Of Jewish Cat Therapists, Modern West Indian Muslims, and Ex-Bangladeshi Son-in-laws

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dedication: To Memory Lane 
[Note: I’ve opted to elide the “American” part of the hyphenated X-Y-American identities of the unnamed individuals below and have simply kept X – and sometimes Y – under the naive assumption that the American-ness of all involved is not questioned. Furthermore, all of the following events take place in the United States.]
I don’t usually do interfaith-y events.
It’s not that I don’t think they are important.  I’ve witnessed some moving and amazing work done by interfaith organizations concerned with social justice, bridge building, and community building, but as in many things informing our political unconscious — our strange, specific prejudices have a genealogy.
—–
When I was in middle and high school, I found interfaith events interesting — and always slightly irritating. There were a number of reasons for this, but the one that I remember most clearly is the way the Muslim participants were positioned to be on the defensive, stereotype corrective mode (and this was post-first Gulf War, pre-9-11, sans support of wealthy foundations).
The other reason is that I ended up being the token “youth” for the faith communities present, because most participants were either established enough in their careers to make time to expand their horizons — or retired.
And the other reasons involve embarrassing stories of people who may still be alive.
There was one interfaith house party, however, organized by local Muslim and Jewish women that I attended as a high schooler which was quite memorable.
An Indian auntie from a local Islamic center invited me, so I took my short Bangladeshi Muslim middle school friend with me. I didn’t want to be the only “youth” present, and her parents thought I was an excellent role model.  We left from a family lunch both wearing brightly colored shalwar kamis, and from what I remember, we looked fabulous.
At the event, the ladies — mostly in their 40s and 50s — went around the room introducing themselves.  The beautiful woman seated to my right began and identified herself as a Jewish cat therapist.  She specialized in relationship issues and reconciliation between cats and their owners.  She had henna tattoos and wore gold bangles and explained them as traditions she adopted from her Indian husband because she “loves culture.’
I quickly looked around the room to read the faces present.  There were a lot of accepting head nods.  Not one person flinched.
My little Bangladeshi Muslim friend and I tried our best to be very mature, intellectually engaged, and open-minded teenagers … so we suppressed our laughter until tears came out of our eyes.
Another woman introduced herself as a West Indian Muslim — and therefore, as she described, thoroughly Western. And therefore, thoroughly modern.  And therefore, much more progressive and much more capable of getting along with American culture than — WAIT FOR IT — the girls in shalwar kamis, as you can see, sitting across from her (she gestured toward us as exhibit A and B).  With confidence, she opined, “These young Pakistani ladies might get married soon, but that’s because they come from a more conservative traditional culture. That’s not Islam. There’s a difference between culture and Islam.”
My little Bangladeshi Muslim friend and I looked at each other and whispered — That Guyanese auntie is whack.
Later, during the reception, the Pakistani host asked us where we were from, noting what sweet things we were for attending their interfaith jam session.  I pointed to my little Bangladeshi Muslim friend and said “She’s from Hollywood; I’m from Davie.”
“No no, beta, I mean,” she asked warmly, “where does your family come from?”
“Oh!  We are Bangladeshi, auntie.”
Her smile dropped faster than you could say bhalobasha.  “My daughter married a Bangladeshi man.” She paused. “He wasn’t very nice, so they are now divorced.”
My little Bangladeshi Muslim friend and I looked at each other as we finished the last cookie in our hands.  “Thank you so much for having us over, auntie.  I think we should head out soon.  Our parents will be worried if we don’t come home before dark.”
We said goodbye to the nice Jewish cat therapist who gave us her card before we got in the car and I drove home — but not before I took a long detour and drove along the beach to let off steam and process everything that just happened at the all Muslim and Jewish ladies’ interfaith house party.
Interfaith-y Events Post-Script:Earlier this year during Black History Month, I ran a storytelling workshop with my team for a wonderful group of college student-activists.  They came from different universities to discuss interfaith work and social justice and learn from each other. They were thoughtful, intelligent, creative, and kind young leaders who managed to make me hopeful in spite of our political climate. They were serious about imagining a better world; they were serious about making the world a better place; they were serious about what they believed in; they were serious about respect; they were serious about not taking themselves too seriously — and they are far from retirement.

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