This morning all of us are attempting, once again, to understand what happened on 9/11, and how that day changed us, while pondering with alarm the recent proliferation of anti-Muslim sentiment in America. All of this, while mourning all who were lost, all that was lost. The theologians will analyze, the clergy sermonize, the politicians make speeches. I have no profound words, no balm, no answers. But every year, I feel compelled to write from my perspective as an interfaith person, someone who spans two cultures and two religions, someone acutely aware of the danger of pigeonholes, and the promise of bridges.
So I search through my history, and my present experience, for fragments of hope.
Growing up in a small New England town, I knew no Muslims. Even at my cosmopolitan university, I was unaware of Muslims: surely they were there, but stayed quiet, invisible. My first face-to-face encounter with Islam was in the moderate and tolerant Muslim country of Morocco, before I moved to the moderate and tolerant Muslim country of Senegal. My boyfriend (who later became my husband) was living and working in Rabat, and my visit happened to coincide with Ramadan. I was immersed in the rhythm of people fasting through the long, hot days, and celebrating in the cool desert night. I remember sitting at sunset in a cafe overlooking the Djemaa el Fna, the famed public square in Marrakesh, watching as hundreds of people, their spoons poised over bowls of traditional harira soup, waiting for the call of the muezzin to signal the end of the fast. Actually, some of them were waiting, poised with cigarette and lighter in hand, for the first smoke of the day. Not as scenic, but perhaps equally admirable in terms of devotion to the fast.
Years later, after living on three continents, we chose to raise our children in a community that would mirror the world, offering as much diversity as possible. I yearned to feed my children the rich cultural food I had encountered around the globe, to fill them with knowledge and understanding of the peoples of the planet. In the Washington, DC, area, we found what we were seeking. We have family friends, and my children have classmates, from a broad array of ethnicities and religions, including Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Over the past month, as our Muslim friends celebrated Ramadan, both my husband and my daughter were invited to iftars, celebrations of breaking the fast.
My husband went to an iftar with international development colleagues, organized by Islamic World Relief. My daughter was invited by an Egyptian-American classmate to his home, where he and his family prepared an iftar feast for several of his school friends. I felt profoundly moved and comforted by this gesture, by this seeming confirmation that we are raising our children to be at home in the world, in a future of living and celebrating together across cultural and religious divides.
This year, as anti-Muslim rhetoric seemed to swell into an ugly cacophony, I took comfort, too, in the way that the religious stars (actually, the religious moons) seemed to align. Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish New Year, and the Eid ul-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, overlapped with each other and with 9/11. For me, the sweetness in these holidays helped to take the edge off my 9/11 sorrow and distress.
The holidays share a theme of sweetness: the sweetness of Jewish honey cake, of apples and honey, for a sweet New Year, and the sweetness of the end of the fast, as Muslims celebrate with dates and honey-infused pastries. One year, my husband fasted alongside Moroccan colleagues, as he usually does out of respect and solidarity when working with Muslims, and then went to an iftar where he was served a pastry, called sfouf, so rich and sweet that he actually passed out as his blood-sugar levels went haywire.
To prevent any such untoward event from recurring this year, and because I am a ferocious chocoholic, I confiscated the chocolate world my husband received as iftar swag from Islamic World Relief, and ate it. But first, I took a photo of it for this blog. I love the synergy between the roundness of this sweet semi-globe, and the round hemisphere of raisin challah I bought for our Rosh Hashanah. The round challah, a special shape found only at the New Year, symbolizes the circle of life at the start of the New Year. A round chocolate world, a round raisin challah. Sweetness and symmetry in Judaism and Islam. May we all strive to make our real world, our integrated and unified world, sweeter this year.