(I had a whole post lined up and ready to be written for the letter Q in this week’s Pagan Blog Project but a series of events changed my mind, and I feel that I need to write about them and the topic they belong to: Islam. So today, Q is for Quran.)
For years, a memory has been itching at me. It’s the memory of a friend, a little girl with long lashes, and a soft voice, and the loveliest brown hair which she wanted to grow long, like Rapunzel. I met her when I was four years old. I’d just moved to Europe and didn’t know anybody or even speak the language; she was one of my first friends. She came from Syria with her parents and her brother, who was the same age as my sister. The four of us together formed two pairs of best friends.
I was only little, but I remember her house vividly: she lived in an apartment block two minutes away from where I lived. Her home was always filled with the warm, spicy smell of Middle Eastern food. To my four-year-old mind, some of the things her family did were strange: they slept on mattresses on the floor, her mother always wore a headscarf, and once a year they had a festival called Ramadan when adults only ate before sunrise and after sunset. One October when I rang their doorbell, dressed as a ghost, I found out that they didn’t celebrate Halloween – but they still welcomed us into their home for an evening snack. Yes, their customs were strange, but beautiful too.
I remember our mothers chatting over tea in the afternoon, while us children watched Disney movies or played with Barbie dolls in the bedroom. One day, my friend and I argued about whether we would watch The Sorcerer’s Stone or play a game; I pretended not to like Harry Potter so she would play with me, and I ended up having to keep up the lie for the next three years. These were innocent times.
Sometimes we talked about our homelands. I would tell her about New Zealand, and she would tell me about Syria. I was amazed when I found out they had deserts and palm trees, “just like in Aladdin” she said. We both longed to go home.
I was eight years old when they decided to leave. That Easter, we invited them to a holiday house in the Alps and we had an Easter egg hunt together. We took pictures, and said our goodbyes, and then they were gone. I’m not sure if I expected them to come back, or if I understood that I might never see my friend again. All I remember is being sad that she had to go. But by the next year, in typical nine-year-old fashion, I had a new best friend and had all but forgotten about the last one.
As I grew older, I began to understand the situation in the Middle East and from time to time, I wondered what had happened to the girl with the long brown hair. Even my dreams contradicted themselves: once they were driving by the palm trees and laughing, and once they were sitting in an empty room, their faces covered in dust, grieving.
By then I knew why they fasted for a month, and covered their hair, and didn’t celebrate Halloween. I knew that they had a Holy Book, the Quran, and that they believed in one God, while I believed in many. Their religion was Islam, and mine was Hellenismos, but – and I will stress this – it never, ever mattered.
Because despite all the differences, I can’t help but see the similarities. My friend’s mother wore a headscarf, and I bind my hair now, like her, out of modesty and devotion to our God(s). They prayed five times a day, and I make offerings in the morning and evening. They too practised xenia, albeit in a different way, and in many cases their set of values overlapped mine.
They were different, but they were like me. Their people, today, are like me.
It’s been eleven years since I last saw her, but every time I hear about the situation in the Middle East, I think of my little Syrian friend who believed in the Quran. And I find myself wondering… How can it be so difficult to look through another’s eyes when we, as four-year-olds, could do it? Why can’t the soldiers, the rebels, the leaders, the extremists see what we saw?
I don’t know what happened to that little girl, or even if she is still alive. If she is, she probably wears a headscarf now, and participates in Ramadan too. Like her, I’ve changed and embraced my religion. Sometimes I wonder what I would say if I met her again, aware of my beliefs and hers – but I don’t wonder much, because it’s not a difficult question.
I would hug her, and I would call her by one name: