I have an Egyptian co-worker who quite often runs into me in the hallways. In the past, he had greeted me with “Al salaam-o aleikom,” to which I responded with “Aleikom-o salaam,” with as much an Arabic accent that I could borrow.
Once, when we were both in an elevator, he who had already - on the basis of my name – determined that I was from the Middle East, asked me about my country of origin and the religion I practiced.
Where I work, it is not considered appropriate to ask one’s nationality or religion. Unless a closed friendship is already forged, such inquiries are seen as disrespectful, or even occasionally discriminatory.
Nevertheless, not wanting to disappoint him, I responded to his questions as briefly, and as politely, as I could. In return, he divulged his own background to me. He was a new immigrant wanting to settle and to provide for his family.
None of these hallway encounters appeared to me as unusual, or in any way discomforting. Until a few days ago, when he followed his greetings with, “It’s Moharram. Do you know?” To which I responded, “Yes. Happy New Year.” Then, he dropped the bombshell on me, “Ashura Mobaarak!” And, walked away. Did I hear him say that?
Where I was raised, we never considered Ashura as an occasion to celebrate. On the contrary, Ashura was always commemorated with mourning, and even self-flagellation. (Readers unfamiliar with Ashura are referred to Hooman Majd’s new book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, which covers the ceremonies in observance of Ashura in Iran, extensively.)
I was shocked. I have never bothered to find out how Ashura is seen by Sunni’s. Do they celebrate that conflagration in Karbala? Or, did he think Shi’ite’s do? Was he uninformed? Insensitive? Or, naughty? This was one of those experiences I would rather forget, as soon as I could.
This morning I left home reminding myself to say “Merry Christmas” to every Armenian friend and acquaintance I meet. This has become a tradition for I who have always had Armenian friends as classmates and coworkers. What was farthest from my mind was Ashura.
That was until the Egyptian and I ran into each other. In his usual disposition, he announced, “It’s Ashura today.” “In Palestine,” was my tactless response. After that exchange, I was so mindful of my own bizarre reaction that I could not discern whether what I saw on his face was a smile, a smirk, or any other expression.
Was I reacting to his earlier remark about Ashura? Or, was there indeed a parallel - in my mind – between the two events? I wondered what made me react the way I did? Do historical experiences – not our own – form our character? Our judgment?
Is it a sense of betrayal in us – if I am allowed to generalize – that links us to Palestinians, or others we identify as victims of foreign imperialists? Or, is it the arrogance of today’s victors that compel us to forget their yesteryear victimhood?
Is the world endowed with enough resources to support a decent and peaceful life for every one of us? Or, are greed and usurpation requisites for the natural selection?
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