Monday, March 7, 2011

The Prophet's Birthday

February fifteenth was the moulid an-nabi, or the birthday feast of the Prophet Mohammad. Everyone, even us Christians, had the day off from work and school. One of my favorite priests, who doesn’t speak very much English, but who is one of most cheerful Syrians I know (and is fluent in Italian), went around with a big smile, saying, “Happy Christmas Mohammad!” (In Arabic, “Christmas” is “Eid il-milad,” or literally, “Feast of the birth,” the same term used for “birthday.”) One of my Muslim Iraqi students brought a delicious dessert his mother had made for my class to share. I have no idea what was in it, but it tasted like gelatinous cake, and was decorated with a giant cinnamon crescent. Everyone in my class took a spoon and helped themselves to it.

There was a time in Arab history when good Muslims wouldn’t dream of celebrating the birthday of a mere mortal. These days, Christians and Muslims alike use the occasion as an excuse to skip work and have a good time, especially in secular countries like Egypt and Syria. The Muslim quarter of the Old City was draped in strings of colored lights and banners bearing Mohammad’s name. At the seminary, the priest briefly considered taking all of us out to the movies (a la “Jewish Movie Day” on Christmas in the States), before deciding instead to take us on a walking tour of the whole city.

That afternoon, while the boys were cleaning the seminary and taking a nap, I walked through the Old City, through the Thomas Gate (Bab Touma) to the Qasaa district and back. The sun was out, I wore no coat. It was glorious. Although this winter has been mild by Iowa standards, for some reason, very few buildings in Syria – including the one I live in – have anything like quality insulation. The cold seems inescapable sometimes, and I’ve taken to wearing a coat indoors, everywhere except to bed. This spring will be very welcome.

Qasaa, a shopping district that contains both high-end clothing stores and street side entrepreneurs, was packed with people enjoying the holiday, buying new clothes, drinking smoothies and munching on the spicy corn dish sold by Iraqi vendors along the roadside. I bought a fruit smoothie myself (they’re one of the best parts of life in Syria – seriously) and exchanged some money. In Arabic, the man at the exchange counter explained to me that it was the Prophet’s birthday, and gave me some candy in honor of the occasion.

The government recently completed a huge beautification project in Bab Touma Square, where I go almost every day to grab a bus to my various destinations, or just to grab a snack. The results aren’t that impressive. The Bab Touma gate (which sits alone in the middle of the square’s roundabout) is open now, which is kind of nifty, but for some reason, they saw fit to erect a giant pastel green clocktower on the main road nearby. It’s decorated with a bunch of weird symbols, has about twenty giant bells that don’t work hanging off its sides in no apparent order, and has a giant green laser that flashes across the sky at night. It doesn’t look Arab or Syrian. My guess is it looks like what Arabs think Westerners want to see. If there are any Syrian architects reading this, allow me to relieve you of this idea.

Across the street from this clocktower is a new park containing a shrine to a Muslim saint and a bunch of signs about Old City landmarks written in execrable English. The park is nice, but it feels artificial. The redundant scale model of the park that sits right next to the entrance doesn’t help.

I was wandering in this park when I got lured into one of the most intense, bewildering Arabic conversations I’ve ever had. A middle-aged man sitting on a bench motioned me over and asked me to take his picture with his cell phone camera. He asked me to sit with him, and I obliged. “Where are you from?” he asked. “America,” I replied. I rarely hide my nationality from anyone here. He, it turned out, was from Iraq. Meeting Iraqis used to be a big deal for me, but nowadays, it’s commonplace.

My normal recipe for conversing in Arabic is 30% words I actually know, 50% context, and 20% smile-and-nod. Of course, this doesn’t always work out so well, and one of the drawbacks is that while I’m smiling and nodding and waiting for my conversation partner to use words I recognize again, the subject of the conversation can change completely. We started off exchanging personal details, including the fact that we were both single. He asked me if I wanted to get married. I said yes. He asked me if I wanted to marry a boy or a girl. For a moment, I thought I was about to be propositioned. I wanted to marry a girl, I told him firmly. He started asking me about gay marriage in America. I told him that it was only legal in five states. He told me he had seen on television that it was common. I told him that it wasn’t.

Then we entered a smile-and-nod phase of the conversation, and by the time I understood what he was talking about again, he had become quite agitated, and was asking me what was wrong with Americans, why young people from America went to Iraq and killed kids and old people indiscriminately. Of course, the vast majority of American soldiers don’t do this, but I wouldn’t be comfortable defending America’s conduct of the war to an Iraqi I’d just met in English, let along Arabic, so I repeated a trope that most Syrians use when they’re trying to assure me that they don’t hold my nationality against me: “All over the world there are good people and bad people.”

“No!” he insisted. “Arabs and Muslims would never act the way Americans do!” He then launched into a soliloquy on economic injustice, talking about how Americans and Europeans had all the money, while Syrians and Iraqis couldn’t buy food or water or clothes.

At this point in the conversation, a street child approached us, selling packs of gum for five pounds (about a dime). He was dressed in dirty pajamas, his hair was unwashed and filthy, and his face bore the intangible weariness that seems to mark the faces of all the street beggars here. I think it’s the way their lower eyelids droop and their mouths hang open. He first tried to sell me the gum, but gave up after I said, “No thank you.” (I have been advised by the priests at my church never to give money to beggars, since churches and mosques are available to them, and most of them are either running cons or being exploited.) But my Iraqi acquaintance had to refuse and say “God bless you” ten times before he went on his way. As soon as he left, the Iraqi man looked angrily at me and gestured in the boy’s direction. “Five pounds!” he yelled. “Five pounds!” I don’t know if he was angry at me for not buying gum, or angry at the world for forcing the boy into that line of work.

Finally, I just said, “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. We made a big mistake. I hate war, and God willing, there will be peace someday.” That still didn’t calm him down. In the end, I stopped responding at all, and just let him rant until he was finished. Then he smiled again, reassured me that I was his friend, shook my hand, and asked me to meet him there again the next day. “God willing,” I said. Needless to say, I didn’t go the next day.

I rarely have to take flack for my nationality here. While Arabs love to discuss American politics, they’re so friendly and so keen on being good hosts that if they criticize my government, they always act as if they’re explaining it to me, not blaming it on me. I once got applauded when I told some men in Hama that I was American. This was only the fourth time in my life an Arab in the Middle East has even come close to blaming me for my government’s policies.

For one thing, I don’t know how to defend my country to Arabs. Without fail, we’ll be operating from completely different sets of facts. In their eyes, any media source, academic study or government report I might cite (not that I can cite these things on command to begin with) was probably crafted by the Jewish lobby, but they can’t understand why I don’t believe the fawning biography of Saddam Hussein they bought at the streetcorner stand, or the YouTube video about how the Freemasons orchestrated the American Revolution.

For another thing, I’ve lost my appetite for debate – somewhat, anyway. Yes, it’s absurd for my Iraqi friend to say that Arabs and Muslims don’t kill innocent people - he’s from Iraq, after all. But even if I could get him to admit that “you guys do it too,” what would that prove? How would that make anything better?

Yes, I am responsible. No, I don’t know what to do about it. Maybe that’s why I’m here.

Happy Christmas, Mohammad.

No comments:

Post a Comment