The answer is always LOVE (or sometimes, "42"!)

The answer is always LOVE (or sometimes, "42"!)
My philosophy is LOVEISM...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My first experience with Muslims (at age 19)

Of course, there were superficial encounters with Muslims prior to my epic move to rural Tanzania (at the age of 19)—but these “encounters” usually involved counters, literally—meaning the turbaned people behind every 7-Eleven counter throughout the Washington DC Metro area, who gracefully accepted my hard-earned babysitting money in exchange for Suicide Slushies*. 

*Suicide Slushie:  When you mix all the Slushie flavors into one purple mess and get MAJOR brain freeze. 

Further ignorance perpetuated by private Catholic High School and then later, a unofficially “Jewish” university (Boston University), I had no (unbiased) idea what these Islamic people were about, much less where exactly “in the Middle East” they came from-- and thank Allah, I never followed the US news (or I would have been totally brain-washed.)

Yes, while passing briefly through Dar es Salaam on my way to my rural out-post, I recall my first Adhan, the Muslim morning call to prayer, and thought it was the most exotic ethereal thing I had ever heard—what a poetic way to start the day!  Eventually, daily multiple calls to prayer would become the ONLY way I knew what time of day it was— “(Blah, blah, blah) Allah!”, meant it was “lunch time”, “end of work time”, “dinner time”, etc.  *Thank you, Allah, for being my watch.

Where I lived and worked, in the very, very rural areas of Tanzania, most people were pseudo-Christian seasoned with local tribal religions.  It was not until Marnie, my Canadian colleague, and I spontaneously decided to take a much-needed holiday to Zanzibar, that I had the opportunity to inter-act and associate with Muslims on a deeper level than commerce.

At the time, all Marnie and I knew about Zanzibar is that it was a tropical island off the coast of Dar es Salaam.  That was all the information I needed to buy a ticket. Can you imagine our surprise when boat officials asked us for our passports? 

“What?!  We thought Zanzibar was PART of Tanzania!”  The “official” answer: “Kind-of.”

Dar es Salaam, as viewed from the boat to Zanzibar
NOTE:  After much confusion and hilarity, in Swa-English (Swahili + English), they let us stay on board the boat, sans passports, and continue our blind journey to Zanzibar.  *More proof that Tanzanians are awesome! 

Ironically, the first people to greet us when we landed on Zanzibar happened to be (American) Peace Corps workers.  The Peace Corps workers were adamant that we “turn around immediately” and return to Dar es Salaam before the boat departs.  They passionately informed us that Zanzibar is 95% Muslim and “they” HATED “white foreigners”, especially “women.”  They warned us the Muslim women were going to “spit” on us wherever we went; “everyone” was going to try to “steal” from us; and so on terrifying tales.

I took one look at a blanched Marnie and said, “Don’t you find it ironic that the Peace Corps is not spreading peace? (insert hearty cynical laugh here) I am not going to let ANYONE, especially Americans, ruin MY tropical vacation!  I am staying!” And with that, Marnie and I sought out a place to stay for the night.

As is Kelly custom ANYWHERE in the world, first thing in the morning, I set out to find non-Nescafe coffee and smokes (aka, “breakfast.”)  Along the way, I collected “mystery” fruits and vegetables from local street-side vendors (*one of our favorite games in East Africa was “Name This Food Item!” The loser was whoever got diarrhea, and many times, it was a tie.)  For both practical reasons and to amuse the locals, I carried all my loot on my (blonde) head.  Needless to say, I attracted a lot of attention even without a basket on my head, but my philosophy:  If people are going to STARE and point at me, I might as well give them the whole “show.”

While sauntering down a random, relatively-serene street, on the border of Lost, I distinctly heard some giggles, claps, and then loud whistles from above, followed by Swahili, “Hey, look at this crazy muzungu!” I knew “they” were referring to me, so I abruptly stopped, put down my basket, looked up at more than one balcony full of shrouded, pointing women, and yelled back in Swahili with my hands on my hips, “Who are YOU calling CRAZY?!” 

I was ready for a shower of spit. Instead, I got shrieks of laughter and one woman shouted down, “You speak Swahili?!”  My answer (in Swahili): “Only if you have REAL coffee!” The women immediately descended upon me and dragged me into a house.  Turkish coffee, sweet breads, fruits, and such local delicacies magically appeared in front me, along with maybe 20 women (of all ages) and a few little (terrified) girls; someone turned down the Hindi pop music playing on the television.  I was immediately bombarded with 100 questions, all at the same time:

“Where are you from?”

With Bollywood-esque dramatics, “The greatest imperialist nation in the world!”

“America?” One woman whispered.

“What is your religion?”

“I am still studying--Them ALL.”(Travel Tip: This answer always works!)

“Where is your husband?”

“Good question.  I have not found him yet but he looks like Sting.” (Oh, the women liked THIS answer!)

How many children do you have?”

“None, I am not married yet!” (Nodding heads in approval)

Why did you come to Africa?” all the way to “What do you do during your menstrual cycle?” and “Do you know Michael Jackson?”

Then it was MY turn to ask 100 questions, starting with, “What is this beautiful art all over your hands?” I, of course, was seeing my first henna tattoo (this was the early 90’s and well before everyone at Burning Man discovered henna!) This particular henna design was explained to me as something akin to an engagement ring, announcing that this woman was about to be married. So we did a coffee “cheers” to she and her new engagement.  Several women started showing me their various henna tattoos, all with different meanings, some complete stories.   So when one of the women asked me if I would like a henna tattoo, well, of course I said, “Hell Yes!”

To respect the integrity of the henna tattoo’s historical and spiritual meanings, two (young) women painted one of my hands and one of my feet (as opposed to the traditional both hands and feet)—this was roughly a 4-hour process involving making the henna paste from dried henna leaves; mixing lemon juice, oil and whatnot; during which we ate, drank 40 liters of coffee (perhaps an exaggeration), exchanged stories and questions, and watched a Bollywood film on the television—*and they refused any compensation for this gift!

After the henna paste finally dried on my skin, we all walked together to the beach to “bless” the tattoo, as well as wash off the dried henna. A late afternoon call to prayer brought it to my attention I had been gone, or as Marnie would say later, “missing”, for almost 8 hours!

As I scrambled ungracefully through the streets seeking our hostel, I started noticing that everyone I passed along the crowded streets was suddenly smiling and waving at me, shouting cheerful “Jambo!’s” and other warm greetings, including invitations for tea.  Little did I know that this henna tattoo would work like a VIP pass into the Muslim world…all of a sudden, Marnie and I were invited into a mosque (well, the women’s side, at least) and treated like royalty wherever we travelled, both throughout Zanzibar and even back on the mainland, Tanzania.  My henna tattoo may have only lasted about 2 months, but my kinship with Muslims would last a life-time.