Donald Trump’s odious, ugly American pledge to prohibit Muslims from entering our country stirred long-cherished memories of my Muslim and Arab students and friends.
I am looking at 2 small cream-colored pillows nestled into corners of our living room chairs. They are embossed with arabesque designs on their borders; and silver filigree threading at the pillow’s edges. For more than 25 years these pillows have poignantly recalled a Muslim student, Ali, whom I taught at MIT. He was older than other students, being the chief of police in Karachi, Pakistan on a yearlong fellowship. My lasting memories of Ali are his quiet, solid respect when we spoke, in startling contrast to my expectations of a chief of police. But I was his professor, and as I found with future Muslim students, they hold their teachers with a regard rarely found in U.S. students. Our conversations after morning class finished quickly when it was time for prayer: he prayed multiple times daily, with other Muslims at MIT on a prayer rug in a room designated for them. With regard and something akin to humility, he bowed and presented me the gift of these pillows at semester’s end.
Yared was a public health officer for his town in rural Ethiopia who came to Boston University School of Public Health in the late 1990s for a masters degree in environmental health. I specialized there in Urban Environmental Health and Environmental Justice in low-income communities of color, working on issues of healthy public housing, asthma, lead poisoning, and community gardening. He spoke little in class, yet listened with pensive intensity, extrapolating – I would discern in time – all that he learned about urban poverty, food deserts in inner cities, poor housing conditions to water safety, pesticide use, sanitation, and malaria threats that he faced in his work at home. I will always remember the image of this quietly dignified man when he entered my office at the end of semester to thank me for what he had learned: he put his hands together in a prayer-like posture and bowed slightly, a timeless gesture and gift of respect. In our last conversation, he recounted charmingly that he had learned that American couples spend a weekend alone from time to time, leaving their children with friends or family. And thus, he planned to meet his wife in the capital city Addis Ababa on his first weekend home, while relatives cared for their children.
Rana, a student from Lebanon, energized our Department of Environmental Health with her passion for learning. With iron-willed insistence, she overcame every obstacle put in her way to gain entry into the department’s doctoral program, among which was taking many science and statistics pre-requisites. Throughout her five years at Boston University, I watched her weave her unique interests in society and environment – merging social and economic dimensions of community health with environmental health science – into an original dissertation. Rana observed Ramadan with discipline and nary a complaint of hunger, in contrast to Catholic students I had known in college in the 1960s who sought exemptions from fasting during Lent, myself included. I will always treasure the conversation we had in the quiet of my office when she told me that there was a Sufi – one who lives the inner mystical dimension of Islam – within me.
Siti, an Indonesian lawyer, greeted my partner and myself at the Yogyakarta airport in Indonesia where we arrived for a working session on the health effects of prostitution, a project of the international NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which my partner directed. Siti’s small stature belied her sizable achievements, among them, founding a Women’s Crisis Center for battered women and creating, a course on Gender and Islam at the Institute of Islamic Studies where she taught. A Muslim feminist to her core, she insisted on an agreement before marrying her husband that she make her own decisions and have her own career. Together they were raising a daughter, who at 7 was spirited, curious, bright and brimming with promise. She adopted us immediately as her “aunties,” an Asian tradition of welcome and warmth for friends whom they take in as family.
I met Christine, a Syrian Catholic sister, in the early 1970s where we were students at an institute of Louvain University in Brussels, Belgium. The image of her raising her head and exclaiming lyrically “la belle Syrie” – the beautiful Syria, as she relayed stories of her life in Damascus, has never left me. Often in late morning while we were studying in our adjacent rooms, she would brew dark, thick coffee in a copper pot and invite me to share it with her. A small china cup, embossed with goldleaf and desert flowers – her gift to me – holds those absorbing morning conversations rich in images of the country she loved. “Je suis Arabe,” I am Arab, she would say proudly every now and then, and I imagined a landscape of light and desert and ancient Arab architecture in her smiling bronze face.
These Muslim and Arab friends enriched and expanded my sense of being a citizen of the world, as one of the founders of the United States, Thomas Paine, wrote of himself. His exact words were: The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion. His is wisdom for our insular country, deporting, as I write, women and children fleeing from violence in their Central America countries and for would-be presidents consumed with bigotry toward all Muslims.
The author of this article, Pat Hynes, is former Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts