Sunday, March 31, 2013

International Living in the Middle of the USA

So I had a few more posts planned out for my series on religion in a cross-cultural relationship, but I've decided to forgo that route and discuss something different. 

On this Easter weekend here in the US, Facebook was a buzz with pictures of cute kiddos hunting for Easter eggs, pictures of bunnies and spiral ham dinners - American traditions.  We unfortunately missed the Easter church and dinner celebrations with my family due to work obligations, so we missed out on the American traditions, but we were still enjoying the weekend and the beginning of spring weather (finally!) with the windows open.  The shrieks, giggles and voices of the neighborhood children floated through the dusty screen and beckoned me to come watch the group playing down below.  There were six or seven kids of various ages running around.  There were a few older kids - maybe 7-9 years old and a few younger ones (< 3), but they all seemed to play together without drama.  Oh - and they probably represent about 4-5 different countries.  H. lives in the international family housing on his campus and diversity is never in short supply in this neighborhood. 

Just walking down the outdoor apartment walkway one can savor the scent of curry simmering on a stove, and almost taste the garlic frying in several kitchens.  My mouth waters every time I step outside.  Next door is a Malaysian family, downstairs is a family from Nepal, at the end of the hallway a couple and toddler from Afghanistan, in between there are few families from China, around the corner 3-generations of Lithuanians.  Yes, I can easily say that H.'s apartment is the most diverse living space I have ever had the privilege of residing in.  I can only imagine what it must be like as a child.

Saturday, as I stood at the open door, watching the children playing in the grass below, I heard one of the older boys ask another little boy with a bit of aggression "What are you doing?"  The inquisitor was definitely the leader of the group.  The other boy was squatting in the grass, picking pieces of grass, or twigs - something like that.  "I'm getting ready for Easter." He replied.  "Easter isn't until tomorrow"  the slightly aggressive inquisitor responded.  "Well, in my country we gather plants and we make a basket for the eggs, so I'm gathering some plants to make our baskets."  The boy replied with the most matter-of-fact, non-combative tone. 

I smiled.  "In my country…."  The boy had said the phrase with perfectly American-accented English.  There was no hint as to what "my country" could be referring to, although we knew that he was from Lithuania.   I imagined how many other moments like this occurred throughout the evening playtime.  How many small bits of culture were shared back and forth.  These children, I thought, will grow up with a greater understanding of diversity, hopefully more compassion and tolerance, and a huge amount of intellectual stimulation from interacting with so many different types of people. 

"I wish our kids could grow up in a place like this."  I've shared with H. on more than one occasion.  To have the open space outside - a safe space, to play, to learn, to grow - what more could one wish for their child.  At the same time, I have often thought how difficult it must be for families to raise their kids  in such small, cramped apartments - 4 bodies in a one room apartment or 3-generations (including 3 kids) in a two bedroom set-up.  The closeness of family beats out comfort in many cultures, and one can see this first hand in this little international community.

Diversity.  It's priceless. 

Another example: today is Easter for all Christians (and Happy Easter if you celebrate!), but here in this apartment community, a group of Indians were celebrating Holi - the Indian festival of color.  We heard the Indian dance tunes and the crowd screaming from a quarter mile away, so we went over to see what was happening.  Pink, purple and orange dust covered the concrete sidewalk and a big pink, purple, orange dancing mob was enjoying the day.  H. was immediately greeted by a friend who put a large orange smear on H.'s forehead.  Soon after a little blond girl threw some purple dust on me.  Then an Indian lady came and added a few handfuls of pink and purple dust to my cheeks, neck and hair.  Now I looked like I belonged at this party.  We didn't stay for long,  as the event was winding down, but  long enough to savor the joy. 

Holi is something like this.  From

I can honestly say, the absolute best aspect of living in the United States is this diversity.  It can't always be found everywhere and the interactions are not always pretty, but there are many beautiful moments.  Even in this small Midwestern town (albeit with a big university) you could represent the majority of the globe with the many different faces and races.  It is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Prayer in Public or Private? Church services and prayer rugs

It's been a while since I've last posted.  Tough times have come my way and I'm finding it a challenge to stay motivated with all the various aspects of life that keep plugging forward.  Time has stopped a bit for me, this week slowly dragging by, but responsibilities beckon me into the river of work that continues to carry me downstream, whether I'm paddling or not. 

These difficult times have helped to fuel this inner discourse I am having on religion and faith.  For example, have you ever noticed that when something difficult happens - an illness, a tragedy - people comment "I'll pray for you."  Maybe this is a Midwest thing, but I've wondered about this lately, especially since the majority of people saying this are often not the church-going type, or the religious type at all.  Is this something that our Christian-based society (in the US here) has taught us to say to comfort one another?  I wonder - do those people really go home and pray?

An image of a woman in personal prayer.
From this link.

 I grew up saying a prayer every night before I went to bed.  "Now I lay me down to sleep,  I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  God bless Mom, Dad, my Sister and Brother, and God bless everyone in the whole wide world.  Amen."  This was the prayer that we said before our parents kissed our foreheads and turned out the lights.  It was routine, automatic, and I said it without really thinking about what it meant.  I was a little kid so I'll cut myself a break here. 

When I grew older, the only time I prayed was when I went to church and the pastor asked for a moment of silent prayer.  Then he always cut me off when I was half way through my own prayer with his pre-written prayer that he read to the entire congregation.  I always felt like I was racing to make it through those moments of silence without getting cut-off right in the middle of an important request to God.

Prayer is different for everyone, so I can't comment on how the majority of Christians or Muslims view prayer.  For some I can say it is probably remarkably similar, for others, very different.

I'll start with the similarities.  Both religions encourage group prayer - for Christians that typically takes place at Sunday services, and for Muslims, on Friday. 

One day H. and I were looking through images in a book about Islam.  We came across an image of hundreds of women, all dressed in white or light-colored hijabs and long, loose dresses that covered the neck, arms and legs, standing in prayer lines in a mosque. 

This is almost exactly the image we were looking at.  I think it might be from Indonesia.
Photo from this article at The Sun.

"Is this image scary for you?"  He asked me. 

I was a bit taken back "No.  Why would it scare me?"  I replied.   What I saw was group prayer.  Pretty common here in the US.  If you go into any church service - Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and so on - you'll see a similar image (if you remove the gender and clothing filter).  You'll see people standing in orderly lines in their pews, reciting the same words as a chorus, and standing and sitting around the same time, on cue. 

A Christian church service, it seems like a very energetic one by the looks of it.
Image from this link.
The main difference between these two situations is that the women in the image were wearing traditional-conservative clothing and covering their heads.  They all looked similar, as they were all wearing about the same color.  Yet, I'm sure that underneath those white coverings their clothes were just as colorful as the bright dresses and skirts worn by women here on Easter Sunday. 

Group prayer may be scary for some.  It may spark images of fundamentalist messages spread like wildfire through the masses.  It may produce images of coins tinkling in an offering basket - gifts for the Church.  There was a time for me when group prayer did indeed strike me a bit off-balance.  The motions, the rituals, reveal who belongs and who doesn't (or so I thought).  Then once it becomes routine, there is no thinking involved and the muscle memory takes over, which in my mind meant that the brain was not as engaged as well and acting more as a sponge than a filter.  I had (and still do have) both unease and respect for communal religious ritual -it's powerful and influencing, therefore one must have their heart open, but the mind engaged. 

While communal prayer and religious practice may have many similarities between the two religions, the private aspects of prayer are quite different.  For practicing Muslims, prayer is required five times daily, at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night.  For Christians, whenever the inspiration strikes, or whenever one dedicates the time.  Muslims must prepare themselves for prayer, they wash their feet, arms, ears and face - otherwise known as performing wudu.  Muslims also must pray facing Mecca and on a clean prayer rug, or rug of some type.  Prayer is performed in a sequences of movements, which is repeated a certain number of times depending on the time of day.  It is a process not only spiritual, but physical as well.  For Christians, well I guess it would depend on what type of Christianity one follows, for Catholics there may be more ritual involved, but for Protestants private prayer is very informal - a chat with God, so to speak. 

A Muslim woman praying by herself.
Image from this article at Muslim Voices.

