On Islam (and, Also, a Little Bit On Don Johnson)

I hope you don't mind if I recycle an old blog post. The story takes place on the shores of the Red Sea in the run-down but oddly charming Old City of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It's a story about Islam. I offer no strong opinions or statistics or analysis. I hope the absence of rigor can be forgiven. I have studied Islam for nearly 15 years now, seated on a folding chair next to a zealous Palestinian in a UN office in Damascus, across the desk from a bearded Saudi cleric in Arabia, from countless books written from every academic angle. I've lived among Muslims for years -- Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Amman, Aqaba, Jerusalem, Jeddah, Riyadh, Muscat. As such, I claim no expertise, but I suppose I have some measure of authority to present compelling arguments defending Islam. But nah. Islam is more vast and confusing and wonderful than any commentator can portray. Instead of an argument, here's a simple story from a regular weeknight in heart of Islam.

Missionaries of Islam (w/ young, Saudi Don Johnson). (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Aug 2013)

August 23, 2013... Me and Savannah are on a daddy-daughter date to Jeddah's old city, al-Balad. Mostly it is crumbling, dilapidated buildings and very pungent odors, but it's interesting and authentic and probably cheaper than ice cream and I like taking pictures there. Savannah carries my tripod. In my view, daddy-daughter dates are simply good opportunities for me to pursue my hobbies with a servant to carry my stuff.

We pad along a sandy street for about a half-block before a trio of Saudi teens stop to talk. After pleasantries, they invite us to become Muslim, which we politely decline, although I think about it more than I usually do because one of the kids looks like what Don Johnson would've looked like when he was a teenager, if Don Johnson had been Saudi.

Later, as we edge around a large puddle laced with raw sewage, Savannah notes that we are invited to convert to Islam quite a bit here in Jeddah. Why is that? she asks.

(Al-Baydha, Saudi Arabia; Jun 2013)

Well, I tell Savannah, I suppose they are happy being Muslim, and they think that maybe we'd be happy being Muslim too. As a Mormon, I feel like I have the least business of anyone in getting annoyed when somebody wants to talk to me about their faith. I spent two years of my life sharing my faith with strangers because I believe it makes both me and others better -- the least I can do is teach my daughter to permit others the same latitude to share their beliefs with us.

Later, me and Savannah pass by a working class Pakistani man sitting on the bed of a pickup. He strikes up a conversation with us, and we visit for awhile. He must see a bead of sweat trickling through my eyebrow, because he asks if we're thirsty. No, no, I say. We're heading home soon, we're fine, thanks. But he rises anyhow and pulls a couple riyals from his pocket. "Wait," he commands, and strides off down the narrow street. "No! No!" I call after him. I know what he's doing and I'm embarrassed about it. But you can't defuse Muslim hospitality. You just can't. And so he returns in a few minutes with a plastic bag filled with cold cans of pop and cold bottles of water. I thank him profusely and we visit for awhile longer before parting at the call to sunset prayer.

On our way back home Savannah is sipping her sweet soda in the back seat. She's watching the dusty streets roll past her window, the mustached men on the curb come and go. "Muslims are nice," she says to no one in particular. Without the mess of pride and ethnocentrism and money and bias, sometimes kids just see it all clearly and get it right.

Proof that there are Muslims of all political persuasions. This precious family bravely hung that poster in their house (inside where no one could see it) in the early months after the US-led invasion of Iraq (full disclosure: these guys were of Kurdish extraction). (Damascus, Syria; 2003)