Archive for December, 2010

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The Quran and the Quest For Kindness

December 30, 2010

In the last years of my dad’s life, I spent a lot of time asking him questions about the Quran.  It wasn’t because either one of us was having a religious rebirth or even because it gave us some common ground together other than playing backgammon, although it did do that.  It was because my dad knew the Quran inside out, as it had been part of his upbringing.  I knew almost nothing about it, as that had been part of the upbringing he had given me.  After 9/11 and the consequent Islamanoia, I began to have to field questions about Muslims simply by virtue of being born one.  My dad taught me not to speak without having my facts in order, and so that was when I began my journey to explore the Quran.
While my dad hadn’t taught his kids much about the religion, I learned he was a strong believer, which he began to reveal to me in the passages we talked about and how inspirational and important they were in his mind for living a decent life.  I suspect his interpretations of several things, including alcohol and the hijab and ultimately death, would not have met with the approval of many Muslims, particularly here in the Gulf.  That aside, I think my favorite passage in the Quran would—or at least, should—meet with the approval of people from any religion, including atheists:

“Do what is beautiful. God loves those who do what is beautiful” (2:195)

Beautiful in translation in this case means to show kindness and practice good deeds.  Or as Robert Frager, a Harvard-trained psychologist and Sufi, explains in The Wisdom of Islam: A Practical Guide to the Wisdom of Islamic Belief,  it is “acting with heedfulness, beauty, refinement, graciousness, and respect for others.”  Do what is beautiful just says it so simply.

In manic paced places like Abu Dhabi, where buildings and people and cars come and go faster than the rain, it is sometimes hard to keep focused on the beautiful, until some sad news reminds you of the reality that is sometimes hard to see out of the rabbit hole in this city that my friend Cindy calls “Alia in Wonderland.”

That’s why I like my friend Alicia Bessette and Mathew Quick’s blog, “Quest for Kindness” (http://aliciabessette.com/blog/) Sometimes just the phrase “quest for kindness,” just like “do what is beautiful” act as grounders.   Kind of like “Never a lender or borrower be” from Shakespeare, another source of wisdom my father loved to quote, reminds you to put your credit card away.

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Doner Kabob and Schweinefleisch

December 15, 2010

At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau  2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases.  From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them.  Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them.  I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me.  I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities.  It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something.  I loved  Germany.  Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi.  It’s just a little different.

1.  In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay.  In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m.  “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.

2.  I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section.  In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore.  It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.

3.  I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags.  In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels.  In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)

4.  In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste.  In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.

5.  In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products.  In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.

6.  There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi.   Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.

7.  Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi.  The cow has it easy in both places.

8.  Germans love dates—as a treat.  Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros.  In Munich, one date costs one Euro.

9.  In Germany, the VAT tax hurts.   Abu Dhabi is tax free.

10.  In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes.  On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading.  This made me happy.  On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting.  No books, no computers, not even any iPads.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.