When I was a teen living in Slovakia I took a Slovak language class and every other person in the class was a male Muslim Arab. Being a female Christian American, I stood out.
I remember being cornered in a hall on the way to the classroom one day and scolded for not being escorted by a male relative. When I explained all of my male relatives were on another continent, my classmate became downright apoplectic. He said things I didn’t understand like, “I believe your father has no honor.” I’ve since learned that in middle eastern cultures my father’s honor is tied to my chastity and he and my male relatives are expected to literally guard it.
Seeing me ‘unguarded’ some assumptions were made I guess and a few of my classmates made sexual advances that I rebuffed. After one such would be consort violently threatened me when I turned him down, I considered dropping the class. However, I was soon adopted by two older classmates and following that, all of the awkward or threatening behavior of my classmates ceased immediately.
Ali was a younger, married man and though his wife didn’t speak Slovak or English, she was extremely affectionate and fussed over me whenever I was with her. Eunice was my Dad’s age and had preceded his family who were still in Iraq. His gentleness and corny humor reminded me strongly of my Dad and he told me often that I reminded him of his own teenage daughter. I remember him meeting me at the corner outside the language school and escorting me to class every day. We also had a standing appointment for coffee at a café in old town once a week where talked about everything under the sun.
One day we were comparing religion. I being a devout Christian and he an equally devout Muslim but both pretty ignorant of the particulars of each other’s faith. We focused on similarities and I was very much enjoying the conversation when he sighed deeply and I realized there were tears in his eyes. This seemed to come out of nowhere and, suddenly concerned, I asked him what was wrong. He said something that has always stuck with me.
I can still see him sitting at that sidewalk table in his sweater vest and beige sport coat. I can hear his soft, accented voice saying, “I am a man. You are a girl. I am old. You are young. I am from Iraq. You are from America. I am Muslim. You are Christian. Here we sit in a café in Slovakia. We talk about religion and philosophy and love.” He shook his head and a tear spilled down his cheek. “Ah, if only the world could be you and I.”
I hadn’t really realized how unlikely our relationship was until he laid it all out like that. I was still just a kid then and I feel as I get older and as the world seems to spin further and further out of control I understand more deeply but even as a kid I felt some of the weight of what he was saying. It brought tears to my eyes then and still has the power to do so all these years later. I wish the world could be full of people like us, even though that sounds so very conceited.
Eunice and I loved each other in a very simple way. Our relationship was one of the most pure I’ve ever experienced, certainly outside of my familial relationships. We were as different as two people can be except in the most vital way, we valued our mutual humanity and love. We exchanged ideas and considered each other’s point of view with no fear or threat because we absolutely trusted in our mutual love for each other. He would never intentionally hurt me and I would do anything to keep him from suffering.
We lost contact almost immediately after I left Slovakia. He changed his address and gave a letter with his new address to my former boss who, instead of mailing it to me, decided to hand deliver it months later during a trip to the States. That address, as it turned, out was a temporary one. By the time I got it, mailed a response and that letter trekked across the globe, he’d moved on again.
I’ve never forgotten him. I wonder if he and his family have managed to survive the violence. I like to imagine him living in Europe somewhere, meeting his daughter at a café once a week to talk about everything under the sun. He’s always wearing that sweater vest and beige sport coat.
When people talk about Islam and Muslims I see his face. I remember that the world is not just full of hateful, prejudicial, violent people. It’s full of people like Eunice, too.
I can’t solve the world’s problems and lately they are legion. I do believe the root of them is hate. Fortunately, I’m a love factory. I’m chuck full of the stuff and it would spill over and out into the world even if I for some bizarre reason tried to stop it.
The only thing I can do is keep putting love out there. I can keep being compassionate. I can keep helping people wherever I can. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone a ride, buying lunch for the homeless man on the corner, taking a little time to be nice to the people behind counters or on the phone. Sometimes it’s hearing about how a friend’s divorce is hurting her daughter and inviting that little girl to an event like going to see the Nutcracker. Giving her a night of magic memories to hold on to in the storm of emotion surrounding her. That bit of kindness cost me so little and was such a huge thing to her.
Today, I want the world to be more loving. I hope whoever reads this will do what they can to fight all this hate with love. You never know how a simple act or statement of kindness could change a person’s life.