t it too invasive? Looking at my thoughts, I have to admit that my hesitation was more based on my selfish fear of being uncomfortable than my consideration of Zeina needing space. In the end, I agreed to go to her house.
When we arrived, I couldn’t believe how many people were there. Zeina’s husband and some of his friends sat together in the living room while Zeina and her female friends and relatives congregated in what would have been the baby’s room. There were at least a dozen people there to join Zeina and her husband in their mourning. While some of the evening was spent tearfully, there were also moments of laughter. More than anything, our presence was reminding Zeina that she was not alone in her grief, that she had a support system. Thankfully now, a couple of years later, Zeina and her husband are the parents to a beautiful, healthy baby named Mariam. My western belief that mourning should be something you do privately was trumped. I understood how beautiful it can be to allow others to see you at your most vulnerable and that it is okay to let people in when you are grieving.
I have one last example of Muslims being exceptionally nice people. It can be hard to separate what is Muslim from what is Arab, and for many of these examples, I have not been sure whether religious beliefs or cultural norms are to thank. This example, however, takes place in Spain and involves Muslims from the Maghreb, so culturally, they are different than Muslims in Kuwait. A few years ago, I decided to spend my summer working on farms in Spain (WWOOFing- willing workers on organic farms). You may remember reading about this. It was an incredible summer filled with novel-worthy characters and experiences. I am going to share with you a memory I did not want to write about on here because I was afraid that it made my friend Leah and I look weak and foolish. Maybe it does, however in our hour of need, we were aided by Muslim men. It is for them that I share this last example.
We were traveling from my favorite city in the world, Granada, Spain to Toledo, where we were going to be working on a farm Leah was familiar with. We took a bus to the tiny town of Alcala Real, which had just hosted a music festival. The WWOOF host Leah had previously worked for in the province of Toledo, Nael, had been at the music festival, so the plan was to meet him there and he was going to drive us to Toledo. In what can only be described as a major miscommunication in which Leah and I were not at fault, Nael left Alcala Real earlier that day, so by the time Leah and I reached the tiny town which was still buzzing with the vibes of the music festival (around 9 pm), he was long gone. Busses would not be leaving the town until the next day, hotels were jam-packed because of the festival, and we were stranded. She called Antonio (the chivalrous seventy year old neighbor of Nael) and he said he would be there as soon as he could. It wouldn’t take him more than three hours, he assured us. Shocked by the fact that Nael had not held to his promise to be waiting for us when our bus arrived, Leah and I settled into an open courtyard right on the main street. We sat on some cement benches, completely exhausted, a bit chilly, and we waited.
The official music festival had ended, but a sizable group of gypsy hippie types were still partying across the street from where Leah and I had settled. They were playing instruments, singing, dancing, clapping, and tripping on God only knows what. We were approached by a few drunk men, which was the last thing we needed after a week of traveling and the vulnerable position we were in. When one of the drunk partiers started screaming at us for no reason, some guys sitting nearby defended us and told him to leave. Leah and I explained to these men that we were not there because of the music festival (which they had thought), and that we were just waiting for someone to pick us up and drive us to Toledo. As we explained our story, they couldn’t believe what had happened with Nael, that he had left us.
The five of them were Muslims from Northern Africa. Once we had explained our story, all of them invited us into one of their houses for tea and places to rest, if we wished, but obviously we were hesitant and we expected Antonio to be closer than he was. It was, after all, “three hours away.” The amazing thing is that they stayed with us in the cold courtyard area until 4 am. We had so little to talk about, and Leah and I were absolutely spent, but still, they sat with us and chatted about me living in Kuwait, us having visited Morocco, American celebrities they knew of (one of them was a big Dolly Parton fan!), Ramadan, they even wanted to learn a little bit of English. We got onto the topic of them being Muslims in Spain. They didn’t drink, they didn’t eat pork, and they were waiting until they were married to be with any women. If you know anything about Spanish culture, that rules out a large chunk of it! Why were they living in such a counter-cultural way? They all put in their two cents about why Islam is a wonderful religion and how it guides them in how they conduct themselves. When we apologized for us taking up their time, and especially as the night wore on and they needed to eat and pray before fasting began (it was during Ramadan), they assured us that there was absolutely no way they were going to leave us until our ride was there. They told us that whatever goodness we saw in them was from God, not themselves, that Islam taught men to respect women above all other people, because all women are somebody’s mothers, sisters, or daughters. The way in which they conducted themselves with us was caring and respectful. Not for a minute did it seem like these men had any ulterior motives. Finally, after Leah had called Antonio a few times and each time he was “cerca,” (but not really), we tiredly accepted their offer for tea. They picked up all of our heavy luggage and escorted us to one of their humble houses.
Inside one of their homes, they served us food and drinks and let us rest privately in one of the rooms. We were both so overwhelmed with their hospitality- inviting complete strangers into their house, serving us, giving us space, but at the same time, making sure we knew they were there if we needed them. Finally, when Antonio called Leah shortly before sunrise, the men grabbed all of our things, and walked us downhill to him. We thanked them profusely, as did Antonio, and went on our way. They expected nothing from us. They were taught to care for guests and “aliens” in an Islamic way, so that is what they did. As I said before, I have been afraid of sharing this story because it may make Leah and I seem weak, needy, and I know that many of you may have cringed when you read that we finally accepted the offer of going to one of their apartments. The way that those men made sure we knew we were safe and provided us with company was a godsend. As frail as the story may make me look, it needs to be shared because of how positively it makes the Muslim men in it look. They were a blessing, and without them, the night would have been much worse. Although the media may not want you to believe that Muslim men care for western women, these ones did.
There is a part of me that wants to assure any fearful, misinformed people in America that Muslims are just normal people like everyone else. However, this isn’t true. Many of the Muslims I have met are extraordinary people who live their lives with kindness, wisdom, discipline, and modesty. As is the case with Christians, Jews, Mormons, and Buddhists, no two Muslims interpret their religion in exactly the same way. There are Christmas and Easter Christians, and there are Muslims who only go to mosque during Ramadan. There are bigoted Christians who protest military funerals and threaten to burn Qurans, and there are extremist sociopaths who call themselves Muslims and ruin the reputation of 99% of Muslims who just want to live peacefully. Instead of judging an entire group of people by the actions of its worst members, it is time that we learn about others by interacting with them, celebrating what we have in common, and discovering what unique values and traditions they contribute to society.
No amount of grieving or positive stories can bring back Yusor, Razan, and Deah. I just hope that their deaths will serve as a reminder of how deadly misunderstandings, hatred, and discrimination can be. Just like the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner spurred much-needed conversation on police brutality and tense race relations in the US, I hope that the Muslim students’ deaths can help reverse the trend of other-izing Muslims in American media.