- Published on Friday, 14 October 2011 08:04
- Category: Literature
In the fall of 2009, Dale Fox spent two months as a volunteer living with host families in Turkey teaching English. She had never met a Muslim person and this was her first exposure to a Muslim culture. Dale began to email stories of her daily experiences to friends and families back home, portraying the common humanity that binds us, regardless of the trappings of varying faiths and politics. Her experiences and stories completely altered not just her own prior notions about Muslims but also those of her readers, who suggested that she publish them.
This book is not a meant to have a scholarly tome, but instead, is an often humorous reflection of the diverse beliefs and attitudes she encountered throughout Turkey, mirroring what she was told by people young and old, professional and working class, pious and secular. Dale’s desire is to help destroy “monolithic” stereotypes about Muslims by sharing her stories, written in a manner that can be enjoyed by Americans with little exposure to their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens.
The following is the second excerpt from her book (see Part 1 Here):
November 24, 2009. Our next stop was the objective and highlight of our tour, the Eyup Sultan Mosque, named after Mohammed’s standard bearer. Eyup Ensari died leading the first Arab siege of Constantinople in the seventh century A.D., shortly after Islam stormed out of Arabia. Despite being their sworn enemy a deal was presumably struck with the Byzantines to allow him to be buried here on this site; his spectacular tomb remains to this day. I think this was a mistake on the part of the Christians. Henceforth the Muslims never gave up until they accomplished their goal of taking Istanbul in 1453 under Mehmet the Conqueror; by that time they had long encircled the main piece of real estate protected by the huge city walls. The original mosque on this site was built in 1458, just five years after the conquest, in honor of Eyup. That version fell into ruins and the present one was built in 1880 by Selim III. It is one of the few examples left in Istanbul of a mosque with its entire complex fairly intact, including a large cemetery which holds the remains of many famous Ottoman scholars. Even the original kitchen complex still stands and to this day two meals a day are cooked and distributed to the poor.
For the duration of the day my guide provided me with an outstanding interpretation of the Muslim faith, at times pulling out a notebook in which he had translated his favorite verses of the Koran into English so that he could share them with visitors. Setting aside the primary difference between Christian and Muslim theology regarding the status of Jesus Christ, I found little difference in the strictures and advice provided. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God, since every creature on Earth was created by the one and only God and find the notion that a human being would claim to be God himself to be quite profane. They view him as a highly respected prophet, followed by the last messenger, Mohammed. Frankly, I find their perspective to be more aligned with my rationally trained western mind; this dichotomy is something the scientific western world has never exactly reconciled. It perhaps explains why the Arabs and Ottomans were such great scientists and mathematicians, unburdened as they were by conflicts between science and faith. It strikes me what a particularly great tragedy has occurred between the Jewish and Muslim faiths over Israel and Palestine, because their religions are even closer than Christianity, and they share such a similar cultural heritage.
This was a quiet time of year; even in the summer I doubted that many western tourists found their way to this lovely outpost compared to the central focus of Sultan Ahmet, and we entered the holy grounds with nary a person to be seen. I must say that a good part of its authenticity is that it is NOT a tourist mecca; it is the Muslim faithful who are the common visitors. It has a soulful and mysterious quality, and our first destination after my guide stopped and prayed was the part of the complex that housed a traditional Muslim madrasa, or primary school, which was purposely built in the middle of the cemetery. As I walked down the short avenue where prominent scholars were buried, I saw that it was lined with artistic renderings made by the students and I stopped to admire them, as well as an entire collection of young scholars works arranged in the students study area which is under canvas. The original school was recently restored by a special foundation. My guide had a habit of teaching me about what I was seeing by pointing something out, in this case the tombstones, and he asked me “Why do you think that they placed the school in the middle of a cemetery?” I came up with the obvious answer, to remind the students where they were ultimately going.
