An online acquaintance writes from America that he is a proud "Islamophobe" and proud "Christianophobe," fearful of both fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. He cites Muslim terrorists on the one hand, and Christian evangelicals like Brit Hume on the other, who on Fox News had the temerity to proselytize that Tiger Woods, a man he does not know, should abandon Buddhism and convert to Christianity. Fervent believers, my acquaintance charges, have too little respect for secular societies, would abandon the separation of church (or mosque) and state, and impose their beliefs on others in a heartbeat.
While I agree that religious ferver can sometimes blind believers and cause them to take extremist positions, there is a disturbing trend in both the West and in Turkey to make religion a taboo subject, and we become afraid of people we do not understand.
It's easy to fear Islam or Christianity from afar, and to believe that religious
"fundamentalism" is the enemy. Up close, it's
more difficult. When you live among Turks, in my experience the most hospitable people on earth, who also happen to be Muslim, it's impossible to be an "Islamophobe."
I daresay fear of Islam and fear of Christianity generally comes mostly from ignorance, lack of familiarity, and from being overly influenced by negative media images. I realize I'm in the rather unique position of having lived with both faithful Christians and faithful Muslims, and I find far more commonalities than differences between them. I've found them both to be very loving and generous, "salt-of-the-earth" people, generous to a
In the teacher's lounge at the private school I teach at (vast majority of the students and teachers are Muslims), I saw a statement on a desk in English, probably pulled off the Internet by a teacher and probably written by an evangelical Christian. It expressed concern about teachers who reveal to their students that they are atheists, because that would have a corrupting influence on the ethical development of students who see their teachers as role models.
Visiting the purported home of the Prophet Job in Sanliurfa, Turkey along with 15 Muslim teachers was a moving experience. Here lived a holy man venerated by Judaism, Chrisitianity, and Islam for his goodness, faithfulness, patience and perseverance. At one time a very wealthy man who was the envy of the community, Job (Ayoub) experienced trial after trial and tribulation after tribulation that made him question his faith, and question the existence and wisdom of God.
In the Quran, Ayoub is described thusly: "While Job was naked, taking a bath, a swarm of gold locusts fell on him and he started collecting them in his garment. His Lord called him, 'O Job! Have I not made you rich enough to need what you see? He said, 'Yes, O Lord! But I cannot dispense with your Blessing."
"Why, God, why? Why me?" Job asks. The answer he hears, essentially, is "Who are you, a mere mortal, to question the mysterious way of the Lord?" Job thinks on what God has said to him, and eventually declares "I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25). For his enduring faith and patience, God restores Job's good health by telling him to drink the well water and bathe in the spring next to his home.
As a tribute to Job, I dipped my face in the well water, as did several of the other teachers.
Prophet Job lived in 8th century BC. According to information on a placard at the cave, he came from "good genes," (my words) -- a prominent family. His grandfather was the Prophet Lot (remember Lot's wife? She turned into a pillar of salt for dwelling too much on the past rather than the present or the future), his great uncle was Jacob and his great great uncle was Abraham. "He is known to have been born somewhere in Palestine or Mesopotamia," the placard said. "He was tested with wealth and an abundance of children. Later on, he was infected with diseases. He showed great patience with all these difficulties, (but finally) he reached the climax point of faith and patience. When his illness began hampering his prayers, he begged God, saying, 'Oh Lord, I am hurt, indeed, and you are the most merciful."
"And God responded to him saying, 'Tap your feet on the ground. There it is, the fresh water to drink and get washed.' When Eyuub drank the water, he miraculously got healthy again. He lived another 160 years with his new children. He is known to have lived in this cave for seven years before he got healthy again."
"Prophets are exalted people who are chosen and sent to people for salvation. Then our duty is to read the lives of these exalted people and apply their teachings to our own lives. May God not deprive us of their intercessions!"
I call this cave in Sanliurfa Job's "purported home" because there are places in present-day Israel (in a Palestinian town), Oman, and Lebanon that also claim to be his home. If they're all correct, Job sure was a man who liked to travel.
Historians do believe Job (Ayoub) was a real man who actually existed, not simply a composite and not simply a "myth to live by." Learn more about Job (Ayoub) from this Google search.
Elma deyin: "Say 'apple' " instead of "say 'cheese'."
