BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN — As long as I have been living and working in the Muslim nation of Kyrgyzstan, nestled in Central Asia, I have known it to be a peaceful country.
But when the tragedy of Sept. 11 struck - and we heard reports of people in other Muslim countries celebrating in the streets - my husband and I, both Americans, decided to take precautions. We stopped speaking English on the street, we haven't lit candles in honor of the victims, we're not wearing red, white, and blue. When we go to and from our work site, building houses for Habitat for Humanity International, we go with locals.
Then I had one of the most touching experiences of my life. I was invited to attend a memorial service for the brother of one of our homeowners. I looked frightful: My sweatpants and shirt were filthy, my hair covered with dust. I suggested I probably shouldn't attend. But the family insisted. Upon arriving, I realized I was the only foreigner in a crowd of Muslim Kyrgyz people. I sat in a corner and tried to disappear.
Kubat, the brother of the man who had died, would have nothing of that, and invited me to sit at a table full of women in mourning. In spite of their pain, each of the women offered their sympathies for the attacks in America. They asked after my family and friends, and expressed sorrow that such barbarity could be carried out in the name of Islam. We chatted throughout the dinner - mainly horse entrails and large chunks of lamb.
Suddenly, a chant rose up behind me. It was the mullah, and he was reading from the Koran in memory of Kubat's brother. Then a prayer was said. With the ceremony almost over, Kubat stood up, red-eyed, and asked the mullah to read from the Koran in memory of those who had died in America and to pray for peace.
As I sat with my eyes closed, listening to the Arab words from the Koran chanted in a most haunting way, I had a hard time controlling tears. I couldn't believe I was sitting in a large group of Muslims praying for my countrymen. Then the mullah said a prayer as we held our hands out in a cupping motion in front of our faces. The prayer asked God for forgiveness for evil, for mercy over those who had lost loved ones, and for peace in our world.
When the beautiful prayer was over, this Christian American and my old and new Muslim Kyrgyz friends said the "Omin" in unison. This is like the Christian "Amen," and as you say the word, you pass your hands over your face as if washing it.
The ceremony was over. I stood up to offer my condolences to Kubat and leave. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. There was a woman I didn't know, conveying her sorrow over the loss of life in my country. Every person followed her in that room, each expressing horror and sadness for the events of Sept. 11.
Tanya Weaver is a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International.