Why do I care so much about the public perception of Islam? Television, newspapers, and social media are full of gruesome images of ISIS, masked men with rifles who behead perceived enemies, kidnap women and children, and force ordinary Muslims to flee their homes. That is not a way of life for most of the world’s 1 billion Muslims including some who are dear to me.
Dedication to family, devotion to parents, caring for friends, helping strangers, charity, and avoidance of alcohol and drugs are what’s right with Islam. Lucky for me that Afghan and Somali friends brought their culture and the beauty of Islam into my life. The Tarin family surrounds me with love, kindness, companionship and caring. On the very first evening that my new friend Diba invited me to an Afghan-style dinner, I said this is home. I didn’t want to leave. Warm cozy feelings lingered long after I left.
Diba and I became fast friends last year after meeting at the airport where I volunteer. I took a chance and said hello. We started to talk. Later, we exchanged messages on Facebook, email and the phone. I mentioned that I’d attend the annual meeting of the Arizona chapter of the American Muslim Women’s Association. Over the summer I had donated games, dolls and puzzles to their Ramadan toy drive for refugee children. For seven years I volunteered as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels with my adopted dog Luke who sadly passed away in January 2010. We spread kindness and compassion to homeless children at a family shelter. At Christmas time we always brought gifts to the children. Muslim children would surely enjoy toys for their special holiday so I donated to AMWA’s effort. I planned to introduce myself at the annual meeting. Diba met me there. Not only did we learn about the humanitarian work of the Muslim women’s association, we had a fantastic time sharing food and conversation. I’ve since become an avid supporter of AMWA and volunteer for community events. At the recent annual meeting, I received an award for service. I was so proud.
Sometimes I met Diba after work. Even if I wasn’t hungry, I always accepted her offer of food. Afghans by tradition always serve guests a generous meal. We talked and laughed as we ate. Every time she brought up moving, a knot tied up my stomach. Why did you have to go I said to myself. Already, I felt like I belonged around her. Family is everything among Afghans and Muslims in general. Diba and Abdul’s only child, a daughter, was enrolled in graduate school in Southern California and they wanted to be near her. I longed for those family ties yet they always remained elusive.
Daily prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam. I watched Diba a few times as she prayed, something I rarely did. Diba’s devotion to Islam fascinated me. Religion rarely played a role in my life. Undoubtedly I let-down my mother. Diba’s mom Latifa, however, must’ve been so proud of her daughter who embraced Islam with the same enthusiasm that I rejected Catholicism. Should I pray too, I wondered? Surely, it couldn’t hurt.
One evening, Diba invited me to her family’s home in nearby Queen Creek. I glanced down at my shorts, T-shirt and sneakers then compared myself to Diba, stylishly dressed, wearing make-up and a brightly colored hijab. How can I meet her family looking like I’m ready for a pick-up basketball game? I declined. Please tell your family I hope to meet them soon.
Before long, we talked or texted every day almost everything and anything. I grew more attached, relying on Diba, like the sister I was never had. Actually, I do have a step-sister but she’s much older. She moved away when I was a child and lived apart from me her entire life. I feel relaxed and at ease around Diba, like best friends or family members.
The time came to finally meet the family. Diba invited me to her younger brother Tariq’s home for dinner. Cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, everyone it seemed enjoyed each other’s company on a cool Arizona evening. Tariq welcomed me into his home not as a guest but as family. We ate dinner in the backyard. There, I was introduced to the Afghan custom of eating with your hands while sitting on the floor. Because of lingering injuries from a car accident, I sat on a chair but I had such a lovely time. Tariq led us in prayer to honor the anniversary of Diba’s late father who died suddenly in 1992. Before I left, Tariq presented me with a Quran, my second copy. I explained how I got my first one (at an interfaith service in 2011). On the half hour drive home to Tempe, I felt both elated and sad. Why didn’t I have family like Diba?
I tagged along to a “Persian Party” one evening, a baby shower attended only by Muslim women, all Afghans. There was tasty home-cooked food, lively music and wonderful company. I could have stayed all night. The atmosphere pulsed with delight. I wanted to become Afghan but I couldn’t.
Afghan people are thoughtful, generous hosts. As soon as I enter an Afghan home, there are always plates of food, sweets and green tea. I presented an enigma however because I don’t eat meat, sugar and rarely eat dairy. I ditched caffeine in 1992. Drinking tea is an Afghan custom. So is offering sweets to guests. I didn’t want Diba or my hosts to feel slighted by my dietary habits so I finally found caffeine-free green tea. Sugar has been out of my diet since 1982 so eating sweets is just not possible. Fruit, dates, and nuts serve as substitutes. I hope my friends understand my oddball habits.