Could you get 15 male educators at an elementary school in America to climb aboard a bus and go on a 36-hour weekend retreat together? It wouldn't be easy, first of all, to find 15 male educators at your average elementary school. But in Turkey, elementary schools are not primarily the purview of females. There are lots of male teachers mentoring and guiding the lives of their students. And so I found myself, a guest English teacher at Akansu elementary school in Kayseri, embarking on a trip to southeast Turkey with other teachers, all practicing Muslims. For me, a Christian from America, this was a fascinating experience.
"Mr. Jim is brave," one of them said shortly after we boarded. No, not brave, just curious, I replied. They made me feel more than welcome. "Though you are a different nationality and a different religion (than we are), we love you like a brother," Hasan Demeral, the school principal, told me. The Islamic God and the Christian God and the Jewish God are the same, he declared, only known by different names. And indeed, the teachers treated me like a fellow believer and a brother.
We stopped several times a day at a mosque for prayer. I stayed outside and engaged in my own meditation. "How often do Christians pray? Once a week?" I was asked. Depends on the individual, I tried to explain. Some "pray without ceasing"; some pray five times a day or more; some pray in the morning and the evening, some pray just before sleeping, some pray only occasionally, but prayer in the West is not generally an hour-by-hour daily group ritual. Not sure my answer translated. I do have to admire the way that Allah is not forgotten in the press of a day's activities.
One thing we could find rather extraordinary common ground on: we were on a pilgrimage to Sanliurfa, the "cıty of prophets" in Southeast Turkey, home to prophets Job (Ayoub) and Abraham, the great grandfather of three religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More than once I was moved to tears by the sense of reconciliation that our joint pilgrimage represented.
We stayed overnight in the guest quarters of a private elementary school. Before bedtime, we gathered around in a circle in the warm early spring evening to tell stories, laugh, and commune with one another. A parent whose son used to attend Akansu joined us to talk about life in Southeast Turkey compared to Kayseri, where he had moved a year earlier. People in the Southeast aren't nearly as educated, he said.
Since I don't speak Turkish, I (and a couple of other men) decided to retire early read before bedtime. We took our shoes off as we entered the guest quarters, and all the shoes stacked neatly on a shelf. They went to the prayer room while I meditated at "bedside," actually a pull-down couch in a room I shared with two other men. Several of us vowed that we wouldn't snore, but there was a lot of teasing the next morning about freight trains and foghorns waking people up in the middle of the night.
The weekend reinforced my belief that our common humanity is so much more important than our differences.
I tweet: Turkish taxi driver in Kayseri volunteered to accompany me to police headquarters, acted as translator, and saved me from police bureaucracy.
Why were you going to police headquarters, a friend asks??
Residency permits. The police bureaucrat kept rejecting our applications for God knows what reasons -- first because they weren't typed, then because they weren't on the correct form, etc., etc. Four times he rejected them. The taxi driver recognized my frustration, led me to a Kinkos-type place across the street from police headquarters, told the clerk there to retype the applications correctly, and even though there were mistakes, identifying Lucia as my "mother," the police bureaucrat didn't notice that and finally accepted them. Now the taxi driver is a true "arkadas" (friend), and I will call him whenever I need a lift. He wouldn't accept much extra money for all the time he spent with me. His generosity is so typical of certain Turks. Hospitality to foreigners is a commandment to observant Muslims. They frequently perceive foreign guests as "angels unaware" who were sent by God to test their hospitality and generosity.
We regretfully didn't plan well in advance for the LONG (10 days off!) Kurban Bayrami holiday, which corresponds (roughly) on the calendar with Thanksgiving. Called the "Feast of the Sacrifice" in English, it commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience, before God intervened to tell Abraham he could sacrifice an animal instead. The meat from the sacrifice is divided into three parts -- the family keeps one third; they give one third to friends and neighbors; and a final third they give to the poor and dispossessed.
Most stores and offices were closed in Kayseri for an entire week; it was nearly impossible to make a reservation to get away -- buses and planes were jam-packed. So we stayed in Kayseri, where most things were closed. Did a lot of reading and net surfing and walking the fields. Remind me (or anyone) not to come to Turkey during this holiday.
In 2009, I spent this holiday in Alexandria, Egypt, where my sons and I were shocked by the animal sacrifices in the street. In contrast, the Turks designate sacrifices only in specific places, and generally by trained professionals. That makes the streets a little less bloody.
On our walk, we did encounter a very friendly family that invited us into their home for tea. We obliged, even though there were a lot of awkward silences until the daughter, who speaks English, arrived.