 I think the ritual associated with Muslim prayer is something that may seem unfamiliar to an outsider.  It is different from what we are used to and involves a process, cleaning, laying the rug towards Mecca and then performing the prayers.  It is open to observers - through these actions it easy to tell if one is praying.  It is not the same as sitting with eyes quietly closed and praying - one can do this without being noticed, without any religious act being observed.  I don't think anyone can say that one way is better or worse than the other, just that they are different. 

For me, I'm drawn to the private aspects of religion.  The moments that happen internally, and without the words of anyone else raining down on my ears.  Moments of private prayer.  Yet, I'm not much involved in the practice.  Although, I wish I were more so. 

I would love to hear others chime in on these topics!  I know religion can be a bit of a scary topic, and that many prefer to keep to themselves about it, but I think it would be great to hear more moderate voices on this topic - I know you are out there!

This post is the third in a series of posts on religion and culture in a cross-cultural relationship, you can read the introduction here, and the second post here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Religion and Community - Zakat and the Call to Prayer

Religion and community are two concepts that fit together rather well.  Of course, there is community without religion, although I think it is challenging to find religion without community.  In predominately Muslim countries, and especially Turkey, I believe the religion-community connection is especially strong.  One of the five pillars of Islam*, Zakat (alms-giving) , which emphasizes the importance of giving back to those less fortunate, is one driving force for community.  While I was in Turkey this past winter I heard many stories of the wonderful acts of Zakat people had done for one another, and for those that needed a little hand up - not only substantial donations of money, food and brand new belongings, but donation of service - such as using financial and real estate skills to help a struggling family finally buy a place of their own and achieve some security for later in life.  

Grains are often given as Zakat, especially during Ramadan
(Photo credit TafreehMela)

I know that donating to those in need is a common phenomenon throughout the world, and especially in the US there is no shortage of Goodwill and Salvation Army stores where people can drop off their unwanted junk, excuse me, goods and get a tax write off while also "donating" to the community.  There are also many fundraising drives through churches that help raise money to give to the needy.   Yet, the examples I heard in Turkey did not involve donations at the mosque, they did not involve giving away unwanted stuff, and as far as I could tell, no tax write-offs were given.  Instead these examples involved middle-class people taking significant portions of their income and time to help others fulfill large, important, unmet needs.  I'll be honest - I was extremely impressed with this personal initiative and generosity.  Society did not rely on religious institutions, charities and their $1 donation into the coffee can at the grocery store to help others.  Instead, those in the community took care of each other.  While some of this attitude is surely Turkish culture, I would say the root is in religion - in Islam.

Islam, indeed, has a strong role in the historical and modern culture of Turkey (and other countries, of course).  One aspect of Islam that shapes the audible Turkish landscape is the call to prayer, the Ezan. Discussion of the Ezan is ubiquitous throughout the travel literature.  Yet, I find that there is a common reaction, a common story - a traveler is shaken out of bed by the echoing, out-of-tune, voice blaring through a loudspeaker - a traveler is annoyed by the intrusion of this voice peaking into their windows every morning, bright and early, to send out the call to prayer to all believers. 

Often these accounts are meant to be humorous and to highlight the exotic nature of the call to prayer.  It may in fact, be quite exotic for those of us that have never heard it before.  I remember my first time hearing it - I was high up in a historical tower in the middle of the Muslim section of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in India, where I was studying abroad.  I was 19, knew nothing about Islam, and so I asked our local guide what the singing was for.  "It's the call to prayer coming from that mosque over there."  I was informed.  I felt the goose bumps rise on my arms, the way they will sometimes during a song when the singer hits an emotional high note. 

A few images of minarets - the ancient structure designed to send the call to prayer far and wide, these days electronic speakers are more commonly used and often all are synchronized within a city to prevent the various echos.
(Image from

In Turkey, each time the call to prayer begins to pulse through the city streets I secretly savor the quite moments that pass, when people seem to slow down a little, the loud music in restaurants and clothing shops is turned off, and the air seems to hum with a different energy.  Even at five in the morning, the Ezan has never been an intrusion for me.  One morning I awoke on my own minutes before the call started.  I was thrilled that I had happened to wake up at that moment.  I laid in bed listening to the low undulations echoing down the boulevard in front of the apartment.  I knew exactly where the sound was coming from, we had passed the speaker the other day.  I took that moment as a minute of peace for myself.  I thought about those, just down the hall from me, that were pulling themselves out of bed at that very moment, laying out their carpet and kneeling towards Mecca. 

