A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

 

This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

The Bookshelf: Ramadan and Fasting

Ramadan and Fasting

Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, started June 18. This means Muslims don’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. In Djibouti, and many other places, this is incredibly difficult. I’ve fasted several times during Ramadan, though only once for the entire month, and my respect for those who maintain the fast is high. I’ve also fasted at other times of the year and in different ways. My personal faith conviction is that yes, I should fast, but also that Jesus didn’t lay down an exact methodology or time frame for it.

So, this week I wanted to look at some books that talk about fasting and also about Ramadan.

A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper

The first is one that has been significant for me. I read it in college, slowly and thoughtfully, and it left a massive impact on my beliefs and my actions. Though many authors tout the physical and mental benefits of fasting, I love food too much to relinquish it without this deeper, spiritual call to fast. In a world of gluttony and abundance and over abundance, of needing to be satisfied, needing things easy, going without food is absolutely contradicting this tidal wave of cultural pressure to be comfortable. People tell me they can’t fast because when they do, they feel dizzy and weak. Yup. You’re supposed to feel dizzy and weak, you’re designed to need food so going without it is hard. That’s partly the point, at least one of the points. To remind us of our weaknesses. Anyway, this is a great book.

7 Basic Steps to Successful Fasting & Prayer by Bill Bright

This is a really short booklet, just 24-pages, but it is a great resource for Christians wanting to grow in their discipline of fasting and who have questions on how to go about it. Practical and obviously a quick read.

 

 

 

 

Here is a link to a series of articles and videos about Ramadan. I have not had the chance to look through them, found them through Twitter.

I am assuming that not all Djibouti Jones readers have a background in Islam or knowledge about the month of Ramadan or other tenets of the faith. Karen Armstrong provides an accessible and interesting read on Islam, including Ramadan in Islam: A Short History.

 

 

 

 

And now I guess I have to confess that I haven’t read much more about fasting. Oh, chapters here and there in books about Islam or about Christianity. I could reference those books but instead I’ll send you to links from In Culture Parent. This post includes six books geared toward children about Ramadan. Here are a couple:

A Party in Ramadan

Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story

 

What I’m Reading This Week

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. What can I say? Fascinating. Fascinating. Creepy. Really well written, an excellent read.

Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (she also wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood which I loved). I read her first memoir in one day. I had a little stomach bug, very minor, but took it as an excuse and spent the entire day in bed, reading. The kids were still little and it felt luxurious. I’m really enjoying this one so far as well, she seems to be writing from a more mature place, more reflective. So good for Third Culture Kids, expats, people from quirky families. Love it.

The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing . . . and Love by Jaimal Yogis. Not the best book I’ve read in my life, but really interesting, entertaining, and insightful about how to conquer our fears. Also – why it might be perfectly safe to swim with great white sharks without a shark cage…

What are you reading?

When Eid Makes Me Homesick

I have a confession to make. Eid is boring and makes me homesick.

I know, I know, it sounds terrible. And it also doesn’t sound right. How can Eid be boring, especially since I live in a Muslim country? I have plenty of American friends who enjoy Eid in the US, how much better should it be in a place where everyone is celebrating? Why is it boring?

I’ll tell you.

It is because everyone (else) is celebrating.

For my non-Muslim friends in the US who get invited to Eid celebrations, it is an interesting addition to a regular day. A day of work or school or parenting, throw in a party with pretty clothes and good food and it is a uniquely fun day. And they get invited because Muslims in American know that not everyone around them is Muslim. Many of them reach out to include the other because they know what it is like to be the other.

In Djibouti people forget about the other on Eid. I don’t blame them, they are focused on their families. How many Christian families in Minnesota invite a foreign exchange student, a refugee, international coworker, or an immigrant to their family Christmas Eve dinner at Grandma’s? A few, but not many. And many a foreign exchange student, refugee, international coworker, and immigrant spend Christmas looking out their windows and dreaming of curry or samboosas or gelato or whatever tastes like home, like a holiday, to them. 

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Tom and I were invited to an iftar (breaking the fast) meal earlier this week. Fabulous food and hilarious friends to spend the evening with. But on Eid I had to make myself invited. I brought a loaf of fresh bread to our new neighbors, a worthy excuse to meet them. I returned a broken microwave (Tom was unable to fix it) to one of my longest-term friends here, another worthy excuse to visit. Then my daughter and I visited some other expatriates and went out for ice cream.

When you are a foreigner in a foreign land and everyone else is celebrating a holiday that isn’t yours, there is a hollowness, even when you are invited. A faint echo of memories of Easter egg hunts and turkeys and Christmas trees and Halloween costumes.

Part of the additional loneliness this year is that we used to live in a duplex and the family below us, our landlords, were Djiboutian and had a million relatives who all showed up on Eid. This family was the patriarch and matriarch. They brought us special food for breakfast and shared their lunch feast. But they shared it by bringing it to our door, not by inviting us into their home. We could have walked in, and often we did (on Eid and almost daily otherwise). But sometimes there was a clear sense that this was a special family day.

