Hummus and Garb: Dialogue and Identity Questions

Below are two related items — “Are We Really Beyond Hummus and Handshakes?” and “Garbed (and Dangerous?)” — on which thoughts are welcome: How can religious leaders help their own communities and others deal with “the stranger”? How can Clergy Beyond Borders most effectively help partners in such different circumstances?

Are We Really Beyond Hummus and Handshakes?

How many hearts and minds were opened by the “Week of Dialogue” (Oct. 22-24-ish) proposed by a broad coalition of Muslims back in early October? How many people even knew about the call for mosques to open their doors to non-Muslim neighbors and for Muslims to visit other houses of worship? CBB did not hear from swarms of individuals or congregations participating in any kind of exchange, and the effects were not immediately obvious.

However, several congregations in the New York and DC area did participate (see CBB’s Facebook Discussion. Following morning prayers at Temple Micah, a small group, including CBB Program Director Virginia Spatz, visited the nearby Islamic Center for noon prayers and an informal discussion. Most participants said they never had occasion to attend a Muslim prayer service or to discuss the meaning of its specific aspects. The lovely, open discussion afterward was pronounced moving by Christian, Jewish and Muslim participants.

Most of the Micah participants said they joined the visit because of worries about attacks on Islam in the public culture. Many also expressed surprise, even dismay, upon realizing how many years they’d worshipped nearby without visiting and observing prayers. Muslim participants asked many questions about Judaism, indicating similar states of mind. (Part two of the exchange, an open house at Temple Micah for Muslim neighbors, is still in the works.) Although none of the participants was previously part of the “fear” culture, it seemed clear that we don’t know as much as we think we do about one another.

In some parts of the world, including East Coast USA, there can be a disparaging attitude toward “hummus gatherings” — you know: share a piece of pita and some hummus, shake hands, call everyone “brother or sister,” and declare victory over hate. Instead, we hear: Enough with that “we’re all brothers” stuff. Let’s give differences some real exploration and reflect seriously on harm caused by religious conflicts.

In this “been there, done that” view, the New Evangelical Partnership’s call for Christians to befriend Muslims might seem positively quaint.

But are we — and all the members of our various communities — really as “advanced” in our stages of dialogue as we thought? The current state of world affairs would indicate otherwise. And should we ever be “beyond friendship”?

Perhaps we still need to make the time to do some basic sitting, handshaking — even hummus eating, or, where possible, prayer — with those of different faiths (or denominations). This might lead to deeper dialogue and/or friendship, importantly inter-related, but not identical, concepts. Or it might just lead to meeting some people we hadn’t previously known and so expanding our worldviews.

“Garbed (and Dangerous?)”

As suggested above, there can be strong differences of perspective on identity and dialogue issues, based on the location of one’s view. In recent years, for example, Vanessa Hidary, a Jewish spoken-word artist from New York, added the following words to her signature piece, “The Hebrew Mamita”:

Don’t get twisted
because in New York City you can buy knishes
at stands for a dollar fifty
Jews are only 2.2 percent of the American population
In many parts of the country, they are not feeling me.

What’s old-hat in New York or DC can be foreign and brand-new in another part of the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. And wherever one is located, the message of “The Hebrew Mamita,” originally performed on HBO’s Def Poetry series in 2003, still applies:

…if someone tells you, you don’t look like or act like your people —
Impossible. Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look.

A similar message comes through the relatively new blog, “Muslims Wear Things,” launched as a response to talk about fearing individuals in “Muslim garb.”

CBB partners appearing on the blog include Professor Sherman Jackson and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, both of whom spoke at CBB’s Dec. 2009 conference on Human Rights. Also included are Congressman Keith Ellison, whose “On Faith” piece is highlighted on CBB’s Facebook page, astronauts, a member of the Viking’s football squad, Nobel prize winners, and King (then Prince) Abdullah of Jordan as a guest actor in the television series “Star Trek: Voyager.”

Visiting and re-visiting this blog is

1) a delight, pure and simple: the photos are beautiful, the variety is fascinating, and the voice of the captions is charming;
2) a gently humorous anecdote to widespread sharp and divisive sarcasm;
3) an opportunity to learn of authors and artists you might not know; and
4) an inclusive view in an increasingly boundary-conscious world.

Congratulations to the blogger, camera- and publicity-shy herself, for such a light-hearted but thought-provoking approach to what Congressman Ellison called “the national conversation on belonging.” (You can also buy “Muslim Garb” t-shirts and related apparel on this blog.)


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