Further Adventures in Anatomy (For a Five-Year-Old)

Hasan came to spend the night with me again. He said,”Grandma, will you please tell me more about the body? I’m not confused anymore.”

“No, I think we’ll not study tonight,” I replied, remembering his emotional upset after we’d “studied” last week.

“Where’s the book?” he asked, ran to my room and found the illustrated atlas of anatomy. “Tell me about breathing,” he demanded.

I opened the pages illustrating respiratory anatomy, and told him about how the air goes into the lungs from the nose and/or mouth. I wanted to tell him about oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange in the capillaries, but he interrupted me.

“That’s creepy!” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “I don’t think it’s creepy, I think it’s beautiful.”

“Why is everything red?” he asked.

“The lung is a vascular organ, full of blood vessels.”

“EEWWWEE! That’s soooooo creepy. I don’t want to learn anything more about breathing.”

“OK,” I said, and closed the book.

“Wait!” he said. “If air goes into the throat, how does the body know the difference between air and food?”

That kid amazes me. 

“Well,” I said,”there are two pipes in your neck, one for air and one for food. There’s a door between them, and the body knows when to shut the door, according to whether food or air is coming down.” 

He bent his leg at the knee, and pressed on the joint from the sides. Then he extended the leg and pressed his kneecap. 

“Why does this top part pop up when my leg is straight, but disappears when my leg is bent?”

I showed him the cross-section of the knee joint, and  how the kneecap  appears to slide between the leg bones as the leg is moved. He found that picture fascinating– not too vascular. 

He then said, “Grandma, I need a folder, and some paper. I’m going to learn you how to read and write Arabic.”  

Physiology for a Five-Year-Old

My grandson Hasan wanted to spend the night with me, so I picked him up on my way home from work. We played on the computer,  constructed a model car together, watched a little television,  brushed our teeth and put on our pajamas. Then he asked me, “What color is our brain?”

“Pink,” I said.

“What color is a very young brain?”

“Pink.”

“What color is a very old brain?”

“Pink,” I said, “I’ll show you.” I dug out my beautifully illustrated atlas of anatomy and flipped to the section on the nervous system. I showed him the pink brain, with its packed convolutions, and I showed him where the spinal cord enters the lower part of the brain. Then I ran my fingers down his spinal cord. He stared.

“How do the five senses work?” he asked.

I flipped to the eye picture and told him about how light enters the pupil and how the optic nerve is connected to the brain.

“How do we hear?” he asked.

I flipped to the ear pictures, and showed him the inner anatomy of the ear, which conveniently looks like musical instruments (if you apply a little imagination).

“How does burping work?”

To the digestive system…

“How does the pee pee get made?”

To the kidneys, ureters and bladder pages…

“The poopies?” Back to the digestive system…

“How does our hair get white when we get old?”

To the section on aging…He stared at the drawings of people at various ages,  their hair becoming white and their flesh becoming  loose. He wanted to know where each of his family members stood in the lineup.

We sat with that book for nearly an hour, he asking questions and  me flipping the pages to show him pictorial answers.

Finally I saw his eyelids droop, so we went to bed. I was relieved he hadn’t asked me about death.

He turned from side to side, unable to fall asleep in spite that he was tired and it was nearly midnight.

“I can’t fall asleep,” he said. “I want my mommy!” He became agitated and I wasn’t able to help him recover his usual good mood. I  had to phone his mommy, waking her,  and ask her to unlock the door for us. I took him home, feeling sorry that he had suddenly felt so unhappy.

Next morning, he phoned me early and said, “Grandma! Don’t tell me anything more about the body at night time. I just get so confused! I get sooooo confused!”

Another Friday Khutbah

The musullah I go to on Fridays is just a large room in the basement of a nearby hospital in which approximately three dozen Muslims work. The designated imam doesn’t always attend– it’s a hospital, and staff members are often required to work through prayer times for the welfare of critically ill patients– and therefore men from the community take turns making khutaba, calling azan, and leading prayer. 

