The recent Muslim travel ban, which has no credible national security rationale for it, reminded me of the ignorance and hate against immigrants and refugees that I encountered when I lived in Manassas, Virginia.
I was working the counter at a local government office one day, when an elderly white man came in. I can’t remember what set him off, but he went on a long-winded rant about radical Islamic terrorism, ending with “Read your Quran!” as the bell-jangling door closed behind him.
He didn’t know it, but I have a Quran in my home.
When my first husband, Martin, was senior warden at Trinity Episcopal Church, he visited Manassas Mosque with our rector, Rev. Stuart Schadt. On that visit, Imam Abu Nahidian gave him a copy of the holy book.
I know Martin read it. After his death in 1998 I found his bookmarks and handwritten notes on legal paper throughout its pages. I cherish it because he studied it. And while I didn’t read it at the time, I believe I see it revealed in the people who live its teachings.
Like Mr. Nahidian. When his mosque grew into a new location at an industrial park near I66, it was spray-painted with graffiti numerous times. In 2014, when it happened again and a glass door was also broken, he welcomed Unity in the Community, an outreach group of which I was a member, to come and talk about ways we could counter these hate crimes with education.
Or like Taalibah Hassan, the chair of Unity, who welcomed us to Dar Al Noor Islamic Community Center on Hoadly Road in Manassas for numerous community events, including the showing of a film about the rise and fall of Islamic culture in (now) Spain. I went there with a fellow writer, Adelaida Lower, a native of Morocco, who was working on The Red Ribbon, a novel set in 1491 Spain. I admit, I was anxious about the unfamiliar customs at the center – walking through a door separate from men, leaving our shoes in a cubby, covering our heads with scarves – until, once inside, we encountered the familiar – a Girl Scout troop selling cookies in the foyer. After the film discussion, we were invited to prayer and a shared meal of kebabs, pastry pies, vegetables, figs. Delicious!
Or like Afzal Nasiri and his wife, Marie Khalili. I met Al through the Prince William Chamber of Commerce. He hired me to help edit an English translation of Marie’s book, Memoirs of Khalilullah Khalili, An Afghan Philosopher Poet: A Conversation with his Daughter.
I sat typing on a notebook computer with Al – a former editor of the Kabul Times – while he translated from Persian. I was fascinated at how Marie’s father, an eyewitness to eight decades of Afghan history and the reign of four kings, from British rule to Soviet coup, could end up sitting in a lawn chair in New Jersey, talking into a tape recorder as she interviewed him about his life. He was once ambassador and secretary to King Zahir Shah. He authored 70 works of poetry, fiction, histories and Sufi studies. He had even been unjustly thrown into an Afghan prison at one point. In his words:
“It was evening and darkness fell. I picked up a few pieces of coal and wrote a poem on the wall of the prison cell … In the morning … as soon as [the guard’s] eyes fell on the wall he said, ‘Are you trying to have me killed? … Your right to write has been taken away. The investigators will come and I will be in trouble!’ He wiped my poetry from the wall and cleaned it, despite my pleas to leave it there. ‘It’s only a poem,’ I said.”
As a writer, I couldn’t think of anything worse than being confined without the means to write, and censored by a government. I learned Khalili died in exile and was buried in Pakistan, near the tomb of Pashtu poet Rahman Baba. In 2012, Marie’s father’s remains were finally returned to Afghan soil and re-interred in a place of honor near Kabul University.
In 2017, I am living in eastern North Carolina. Now the rants about radical Islamic terrorism are coming from another elderly white man in highest government office. His words, ringing in the House Chamber at the center of the U.S. Capitol, are as sharp as the spray-painted words and broken glass that confronted the children of Manassas Mosque that summer day. He protests he’s not talking about American citizens like Mr. Nahidian or Taalibah or Al or Marie, but his words stir up hate and fear, all the same.
The Rev. Laurie Brock, in a Lenten meditation on her popular blog, Dirty Sexy Ministry (because faith is…), suggests that we consider experiencing other faith traditions as part of our journey toward Easter this year:
“The religious literacy of most people in this country is limited. Lent is a wonderful time to experience and learn about other faith traditions. Visit a synagogue or mosque. Attend another Christian denomination. Read the holy writings of other faith traditions. For a great primer on this, explore Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy. Further, offer yourself to experience other faith traditions not to feel superior about our own traditions, but to see the truth in their expression of God.”
One such opportunity is an open house hosted by the Islamic Association of Raleigh on Saturday, March 11. The event is 11 am to 4 pm and includes tours of the Mosque, lunch, and a keynote address by Imam Abu Taleb, PhD. The location is 808 Atwater Street in Raleigh.
If I don’t attend the open house, I have another opportunity – to hear Nida Allam speak. She’s the newly elected Third Vice Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, and has been vocal about politicians who use the rhetoric that attaches Muslim to ISIL, which only feeds into the narrative of us vs. them. Nida will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Democratic Women of Johnston County/Democratic Men of Johnston County, on Thursday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 218 S. Second St., Smithfield, NC. The group is collecting donations to Harbor, Inc. Use this link www.harborshelter.org/donate to see what items are needed.
And yes, I will read my Quran.
I was inspired to write this after reading Barbara Presnell’s “Muslims who have changed my life” in the Lexington Dispatch.