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Islam Taxi To God - I get evangelized by Muslim drivers.

Discussion in 'Interfaith Dialogues' started by Admin Singh, Sep 14, 2009.

  1. Admin Singh

    Admin Singh
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    Admin SPNer

    Jun 1, 2004
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    In a midnight taxi from Newark airport to Manhattan, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I saw the Muslim name on the driver's identification and immediately nailed its provenance.

    "You're Egyptian, yes?" It's a knack of sorts, utterly useless in many ways, but having grown up around the world and being familiar with various languages, I can name the driver's origins within seconds by hearing the accent and viewing his quarter-profile in the context of the name.

    I then have the choice of who I will pretend to be for the duration. Sometimes I don't say anything and simply swear loudly at other cars in the language of the driver. This is particularly satisfying with Sikh drivers as Punjabi has a rich storehouse of well-turned oaths, and Sikhs tend to react energetically. It helps too if you look vaguely like you could be from anywhere Islamic, Latin American or Mediterranean, as I do. It enables me to claim some personal history with the culture of most taxi drivers.
    The game can get a bit dodgy at the Islamic end of the spectrum. The driver inevitably asks my origins in return, and if the answer qualifies me, goes on to ask my religion. "You are Muslim, sir?" I often say no. It's simpler. But sometimes I feel like stepping through the portal, and I say yes, which swiftly launches us on a wide-ranging cat-and-mouse-game masquerading as a discussion about global politics. If I choose to make the right noises, then the conversation often goes to the next level, where the driver begins to unfold his views in a state of trust. Some drivers complain about American global aggression against Muslims, others about Israel and others about jihadis who have soiled the name of Islam. Some go even further.
    On this occasion, I liked the driver's youthful face, round and cheerful, with a promising fundamentalist beard, so I said yes. As we chatted back and forth--was he married, was I, how often did he go back to Egypt, did I like American girls--I began to insert Arabic phrases and sentences. He looked in the mirror and commented warily, "you speak good Arabic," so I decided I'd spent some years in Syria as a kid but my father had died and we'd moved to the West but I'd married a Muslim girl and so on. It's a little like composing a short play in the darkness and safety of the backseat with the only spotlight being the driver's mirror. It's fun and awakens memories of boyhood when I made up stories and identities about myself in bed after lights out.
    Then the driver asked me if I knew what 'eid, or holy day, was upcoming. I pretended not to hear, but he kept asking. This was all in Arabic, so I switched to English, saying "I don't understand." He pursued the matter in English, and finally I confessed my ignorance. He seemed put out. He began quizzing me on the Koran. I stayed silent. Then, in exasperation and in a bullying tone he asked me to repeat the Koranic equivalent of the Lord's Prayer, "Ya Ilahi Il Allah," and so on, followed by "You know this or not? What kind of Muslim are you?"
    At that point, I told him sharply, "I don't want to talk about religion." His eyes flashed into the mirror, he shook his head several times and began to recite prayers. He'd made a faux pas, gone too far and now was fully paranoid as to my motives for drawing him out. "Why you knew I was from Egypt," he asked. "From your name," I said. That held him awhile. But there was also something else, I believe. He had encountered an unbeliever, perhaps an apostate, a glimpse of something unclean.

    "You told me you are Muslim," he said reproachfully, and continued mumbling liturgically. I pointed out to him that I didn't say I was a good Muslim: I liked girls and discos and music. In other words, merely fallen in the ordinary way rather than some scary or sinister force out of scripture. We parted on the most uncomfortable terms.

    This kind of thing has happened before. On one occasion, an Arabic-speaking driver tried very painstakingly to proselytize me as I sat in my tuxedo on the way to a grand bash, then invited me to his mosque. On another occasion, a bearded Pakistani driver asked me if I didn't think the Shiites were trouble-makers. No doubt much depended on the response I gave as to whether he would invite me to his mosque.

    I am not sure if it portends anything worrisome. There's no crime in discussing ideas or evangelizing in a taxi. I was more concerned that my young driver grew so fearful. They are probably all terrified of being spied upon or denounced, which is certainly likely to happen in the countries they've left. Yet what an astonishing state of insularity they inhabit, a scary us-and-them universe, which in itself can generate trouble. America has always ultimately absorbed and assimilated immigrants within a generation or so, but as we know these days, the home country of origin is never very far away, and its culture does not let go its grip so easily. And why should it, you may ask. Communities have a right to their identity, don't they?

    As we've seen from Mumbai and 9/11, it's a debate we need to resolve with some urgency because the margin of error is not as flexible as it was, and the downside, at its worst, can imperil us all.
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