Learning to be a gracious guest in someone else’s language
Photograph by Andy Lehto
When I landed in Jordan, settling after Peace Corps training in a tiny agricultural village, Islam was all around me: mosques, hijab, skullcaps, “Allah” and “Muhammad” calligraphy, pictures of the ka’aba in Mecca, Qur’aan atop most every television. I heard Islam everywhere, too, starting with the call to prayer five times a day.
Each morning when I walked into school, I shook each of my colleagues’ hands and they said, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.—Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings.” Like everyone else, I was expected to respond in kind, “Wa-‘alaikum as-salaam—and peace be upon you.” Then we would go out to the school playground, where the girls lined up by class for morning assembly, including a recitation of the fatiHah, sometimes called the Muslim Lord’s Prayer.
All day long, whenever a teacher entered a classroom, all the students rose to their feet and said, in unison, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.” If I failed to offer the proper response, my students would correct me.
Beyond the schoolyard, there was God-language in every personal interaction. The most common responses to “How are you?” was “al-Hamdu lillah—Praise be to God”. It was one of the first things I learned to say in Arabic, but I didn’t use it for months.
I was deeply uncomfortable with the ubiquitous presence of God in all these everyday phrases. In the humanist-centered Unitarian Universalist congregation and Wiccan-leaning religious education program where I came of age, we were actively discouraged by adults from using the Bible, invoking God, or even saying the word church. That was what “those people” did on Sunday, but we attended a fellowship. Rev. Kathy helped me understand that many of those adults had been traumatized by conservative Christianity and Judaism, as I had been bullied by Evangelicals in school.
When my Jordanian neighbors asked ‘How are you?’ in those early months, I answered any other way I could: good, fine, well, excellent…. God had been a blunt instrument wielded against me and people I loved throughout my childhood, and invoking his name with every person I met felt hollow, hypocritical, even painful.
I thought it would be subtle, that I could fly under the radar as an atheist by just avoiding the word ‘god’ in everyday interaction. Instead, it became a joke in the village where I taught. My first-grade students started to greet me every morning with two thumbs up and an overly enthusiastic “Excellent!” After John Kerry lost the election, the neighborhood girls came to me one day, faces knit in concern. “How are you really, Miss Maryah? Because you haven’t answered ‘excellent!’ for weeks.”
Umm Alaa was a tall, plainspoken woman, the girls’ school headmistress, my neighbor, and my self-appointed Jordanian mother. I was welcome in her home any time for a meal or a cup of tea. Sometimes she even summoned me to help her stuff grape leaves or paint the verandah railing. Umm Alaa taught me about my professional responsibilities at school, and about my cultural obligations in the neighborhood.
When she made social visits, she would often bring me along. Sometimes, in these neighbors’ sitting rooms, I felt like little more than Umm Alaa’s exotic prestige symbol on display, even though I knew she meant to be welcoming and inclusive. Yet, awkward as they could be, these visits were important to my integration into the community, and there was always fruit and candy and plenty of strong, sweet black tea.
Usually, there were small children hiding behind doorframes, spying on this curious stranger with short hair and no hijab, who dressed funny, talked funny, and wasn’t even a third cousin. When it got too awkward, or I just couldn’t follow the adult conversation in Arabic, I could use the universal language of peek-a-boo and big smiles to make the little ones laugh.
One afternoon, Umm Alaa brought me along to visit her father-in-law’s wet nurse, half a dozen houses down the street. I had met her once before, but didn’t remember her name, so I called her Hajjah—pilgrim. Whether or not she had actually made the pilgrimage to holy Mecca in the pilgrim month of Dhuu al-Hajj, the title was also a sign of respect for a woman old enough to be a grandmother.
Umm Alaa introduced us, and the Hajjah took my hand in her wrinkled, papery dry fingers. “It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Maryah. How are you?” she asked.
It was customary to ask this question half a dozen ways of one’s guest. I had them all and almost as many answers ready on the tip of my tongue. “Well, thank you. And how are you?” I asked.
