The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.
Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.
I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.
Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.
Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.
I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!
Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.” I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.
Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think, “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!
Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.
In the Beginning…
During my eighth month in Riyadh, 1986, I fell in love with an Egyptian man. He was Muslim; I was Christian. Neither one of us allowed that to get in the way of the natural course of events.
He worked at KFSH, in the Emergency Department, and I worked in the lab. I met him when I started working third shift; he used to bring specimens to the lab.
Third shift at KFSH was indeed a graveyard shift. Only one person was needed to cover my whole section on third shift. During the day it needed ten people. I worked twelve hours, seven PM to seven AM, four days a week, and spent most of that time alone.
The quiet, slow atmosphere of routine evenings in the hospital gave third shift workers time to talk to one another about subjects other than work. Because none of the supervisors were there, nor any of the Saudis, men and women didn’t maintain as strict a separation as they did during the daytime. Therefore, Ahmed and I talked to each other, sometimes at length. We started seeing each other on days off.
We’d sit in the hospital lobby, just talking. We’d take the hospital bus downtown to the suq, and walk around for hours, until the same bus came back to get us, along with whomever else had come downtown that night. People noticed immediately that Ahmed and I were spending too much time together.
If I had taken up with a man from any of the Western countries, no one would have raised in eyebrow, but Ahmed was Egyptian, and I was American. I had been warned, just as all newly arrived expatriate women are warned, to stay away from Arab men.
Well, I didn’t travel half way around the world to burrow into a pack of Americans, no offense to my compatriots. I simply thirsted for expansion.
We knew each other for just a few weeks when he started talking about marriage. In my still naive American mentality, I was impressed that this handsome, exotic man wanted to marry me. We agreed on a two year courtship.
That alone should have given me pause, but I knew nothing about Islam and little more about Arab men. I decided that I needed to learn about Islam. I believed (and still believe) that a married couple should observe the same religion. The Muslim people I met at the hospital had impressed me with their positive attitudes, their emotional warmth, dedication to their professions and families, sense of security and of purpose. If Islam had anything to do with such development, I wanted to discover the process, and try it for myself.
So began my inquiry into Islam, primarily because I thought I would become the wife of a Muslim, the wife of Ahmed. I wanted to see if I could observe Islam with him. The two year courtship passed, during which I suffered an earthquake of changes, the magnitude of which threw up the foundations of my most basic assumptions. Everything fell back down all mixed up, and when the dust settled, I was a Muslim.
Eventually I did become the wife of a Muslim, but not Ahmed’s wife. That’s another story. Suffice it to say that when Ahmed exited my life, Islam remained.