Yesterday I arrived late, and missed most of the khutbah. He talked about five things that would be taken away from us prior to death. The fifth thing was wealth. No matter how much or little of it we have, it is but a loan from Allah. We can’t take it with us. Everybody knows that, but most people feel it only intermittently,  after they’ve lost or profited from an investment, for example.  The goal, however, is to feel this fact more often, often enough to inspire the use of wealth more wisely, in service to the well-being of people  as opposed to frivolous and exaggerated desires for entertainment.

He also said that entertainment is necessary, and that we needn’t become overly critical of our need for it, but that a balance must be sought, a balance that will satisfy all legitimate needs. 

He then asked us, “What would you do today if you knew today would be your last?” 

The answer was not necessarily that we should start  praying and reading the Qur’an for the duration, but that we should feel secure in our decisions of habit, the decisions and practices by which we lived and performed daily activities.  Because we never know when our last day will arrive,  we must  live every day mindful of that fact, mindful of our relative brevity of physical existence, and our responsibility to enrich the lives of others.  

Some of you might say, “I did everything for my family; I will spend the last day doing for myself.”  The self has requirements. Those who exaggerate selfless generosity do so to their own deprivation. That is not required nor desired. 

I don’t  always attend Friday jummah prayer because, I, too, work in a hospital and cannot always take the time off, but I am now committed to attending whenever I can, and passing along what I have heard. That is one of the goals of the khutbah– for those who have heard it to share it with those who have not heard it.

  

A Disturbing Khutbah

Last Friday, the imam gave a  twenty-minute khutbah that can be reduced to just one sentence: “Those who use their brains will know that Islam is the true religion.”

Well, I am surprised he doesn’t know that millions of intelligent people have used their brains, and have decided that religions other than Islam are “true.”  He doesn’t know that Christians have constructed a complex and convincing theory for their trinitarian god. Hindus and Buddhists have used texts more ancient than the Bible for informing their concepts about ultimate reality. All religions provide an intellectual framework  through which followers can navigate, contemplate and reaffirm basic tenets.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is no less convincing than Mohammed’s journey through the heavens. Both religions maintain belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, and who can reaffirm that by using their brains?

My brain tells me that babies don’t get started without sexual intercourse, and that the live body does not levitate through the sky except by way of an airplane. My brain tells me that the body stays dead after death.  To believe otherwise requires a leap of faith which inactivates  the brain rather than uses it. Indeed, believers who wonder about religious  “facts”, or dare to question them, are taught that their faith needs strengthening.

That is absolutely true. One’s faith, not one’s brain, must take the lead in deciding which religion is “true”.  Once you are there, your brain must remain inert. Faith and Intellect are mutually exclusive, at least with regard to the daily lives of ordinary people.

One reads nowadays that certain scientists are finding ways to meld — not merely reconcile– their intellectual development with  faith. Quantum physics shows us that  matter and non-material reality exist as a continuum, not an absolute, and that previously illogical concepts can actually become logical, under certain conditions.

This is where using one’s brain will reaffirm religion. Until science can establish the possibility that religious “facts” could have indeed occurred as taught by religion, my brain will not be in use with regard to faith. My brain and my faith live in different realities. I daresay I speak for the majority of “believers”. The imam would do well to address his next khutbah on the necessity of suspending intellectual function, rather than using it, as a means to decide which religion is “true.”

A Sacred Trust

 

Yesterday was Friday, and I went to jummah prayer with my grandson. The khutbah was about children as trusts from Allah. My heart squeezed a little when the imam said that children are Allah’s trust to us, but that they can be taken from us at any time. In fact, they are supposed to leave our care when they get old enough to start  their vocations and new families.  My five year old grandson was cuddled in my lap as I listened. I hated to imagine that he could ever be separated from me, but I also knew my relationship with him was nothing if not a sacred trust. My actions today and every day will put their mark upon him.

The imam continued. The point is that we must love our children and be active in their lives as they grow, and give them our wisdom, especially about matters of Islam.  This advice is nothing new.  Suddenly I was very thankful I’d come to jummah prayer.  I nearly stayed home. In going to jummah, and bringing my grandson, I showed him what I believe, and showed him what is expected of him.

