March 18, 2017

American reporter Martha Rogus from the Times Observer writes how she has gotten close to her Muslim classmates and the similarities they share.

It’s amazing what you can learn about a person, or persons, when car pooling. Last week I wrote about meeting my two new friends during classes at Gannon: Raja from Libya and Rafa from Saudi Arabia. Both were in the U.S. on educational visas. This is a continuation of that first meeting. We all had traditional backgrounds in English, strong faiths, and families which is what I believe brought us together.

We had broken the ice and had small talk during breaks. One night early in the semester our class went to a university production of Shakespeare’s, Two Gentlemen of Verona. Rafa and Raja were in front of in line at the box office when they turned to each other and laughed to each other over something the ticket-taker said, who was Rev. Dr. Shawn Clerkin, an Episcopalian priest and associate professor in theatre. The laughing continued as we ascended the stairs and at one point, Raja looked back where I was and momentarily stopped. But as we continued to our seats, so did the laughter.

As we took our seats near each other, I said “I have to ask you – what is so funny? Did I miss something?” They looked relieved I asked.

“That man said we were going to have, intercourse tonight…” She sounded out each syllable very carefully with her hand to her mouth in a whisper. The giggling continued as I thought about this and realized the translation error.

“Intermission. We are having an intermission, or a break half-way through the show,” I said.

“Oooohhhhhh,” Raja said. They gained their composure. We settled in our seats and the girls chatted in Arabic. Raja was sitting closest to me. They seemed happy it was a translation error, the pressure was off.

“May I ask you another question? Can I ask why you wear the head scarf? I mean, does anyone make you wear it?”

Raja’s eyes sparkled. She looked happy as she responded and not at all annoyed. “No, no we are not forced to wear Hijab. We wear it because we want to. You see, in our culture women are like diamonds…we are protected.” Her eyes widened. “That is why we wear to here [pointing to her wrists] and here [pointing to her ankles].” The folds in her long black skirt and top met her ankles, and wrists. “What’s there is for our husband’s eyes, only.” My theory was true, and then some. Her answer was like poetry, beautifully spoken. In fact, on my way home that night I wrote a poem while driving under a full moon that later won first-place at the graduate level for poetry in Gannon’s annual literary magazine contest. I titled it, Beyond Hijab. We enjoyed the play that night, but to be honest, I barely remember it. I wanted to learn more about my friends from a culture not like my own. That is, if you believe Americans have a culture. I’ll save that for another time.

Rafa and Raja lived in condos near each other in Erie’s east side near Porreco College, and both husbands took turns picking up the girls after classes. Rafa’s husband did most of the driving and brought their 4-year old daughter who often had to be awakened from a healthy sleep as our classes ended at 9 pm on week nights. I thought about the extra mileage if I were to offer taking them home to save them the trouble of waking a sleeping kid. The ride to their condos added 10 miles to my drive home. But I thought my offering would help them out and I could also get to know my new friends better. After discussing it with my husband, who agreed it was a nice thing to do, I offered.

The girls loved that I offered and discussed it with their husbands, who I had already met. They agreed to our car pool idea. But the first night, I found myself feeling anxious. I was mostly worried about my safety. This was only 10 years after 9/11. We hadn’t discussed 9/11. So I started with that before we got to my car.

“I have to ask you, what do you think about 9/11?” We were walking under the huge mozaic of Jesus that covers the wall between the 2nd and 3rd floors. Raja spoke first and said they did not like what happened, and that the people responsible were like our Puritans. I was amazed and enlightened with her answer. Rafa nodded and said it was not good what happened, and that she felt bad it did happen. By now were next to my car.

“That’s good.” I said. “Because I thought you might hit me over the head and throw me in the trunk or something…”

“I thought you were going to hit us over the head and throw us in the trunk,” Rafa said.

We all laughed and climbed in my car.

For the next year-and-a-half, we car pooled. Next to meeting my husband and raising our kids, this was one of the most eye-opening and interesting times of my life. One night they started talking about having me help them with a writing project they were both struggling with. So we planned it for an evening after class at Raja’s.

Proofing their grammar and spelling was the worst part for me and not my favorite areas of the writing process. But I plugged away with each word, and helped them see mistakes – which were several in each paragraph. I painstakingly read through both papers and Raja promised tea for me the following Saturday at her condo if I could come. She said it was a special tea, and that they drink it differently in their culture than we do. I happily accepted.