In my living room, I have two cream-colored pillows nestled into the corners of the chairs. They are embossed with arabesque designs on their borders, and silver filigree threading runs along the edges. Twenty-five years ago I received them as a gift from Ali, a Muslim student whom I taught at MIT.
Ali was older than the other students. He was the chief of police in Karachi, Pakistan, on a yearlong fellowship in the United States, and my lasting memory of him is his quiet, solid respect when we spoke — it came in startling contrast to my expectations of a chief of police. But I was his professor, and as I found with future international Muslim students, they view their teachers with a regard rarely found in U.S. students.
Ali is only one of the many Muslim and Arab students and friends I’ve had over the years. They have each been invaluable to my life: they’ve taught and enriched me, provided friendship and care and expanded my sense of being a citizen of the world. And so it is with a heavy heart that I heard Donald Trump’s odious pledge to prohibit Muslims from entering the United States, and watched cheers and support for his views pour in from around the country. We cannot possibly accept the bigotry and racism at the core of his message, which distorts the truth about Muslim and Arab people beyond recognition.
For many years, I was a professor of environmental health at Boston University, where I worked on issues of environmental justice in public housing, asthma, lead poisoning and community gardening. I have many long-cherished memories of my Muslim and Arab students there. One of them, Yared, was a public health officer in rural Ethiopia who came to Boston University in the late 1990s for a master’s degree in environmental health. He spoke little in class, yet listened with pensive intensity, extrapolating all that he learned about urban poverty, food deserts in inner cities and poor housing conditions to the issues he worked with at home: water safety, pesticide use, sanitation and malaria. 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 and bowed slightly, a gesture and gift of respect.
Another one of my students, Rana, energized our department with her passion for learning. She was from Lebanon, and with iron-willed insistence, she overcame every obstacle put in her way to gain entry into the department’s doctoral program. During 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, compelling dissertation. Rana also 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 high compliment she paid me when she said there was a Sufi — one who lives the inner mystical dimension of Islam — within me.
Apart from my students, my Muslim and Arab friends have been irreplaceable.
In my own student days, I spent a lot of time with Christine, a Syrian Catholic whom I met when we were students in Brussels, Belgium, in the early 1970s. Often she would brew dark, thick coffee in a copper pot and invite me to share it with her as we studied. The image of her raising her head and exclaiming of la belle Syrie — “beautiful Syria” — as she relayed stories of her life in Damascus has never left me. It’s been many years since we’ve spoken, but I still keep the small china cup, embossed with gold leaf and desert flowers, that she gave me as a gift, and it holds those absorbing morning conversations rich in images of the country she loved.
Then there is Siti, an Indonesian lawyer I met when she picked me up at the Yogyakarta airport in Indonesia. My partner and I were there for a working session on the health effects of prostitution. Siti’s small stature belied her sizable achievements, including founding a 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, before marrying her husband she insisted on an agreement that she be able to make her own decisions and have her own career. Together they were raising a daughter, who at that time was 7 and spirited, curious, bright and brimming with promise. She adopted us immediately as her “aunties,” a nickname for friends who are considered family.
These memories are only a few sketches of the immeasurable positivity that Muslims and Arabs have brought to me and to the United States. Thomas Paine once wrote, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” His is wisdom for our insular country and especially for all the would-be presidents consumed with bigotry toward immigrants and foreigners.
H. Patricia Hynes is a former professor of environmental health at Boston University and directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts. For more, see traprock.org.