When the khutbah ended, and we rose for prayer, I nudged my grandson to join his grandfather in the men’s rows, and he balked. He  knows he’s supposed to pray with the men, but I could not force him. Maybe the other sisters found fault with me; maybe they didn’t. My grandson jumped on my back as I made sujuud, and I nearly laughed, astaghfirullah, but I continued my prayer and ignored his antics. He’ll grow up soon enough , and face difficult choices as he carves his path. I need to give him the best of myself to take with him. I need to teach him many more things, including our religion.  Some people would say especially our religion. 

 

The Saint Movies

Even before I became a Muslim, I was never Catholic. I knew very little about Catholicism or the lives of the saints, nor was I interested. Now, I am interested.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a movie entitled, “Papa Luciani.” This movie was available on-line via http://www.rai.it/, the Italian network. It was one of a handful of Italian language movies I could watch on-line as an exercise in improving my Italian. This biography of Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I, engaged my heart and mind. The acting and photography was so excellent I watched the movie repeatedly. Not only did I improve my comprehension of Italian, but I learned about a most remarkable man who continued to inspire, years after he died under mysterious circumstances in 1978 the age of sixty-five years.

After digesting this film, I discovered another film biography of a Catholic saint, this one called, “St. Giuseppe Moscati,  Doctor to the Poor”.  Moscati was a physician whose compassion and bravery made an indelible mark upon the subsequent development of medical care. Many people have never heard of this man, who was declared a saint in 1987.                   

After seeing these two films, my motives for watching them expanded. Not only was I interested in improving my Italian, but also now interested in exposing my spirit to the examples of human beings whose lives of love and sacrifice transcended religious constructs. These saints lived using Roman Catholicism as a matrix because that’s what they knew. The ultimate verity of Catholicism, Islam, or even Buddhism, for that matter, does not matter. The messages in these films transcend the incompatibility of theologies. In fact, most of these saints endured harsh criticism and even torture because they did not adhere to the decreed set of contemporary (for their day) Catholic rules.

As a Muslim, I can appreciate these saints and take lessons from them, apart from ideological dogma that drags upon all organized religions. I am not interested in leaving Islam or embracing Catholicism, but I am always interested in the lives of people who exemplify the most simple and universal of religious truths:  Love each other.

I’ve since watched other “saint” films— all extremely well done artistically and philosophically– documenting the lives of the saints. Among my favorites are:

 

Bakhita

From Slave to Saint

 

Padre Pio, Miracle Man, starring Sergio Castellito, one of Italy’s most respected actors.

 

Saint Francis

(of Assisi)

 

Saint Philip Neri, I Prefer Heaven

This one made me cry.

I

 

St. Giuseppe Moscati

Doctor to the Poor

(and one of the most handsome actors!)

 

All are available at http://www.ignatius.com and http://www.amazon.com.

If any reader happens to see one of these movies, please let me know your thoughts about what you saw.

Hyphenated Names– for Women Only?

I’ve wanted to write this rant for months, and now I’ve succumbed to the urge.

 

Hyphenated names for non-Muslim  women make no sense to me.  They are long, phonetically awkward, and cumersome to write. They suggest that the poor woman didn’t know what name to call herself after marriage, so she simply tacked the married name on to the maiden name, much like one would add blond extensions to a full head of auburn hair.

 

I work in a hospital. Hyphenated names cause no end of confusion. They don’t fit on forms, they don’t get entered correctly in certain computer programs, they get mixed up, reversed,  exchanged with first names, and ulitmately abbreviated when expedient.

 

Some women hyphenate their names because both names consist of one syllable, and the two together sound better. Why don’t they finish combining the two into one,  forming a new name altogether, similar to the way in which John’s Son became Johnson? 

 

Why don’t they ask their husband to take the second name, as well? It seems ridiculous that a man has a single name, and his wife sticks  his name behind her maiden name, and what about the children? If the hyphenated name is given to the children, what names will their spouses use when they grow up and get married? 

 

Some women use a hyphenated name because one of the names has social recognition, but why not simply drop the obscure name and use the name that carries social weight?