Diba’s mom lives with her late brother’s wife and children but the entire family treat her like a queen. The Quran demands respect of parents. “Address them in terms of honor,” says verse 17:23-24. Caring for elderly parents is part of Muslim as well as Afghan culture. I visited a nursing home for several years as a volunteer pet therapist and never once recall a Muslim patient.
I figured out an Afghan secret. Nearly everyone it seemed stored used plastic bags inside their unused dishwashers. Dishes were done by hand. Afghans often have large family gatherings, especially during Ramadan. Women relatives pitch in to clean up and wash dishes, the old fashioned way – by hand. I’ve never heard the hum of an electric washing machine inside an Afghan home.
On a Friday, the Muslim holy day, I attended prayer services with Diba. Following tradition, I wore a hijab. On my first time, the loosely fitting scarf was lopsided on my head, not quite covering my hair like other Muslim women but I looked presentable enough. I later joined her for an in-law’s Islamic memorial service. I learned more and more about Afghan customs and traditions. To add to my growing knowledge, I took out books from the library. I read about the misery created by the Soviet invasion, the ensuing violence and the cruelty imposed by the Taliban. I gobbled up information as fast as I could.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I stopped at an ATM. I needed cash. A surprise call from Diba invited me to join her at the hospital to visit her sister-in-law Maniga who had surgery. Sure I said, I’ll meet you there. Inside a small hospital room, at least a dozen Muslim women and me surrounded Maniga with well wishes. We all talked and laughed. On my way out, I saw more women in hijabs carrying flowers and gifts on the way to see Maniga. The outpouring of support and concern from the Afghan community for their sister Maniga was so genuine, so real. In verse 4:36 the Quran says serve God and to do good to parents, neighbors, kinfolk, strangers and those in need. Afghans just help one another.
Diba’s friends and family stay connected and support one another, talking daily. They share in each other’s delights such as birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and graduations. At times of loss, they reach deep down into their hearts and feel each other’s pain. So do others in the Afghan community.
Our friendship continued to blossom even though Diba and her husband moved a few months later to Southern California. A piece of my heart broke that Saturday in November as the moving truck pulled out of the driveway. I sobbed all the way home. The blessings of technology, however, keeps us in daily contact.
My bond with Diba’s family remains strong. Sometimes I join them for lunch or dinner. We pray together at the mosque. During the latest Ramadan, I joined her family and friends for Iftar’s (breaking the fast) at an Islamic center in Chandler. I cherished my evenings sharing home-cooked food, conversation and prayers with my sisters, some of whom I met for the first time. We laughed, hugged and traded bits of our lives. Children played under watchful adult eyes. After meals, we took turns cleaning up. And then at the end of July Ramadan was over. There would be no more evenings at the Islamic Center. I didn’t want it to end. I loved the camaraderie among Muslim women and Diba’s family. No one was a stranger. Everyone including me was welcomed. I miss my sisters. I hope they miss me too.
I am blessed to have Kameer in my life, a young Somali woman. I met her at the airport too. The airport has been good to me in many ways. She worked as a housekeeper until taking maternity leave. We struck up a friendship and talked whenever we saw each other on my shift. Before Kameer went on leave, I gave her a small gift. Several months later, she sent me photos of the baby and asked me to visit. That started a kind, caring friendship. I love playing with Kameer’s little girl Salmo. She’s loads of fun. Both Kameer and her husband came to the US as refugees from Somalia. They work hard at low wage jobs. Salmo is blessed with loving, caring and devoted parents. And I am thankful to have a friend like Kameer. From her, I’ve learned about African refugee camps, the long, arduous process involved emigrating to the US and the dangers that many refugees endure because of war and political instability. Somali people are close, like Afghans. They look after one another. I always bring a small gift for Salmo. Kameer appreciates my devotion to her daughter and always cooks scrumptious Somali dishes for me. She tells me about the Quran and its importance to her life. I respect the values she learned from her mother. Like Diba, she’ll pray while I’m there if it’s one of the five daily prayer times. We also worshipped at a mosque. Learning about Somali culture enriches me.
There are over 1 billion Muslims in the world. Admittedly, some commit atrocious crimes, including harming other Muslims and must be held accountable for their behavior. Extremism in any form is dangerous and a threat to world peace. According to a booklet I have about Islam, Allah commands Muslims not to begin hostilities or acts of aggression or to violate the rights of others. Not all Muslims follow Allah’s commands but the vast majority including the 5-6 million Muslim Americans adhere to the faith. Portraying all Muslims are jihadists or terrorists is an unfair portrayal of a diverse group of people – Africans, Arabs, Persians, Southeast Asians, and Western converts. Good and bad exist among us all. Muslims are no different. We are all God’s children, brothers and sisters. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said if we don’t live as brothers (and I assume he meant sisters too) we’ll perish together as fools. I hope that day never happens.