Our kids played in the yard with the Djiboutian kids, clean in new clothes and armed with unbroken (yet) plastic AK-47s and BB guns. And then they all left to visit other relatives. The yard quieted, the house emptied except for the house helpers doing dishes, and we retreated upstairs.

We used to pursue participation more aggressively. We invited ourselves to meals, we showed up at houses unannounced. But we have been here now for twenty Eids and at least this year the novelty has worn off, the effort feels heavy. I’m tired of being an imposition. I’m tired of being an honored guest. I want to own a holiday the way my cousins owned Christmas from the top of the sledding hill. I want to get my hands dirty on a holiday the way my aunts worked in the kitchen. I want the songs to be songs from my childhood that still make me laugh so hard I cry, like when my mom sings (word-for-word, people) from The New Kids On The Block Christmas cassette tape.

I’m happy to say Eid Mubarak and I love watching fathers hold their daughters hands and walk to the park, the girls have new ribbons in their hair and matching dresses three sizes too big, to grow into. I enjoy talking about the holiday with friends, sensing their anticipation, and hearing about their celebration, talking about fasting and what all the prophets taught about it.

These words about boring and homesick aren’t coming from a whining or complaining spirit, at least not that I can discern. And homesick might be too strong a word. I feel at home here too. Maybe home-missing or home-divided.

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I’m just trying to say that it is hard and lonely to watch everyone else celebrate, to be reminded yet again that we are the other, the unusual ones, the outsider.

I’m just trying to say, think about that on your next holiday. Who could you invite? Not just to a special party in the weeks preceding the holiday, but to the main event? To your inner circle? To your card games and special treats and inside jokes and sleigh rides?

I’m just trying to say that sometimes it is hard on Eid to watch through a window and dream of my mom’s Christmas morning monkey brains and egg bake.

Muslims, how do you feel on Christian holidays? Christians, on Muslim holidays is it just me?

We Talked About Hijab

The Let’s Talk About Hijab series has ended and we talked a lot about hijab over the past two months. This first guest-post series far surpassed my expectations. We heard from a wide variety: Muslim and Christian, covered and not, expatriates and living in their home countries. Initially I wondered if I would find anyone willing to contribute and now I feel surrounded, internetly, by a group of incredible and deep and generous women.

Here are some quotes, comments, photos, and reminders of all who participated. Each of these women have beautiful blogs and I encourage you to visit them on their own sites to continue hearing their wisdom and perspectives.

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Essays (in order of posting):

Anita Dualeh with Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab. She writes about being married to a Somali and the reaction of shopkeepers when she doesn’t wear hijab.

I wrote Hijab, Definitions. I write about the wide culturally-based diversity of hijab and what the Bible and the Quran say regarding modesty.

Pari Ali with Hijab, the Universal Struggle. She writes about being a Muslim woman who does not wear hijab and about inner character.

Afia R. Fitriati with Asking the Right Questions. She writes about setting aside assumptions and moving beyond the veil to human conversation.

J.R. Goodeau with Through the Eyes of Children. She writes about lessons learned alongside her daughter as they befriend women who cover.

Marilyn Gardner with Rethinking the Veil. She writes about the importance of being willing to listen and to change our assumptions and opinions.

Chaltu Berentu with The Thousand Stories of Hijab. In this Poet Nation video, Chaltu talks about being more than what she wears.

Sarita Agerman with Am I Good Enough To Wear This? She writes about her relationship with the scarf as she began contemplating Islam.

Vajiha with The Veil Between Two Realms. She writes about the all-encompassing nature of hijab.

Fascinating Comments:

These kinds of comments are exactly why I was excited about this series. Conversations have been challenging and rich.

Marilyn, on Am I Good Enough to Wear This: I wear a gold Ethiopian cross around my neck. It is probably one of my favorite possessions. Throughout your post I kept on thinking “What kind of responsibility do I feel toward wearing a cross” – it was a punch gut reaction.

Richelle, on Let’s Talk about Hijab (the initial post): that was a huge shock to me. most my muslim friends are strong, confident and independent woman. they are intelligent, even if they are not educated. they are valued members of their families and no one doubts the important role they play. in fact, they just seem like normal women – they laugh and gossip, make dinner, worry about sick kids, don’t get enough sleep and find their husbands frustrating at times. and most of them have embraced, love and find great comfort in the traditions and practices that identify them as a part of this world. i find it hard to label that as oppressive.

MPieh on Asking the Right Questions: I often find that my split-second judgments and preconceived assumptions about a person, based on appearance, are totally “off” when I take the time to actually get to know that person. Thank you for this…a great reminder today.

Sarita on Am I Good Enough to Wear This?: a lot can be said for coming into a faith in later life as opposed to growing up with it. I certainly took things for granted as a Christian because I was so familiar with them, especially as my parents were ministers themselves so it was an integral part of the fabric of family life.

