"Oh, one more thing" said the landlord as I signed the lease, "the couple sharing the house is from Israel." In a split second long hours of interfaith dialogue, community organizing and genuine friendships all flashed before me as I grinned at his apprehension and simply replied, "...that shouldn't be a problem." Relieved, he collected the lease with a proud smile reflecting, "How amazing, an Egyptian and an Israeli couple living under the same roof!"
I presume that ten years ago I wouldn't have been as calm about my housemates. But during the past decade I witnessed two transforming crises. The first was when a major mosque project in Boston was halted due to a smear campaign linking it with terrorists. The second was a spiritual crisis. The first ordeal was resolved after numerous community organizations came to the rescue, campaigning against hatred and fear mongering. Most of that support came from Christian and/or Jewish organizations.
The spiritual crisis was a by-product of this resolution. How could I have the audacity to view such sincere and simply good people as deviants from The Straight Path I was on. How could I smile in their faces, and shake their hands with a firm grip, or hug them with a warm embrace, but within my heart conceal a sentiment that I am "righter" than they were in the eyes of God.
This spiritual crisis was resolved by changing my perspective on faith. Instead of my Islam being the Only Right Path to God, it was one of the several traditions that our species developed to come to terms with the big questions in life. It is an extremely rich tradition and it happens to be the one I was brought up in. To me, Islam became like Arabic, a native language to communicate my deepest questions and discover answers. Islam became a spiritual and religious language rich in term and metaphors, but like Arabic, it isn't the only language and English or Mandarin can do just as well.
Along with the transformation came a disenchantment with politics; I came to see politics as the bottom of the human fish tank were the worse residues of fear and manipulation aggregate. I was therefore comfortable living with Israelis; there would be no room for contentions, neither religious nor political.
Our evenings were warm and family like. The couple, a little older than I am, were very close and meshed well with each other. When we first met one evening we had a simple conversation and the next day I immediately accepted their invitation to have lunch with them; sharing bread and salt being the eternal Arab gesture conveying trust and friendship. I taught them Arabic and they taught me Hebrew, we talked about work, politics and God. We had a great time. I couldn't help but see my parents in them. They must have been just like them thirty years ago.
It was a big house though and we expected more tenants. An American Jew, a Polish Catholic and a divorced grandmother moved in a couple of weeks later. With the variety of housemates a shuffling of cards seemed to happen on my side. I identified more with a housemate my age and professional background and I started to spend less time with the Israeli couple. Long dinners became shorter and language lessons were always postponed to another day. The extent of polished sharing of lives started to diminish and with that friction emerged. This is what I call domestic dialogue and feel that it is relevant to the interfaith community at large.
It is one thing to interact for the purpose of civic engagement and another to interact out of the necessity of sharing a home. The first type of interaction is higher form of civic life, attained only after securing your basic domestic and private needs. The second type is part and parcel of securing your basic and private needs.
Civic dialogue affords to wait for you when you're ready. Domestic dialogue catches you off-guard. Civic dialogue, I beg your pardon, is many times a bunch of summer time fancy "bs." The heat of domestic dialogue seperates the "b" from the "s," sending the later straight to the fan.
I sometimes allow myself the flattery of seeing my living situation as a femtocosm of the world (femtocosm is much smaller than microcosm). We live in a home but it really isn't ours, it belongs to a [land]lord. We share limited space and are limited by our emotions and needs. In this domestic dialogue environment I have learned that the key to pleasant co-existance is respecting difference.
The attempt to minimize the differences is futile and counter productive. The attempt to say, "Hey, whatever, you're my housemate and I have your back, as b-tchy as you are today," is more productive. I've learned that circumventing contentious practical issues is not necessarily the right solution. Yes, at times you must dodge the booby traps of disagreement in order to make progress when discussing who is supposed to clean the upstairs bathroom this week or if a couple should pay two shares instead of one for cleaning supplies. There are times, however, when a good ol' fight with hand waving, shouting, cursing in native languages and mean faces, all while sitting around the kitchen table, is cathartic; as long as you have an instinctive commitment to respect that we are different and will never be the same but at the same time must live well in our shared home. At the end of the day we are commonly human and need a be happy in the place we call home.
As much as I dread war, I can't help but conceal a curiosity for how the recent events in Gaza will complicate my relationship with my Israeli housemates (I use the word complicate in a is a positive manner). For several years, as a Muslim in post-9/11 America, I have learned and taught others how to painstakingly search for a common ground and to avoid disagreement at all costs. Living with an Israeli couple has taught me how to maintain a delicate balance between establishing common grounds and demarcating your [shifting] boundaries at the same time. The perpetual pursuit of common ground had relegated the crisis in the Middle-East to the recesses of my mind. Sarah and Cohen have empowered me to bring it back to the forefront. I love them both.
Photo by smoorenburg, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Ahmed Elewa is a graduate student at the Islamic American University where he is researching "responsibility" in Shariah and Islamic Jurisprudence. He is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he studies early embryo development. Upon receiving his Masters Degree in Biomedical Sciences in 2007, Ahmed spent two years working as a community organizer and interfaith coordinator in Boston before moving to Egypt to pursue advanced religious studies. He is currently enrolled in the College of Shariah and Law at al-Azhar University. In 2010 Ahmed published his first novel in Arabic (alRawda) which highlights the paradoxes inherent in biculturalism. A year later he published a memoir, "Ground Zero Mosque: The confessions of a Western-Middle-Eastern Muslim" to narrate his personal encounter with these paradoxes. Using State of Formation as a medium, Ahmed continues to develop his thoughts on personal and social multiculturalism and how religion, science and history interact within individuals and societies. Follow him on twitter @albostoni.