 

Some women want to keep the maiden name, in a salute to feminism and the maintainance of identity, an awkward attempt  to exert themselves as equals, but it doesn’t work. When was the last time you heard that a husband tacked his wife’s maiden name onto his own, because he wanted to preserve his identity?

 

Ah, but we still live in a somewhat patriarchal society, feminism and working women notwithstanding. All family members should use the same name, the father’s name, no? In the olden days of my childhood, fathers were the “heads of family”, working outside the home,  carrying the entire financial responsibility for the well-being of the family, making all the important decisions. They were also the disciplinarians. Most people as old as I am remember their mother’s chilling words, “Wait til your father gets home!”

 

Now, however, most mothers work outside the home, too, many full-time, just like the father, and therefore feel entitled to share in the decision-making as well as  the  financial responsibility. Hyphenating their names may point to women’s desires to fully participate in the two major life roles most people embrace– working and having a family.

 

In Islam, women do not stick their husband’s names behind their own. The children carry the father’s last name. While this might suggest gender inequality, it recognizes the father as the head of the family.  Gender inequality, if you could call it that, does exist in Islam, in the sense that the father is supposed to work and bring home money, while the mother works inside the home, providing the kind of nurturing and domestic organization that is never paid its worth in currency. The deal for women is that they give up their earning power to gain financial security from the husband, and the right to stay home and raise their own children (rather then having to take them to day care).  The fact always remains, however, that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

 

Naming customs reflect the social, economic, and religious realities of families.  If hyphenated names for  non-Muslim women are meant to suggest  gender equality, then all family members must carry the hypenated names. Multiple  names are awkward, however, and suggest nothing but indecision or equivocation on the part of the woman. I don’t know how women are going to evolve in the future, with respect to “balancing” major life roles such as working and child-bearing.  

 

While I’m at it, let me add that I hate the word, “balance.” It suggests that two or more quantities can be manipulated so that their weights become equal. This is not the reality with regard to women who work and bear children during a twelve week maternity leave. Instead of  talking about balancing, let’s talk about  dividing. How does a woman divide herself so that both work and family get an equal share? Why must work and family get equal shares, anyway? In reality, they don’t, yet women keep trying,  whether they want to or not.  Hyphenated names are the objective correlative to the reality of Western women’s lives– cumbersome, awkward, and suggestive of division rather than unity.

Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

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.

Book Review– The Butterfly Mosque

Book Review
The Butterfly Mosque
by G. Willow Wilson

To say that this book was written by an American woman who went to Egypt, explored Islam, became Muslim, married an Egyptian, and spent a year assimilating into Egyptian society, would be like saying that a human body is composed of a skeleton holding organs and covered by skin. The inner workings of both processes are wonderful, complex, and beyond easy description.

By now, anyone interested in the topic can find numerous accounts of Western women who fell in love Arab men, married, moved to the Middle-East, and brought back stories of assimilation and/or abandonment. This story is different.  Willow went to Egypt with nothing more than a niggling urge to explore Islam and the people who live it. She was raised an atheist, and therefore did not wrestle with the usual conundrum of whether or not Jesus was the son of God, a savior (and all that is borne of that belief). She decided (without the help of a Muslim boyfriend) that the evidence for the existence of God not only held water, but held water within Islam.

Youth and nature being what it is, Willow did fall in love with an Egyptian and got married. Her story, however, does not focus upon this process, or upon the religious conversion. Hers is a story that pulls together the disparate elements of her life into a whole that makes sense. Hers is a multi-layered story that not only reveals who she is as an American, but who the Egyptians are, and how the enormous, but sometimes subtle differences between American and Egyptian culture really do clash in ways we cannot even predict.

She writes authentically, honestly. I know this because I, too, married an Egyptian, and I spent a little time in Egypt. No American can write about living in Egypt without addressing the difficulties of daily life there, or the discomfort of trying to stay healthy in a polluted environment. At the same time, no one can deny the spirit of generosity and optimism  that percolates through the national character of Egyptians.  Egyptians themselves are what make Egypt livable and actually loveable.