Thanks again to all these women and readers. Any ideas on a next series?!

Let’s Talk about Hijab: Am I Good Enough to Wear This?

Today’s guest post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is one I have been eagerly waiting for. Sarita Agerman and I are doing a little blog-swap. Last week I was at Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy with I Don’t Live in a One-Word World and this week she is visiting Djibouti Jones. The way she approaches Islam on her blog is open, honest, deep, and ultimately, relatable. I find it fascinating that when she writes about being a newbie at mosque or about the hijab mirror test, though I have never prayed in a mosque or committed to wearing hijab on a daily basis, I can connect with her stories as they shed light on my own experiences. And this is what good writing and true living do. I also love the virtual friendship we are forming and the fact that when I told her my kids were going back to Kenya on Monday she said she would pray for me. This is what the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is after – not uniformity but community. Enjoy…

Outward Sign of an Inward Faith: Am I Good Enough to Wear This?

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Not all women choose to wear it and there are (as in everything) different interpretations of whether it’s obligatory or not, but in my case the hijab was something I choose to adopt pretty much straight away.  For me, it was part and parcel of the process of converting.  My relationship with the physical scarf was a useful gauge as to how I was progressing in my tentative spiritual journey towards Islam.

I had the occasions, like many other female converts, when I would watch Pearl Daisy or Nye Armstrong’s videos till late into the night. I’d squeal with excitement and then rush to the mirror to try the hijab out for myself. Of course, it would be wonky or fall off but that didn’t matter. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t pull off the architectural feat of keeping the scarf on my head because I was happy, excited and feeling open to the new emerging influence in my life.

The times when I looked into the mirror and disliked my hijabified reflection were, with hindsight, the times when I was feeling scared by the changes that were going on in my life. As I wrestled with the theological differences between two faiths, I saw this battle play itself out in front of the mirror on a smaller scale. I’d get tangled up in my scarf, get annoyed with it and then throw it to the ground in exasperation.

During one of my more enthusiastic phases, I ventured out wearing an experimental turban to the local garden centre in the sleepy English village where I lived. I pottered about the pots and petunias with my internal paranoia pendulum swinging between feeling confident and breezy to ‘aargh everyone’s staring at me.’ In reality though, I don’t think any of the passers-by were particularly shocked by my presence and were probably more concerned about which pebbles would suit their new rock garden. Yet despite the lack of drama, it was still a significant step for me. It made me realize that despite my occasional paranoia, I actually felt comfortable with people being able to identify me as a Muslim by the way I dressed.

This realization brought with it a strong sense of responsibility. I didn’t feel at the time that I had enough Islamic knowledge to wear an article of clothing so steeped in tradition and with such political and religious connotations thrust upon it by the media and society. I worried that I’d be asked questions about Islam which I won’t be able to answer.

Or perhaps even worse (in my mind), was the fear that someone would speak to me in Arabic and I’d have no idea what to say in return. There have been so many times when someone has said asalaamu alaykum to me in the street and I was so excited that all that came out was a weird ‘waaaaaaaaaaaaaa,’ as it was the only syllable I could remember of the expected response ‘wa alaykum salaam.’

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Social awkwardness aside, I often felt inadequate wearing something which represented faith and modesty when I was still in a transitional period of discovering more about Islam and my own personal beliefs. I can understand why some Muslim women find the act of wearing hijab tough because it comes with the weight of representation. If you miss a prayer or two as I sometimes do, or find yourself daydreaming about lunch during Salah (the five daily prayers) then you begin to feel bad wearing something that for many people, whether rightly or wrongly, represents piety. If you think in that way then it’s easy to feel like a fraud when you fail to achieve the high standard which you expect of yourself and think others expect too.

Hijab shouldn’t be viewed as an accolade, like a medal for winning a race, rather it should be viewed in the same way as the number pinned to the chest of a long-distance runner. It says to the world that you’re participating in a spiritual journey which is still in progress and even though at times you might fail miserably, you’re going to keep going.

In this way, I see the hijab as way of acknowledging that I’m not perfect but that I aspire to the values which the hijab represents. It isn’t there to chastise me for my failings but to remind me and encourage me to carry on despite them. The important thing is to consider our intentions and to continue trying, despite all our weakness, to be a better person and improve our relationships with God and those around us.

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Sarita is an English language teacher from the UK who currently lives in Bologna, Italy with her husband.  She converted to Islam two years ago and began to write a blog last year as a way of sharing her experiences as a new convert and newbie teacher in a foreign country. She has recently started studying the Arabic alphabet with the aim of one day mastering the tricky letter ﻉ.

You can also find Sarita on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Other posts in the series:

Let’s Talk about Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau

Rethinking the Veil by Marilyn Gardner

The Thousand Stories of Hijab, by Chaltu Berentu, a video via The Poet Nation

Let’s Talk about Hijab: Links 

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