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Muslim & Jew break bread together

  

 

He performed the ritual ablutions first, washing the hands, mouth, nostrils, face, elbows, head, neck, and feet. He turned toward Mecca, and, speaking in Arabic, said: "O Allah! For you did I fast and with Your bounties did I break the fast." Thus spoke Tarique, my friend, after the setting of the sun, Friday evening. He followed this by sipping water and eating dates with his wife, Sophie. This was a tradition begun by the Prophet, Muhammad, for Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast performed by Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Then, they began Magrib, the fourth of the five daily prayers. Facing Mecca once more, he placed his hands over his heart, and recited in Arabic, "Al Fatihah," the opening sura of the Koran:

 

"In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate:
Praise be to Allah, Creator of the Worlds,
The merciful, the compassionate,
Ruler of the day of judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thee do we ask for aid.
Guide us in the straight path,
The path of those on whom Thou hast poured forth Thy grace.
Not the path of those who have incurred Thy wrath and gone astray."

He then bowed at the hips, saying, "Allah is great." He went to his knees, bringing his forehead, nose, and palms to the floor: "Glory to my Lord, the highest," he said. He repeated his prostrations several times. After the final bow, he asked Allah to forgive his sins. Then, turning his head first to the right, and then to the left, said, as if sharing good will with the world: "Peace and the mercy of Allah be upon you."

Upon completing their prayers, Tarique and Sophie returned to the dining room where my seven year old son, Noah, wearing his yarmulke, and my nine year old daughter, Arielle, were waiting to light the Sabbath candles. The table was set for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath: the candles, the wine, the challah bread - always a beautiful sight after a long week. Thus has it always been for Tarique and I, Muslim and Jew, sharing meals, friendship, and our faiths. Noah lit the candles, and my wife, Sabra, recited, in Hebrew, the blessings:

"Praised art thou, Oh, Lord, our God, king of the universe.
You hallow us with commandments,
and command us to kindle the Sabbath lights."

I first met Tarique in Bangladesh more than ten years ago when I worked there as a visiting surgeon. His father was the Otolaryngologist at the military hospital, and I spent six months with him in Dhaka, the capitol. Tarique, nineteen at the time, was one of four children in the Khan home. I had been in Asia for three years, and Bangladesh was the last country on my itinerary. It was the only Muslim country I had worked in, and oddly enough, the place where I was treated best: a Jew in a Muslim nation. They did not know that at first, but found out soon enough.

The Sabbath blessings continued: my son gave the Kiddush, the blessings over the wine. My guests cannot drink wine, so, like my children, they take grape juice. We hold our glasses high as Noah sang: "Praised art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the vine..."

My Muslim colleagues in Bangladesh were usually impressed with my appearance - they thought I was Muslim, because, as a Sephardic Jew with an olive complexion, I looked like one. And I was frequently asked about my religious background... "Are you sure you want to know?" I said. "Yes, of course," they replied. I knew they could not be thinking I was Jewish. Christian or Muslim maybe, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian - anything - but not Jewish... "You're sure?" "Yes." I smiled and answered: "Jewish." And there would be a slight pause, as they digested this small item, followed by a smile - as if it were all quite routine...

We cleansed our hands ritually prior to eating. I poured water with a small pitcher over Tarique's hands, and recited the blessing: "Praised art thou, O, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, you hallow us with commandments, and command us concerning the washing of hands."

The courtesies and small favors I received from my Muslim hosts in Bangladesh came in myriad, and often fleeting ways, but very tangible. I recalled once watching the news with two colleagues in Dhaka, one of whom knew I was Jewish. A story came on about Israel at the height of the original intifadah. Here, in my friend's living room in Bangladesh, there could have been a very awkward moment... Upon seeing the news story, the one colleague leaned over to the other, who did not know I was Jewish, and whispered something into his ear. It was all quite quick, and I could not hear what he said, but I imagined that he told him I was Jewish and not to say anything insulting about Israel or the Jews. The other physician peeked over at me, nodded, and smiled, and the moment of tension passed. In this way was I protected by Muslim friends...

Arielle recited the hamotzi, the blessing over the bread: "Praised art thou, O, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, you bring forth the bread that comes from the earth." I broke off pieces of challah bread and passed them around the table. "Shabbat Shalom," I said, and we began the Sabbath meal.

During my stay in Bangladesh, I found the local newspapers rife with anti-Semitism, the editorials replete with vicious propaganda against the Jews - the likes of which have not been seen in Western papers since the Nazi era. Bangladesh is not a heartland Islamic country - and I could only imagine what went on in the newspapers of the Arab world. I recalled one editorialist in the Bangladesh Observer referring to the Russian Jews migrating to Israel at the time (in 1990) as "...a plague of locusts..." Other such slurs were common. But on a personal level, never... Quite the opposite, really, and the dichotomy between the street and the elites was striking. It left me wondering where all the hatred actually came from.

We completed our dinner, and recited the blessings of thanksgiving for the meal. Tarique, who had been living in my small town in southern Indiana for several years, informed me that he and Sophie were returning to Bangladesh as soon as he finished his MBA, which would be in a month. I was saddened to hear of their coming departure. I also wondered how he would like living in Bangladesh, after residing in the US.