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. What’s new?”
“I’m great, thank you. What’s new with you, Hajjah?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going?”
“It’s going, it’s going,” I said. “And you? How’s it going?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s your health?” she asked.
“Excellent, thank you. And yours?”
Gently shaking her head, she said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah.” Praise God on high. She was an old woman, her health inevitably less than ‘good’ and more at the mercy of God than mine.
“How’s your family?” I asked, ready to move on to the next stage of ritual salutations.
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?” she asked again.
“I’m great. And how are you?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah, I’m well. How are things, Miss Maryah?”
The ritual seemed to be regressing, beginning to repeat, and I was running out of ways to say, “I’m good, and y—?”
Suddenly, the Hajjah grabbed my forearm, shaking it up and down and squeezing with surprising strength until I thought I might bruise. Leaning her face close to mine, she demanded, “Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!” Say, Praise God!
Haltingly, I said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah?”
Smiling sweetly, the Hajjah patted me on the cheek. “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah wa-shukr.” Praise God on high and thanks. She let me go, moving on to take Umm Alaa’s hand. “How are you?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?”
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going with you?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. And you? How’s it going, ya Hajjah?”
“Fine, al-Hamdu li-llah, it’s going. And how’s your health?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah. How is your husband my nephew?”
“He’s well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your sons?”
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your children, Umm Alaa? Please, have a seat. Tell me about your daughter’s tawjihi school leaving exams.”
Having finally learned my lesson about thanking God, I was served tea but effectively ignored.
So I learned to praise God first. How am I? Al-Hamdu li-llah, good; al-Hamdu li-llah, well; al-Hamdu li-llah, excellent, two thumbs up.
Years later, when I had returned to live in the capital city Amman, a Jordanian acquaintance casually referred to me as Muslim.
“Oh, no,” I said, shaking my head. I have great respect for Islam, but I don’t believe its pillars of faith. “I’m not a Muslim. I sometimes call myself a Christian here in Jordan, for convenience, but in fact I’m a confirmed atheist.”
“But you say al-Hamdu li-llah so easily. You say in shaa’ allah with such sincerity.” God willing. Cab drivers say it when you tell them your destination, and receptionists when you make an appointment, and young men pinning everything on a visa application, and fathers trying to silence children begging for a toy or an ice cream.
“Oh, well,” I explained to my new friend, “in my village, if I didn’t say al-Hamdu li-llah fast enough, some Hajjah would grab my arm and shout in my face, ‘Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!’ until I did. So I learned to say it first, because it was easier that way.”
Yet, although I said these phrases often and fluently, I did not say them easily. I struggled every day with the line between expectation and intention. The Hajjaat expected me to say these things, just as they expected their grandchildren to pray and their sons to go to Mecca. Belief, it seemed to suggest, was either irrelevant or would follow naturally from practice.
Most often, I uneasily chose the path of least resistance.
I struggled for the better part of a year. I found myself returning for answers to a story from my childhood. In the Seventies, my mother’s family hosted an exchange student from Afghanistan named Fakhria. She went to high school with my mother and, together with their class, they rose each morning and said the Pledge of Allegiance. One day, my mother asked Fakria if she didn’t struggle with the ‘under God’ part.
“Oh, no,” she said, “I just translate it in my head to something that agrees with my faith.”
It was not that simple for me. For months, I silently contorted myself into theological and linguistic knots. If li-llah comes from the word ilha—divinity, then I wasn’t really saying ‘Praise God’ but ‘Praise that divine consciousness I may or may not believe in.’ If I said ya’atiik al-‘afiah and left off the subject allah, then that wellness might have been given from anywhere, not necessarily from God. Yet, all of this theological contortion felt dishonest, deceptive.
I do not wear hijab, except in a mosque, because I am not Muslim. I do not ever say the words of the shahadah, that beautiful Arabic phrase that translates to ‘There is no god but God,’ even when I am teaching about Islam. To do so is not just to speak words, but to become Muslim. I don’t take even the words and trappings of Islam lightly, because my Unitarian Universalist faith teaches me that these traditions are sacred, even if they are not my own.
