Why, I was asked, would I want to live in an Arab country? Don’t Arabs hate the United States? Don’t they resent our freedom? Don’t they all want to kill us? Aren’t I afraid? Surely a woman traveling alone can’t want to live in a Muslim country—considered by definition a misogynist society.
I understand why people ask these questions. I see the same news they watch each evening on television. I read the newspapers they read. To the Frenchwomen of that evening long ago, to other Europeans, and to my fellow US citizens, this book is my effort to answer these questions and others I have been asked.
One of the most important things that happened to me during this difficult time—in fact, during that entire year in Egypt—occurred one morning when I came to work with a badly twisted ankle. My ankle throbbed and swelled, but I knew that if I didn’t walk on it, I would have to stay home, and the last thing I needed was a day at home alone.
I was, quite simply, in a bad mood. As soon as I stepped through the door and into the courtyard of the shop, my grumpiness and negativity were apparent to M’alim Hassan. Still, as he always did, he warmly greeted me and asked how I was.
In reply I grumbled, “Not so good,” and complained that I had hurt my ankle.
To my surprise, instead of answering sympathetically, M’alim Hassan stopped me as I was about to step up onto the concrete floor of the shop. Gravely, he looked at me and spoke to me severely. In that moment, something rather amazing happened. Although I still spoke only a few words of Arabic, I had no trouble at all understanding the words he spoke to me.
He pointed to the sky. A great stream of words poured from him and washed over me as the Arabic language does, sweeping up listeners and carrying them away on a beauteous, hypnotic tide. I could not have translated directly a single word he used. Yet I had no doubt that he was scolding me, almost as if I had blasphemed, for feeling sorry for myself. I understood that I had, unwittingly, committed a colossal blunder. I was, instead of complaining, to be grateful for everything I had.
He lifted his hand toward the sun slanting into a perfect circle on the clean-swept courtyard floor. I must always thank God, he was saying, for all I had been given. No matter what my problems, I must give thanks to God. In Arabic, the expression “Thanks be to God” sounds like “Alhumdulillah.”
After that day, in every Arab country I lived in or visited, I was to hear and recognize these words spoken by Muslims dozens of times a day. They were said almost always as a reflexive initial answer to the question, “How are you?” To that query, there was no lukewarm “Okay,” not even a “Fine.” Instead, the first response was to thank a greater, more generous force than we humans could ever hope to be. I found it a good grounding, a way to put into perspective my tendency to gravitate toward the negative.
The words lifted up instead of casting down. It was not that people avoided speaking honestly to their friends about things that went wrong. But before anything else came the reminder to be grateful for all that was right. As my understanding of the language grew, I noticed with interest that the same words of thanks might be spoken in sympathy or condolence, even for a tragic loss. These words offered a way through sorrow. After that first time, although I was not a follower of any religion, whenever I heard or spoke the words, I felt and acknowledged gratitude. From then on, I too included in my response to the question “How are you?” acknowledgment of something greater and better than myself.
Even in the midst of grief and loss, humor flashed alongside compassion, especially among the children, many of them homeless now. Gradually, as the days passed, some of them began to play. And so, as I wandered about amid the destruction and debris, searching for someone to help me carry food and water, a mountain of children waved and called to me from the highest point in the shattered landscape, with their posters and Palestinian flags. I waved back and called hello. Then, after a second’s scrutiny for strength and height, I called to them again.
“Want to come with me to get water?” I shouted across the distance, as no self-respecting Palestinian adult would do.
“Yes!” came the cry, and the multicolored mountain unformed itself and began squirming erratically toward me.