"Will you be able to make the adjustment, Tarique?"

"It worries me a little," he said. "I have learned to enjoy my independence."

The evening went pleasantly, as such evenings with Tarique and his wife have before. We are good friends, and openly shared in our religions and traditions, and even of the controversial issues of the day. I have discussed my views of Islam and the West, especially since September 11, and, for the most, he has not been in disagreement, even though much of what I said was critical. "Islam," I have told him, "has been a civilization in decline for three hundred years - but before that they dominated the world for a millennium..." We have discussed the great and grand history of Islam, their many contributions to world civilization - and their former awesome power: "At their height," I said, "they stretched from the Atlantic to India, and beyond. But, for the last several centuries, the Islamic world has not kept up. Except for oil they have little or no economy to speak of. Its nations and peoples are impoverished and unfree. Its governments corrupt dictatorships, and hardly anywhere (save Turkey, and, to a limited extent, Bangladesh) do we see the necessary reforms being even considered." (Those being, by the way, the rule of law, democracy, and market capitalism.) Tarique did not disagree, although he did chide me about our decadent Western culture, an opinion, by the way, that I did not disagree with. ("Are Brittany Spears and Madonna really an improvement over head scarves and the burka, Dr. Moss?") But the overall appraisal was accurate, and he and his wife, moderate Muslims, were capable of engaging in such frank discussion. Nor were they enamored of the kidnapping of their faith by Islamic extremists and terrorists who, they fully realized, tarnished and demeaned their creed by association. He knew also that I was a sympathetic observer, for I have seen the greatness of Islam with my own eyes, its faith, its artistic and architectural triumphs, its many philosophical contributions - and respected it enormously: "The people who gave the world the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra must be acknowledged for their achievement..." But the Muslim world has fallen, their bitterness and resentment palpable, their need for self-exam and reform obvious...

I have also discussed the issue of Israel with him - just once - and, oddly enough, at his request. He asked me what I thought of Ariel Sharon - quite a subject for a Muslim and a Jew on otherwise good terms. I did not know whether to respond or to sidestep it, but I proceeded, endeavoring to avoid the obvious land mines - but then how can you really steer clear of them? I reviewed the pertinent history and my assessment: in many ways it was an extension of our previous discussion, emblematic of the ineffectiveness of the Islamic world, and the tendency of some to rely on the horrendous acts of terrorists as their dominant form of political expression...

"The Arab world," I said, "has done its best to destroy the state of Israel militarily, most notably in 1948 (after Israel's independence), in 1967, and, again, during the Yom Kippur War, in 1973. Failing that, they resorted to the so-called Palestinian refugee problem - a red herring if ever there was one - to achieve their goal of delegitimizing the state of Israel and bringing about its destruction. Millions of Arab refugees have been kept in impoverished camps for decades when they could easily have been absorbed by neighboring Arab states (some of them among the wealthiest nations in the world) - just as the 800,000 Jewish "refugees" from Arab countries were absorbed by the tiny and embattled state of Israel. But the "Palestinians" were not, so they could continue being used as a political football, serving only to prolong their suffering, and everyone else's as well..." In this discussion, I deferred the archaeologic excavations, portraying the story in the broadest of outlines - but, however muted, I did not withhold my criticisms... Tarique remained silent, perhaps, out of respect, because he did not know, or to avoid saying something that would jeopardize our good relations. Perhaps, he agreed? I could not say... But he did not bring it up again. Nor did I.

I pulled a book from my shelf, by Huston Smith, "The World's Religions." I turn to the section on Islam, and mentioned that I once heard him say that although he was a devout Christian, he recited the "Al-Fatihah" each morning, because he felt it captured the essence - in a magnificently eloquent and terse manner - of gratitude and praise to the creator, and of humility and sincere appeal for guidance from him. And that, for a time, I did the same.

"Why did you stop?" Tarique asked.

"I don't know. Maybe I will take it up again. It is hard to improve on."

I strummed through the pages, finally identifying the great prayer. I read it aloud... "In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate..."

When my ancestors fled Catholic Spain, in 1492, during the expulsion, after living with the Moors for centuries, they sought safety primarily among the Muslim nations of the world. My own ancestors traveled to Macedonia, under the control of the Ottoman Empire, the greatest Muslim power of the time... How can that trust be recreated? Yet, if it could be done with our Christian brethren - in the context of far more serious religious differences and a dreadful history of persecution - then it would seem at least possible to rehabilitate relations with our Muslim cousins as well. If the experience with my Bangladeshi friends meant anything...

It was getting late. Tarique and Sophie will be leaving the US, so this was a farewell of sorts... "We had a great time, Dr. Moss," Tarique said. "I expect you to come to Bangladesh - to help us."

"I'll be there."

"When can you come?"

"Within three years - tell your father."

We grasp hands. "Shalom."

"Assalamu alaikum." (Peace be upon you)

"Will you really visit us?"

 

"Yes... InshAllah," I said. Allah willing.

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