It struck me this week that I am becoming compound-bound. So are our children. It’s easy to do, especially now its Ramadan and the average temperature is spiking into the 40s. Basically. everywhere is either too hot or shut until ifthar brings the relative cool of sunset, the opening of shops and restaurants, and the breaking of the fast. But that’s too late for 3 year olds.
One of my last trips off-compound was to the hospital to get our toddler’s pre-school boosters done. Subconsciously, it probably cemented the idea that it’s easier to stay behind the compound walls in our little corner of expatdom, away from the challenges of a new culture and people…
My husband was away so I set off with our 3 children and as many snacks and screens as I could cram in around them. By the time we arrived, the Ipad had run out of juice and there were only a few crumbs and banana skins left for sustenance.
People say the Brits like to queue. I learnt that morning I don’t. Queuing to see the doctor, Sergio and Ariane, our older children (not their real names), breathed resentment and irritation around the waiting room as they measured their lost time away from the compound, x-boxing and hanging out with pals.
When we were eventually seen by the doctor, he told us to go back to where we’d just come from, take a ticket and queue again to pay. We still hadn’t received any medical treatment by that point and I wondered if we were paying for the queuing experiences…
Back in the queuing room, I took a ticket but when I was called up, I was told I needed to get a different type of ticket and queue at a different desk. Only no one could explain where or how. An American eventually took pity on me as I stood staring at the queues, holding tickets for every counter.
The Tweenies, now exhaling frustration and hormones like teenage dragons, erupted. Spider Man, the toddler, who still didn’t know we’d come to get him stabbed in the arm, was doing a celebratory dance along the rows of chairs in the waiting room, regardless of whether they were occupied.
As I queued again, Spider Man launched himself off a chair, pointing at a man in traditional thobe and ghutra.
‘Mummy, is that Jesus?’ he bellowed to the room.
This was so much worse than when he’d asked the receptionist at our dental visit if he was the king (‘But he wears a funny hat too,’ he’d pointed out).
I was a broken woman. We’d left the house nearly 3 hours earlier, we were probably in the wrong queue even now, there was a distinct dearth of medical care and now we were parading our Christian faith.
‘Shush,’ I hissed.
‘But Jesus has a beard,’ said Spider Man, his head tipped back as far as it would go so he could study the man’s facial hair.
Internally: ‘Aaaaargh.’ Outwardly: ‘Would you like the iPad or a snack?’
Thankfully, the man never looked around and I was able to blush at his back whilst pretending to get the dead Ipad to work and hunt for snacks I knew had been eaten.
It was very much a them-and-us experience. I was the hapless visitor, excluded by my lack of Arabic and my faith, unable even to get it in the right queue, and they were an impenetrable people with as much understanding of me as I had of them.
That’s how it felt anyway. And how it continued to feel, holed up in our compound, sitting out Ramadan and the summer months until we can start exploring again.
Or at least that was the case until last week, when I found myself discussing parenting ideas with a Muslim lady here inside the compound.
She was wearing the hijab, modestly covered, I was abaya-free in my usual compound costume of sweaty gym wear. I told her that I’d recently started Bible journaling with my daughter. I pointed to the Bible in my handbag and described how we enjoy the time spent together, the Bible, the art and the new avenues of conversation it opens up.
The lady nodded towards my Bible, smiling as I described the journaling. I sensed she saw value in what my daughter and I are doing. She didn’t seem to regard it as strange- she even encouraged me to keep on with it, praising its merits.
In very real ways, this lady and I are separated by our faiths. She takes her teachings from the Quran, I take mine from the Bible; she looks to Allah and his messenger, the prophet Mohammed, I look to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; she prays and fasts during Ramadan, I reflect during Lent and Advent; she celebrates Eid, I celebrate Christmas and Easter.
But during our chat, faith actually connected us. I felt a pathway form between us, above and across our differences, as I realised that her enthusiasm was based on our shared values- on the fact we both love our god, we both have a holy book, we both pray. It provided a bond, however brief, that felt more important than a shared language or dress code.