To say al-Hamdu li-llah and in shaa’ allah without intention felt like violating my own values.
Then there was ‘thank you.’
It was no struggle to say. In fact, it was one of the first words--shukran—that we were taught, and I employed it liberally. Then one day, Umm Alaa’s seventh-grade nieces Aaliya and Aiat asked me, “How come you say shukran so much?”
“It’s polite. My mother raised me to always thank people when they do something nice to me or give me something.”
“But you say it a lot. Like, a lot! And you say, ‘No, thank you.’ Why, when no one has actually done anything for you? What are you thanking them for?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. “I guess I’m thanking you for the offer, for thinking of me,” I said. ‘No, thank you’ was just an automatic polite response that my mother had always insisted on, just as the Hajjah demanded that I praise God.
This conversation niggled at my consciousness for weeks. I began to realize that, as much as I said it myself, I never heard the word shukran from others. No one ever thanked me. And I had always known that Peace Corps, more often than not, was thankless work, but it disappointed and frustrated me all the same.
Once I had started thinking about how ‘thank you’ was and wasn’t used in my community, I started to notice something else that began to grate on my nerves, and eventually I discovered a connection between them.
The women and girls I knew in Faiha’ were terrified of being alone. So was everyone they knew. To them it was clearly human nature, and obviously I must be afraid of solitude too. Especially in my first few months there, I heard this often. “Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you worry that something might happen to you?”
Consequently, I rarely got to be alone. Sometimes it was Aaliya and Aiat with their English homework or younger kids asking endless questions about my family photos. Sometimes it was their second cousins down the road, demanding that I do their homework for them or give them something of mine that they desperately wanted. An A-level student like Umm Alaa’s eldest daughter might chase out the younger ones so I could check her work on a practice test for the tawjihi school-leaving exam. Whenever I was home, there were children with me.
After a while I discovered that the constant invasion of my space had been encouraged by Umm Alaa’s sister, my neighbor on the other side. She would look out of her window and into mine, then snag her daughter or niece and say, “Ya Haram! Poor Maryah! She’s all alone in her house. She must be terrified! You’d better go over there and keep her company.”
“Just try to imagine,” I said one day to her older daughter Alya, “living all day, every day in English. Speaking it, hearing it, trying to understand, to learn it. Imagine you’re in America and no one speaks Arabic and you need English to eat, take the bus, at school, at home. All the time. Try to imagine.”
I watched Alya try to picture a life of English. She didn’t reply, but her eyes spoke volumes.
“That’s how I feel. I love you all, and I love your company, and I love Arabic and want to learn it and live it. But at the end of the day, I need two hours to myself, without people, without Arabic, just me.” To my surprise, it worked. They still didn’t understand, but they let me have my solitude if I wanted it, and it felt good to carve out that time for myself.
It also reminded me that Islam is a tribal desert religion, like Judaism, and the Bedouin are a communal culture. To lose your tribe and be alone in the desert is to be dead, and so maintaining equilibrium within the tribe—be it the Prophet’s tribe of the Quraish or the global tribe of Muslims, the ummah—becomes central to Islamic law and daily practice. Their fears and their communal life was their inheritance from desert forebears.
Maintaining societal equilibrium means caring for the least of these, but it also means humility in one’s generosity. A Muslim does good works, not for thanks or praise, but to support and uplift the community. Indeed, to receive praise might make a person too proud and draw the attention of the evil eye. Whenever I said, “What a beautiful baby!” the mother would quickly say, “Ma shaa’ allah—What God hath wrought,” deflecting attention from herself and her child towards God the Creator.
It was a Muslim fellow volunteer who helped me see that the neighbors showed their appreciation for me every day. They invited me in for tea, delivered meals to my door, took me with them to weddings and on outings … the girls even cleaned my house sometimes. When I did things for their mothers, they said, al-Hamdu lillah—praise God, and allah ya’atiik al-‘afiah—God give you wellness, but they did not say shukran. Not to each other, not to me. I might be blessed in the next world for the things I did in the Peace Corps, but my neighbors left that decision up to God.
