For someone with a love of simplicity and order, I own an excessive amount of trinkets. A few weeks before our departure from South Asia, I packed some of them in a suitcase to send back with a friend returning to the United States. I lovingly wrapped the items as I pondered the most important things to go first.
In went a wooden Coptic cross from the church we attended while living in Egypt. I settled it next to an olivewood communion cup that once held juice outside the garden tomb in Jerusalem. They nestled next to the green, white, black, and red prayer beads secretly pressed into my hand by a Palestinian in Jericho when I spoke to him in broken Arabic, asking about his nation and his faith.
These items have lived on my dresser in Bangladesh, reminding me of the places that have made indelible marks on my life. They will return to a curio cabinet in America next to items that might be worthless in the eyes of others—things like sea shells from the island we visit every year with our closest friends, stones dug out of the Red Sea, a scrap of silk hand embroidered by a friend living in the largest slum in Asia.
My kids placed the beginning of their collections inside the bag as well: a bronze tiger for my son, a little wire rickshaw for my daughter. These things will sit collecting dust on dressers for years to come, surely. But they will also serve as a reminder of the land my children called home for part of their childhood.
This place will make a mark on them they won’t be able to name for years to come. One day, though, they will want to remember. They will need to understand why the smell of ginger and garlic paste simmering in a pan stirs something deep inside their hearts, something they can’t quite place.
When my friend told me the suitcase full of “souvenirs” went missing in transit—lost somewhere in Istanbul—I held back the tears and held my breath. Thankfully, a few days later, I learned it had safely arrived. They are just things, I know, but they are irreplaceable to me, because of the places and the stories they represent...
I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.
I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.
I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?
I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.
I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.
So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.
I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside...
Surveying the damage, they can’t imagine life again after the storm. They can’t yet see the trees that will grow to replace those pulled up by their roots. They can’t picture anything flourishing again in this place of devastation.
Looking out at the endless sea of cars sitting on the interstate, I felt restless and foolish. What was usually a five-hour drive was now entering hour nine. Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I chatted with others fleeing the coming storm. Like me, they weren’t native to the Gulf Coast; I didn’t know one local person who was heeding the mandatory evacuation.
But when news of the hurricane barreling towards the Mississippi Coast hit the airwaves, the call came. My dad on the other end said, “Either you come now or I’m coming to get you.” The evacuation of everyone below I-10 included the little stilted guesthouse where I lived on the edge of the bayou.
I dutifully packed a few belongings. As I drove away I achingly looked back at the green live oaks tendrils framing my rear view mirror like fingers trying to pull me back. My friends laughed: “Yeah, she’s not from around here.” There were parts of me that wanted to defy my father and stay like everyone else. I believed it was safe to stay but my sensible, fearful side agreed with him. So, I ran.
It was a pattern set early in my life. When the storm clouds started to gather on the horizon, I took the path that promised to take me away from the squall. I don’t know why fear has always been my default. Broken relationships, abandoned dreams, and chances never taken out of fear were evidence of my cut and run tendencies.
I wanted to stay and ride out the storms. But time and time again, I didn’t believe I was strong enough to endure the floods. So, I ran.
That time I evacuated, the storm turned to the east (like most locals assumed it would) and ended up bringing heavy rains directly to my parent’s house, missing the Gulf Coast completely. Downed pines clogged the roads and made it impossible for me to return home for a few more days.
Less than a year later I said “see you later” to the sticky heat of the Gulf to return to Georgia. I lingered a moment, running my hand over the peeling paint of the living room of that little house I loved so deeply in the short time I lived there. I closed the slatted windows that let the salty air waft through the house, the crank creaking as it turned. I glanced at the pond to the right of my porch, hoping I’d see the leathery nose of our friendly neighborhood alligator rising out of the water one last time. The surface was like glass.
Little did I know I wouldn’t see that apartment again, nor many of the places I frequented in town. The next time I visited, I couldn’t even find the road where my first apartment by the beach had been located. Everything around it had been flattened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and there were no street signs, no landmarks. Only destruction...
A quick Google search defines the word they as a pronoun “referring to two more people previously mentioned or easily defined.” It’s my experience that no one group of people is easily defined but, oh, we still like to try.
We tuck people away into groups of them and those people, defining those groups as different than us. And these labels reduce people to a stereotype that can house hate, fear, and oppression.
Sometimes that little word triggers such anger in me. I see it in my social media feeds almost daily describing how those people act or believe, words laced with venom—words about how one such group of people we inaccurately mis-categorize is out to destroy our country and world. Words describing people I love—my Muslim brothers and sisters. A huge, diverse group of people comprising one-fourth of the population of the world is reduced to a they that others so easily reject, or vilify.
Most people in my daily life claim Islam as their religion since I live in a country where Muslims make up 80% of the population. To see a group of men wearing white prayer caps and flowing robes walking down the street on the way to the mosque is a normal daily occurrence for me. These are my neighbors. For many people that same image would strike fear of the unknown in their heart.
That’s the key—the unknown. We fear what we don’t take the time to know. We just slap a they label on people and think they are so easily defined.
When others don’t recognize the image of God in my Muslim friends, don’t see them as equal to themselves, as someone who has much wisdom to teach them—I want to rage, I want to scream: how can you not see? I can forget that once I was blind too...
I don’t remember your name. I do remember your laughter, your patience when you helped me with my pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for the English-trained tongue.
I never saw you again after our college Arabic class ended but the look in your eyes has remained with me all these years—the fear and sorrow I saw there when your entire existence was reduced to stereotypes. I realized the distance between you and me was greater than I had imagined. It was September 12, 2001, and on that day the only thing people saw when they looked at you was the headscarf you wore. It’s still the only thing many probably see. But I saw you.
You were the friend of a friend and I could only speak to you through her translating. When I first saw you, we all looked the same under our colorful headscarves and baltos, the long, black dressed that covered our clothing. Over tiny cups of strong coffee, we were able to remove all that kept us hidden from the eyes of men on the streets. I laughed to find you in jeans and a tank top underneath, surprised at how young you looked though already a bride.
Years later, I still kept the small piece of knitting you gave me in the curio cabinet in my bedroom. I would touch the woven white and blue yarn and breathe a prayer for you. I would remember your story and the ancient smell of incense in your home. You were the second wife to a man you rarely saw, living a few apartments away from his first wife. You handed me a pile of knit pieces to choose from, evidence of just how much time you spent alone. The distance between us is many miles and I don’t know if your house in the war-torn Yemeni capital is even still standing. But I remember you.
You made me feel your home was mine. Every time I visited, you had a gift for me. Sometimes you would open your jewelry box and let me choose a bangle. I remember the way your voice would rise with as much passion when we talked about the Egyptian TV dramas you used to act in as when we discussed the differences in the Qur’an and Bible.
You shared all you had with me. You let me see your pain and you carried mine. You cried when we told you we were moving back to America. When you became our landlady, we had nothing in common. We were from different nations, religions, and generations. But I called you friend. I still think of you when your teal and red bracelets clink on my wrists...
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