He elaborated for me. “Education of the young is of supreme importance. They must be taught the answers to the great questions of life, such as where we were before we arrived, where we go when we die, and how we are to behave in the interim. The students are taught in the cemetery to remind them that we all come from the same source, Allah, and return to the same place, the grave, and because of this fact, it behooves his children to treat each other with respect and dignity which includes making sure that the poor do not go hungry and that their children are educated”. He further explained that the duty of those better off to share a percentage of their wealth is to ensure balance in the society, with the understanding that extreme imbalances in wealth and poverty breed social instability that can lead to the downfall of a civilization. He pointed to the famous scholars entombed on the grounds. “The students must be reminded that even the most brilliant and accomplished of human beings also arrive at the grave, and the remembrance of that fact should remind us to be considerate of all human beings regardless of how gifted they are, and if you are gifted, you have a duty to share that God given ability for the benefit of your fellow creatures”. The students are taught that if you do good deeds you will spend the rest of your future in heaven; and if not, in hell; their eternal fate hangs in the balance and hence the importance placed on education. The golden rule should be your standard, but when it comes to deeds, my guide explained that the intention of your heart was more important than the how perfectly we deliver; he applauded my “tender heart” and hence forgave any “technical” mistakes I might make in my ignorance and appreciated my attention, interest and respect.
We entered the door to the school where we found the “headmaster”, a slightly built man with a doctorate who is in charge of this school which provided basic education including the Arabic language along with religious training. A banner hung on the wall soliciting donations to aid the Palestinians in their desperate plight. Yes my friends, I finally had the good fortune to crash land smack in the middle of a conservative bastion of Islam; I found what I have been seeking so fruitlessly and not a moment too soon before I departed. I was offered apple tea by the good doctor, and we proceeded to spend a half an hour in conversation, in the form of a translation by my guide of this educator’s expositions about his mission; I rarely had an opportunity to interject; this was a time for listening. There was much that was beyond me but I was impressed by his sincerity and desire to share his faith. I was given three small books translated to English whose purpose was to explain Islam and its relationship to Christianity. Listening to his exhortations and accepting his books, it struck me that I had entered the temple of the Islamic version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite my secular background and my education which focuses on being an observer and scholar of the diversity of traditions and beliefs found on Earth, I am always impressed by people who enjoy the rock solid faith that they have found the answers to the aforementioned questions. They are good and sincere people, who are difficult not to like. I was reminded of one of my favorite characters in life, an elderly Italian neighbor named Marie from Wilmington Delaware who was the most sincere Jehovah’s Witness I have ever met; she lived her long life by her principles and adopted myself and my little son Randy, inviting us often to dinner and sharing her abundant sense of humor. I have the same feeling of acceptance here.
Before we left to go see the tomb of Eyup my guide asked me to bear with him once again while he prayed, insisting that I stay put in the cemetery for ten minutes. I observed his request, and while waiting, I made conversation with a handicapped helper at the school who knew no English, and he beckoned to two young male teenage students who entered the cemetery to provide translation assistance. They were surprised and pleased to meet this crazy American and I wish that I had the time to talk with them much longer. I could not have found a more welcoming and gracious bunch of folks than in a small church in Ridgway. And of this my fellow Americans we are frightened to death; the exceptions evidenced by terrorism have wreaked tremendous damage to both cultures. Our final stop in the complex was to the main courtyard where we beheld a number of towering 700 year old giant sycamores and the spectacular tomb of Eyup. The interior was plastered with mind boggling Iznik tile work and glittering gold; photos were forbidden in this holy sanctuary. I put on my head scarf and sent up a few prayers for human tolerance, passed through the line of devoted Muslims and off we went to scale the heights of the mountain to have a late lunch at the famous Pierre Loti café that boasts the finest views of Istanbul and the Golden Horn.by Dale Fox, Aslan Media Contributor Turkey Uncovered is Available at Amazon.com, in paperback, hardcover and Kindle.
50% of the proceeds will go to CAIR Pittsburgh and the Turkish Cultural Center, Pittsburgh.