I had my first conversation about religion here last week, with Jude, who is my friend Rhea’s fifteen-year-old host sister and a cousin to my family. She was at Fatima’s house, who is her grandmother and our auntie, my mother Aziza’s sister, and we were all eating dinner—I went there after class on Monday instead of going home.
Bruce had told us that religion and politics are topics that people would want to talk about with us—and he’d also told us to be careful, the way you are when you discuss things like this with people you don’t really know. So it was Jude who brought it up; I hadn’t asked but rather waited to be asked.
I have always associated Islam with the differences in dress, because while there are all these aspects to religion that aren’t visible, dress is pretty obvious. In my family, Aziza wears a hijab and none of her daughters do. Auntie Fatima has two daughters, one (Jude’s mother) who came to dinner one night in a skin-tight hot pink velour tracksuit, and another who covers from head to toe, and Jude’s younger sister, Tala, came to Sakher and Samah’s wedding in a strapless sequined red and silver mini-dress with gladiator heels. I, of course, do not cover at all (at home, I go to Meeting for Worship in the t-shirt I slept in, being a member of the least demanding church in the world) but have been successfully modest since getting here, and no one has made any comments to me about dress at all, except for one time Ziad told me I looked nice.
Still, I wondered—and also, I couldn’t help but wonder if they wondered if I wondered. Either religion is such an integral part of life here that it doesn’t need to be talked about, or they just don’t talk about it with me—regardless, I hadn’t talked about it at all with anyone outside of Earlham or Yalla Talk since arriving in Jordan—until Jude.
The three of us, Jude and Ziad and I, were choosing a movie to watch, and Jude said, “Do you want to watch a movie, or play poker?”
“Watch a movie,” I said.
“Okay,” Jude said agreeably. “How many kinds of your religion are there?”
I said that I didn’t understand the question.
She apologized, saying, “My English is not very good.” (It was fantastic.) She went on, and explained: “In my religion,” she said, “We have Sunni and Shiite. How many kinds of Christian are there?”
“Oh,” I said, “alot,” and tried to explain: Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterian.
“What’s the difference?” she asked.
I blushed. “Different...services,” I said. (Truth time: I have no idea. The biggest difference as far as I can tell is that you take Centreville Road to get to the Methodist Church and McLearen to get to the Baptist.)
Nodding amiably, Jude said, “We are Sunni, which is the right way.”
From the couch, Ziad said something sharp. “Okay okay okay,” Jude said. “Not right like, the only way, but closer to the real way.”
Ziad shook his head again and she kept trying to explain: “There are different ways to do it, but this is the way it was originally meant, we think.”
“I understand,” I said, and added, “But I am not really a Christian.”
Jude’s eyes got wide and I realized that it had been a stupid thing to say. A lot of Quakers (most Quakers?) consider themselves to be Christian, and so do I, I guess, by name. What I had meant was, I’m not that kind of Christian, all those Christians have something in common that Quakerism doesn’t have—but by the look on Jude’s face my pronouncement had been shocking. She must have thought I meant I was an atheist, or worse, Jewish.
“I’m Quaker,” I said. Jude shook her head and answered: “I have never heard of this.”
I hurried to explain: it’s a different kind of Christian. We don’t really follow, well, Jesus. (Well, at least not as divine. Like, he was a good guy. But so were a lot of people. But some Quakers believe in Jesus. Not me though, not that way, but it’s okay, nobody minds, I’m still just as much a Quaker as anybody else, or at least my Quakers would say so—)
“And what do you believe?” Jude asked, with real interest.
Quakerism is hard to explain without a language barrier. “We believe,” I said, “that God...is really...big. And really complicated—” (oh, great, I thought, 500 years of religious philosophy boiled down to Quakerism: “it’s complicated” with God) “—and hard to understand.” My fingers were crossed, metaphorically, that this was wouldn’t sound like a total cop-out with regard to the Belief question.
I was surprised, and relieved, when her eyes lit up.
“That’s the same!” she said. “That’s what we believe! That God is great, the most great, and incredible. Always we say this first, that God is the most great.”
“I agree with you,” I said, relieved that we had established this most basic monotheistic similarity so quickly.
“What else?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “Quakers, we...well...because God is so great it would be impossible for any one person to ever...really understand, completely...”
(There are all these different levels to Quakerism. How far to take this? Your personal relationship with God, which is, maybe, your personal relationship with everything that’s God within yourself, and within everyone else, but that gets tricky so start with yourself, and maybe if you are good to others they will be good back but maybe not which is still okay, because being good to others is being good to yourself, too, and will make it easier to be Good in general, which comprises Integrity and treating everybody with Equality and brings you a little closer, maybe, to Truth.)
I told Jude that I had been raised, that Quakers believed (there was no way to go into the lack of creed. Absolutely no way) that there is truth in many religions, that we study many books and many prophets in the search for Truth.
“Did you study my religion?” Jude inquired, and as I said, “Yes, I have, a little,” I said a silent thank you to my mother for making me go to First Day School and to Gwen Zanin for allowing me to answer that question honestly.
“And do you think it’s true?”
I hesitated and then said: “Yes, a lot of it, and I think it’s beautiful,” which was both true and, apparently, satisfying to Jude, because the next thing she said was:
“I’m in the mood for a horror—let’s watch the Last Exorcist.”
I didn’t know if they would understand it if I joked that watching horror movies is against my personal religion, and I’m not sure it would have gone over well anyway. So we watched it, and when I got too scared we pressed pause and cooked popcorn on the stove and the kernels got stuck in our teeth and we went outside to play with a remote control helicopter that almost got stuck in the tall trees of Auntie Fatima’s courtyard, and afterwards, still high on the aftertaste of the horror, Ziad snuck up on Jude and made her shriek. All this—also the same.