My first piano students were relatives of Anwar El Sadat, the Egyptian President who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for his participation in the Camp David meetings with Menachem Begin that resulted in a peace treaty with Israel.
I’d never met people who practiced Islam before; however, over the years I grew used to the sound of the device in Mona’s and Mohammed’s home that reminded them to pray, and the preparations they made each year for Ramadan that included periods of fasting.
The children’s mother, Mona, was a beautiful woman, slender and petite, with thick, dark hair and dark eyes that shone with the light of tenderness and kindness.
Her children took more after their tall father, Mohammed (the nephew of Anwar Sadat), but they were also good looking and bright.
Once, during a piano lesson, I asked young Mohammed about the sound I heard coming from the device that, I realized later, was there to remind them to stop and pray, but he didn’t want to talk about it, and so I stopped asking questions.
Mostly we laughed and joked, and played music.
I never talked to the children’s parents about anything other than music and their children’s lessons until after 9/11.
The week after that horrible tragedy, while friends in New Jersey were smelling the stench of death in the air, Mona invited me to stay for lunch after the children’s piano lessons were over, and I accepted. As she set the sandwiches, oranges, and lemonade on a table on the patio in their backyard, I sensed that something was pressing on her. Her smile had disappeared behind a cloud of worry.
The first thing she said when we sat down to lunch that day was, “My religion is a religion of peace.”
Listening to her talk about her faith and the Muslim community she was a part of, I had no reason to doubt her. For years, I’d experienced the peace and tranquility of her home, where there was never a hint of fanaticism.
I’d enjoyed meeting Anwar El Sadat’s sister, a journalist, when she came to visit, and the brief talk we had about her travels and writing.
Besides, I’ve long felt that extremists within Christianity are as dangerous as extremists within Islam, and I’ve often been in the position of having to defend my faith against those who associate it with violence and destruction.
Some Christians, like some Muslims, have no qualms about using violence and terrorism to promote their religious beliefs or ideologies.
After all, after 9/11, George Bush announced that God told him to invade Iraq. For many of us, this was morally repugnant.
As I listened to her talk, I realized how similar our views were about religion as an instrument of peace and justice.
I left that day feeling that we were sisters, and felt closer to her than I do to many Christians.
My own spirituality deepened and broadened as a result of our talk, and I look back in gratitude for the risk she took in opening up to me.
I think of her so often — her graciousness and beauty — as I listen to the ugly things that are said about Muslims.
After the Paris attacks, a Facebook friend announced that anyone with Muslim friends should de-friend him immediately.
Politicians are making efforts to keep Syrian refugees, who had nothing to do with the Paris attacks, out of our country, because of assumptions that all Muslims are dangerous.
Donald Trump, the Republican forerunner, said that Muslims should be required to wear arm bands, similar, many have noted, to those the Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. More recently he’s proposed that all Muslims be banned from entering the country.
“We have no choice,” Trump said, “we must be vigilant!”
A few days ago, I spoke with a friend who worked for many years for Church World Service, an organization that helps refugees. He told me that the vetting for refugees is already tough.
“Many people think it’s too tough,” he said. “Refugees already have to wait for several years before they can be relocated, and now there’s talk of making them wait an additional year.”
Obviously, that will be too late for many of them.
My friend said, “if we won’t take in refugees, then I think we should take down the Statue of Liberty, put it on a battleship, and return it to France.”
At least we won’t be hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another.
And yet in the midst of all this vitriol there are touching expressions of love, too.
I’d like to think that this hospitality, at core, is who we are.
I do agree with Trump about one thing: we must be vigilant.
We must be vigilant against the bigotry and hate that Trump spews. We must be vigilant about the way he uses fear to manipulate his supporters. We must be vigilant to sort out truth from lies.
“Yes, security was a legitimate concern then, as it is now,” wrote Nichol Kristof in the New York Times, reminding his readers of our refusal to admit Jews into the country in the 40s, “but security must be leavened with common sense and a bit of heart.
To seek to help desperate refugees in a secure way is not naïveté. It’s not sentimentality. It’s humanity.”
In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
The desperate, the tired,
All the scum
Of our weary city
In the arms of your pity.
In the arms of your love—
Those who expect
No love from above.