New friend, new views of the world

Essay: When an Egyptian student stayed with them, an American family broadened its views of the Middle East and its people.

There's a Muslim guy living in our house, downstairs beyond the kitchen. This is not a dream, fantasy, or delusion; he's really there.

Abdul left Egypt and arrived in the United States on Sept. 11 a little more than a year ago. The inauspicious date provided the only open flight from Egypt to the US during that month.

Anticipating his arrival, I was anxious, feeling somewhat threatened by his "otherness." When he arrived, I scrutinized him and his luggage for signs of danger. But he looked like what he was: a tired, nervous young traveler.

A doctoral student, he came to the United States to study, and study he has. We connect through his seriousness about his work. I survived a doctoral program and am familiar with the sacrifices they require. I understand Abdul's devotion to study; it's his "jihad." He's dedicated to learning with all the energy and single-mindedness he can muster. For him, study is an act of worship, a God-given mission, "jihad" in its larger sense.

Once we got past his distinctly foreign pungency, Abdul's living with us grew surprisingly easy. His ready laugh smooths points of friction. He helps with household chores, and thus we learn that he's prohibited from carrying trash containing even an emptied wine bottle. The knowledge startles us (and others whom we tell), and illuminates the religious tenets he carefully observes.

Abdul is soon to marry – he's returning to Egypt to do so – and all year long has courted his betrothed back in Cairo via Internet phone. Despite the oceanic gap, his relationship with this young woman flourishes.

During Ramadan, Abdul prays five times a day and fasts – eating and drinking only during the hours of darkness. Throughout the holy month, I woke in the predawn hours to the rich aromas of eggs frying and beans simmering. Abdul rose, ate, and then returned to bed.

Whenever possible, he prays with other Muslims, the call to prayer being a call to community. Once, we visited a local mosque, and my son joined him at prayer. As a woman I sat separately, my hair covered with a shawl. As a guest, I was allowed a privileged spot on the borderline between the men's and women's areas, a view of both sides. The ritual praying had a dancelike beauty: bodies close, chanting, bowing – a wave of devout motion.

Abdul's upcoming marriage prompts after-dinner conversations about marriage customs. I was bewildered when, one evening, he excitedly announced that his mother had told him that his fiancée has lovely hair.

Viewing his bride-to-be's hair, covered by the hijab, is off-limits to him until they are wed (and permanently off-limits to other men), but not to Abdul's mother and sisters. The women in Abdul's family have visited his future bride and return full of gossip and secret knowledge.

Until this conversation, I had not understood what Abdul knows and doesn't know about the woman he will marry. He knows her vigorous energy and spirited nature – but he cannot know her hair. Now it seems he can know about it. He is pleased and joyful. She has lovely hair!

For a Westerner, the Egyptian Muslim sensibility recalls simpler times, an earlier era. No wonder I feel protective of this young couple. They will begin life together supported by customs of place and religion. I think of it as a container woven to hold their union. But Abdul's coming to live in this country has added complexity to the weave. What will be woven will be necessarily altered by their adventure.

As the year progressed, Abdul shifted from talking about his "fiancée" to calling her his "bride." He speaks movingly of wanting to be with her. He is ready for the waiting to be over.

The other night, my son dreamed that he and I ran into President Bush in the parking lot of the supermarket down the street. In the dream, Mr. Bush stood around outside unencumbered by Secret Service men, although there was a limousine and a driver.

I asked my son what Bush was doing, and he replied, "Buying groceries!" (Duh, Mom, what do you think?) So, in his dream, we exchanged greetings and shook hands with Bush in the Safeway parking lot.

Given the opportunity, we'd introduce Bush and Abdul. We even imagine they'd have much in common. When you take "jihad" broadly, symbolically, they are both proponents of it: avidly pursuing goals, armed with a confident sense of support from God.

As you might expect, Abdul is no fan of the president and sees the United States as an uninvited intruder in the Middle East. So the exchange would be good for both – if only each would listen to the other.

During Abdul's time with us, we have tried to listen carefully, satisfying our wide-ranging curiosity but approaching him with kindness and respect.

We will be sad to see him go; he has become part of our family. We wish we could journey with him to Egypt and attend his wedding, as family should.

Abdul has had an impact on our family in many ways: Our view of the Middle East has acquired depth and resonance. We are curious and concerned about the quality of life in Egypt and its neighboring countries. The war in Iraq touches us differently now. We pray not only for our hard-pressed American soldiers but also for our Middle Eastern friends; not only for our tense and agitated nation, but also for Middle Eastern nations.

Abdul has also brought knowledge and feeling about the Middle East into our home.

Unwittingly, he has enlarged our understanding of the ways God is seen and revered.

Knowing him as family has added new people and places to hold close to our hearts.

In fact, by allowing Abdul into our home, making room for him, we have been stretched and reshaped. We have welcomed, quite by accident, a peacemaking envoy.

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