This book is well-written from several perspectives. Stylistically, it flows well, without the inconsistencies that sometimes pervade first memoirs.  Willow is a good writer, and she knows how to weave objective reality with her own inner reality to present a narrative that carries the reader in and out seamlessly.

I admit to suffering from a sort of jealousy. Willow had the blessing of marrying a man she could talk to, a man whose world view expanded beyond the boundaries of Egypt. Her husband encouraged her to learn colloquial Arabic. Many Arab husbands do not. Willow also drew upon enough intestinal fortitude to stick with Egypt for an extended period of time, long enough to accomplish a decent assimilation.

I married an Egyptian who had what we euphemistically call “issues.” Also, though I loved visiting Egypt, I could never stay in Cairo for more than five days before becoming sick and stressed to the point that I’d have to leave.  I’d dreamed of attending school there to learn Arabic, but a dream is what remains after all these years. I miss Egypt. I miss the Middle-East. Willow’s book reminded me why, and renewed my sense of who I am as a result of where I’ve lived.

This book is a gift to those who would venture into the waters of an intercultural life. It is especially good reading for those who have an interest in Egypt– not from an academic point of view but from the view at street level.

Confession– Envious of Evangelicals

My mother worships at an evangelical mega-church, one of those “born-again” organizations that have sprung up across the United States in recent years. Her church, like others of its kind, has attracted thousands of members and their dollars, keeps growing year after year, adding programs and services, expanding and developing its capacity for Christian outreach, with single-minded focus, dedication, and effectiveness.

This particular church dedicates itself to global ministry. It now trains and supports full-time missionaries to dozens of countries around the world. The missionary families go to “third world” countries ostensibly to teach, administer medical care, or develop cottage industries for women and children. They return to the States from time to time to give presentations on their progress.  They sometimes bring back human proof of their success.

Recently, my mom came back from church energized by one of these presentations.  A pair of Romanian girls gave a heartfelt speech about they had been rescued from prostitution by the missionaries, and how thankful they felt for their new faith in Jesus. My mom wanted me to be interested in the story, and I pretended, for her sake, to be interested, but inside, my heart cringed.

While Christian mega-churches organize, proselytize, work together, and rejoice in their success, Muslims are still trying to separate Islam from political terrorism. While Christian evangelicals bury their real goal in the delivery of desperately needed social and economic services that should be available to all people in all places, without an underlying religious impetus, Muslims are still fussing about head-scarves and the rights of women to drive cars and work outside the home. 

The Christian evangelicals, like the Tea Party to which most of them belong, are doing something right in America, right in terms of achieving their goals. I don’t like evangelicals, with their back-door approach, and I despise the Tea Party, with its contempt for the rest of us. I recognize that my negative attitude towards these groups masks a sort of jealousy. I want to see Muslim mega-mosques– here,  in the United States—- doing the rescuing, the teaching, the doctoring, and the ministering to populations that need these services. 

Oh, I know, we are making progress. My community’s Islamic Center continues to grow in size and influence. An additional mosque is planned for my end of town, but maybe I’m still “homesick” for the Muslim majority environment in which I cultivated my Islam. Maybe I still miss hearing the azan from a dozen nearby mosques. Maybe I wish daily activities could be planned around prayer times rather than business hours. Maybe I wish restaurants could close during the days of Ramadan.

Evangelicals are certainly supported by the culture of the masses. American culture has evolved around the daily practices of Christians, not Muslims, and therein lies an impediment to the further integration of the Muslim lifestyle into the American mainstream. Muslims must insert themselves into this pre-existing culture, rather than build one from scratch. My community offers instruction on Sundays and calls it, “Sunday School.”

The evidence does show that Muslim communities are growing is size and influence, right here in my community. I must give thanks for this, rather than let my heart sink because of the superiority of evangelical efforts. Islam has not matured in America, and will not mature in the near future. In some ways, living here as a Muslim is more difficult for me than for a Muslim who was either raised in a Muslim society or converted to Islam without having lived in a Muslim country. I was raised as a member of the majority, and converted to Islam while living in a Muslim majority. I don’t like being a member of the minority with respect to religion.

This is my personal struggle. I accept it.