Over time, I began to look past the religious overtones and appreciate the beauty in the words they did use. When food was served, yislamu eedayk—bless your hands, and before they ate, bismillah—in the name of God, and at the end of a meal, baarak allah—God’s blessings.
I remember clearly the day I learned the magic words to ward off a stomachache.
One of our colleagues at school had given birth the month before. One day after school, a dozen other teachers and I piled into a couple vans and went down the big hill to the next town where most of my colleagues lived, including the new mother.
Her sisters-in-law had been cooking all morning, and laid out a mansaf feast for us. This national dish of Jordan is goat or mutton stewed in a sharp yogurt sauce, served over rice and topped with roast pine nuts and fresh chopped parsley. Men typically form the mansaf into little balls they ate with their hands, though most of the women I knew used spoons. In either case, it is typically eaten from one large platter, but as was often the case for me as the American guest, I was given my own plate piled high with rice and the choicest lamb.
My mother always taught me to clean my plate, so that’s what I did. To my hostess, though, this meant that I was obviously still hungry. She gestured peremptorily to the teacher sitting next to me. “Give Maryah more mansaf. That piece of lamb there is a good one.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s delicious, but I’ve had enough. Sha’baan—I’m full. Really!”
They ignored me. “Kuli! Kuli!—Eat! Eat!” urged the teacher next to me like a Jewish grandmother, while piling on more food.
I tried to keep eating. My stomach was starting to complain under the weight of all that heavy food, but my mother’s lessons in manners were too ingrained to leave food on my plate.
As I slowly forced down more small mouthfuls, I watched the other teachers. Our hostess and her sisters weren’t shouting ‘Kuli! Kuli!’ at anyone else. When they were finished, there was usually a token protest, but one by one each woman did the same thing.
When I thought I might actually puke, though there was still a massive pile of rice drenched in yoghurt sauce on my plate, I leaned back on my cushions and laid my hand over my heart. “Da’iman, in shaa’ allah, ya sid!” I declared.
My hostess beamed. “In shaa’ allah, ya’tiik al-afiah—God willing, may He bring you wellness.”
I had finally learned the magic words, though it took me several more months to interpret their meaning: da’iman, in shaa’ allah—may there always be plenty, God willing. It was as though, only by invoking God could I make myself heard by my friends in the village.
The Arabic word islam means ‘submission’ and from the same linguistic root comes salaam, peace—in Hebrew, shalom. By submitting to God, you find peace. In the words of my Catholic best friend’s mother, “Offer it up.” Relinquish your worries and your uncertain future to God’s care, and find comfort in knowing, que sera, sera—what will be, will be. Kul shi’ maktoob—all things are written. These thoughts don’t give me peace or comfort, but they are fundamental across many faiths, assuaging the fear and misery of billions.
Ultimately, I decided that I was fixated on the wrong part of my personal theology. I was so focused on rejecting dogma that I forgot my belief in religious inclusivity. I want my Unitarian Universalist faith to be a movement that embraces Jews and Sufis, Buddhists and yogis, Baptists and Quakers, theists and atheists.
This was their language, this was their culture, and I was a guest in it. This was the language that they used and expected. It was how they expressed their gratitude, and I learned to do the same with automatic ease.
The Hajjaat might be disappointed that belief did not follow naturally from practice for me, but they let me in on a rich tapestry of little rituals I still treasure. I became so accustomed to these phrases that, back at home in the States, sometimes I still yearn for them: SaHa to bless a cough, na’eeman to bless a haircut, al-Hamdu li-llah in relief, in shaa’ allah in hope, yislamu eedayk for a beautiful plate of food, da’iman to bless a feast.
Allah ya’atiikum al-‘afiah, ya Hajjaat--may God give you blessings, pilgrim grandmothers.