MUSLIM

Overdue Thank-You’s, Part One: Radical Islamic Hospitality

A few of my friends are consummate thank-you note writers and senders, the latter being the most important part of the thank-you note process.

They always send a thank-you note.

For gifts, dinners, advice, favors, and other kindnesses. It’s not unheard of for one or two of them to send a follow-up thank-you note for especially wonderful thank-you notes they’ve received from someone else.

I, on the other hand, am terrible about sending thank-you notes.

I have beautiful stationary. Several sets. And I’m great about saying thank you and sending thank-you emails or posting thank-you posts on Facebook and occasionally via Twitter or Instagram. But I have a mental block about sending actual, physical thank-you notes.

While I am unsure of the definitive source of this strange block (strange for someone who is, generally speaking, deeply grateful and who says “Thank you” all the time to all sorts of people for all sorts of things, and stranger still for someone who, ya know, writes for a living), I believe it has something to do with my First Communion when I was in second grade. I received a load of beautiful gifts from family and friends and my mother — who still is a consummate thank-you note writer and sender — oversaw my writing of thank-you notes with all the zeal of a hangry drill sergeant.

I’ve had the thank-you note yips ever since.

I still feel badly about the thank-you notes I didn’t send for some of the gifts I received when I graduated from high school almost 30 years ago.

Shokran or “thank you” in Arabic.

This note (which is one of what will be a several-part series of overdue thank-you posts) is not that overdue, but it is much later than it should have been. If it were a wedding present that I’d not yet sent, I would have about six weeks left to mail that Le Creuset four-quart Dutch oven in Marseille blue from what remains of the happy couple’s registry and still make it under the one-year wire.

Happily, etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute insist that, “It’s never wrong to send a written thank you, and people always appreciate getting ‘thanks’ in writing.” So here it goes.

But first, a little background:

Two years ago I traveled to Nepal for the first a few days after the first of two devastating earthquakes struck the Himalayan nation that had occupied my imagination since I was a teenager. The trip was planned long before the quake struck. When it did, I delayed my departure for a few days, pivoted my purpose from semi-pleasure with a side of social justice to freelance journalism with four duffle bags stuffed with water filters, medicine, and whatever else I could carry with me to help the survivors of the quake.

Suffice to say it was a life-changing trip and I fell hopelessly in love with Nepal and her people.

 Then about a year ago, my son’s high school spring break was approaching and we were trying to decide what to do when I had tea here in Laguna Beach with a friend I’d met in Kathmandu. She spends part of the year here and part of the year there where she runs a marvelous group home for orphaned and other vulnerable children. Come visit again, she said. Bring your son.

When I returned from tea I began Googling and quickly discovered that a couple of RT tickets on Etihad Airways from California to Kathmandu and a week’s accommodation in Nepal for spring break were more affordable than most of the other options we’d considered, including Cabo, Dublin, New Orleans, and New York City.

So off to Kathmandu we went, my 16-year-old son, Vasco, and me, for what I imagined might be the last mother-son trip for a while. Manhood approaches and such adventures hold less appeal, at least for one of us.

Even from the west coast, Nepal is far, far away. I’d flown Singapore Airlines on my last trip, but this time we rolled the dice and went with Etihad, one of two national airlines of the United Arab Emirates. We’d flown on thet other, Emirates Airways, to Malawi and back in 2010 when our entire family had to make the journey for Vasco’s adoption hearing. There were a few hiccups, but by and large, the service was good — even in coach. Reviews for Etihad were largely enthusiastic, so I booked our coach seats and hoped for the best.

I used to be a terrible flyer when I was in my twenties, worried that every tiny bump of turbulence was the beginning of the end of my life. Over the years, that fear has disappeared, but a few of my tics and habits from my terrified-to-fly era remain. Namely, every time I board a plane, I pause in the threshold for a moment, put my hand on the side of the plane, and thank God for a “safe, uneventful flight” and for the angels that go with us, protecting us on our journey.

While domestic air travel is something one survives or, at best, endures without incident, hope still springs eternal for international travel where small kindnesses and attention to detail make a huge difference on a 16-hour flight. I don’t recall much about our flight to Kathmandu—and that’s a good thing, i.e., no complaints, no horrible food, no surly flight attendants, no stranger with his seat reclined in my lap for half a day, etc.—except that we were comfortable enough to sleep a little and arrived in Nepal more refreshed than frazzled.