It made me wonder, when Spider Man shouted ‘Is that Jesus?’, whether he maybe hadn’t caused the offence I imagined. I was reminded that the Muslim world respects and acknowledges Jesus. When we visited Bahrain’s Grand Mosque last year, our guide spent a chunk of the tour discussing Jesus, whom he referred to as ‘Jesus, peace be upon him.’
Jesus makes numerous appearances in the Quran. The Quran also features many other people from the Bible: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and Goliath, Jonah, Mary, the angel Gabriel and John the Baptist. It’s so easy, in a foreign environment that can leave us feeling displaced, like I felt in that hospital waiting room, to focus on the differences. But then we risk missing the connections.
Islam and Christianity’s shared ideas provide a possible entry point into rich conversations. But that’s not the world’s general experience of what happens when faith meets faith. Historically and currently, it can lead to bloodshed, wars and division. As humans, we often seem to find it easier to compete, to focus on the differences, to mistrust the stranger, to reject ideas that we perceive to be a threat.
I know this is true of myself. When the Bahraini tour guide at the mosque referred to Jesus, I momentarily enjoyed having something in common with him until he tried to persuade me that I was wrong in my understanding of who Jesus was.
My hackles went up and, although our conversation remained polite, it became charged as he argued against my ideas and I argued against his. I’m not sure either one of us really listened to what the other was saying.
Away from the heat of our debate, I can see that Jesus connected our faiths but instead we let him divide us. We both value Jesus but for different reasons: Muslims regard him as a prophet, Christians believe he is the only way to God.
Those of us with a faith need to take care that our beliefs don’t breed arrogance, however subtly. Otherwise it can give rise to the hostile attitude I exhibited towards the Bahraini guide as we both jostled to be right.
I once asked a vicar how Jesus could provide a way to God for people who lived and died before him and so never knew him. Or what about babies and children too little to understand him or people in remote places, or places where faith is squashed, who have never heard about him?
The vicar explained that Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a pebble dropped into a pond- its ripple effect goes out in all directions, forwards, backwards, sideways, taking in the whole of human history.
As a Christian, I do believe that the only way to God is through Jesus but lately I have started to wonder if Jesus’ salvation goes far beyond what my brain can compute.
There is so much that we don’t understand about God’s salvation in both the physical and spiritual realms. I read the story of Elisha’s servant this week. The servant is terrified of the enemies that surround him and Elisha. He thinks Elisha is mad for not being concerned. But then God opens the servant’s eyes and reveals what Elisha can already see- that they are completely protected by God, despite appearances.
A friend of mine recently felt inspired to pray for someone, whom she had never met, who was alone and dying. Despite not knowing anything about them, she felt she was supposed to pray, not that they would get better, but for their spirit.
I found that story hard to believe. Initially, I wasn’t sure it seemed biblical. But I trust my friend- she’s very biblical. And then I started to think, if God is outside time and space, why couldn’t this be true? Why would a God of love not do this for his child when they were alone and dying?
My understanding of God has been blown open by my friend’s experience because it suggests God’s love and mercy extend way beyond anything we can picture or comprehend. He is deeply concerned for all of his children. His desire and love is for everyone, regardless of creed, background, sex, race and language.
Imagine a world where we all truly believed that. Imagine the value we would attach to every person we met if we saw them as God sees them. The words in my dialogue with the man at the mosque might not have changed but the attitude behind them would have done.
The song below is an old favourite of mine. The line that speaks to me most is this: ‘Open up my eyes to the things unseen, show me how to love like you have loved me.’
I still believe Jesus is the key, the answer, the cornerstone in the bridge between us and God, but I think he’s a much bigger key than my mind can fathom. And so I pray that God will open my eyes wider to his love for all humanity. Maybe then I will have more love for those outside my compound walls.