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After the prayers of Eid al-fitr women and children visit with one another.

Cultural Daze (Part I)

I’m not in culture shock exactly. But I do feel a bit dazed after spending most of yesterday in situations where everything was new and unfamiliar to me. I was in a minority. I stood out in ways that made me feel uncomfortable. I did not understand most of what I heard or saw. I tried to prepare, but reading and asking a few questions was not enough. I tried to participate, but I kept feeling like I was getting things wrong. In fact I was getting things wrong.

Two days ago at sunset came the end of Ramadan, a month-long holy season of fasting and prayer for Muslims. That evening one of my pastors and I met with a local Imam to continue a newly begun relationship between our communities. In the course of exploring  next steps and extending some neighborly hospitality, we received an invitation from him to attend the celebrations of Eid ul-fitr.

What could we do but accept?

So Friday morning we donned long-sleeved shirts and long pants and shoes which would not show our toes. We took along extra scarves just in case. It was a Muslim event after all. As my two pastors and I walked across the wet field toward a large gymnasium for the morning prayer service I said, “I’m thinkin’ I’d rather bet on the side of modesty and  blending in as much as possible here. I’m thinkin’ I’ll put  on my head scarf. What do y’all think?” We pulled on the head scarves. This was not easy for three women who’ve spent our lives trying to become leaders in a world suspicious of female leadership. But we laughed nervously and kept walking up the hill.

At the top we were directed to the “sisters’ door.” We joined the women and children in the back of the gymnasium where the atmosphere was festive. Teenagers were posing for pictures on each others’ cell phones and cameras. Little ones were toddling around. Strollers were parked on angles everywhere. It looked like a safe assumption that we were the only three ordained Baptist minsters in sight. This was nothing to brag about really. We stood out like three sore thumbs. Yet almost no one spoke to us. We must not have appeared to anyone to be dignitaries or interfaith partners or even good neighbors. We mainly looked lost and out of place. We said very little to each other. Our eyes searched for clues about what was acceptable to do. When we finally located a place to sit on the crowded floor, one kind sister did tell us that we might want to go up into the bleachers. “The floor gets pretty hard,” she wisely noted. She spoke prophetic truth.

Sitting under the loudspeaker was another poor choice on our part. We couldn’t understand much of what was being said, no matter how loud it was. I felt myself start to panic when I realized I chosen a mostly red headscarf. I quickly scanned the room sorting through hundreds of colors, and I spotted three more women wearing red. Whew. I caught the eye of a tiny girl sitting next to me, all dressed in pink. She smiled. I smiled and relaxed a little.

As the instructions over the loud speakers became more urgent, the women  began to organize themselves and their offspring. Many of the languages we could hear around us were not English. But in a few minutes a young African-American woman nearby turned to us and asked, “Do y’all need a prayer mat?” Well as a matter of fact we supposed we did. “Thank you very much.”

The actual formal prayer time didn’t last very long. We tried to follow the gestures and postures for the prayers best we could by watching our neighbors. Trying to be hospitable can be awkward business when you don’t have a cultural interpreter to help you out. I realized much too late, that was exactly what we really needed. Someone to explain on the spot what was happening and what we might expect next, and to show us the proper way to follow the rituals. Someone to whisper instructions when we fumbled or missed the mark.

Being in a clear minority, understanding so little and feeling so outside was a marvelous experience. I felt constantly overwhelmed as we tried to follow along and at least not cause offense. But in fact when you are the embodiment of the dominant religion, the largest ethnic group and the bearer of such great privilege it is good and very important to sit in the outsider’s seat for a while. Maybe a very long while. It is good to not know. It is good to be surprised, to feel left out, to be lost and isolated even in the midst of a large crowd. It is good to have to depend on someone else’s kindness or guidance.

Good? Yes, good. It disrupts my sense of ownership of public space. It pulls me up short in all my assumptions and oblivion. I am forced to think about the many privileges that I live with and ask myself: What is going on here? What can I learn from this situation? How do I need to change myself in response? What is it like to be in the others’ shoes?

When the prayers were over, the sermon began. Everyone must have heard it before. They began the festival atmosphere again without much notice of the preaching from the front. I was not able to follow along much myself. By this time the sensory overload was starting to take its toll. We moved to higher ground after one young woman informed me, “We can’t step on the prayer mat.” In other words: get it up out of the way! I rolled up the mat and handed it back to its owner. We moved to the bleachers for the sermon.

Following the service, we slowly made our way back to our cars through the crowd. We were on our way to the next part of the celebration: food.

The day was full of surprises. We attended worship we did not plan and mostly did not understand. We shared food we had no part in preparing. We may have started the offers of hospitality but we spent the day on its receiving end. Even through the long moments of our disorientation, we were still carried along by those who knew what to do next. Leaving me dazed for sure.

Tune in Wednesday for Cultural Daze (Part II)