I did, however, remember one thing enough to make a note of it in my journal: before we took off, the airline played a video on all of its screens that included what sounded to me like a prayer in Arabic. I didn’t know what it said, but I found it—the sound of the words, the gentle music that accompanied it—soothing.

Etihad Airways’s dua (prayer) for travel

My son and I spent a wonderful, if too-short week in Kathmandu with friends of mine who quickly became friends of his, saw a lot of things I couldn’t see the year before in the wake of the earthquake, and made hopeful plans to return someday soon when we had time enough to make a trek along the Annapurna range farther west than we had time to visit. Spring Break Kathmandu was a wild success as a perspective-giving, spiritually-inspiring, bonding mum-son adventure. Mission accomplished.

On our last afternoon in Nepal, before heading to the airport we made a quick run into a neighborhood in Kathmandu where a lot of textiles are sold. I was looking for locally-sourced sheep’s wool to bring home for knitting projects. After a few false starts at dealers hidden behind elaborately carved wooden doors tucked into nooks along a warren of tiny dirt lanes, we found a dealer on the main drag, hopped out of the jeep (that carried at least six or seven members of our host’s family) and bought about 20 pounds of wool, much of it spun but un-dyed and carrying the pungent aroma of its former wearer with it.

Locally-sourced wool from Kathmandu.

In that last wool dealer’s shop, I felt something in my eye. I tiny piece of fiber or a speck of dust. I blinked and rubbed my eye, didn’t think much of it, until a few hours later when my eye really began to bother me. My friend Gautham kindly offered to take me to the doctor in his neighborhood, the same place he takes his own children. We had a night flight and I was concerned about being uncomfortable on the 17-hour ride home, so I said OK and off we went. We found the “doctor” at his stall a few blocks away. He looked at my eye, gave me some drops, and said to try to flush it out with water before we headed to the airport.

I followed the instructions, put in the drops, had our last dinner with Gautham’s family where they prayed for our safe journey home. Born in Bhuthan, Gautham became a Christian as a young adult and now is deeply involved in his local church in Kathmandu. Late last summer, his eldest son married the daughter of one of his pastors. Faith runs deep in the family’s bones, as it does among most Nepalese people, whether they’re Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or just simple but robust believers in the goodness of mankind.

A few hours later, by the time we were boarding the first of what were supposed to be three flights home to California (Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi to New York, New York to Los Angeles) my eye was watering nonstop. Not long after our flight from Kathmandu to Lucknow, India (an unscheduled stop to refuel because Kathmandu was experiencing a fuel shortage at the time) took off, I was really uncomfortable. My eye was swollen and I realized the water I was wiping from my eye had turned into pus (think the Beatles’ line “lemon yellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye), and in truth, I was beginning to panic. I called for a flight attendant who responded with calm concern. She brought back the flight purser and they quickly determined I was having a serious medical incident.

They moved other passengers away from my son and me, a precaution just in case whatever was going on with me and my eye was contagious. The cabin crew were wonderfully attentive, bringing me cups of ice and damp cloths. About halfway through the short flight, I began asking to deplane when we got to Lucknow. I wanted to see a doctor, STAT. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the purser, who had consulted with the pilot, strongly encouraged me to stay on the flight until it reached Abu Dhabi five hours later. There, the airline could ensure I received proper medical care. In India, they couldn’t guarantee it. They’d take care of me and my son, who was starting to come down with a nasty chest cold. They’d get us to the United Arab Emirates and a medical team would meet the plane when we arrived.

 We made it to Abu Dhabi, the medical team met the plane as promised, put me in a wheelchair and quickly wheeled me to the airport’s medical clinic a few terminals away, while Vasco followed carrying our carry-on luggage. Shortly thereafter, a kindly, efficient doctor examined me, took some swabs (to rule out conjunctivitis or anything else contagious/communicable that potentially preclude me from air travel for a while), gently lifted and turned my eyelid inside out to discover a scratch not on my eye but on the inside of the eyelid itself. It probably happened a few days before, got infected, and then the cabin pressure on the first flight brought it to a head (literally) and it burst.

GROSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

But at least we knew what we were dealing with. The doctor flushed my eye several times over the course of an hour, administered prescription drops, and sent Vasco with a prescription to retrieve antibiotics from a pharmacy in another terminal. After a few hours, the doctor fitted me with a not-so-swashbuckling eye patch, and told me that I couldn’t fly for 36 hours and only then with the permission of a flight doctor.

Anatomy of a travel nightmare. Selfies by the author.

