Challenging Experiences, Challenging Assumptions

A few days ago, a Muslim named Samer attempted to proselytize me. It has undoubtedly been the best experience of my study abroad trip.

He spoke of loving Jesus and women. He softly sung the Qur’an to recall answers to our questions. He even teared up at one point. He was genuine, passionate, even loving.

To the casual Christian student, the scene would have appeared oddly inverted. To the casual American, it would have seemed strange, at odds with the running commentary of the popular media.

Studying abroad in a predominantly Muslim country – 97.2% Muslim to be exact – I have found many of my basic assumptions challenged.

For example, another Muslim friend I spoke to asked if I was sure I was a Christian when I told him I did not have a priest. Another convincingly argued that America indirectly funded ISIS, so detrimentally have they tarnished the name of Islam.

Sometimes it is difficult living in a predominantly Muslim country simply because many Muslims have so many different basic assumptions. The Arabic language is infused with Islamic understandings of the world. The two most common words, inshallah and yallah, invoke the name of God. Sometimes I feel the very air I breathe is Muslim.

I have realized the first step in the journey from foreigner to family is understanding each of our basic assumptions. Without understanding which square I stand on and which my neighbor stands on, I cannot move with any purpose toward relationship. Even the basic words of our respective languages carry fundamental assumptions that fly far over any foreigner’s head.

That is why I’ve committed myself to learning whatever small portion of the Arabic language I can. In this world where words I don’t understand are saturated with meaning, it is easy to miss the beauty of the society I live in.

One example is the phrase “Allah yatiik ilafyeh,” or “God give you strength.” I say this phrase to taxi drivers when I want them to stop the cab or to my friends when they are overwhelmed with homework. I told my Iraqi friend I went to bed at two in the morning and he said, “Allah yatiik ilafyeh.” God give you strength.

Another is “ysallim idayk,” or “God preserve your hands.” A waiter hands me my food and I say, “Ysallim idayk.” God preserve your hands. Or the ever-present “ahlan, ahlan!” My family, my family.

Each of these phrases has an automatic response. They are ingrained into the speaker’s mind and inform his/her way of life.

The intentionality of each word makes me question the English words I use, especially with Arabs who draw connections between our most common words and their
original meaning.

I said “that sucks” the other day, and my Christian Arab friend asked what the phrase meant. I didn’t really have
an explanation.

Slowly I realize, experiencing new culture sets a mirror in front of the foreigner. It calls into question even the most habitual phrases and the most common assumptions. And it refines me, sometimes painfully. From the insignificant to the paramount, it refines me.

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