Later in the trip, I asked H. what he would miss most about Turkey when we went back to the US, besides his family of course.  I expected to hear tarhana or Maras ice cream, or his mom's amazing food!  Instead, he said, "I'll miss the Ezan."   

That reminder, five times throughout the day, to pray.  To practice faith. 

While there are plenty of software for the computer, iPhone, iPad and other devices that will sync to your location on the globe and play the call to prayer at the appropriate times - it's not the same.  

What is missing?  


When the entire town hears the same call (or in reality often multiple calls that are mostly synchronized), it seems to drip little drops of glue into the community structure. 

I realize there are many people who are not Sunni Muslim in Turkey - there are Christians, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Alevis, and more.  I realize that for some (or many) the call to prayer may not be a welcome sound during the day.  Yet, I can say for myself, it doesn't matter that I am not Muslim, or that I do not pray five times a day.  I still need a reminder to quiet my mind, to stop worrying about petty things, to think of those in my community in need, to look to something bigger beyond me, and to say a small prayer for the health and safety of those close to me, for those suffering around the world, and for the wellness of the planet.

Yes, I like the call to prayer.  Do you?

This post is second in a series of posts on religion and culture in a cross-cultural relationship, you can read the introduction here.

For those who would like a little more information:
  1. Shahada: Declaration of faith and trust in one God
  2. Salat: Prayer - 5 times daily at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening and night
  3. Zakat: Alms-giving to the poor and needy - important point - zakat is distributed within the community from which it was taken (give back where you generate your wealth)
  4. Sawm: Fasting - most commonly we think of fasting during the month of Ramadan
  5. Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dare I do it? Dare I talk about Religion...

Religion is often considered a topic to keep away from the dinner table, and I wonder, perhaps the blogosphere?  I am hesitant to begin this post.  Hesitant to put forth this introduction, this idea, for a series of posts related to religion, faith, and how a Christian and a Muslim compromise in a cross-cultural relationship.   For some readers this may be a non-topic, yet for those of us with any bit of Turkish in our lives, we all know that religion is a powerful aspect of Turkish culture. 

Religion and faith are two different entities in my book: religion is organized, prescribed, (at times) dictated and predetermined; faith, on the other hand, is open, enduring, unpredictable and resides in the heart.   They are obviously intertwined, yet also may be independent of one another (at least the way I see it).

Unfortunately, religion is often used as a tool to create violence and hatred - I don't think it is difficult to think of an example in this case, so I won't go into details here.  In many cases, especially in the US these days, religion is used as leverage to achieve certain political goals as well.  With all the bad press about religion, I have developed an aversion to discussing it.  History, geography, culture, and politics all get thrown into the messy religion soup and just a tasting of these topics in conversation can burn your lips.

Yes, I have shied away from discussing religion, even though it is probably one of the most frequent curiosities I am questioned about with my cross-cultural relationship. 

For example:
"Where is your fiance from?"
"He's from Turkey."
"Oh really, is he Muslim?"
"Um, yes, why do you ask?"
"Just curious…[insert all sorts of questions about head scarves, women's rights, war and terrorism]"

Many of these questions are about religion (and often politics), but not about faith.  Questions about rules, not about meaning.  It is understandable, people want to know about the rules, the dress code, the stigmas and the drama - yes, especially about the drama.  Yet, few, unfortunately, want to know more about the why and the meaning behind said rules.

Yes, what does it all mean?

I'm trying to answer these questions myself these days, sifting through my earlier ideas of religion and actualization of faith, and trying to gain a greater understanding about the religion and faith that hold such a prominent place in the heart and mind of my other half.   I'll try to keep my own  philosophical musing out of these posts, and instead, shape them with facts and stories.  (I'll try!)

I invite you to share your thoughts and engage in a discussion as these weeks unfold.

Cairo street art
Copyright Giulia @ TravelReportage

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