 Before I could begin to ask about logistics and accommodations and how we’d manage to eat etc., another Etihad employee appeared to collect us, said the airline had arranged rooms for us at the airport hotel (so we wouldn’t have to go through customs and that bother), and had our meals covered, and cheerfully began pushing me in the wheelchair back to the hotel near the Etihad terminal. The airline would check on us and reschedule our flights for us. Just rest, he said.

Back at the hotel in the early hours of the morning, we both crashed. Vasco’s cold was getting worse. He slept for 16 hours uninterrupted. Couldn’t even get him to arise for some food. I kept him hydrated and found whatever over-the-counter cold medicine I could, had several delicious meals at the hotel’s restaurant, and tried to rest while my eye began to heal.

A day later, I walked over to Etihad customer service and was told by a genial man that the airline was working on new flights for us, hopefully a direct flight to Los Angeles so we’d not have to change planes. That was thoughtful. The idea of traveling in coach for 17 hours in the shape we were both in was not appealing, but we needed to get home. I tried to find not-middle-seats online for various flights, but it looked grim.

Heading into the 30th hour of our unexpected layover in Abu Dhabi, we just needed to get home. I walked back down to the Etihad desk in the departures terminal and was told we had a flight early the next morning. They’d assign our seats when we checked in. Fine. We bathed, climbed back into the same clothes we’d been wearing since Kathmandu, grabbed our carry-on bags and headed for the check-in desk. There the gentleman manning the phone asked us to wait for a moment, he had to make a call. My hopes began to flag. What now? More delays? Middle seats? Another visit to the doctor? The kind folks at the Abu Dhabi airport were taking good care of us, wayward strangers in their midst, but we just wanted to be home already.

A moment later, the manager appeared. He looked at the bill-of-health the airport doctor had signed, made a quick phone call, then looked up at us with a smile. You’re all set. Your bags are on the plane and we’ve put you in Business Class to make your flight home more comfortable. Also he was going to walk us through immigration pre-registration so that when we got to LAX, all we had to do was get off the plane and head to baggage. No customs and immigration. That was taken care of in Abu Dhabi.

Please, Mrs. Possley, follow me. Right this way. Your’e all set. And have a safe flight home. 

Thank you, I said. Shokran.

It’s been our pleasure and privilege, he said.

I began to cry. To weep, really. I was so relieved and moreover, so grateful for the kindness of strangers. For the gracious care with which Etihad had looked after my son and me, half a world away from our homes, sick and tired and a little bit scared.

Etihad perfectly exemplified the spiritual practice of hospitality, something that is at the heart of Islam, as it is an essential teaching of its cousin religions, Christianity and Judaism. The Quran says, “Let the believer in Allah and Day of Judgment honor his neighbor. Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment honor his guest.” 

It also tells the story of Abraham who, when strangers approached his home, welcomed them with greetings of peace, (even though he thought, “They seem unusual people”) and then turned to his household staff and quickly had them roast a fattened calf for the unexpected guests. The idea, as I understand it, beyond just being welcoming is to anticipate the needs of your guests (expected or not) before they even know what they are or have time to ask. It’s a radical hospitality that goes beyond the call of duty, with joy, treating the guest as a child of God.

“The goal of hospitality as an act and as an attitude to life is far more radical; it demands a transformation of the self toward goodness and grace, toward how God wants us to be with one another,”Mona Siddiqui writes in her 2015 book Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name. “At the very base of hospitality is compassion, a compassion that shakes our complacency and leads us to think about more generous ways of being with one another. Compassion creates empathy, solidarity, and has the power to reduce personal and social conflicts. And often it is this compassion toward others which first sows the seeds of surprising friendships—the most challenging but rewarding experiences of our lives.”

Reclaiming the trip: Etihad FTW. Settling in for a 15-hour-plus flight home to LAX. Photo by author

When we boarded the flight each of the flight crew members greeted us by our names and with what sure felt like war, genuine smiles. We crawled into our spacious sleeper pods, and Vasco was asleep before we took off. A flight attendant came over to check on us, asked if I needed anything, offered me a glass of juice and a flute of champagne, while I took off the socks I’d been wearing since Kathmandu and put on the soft ones included in the airline’s gift bag.

I leaned back, took out my knitting, put on my headphones, and took a sip of champagne, grateful. So grateful.

Before we took off, the same video I’d noticed when we departed California a week earlier began to play. It’s a verse from the Quran, a prayer that the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers to pray when embarking on journeys.

Taken from the Quran (Surat Az-Zukhruf 13-14), it says:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.

سبحان الذي سخر لنا هذا وما كنا له مقرنين
Glory to Him who has subjected this to us, and we could never have it (by our efforts).

وإنا إلى ربنا لمنقلبون
And verily, to Our Lord we indeed are to return!

صدق الله العظيم
Allah The Mighty has spoken the truth.

Once again, tears came to my eyes. I was overcome with gratitude.

For the gift of travel, very real traveling mercies, and most of all for experiencing radical Muslim hospitality in all its great compassion.

Thank you, Etihad. Thank you to all the brothers and sisters who care for us.

Azak Allahu khair. As salamu aleiykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. 

 

Special thanks to Sheikh Jamaal Diwan of the Institute of Knowledge and Yousif Alanazi for their kind help in translating the dua for travel from Arabic to English

 

See the thing is …

Before I went on CNN live this afternoon to talk about the current debate about President Obama’s faith, one of my best friends handed me a cool bottle of water and a copy of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, which she had marked with a post-it note on the chapter titled, “Faith.”

I had hoped (alas) that the anchor would ask good questions and that I could, at some point, make reference to the following quotes:

First of all, faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. It is not a blind subconscious urge toward something vaguely supernatural. It is not simply an elemental need in man’s spirit. It is not a feeling that God exists. It is not a conviction that one is somehow saved or ‘justified’ for not special reason except that one happens to feel that way. It is not something entirely interior and subjective, with no reference to any external motive. It is not just ‘soul force.’ It is not something that bubbles up out of the recesses of your soul and fills you with an indefinable ‘sense’ that everything is all right. It is not something so purely yours that its content is incommunicable. It is not some personal myth of your own that you cannot share with anyone else, and the objective validity of which does not matter either to your or God or anybody else.

But also it is not an opinion. It is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know. As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it.

AND

Too often our notion of faith is falsified by our emphasis on the statements about God which faith believes, and by our forgetfulness of the fact that faith is a communion with God’s own light and truth. Actually, the statements, the propositions which faith accepts on the divine authority are simply media through which one passes in order to reach the divine Truth. Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God.

GODSTUFF

OK KIDS — TIME TO GROW UP, GET UP AND GET TO WORK

President Obama’s inaugural address might not have been one for the ages.

But it certainly was the right one for the moment.

Somber, sober and almost stern, our new president placed a mantle before the nation — We, the people — and gave us a gentle, but clear, kick in the collective pants.

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” he said. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

“We remain a young nation,” Obama said, “but, in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

He was quoting from the New Testament — 1 Corinthians 13: 11 — St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece.

I was struck by the implications of this choice of Scripture, in a speech in which the president explicitly reached out to the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and non-believing populations as well as to his own Christian community.

Most people, if they are familiar with this particular Bible passage, probably have heard it read at a wedding. This is the “love chapter” — verses that come before and after the one the president quoted — speak eloquently about true love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails,” it says.

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

When St. Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth, he began by addressing the problems it faced. The church was beset by infighting and divisions, and threatened by immoral influences from the surrounding community, where, for instance, 1,000 priestesses engaged in prostitution at the Temple of Venus in the name of worship.

Corinth was a young city, and the church there was a young church, just as we are a young nation. Teenagers, if you will.

St. Paul delivered a stern, yet loving, reproach to the Corinthians, telling them, essentially, to quit their bickering, grow up and get busy with what they were called to do in the first place: Love.

Love one another. Love their neighbors. Be God’s love in the world — the light of the world and a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden, as St. Matthew says in his gospel.

Be love with arms and legs — feeding the poor, comforting the sick, visiting the prisoners, sheltering the homeless.

How interesting that the Bible passage about growing up and putting away childish things (in the name of love) was chosen by our 47-year-old president and his 27-year-old chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau — perhaps the youngest team ever to craft a U.S. presidential inaugural address.

I wonder whether they chose the passage from 1 Corinthians in part to evoke another letter written by St. Paul. In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul writes to his young friend Timothy, an evangelist in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor.

“Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young,” St. Paul told Timothy, “but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.”

Favreau also helped Obama craft his famous victory speech after the Iowa caucuses where he said, in part:

“You know, they said this day would never come … They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”

“Years from now,” he said, “you’ll look back, and you’ll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope . . . Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

In his timely inauguration speech, Obama gave us marching orders anchored in a conspiracy of hope and a love that never fails.

This is it, kids. The big show.

This is when we put our American ideals into action.

Today, our ideology meets reality.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.