A Remiss Blogger

Sorry for not posting. I’ve been busy.

For those of you who didn’t know, it’s a new semester, with fifteen credit hours of insanity. I have nine credits of Arabic–nine hours of classical and three of colloquial each week. Add to that a very, very challenging international relations course and a comparative politics course, and you’ve got a busy schedule.

Beyond that, I have a host family (who are awesome) and I have to live by their rules. And I’m trying to make new friends (successfully?) with people in the program. And I have three scholarship applications due at the beginning of next month.

So I might as well tell you what I’ve been up to. I’m in Arabic advanced level II, the upper section–so that means I’m starting the last textbook of the Arabic series that has the monopoly on the US market. I should finish most of this textbook by the end of the year, which is really cool and really good for my proficiency in the language.

In colloquial Arabic I am studying in a class of 4 with an instructor hired by my program from an outside organization. It’s focused on intensive conversation, which is really useful.

My area studies classes are fascinating–in international relations, I’m learning about the subject from a distinctively Arab perspective, and my professor is brilliant. To give you an idea of his experiences–he was in the USA, in Texas, teaching his first class ever, and the subject was civil liberties.

It was September 11, 2001. And he’s Muslim.

My other professor teaches America and the Arabs. He is very much a “pro-Palestinian,” so as Americans we get a very different perspective than the one we’re taught in America, which may not be pro-Israeli but it’s certainly not pro-Palestinian. I’ll write more about these classes as we have more interesting lectures…and I have more time.

Beyond that, it’s been applications and getting research approved. I’ll leave you with a statement we learned in my IR class, on Arab nationalism:

“الدين للله و الوطن لجميع.”

“Religion is for God and the nation is for everyone.”

Apt words, sometimes, in our own political discourse.

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New Program, New Faces, New Classes

Hey all,

I’m back from Italy (hopefully this week I’ll write a couple more posts on my time there) and am ready to start my new program with CIEE in the fall.

Today was a day of cleaning–my apartment is being cleaned by a maid (a pleasant surprise)–and of packing.  Fortunately, my luggage arrived yesterday from its vacation without me after Italy (translation:  Royal Jordanian lost my bag) so I actually have two suitcases to pack things in.  At the moment, I’m waiting for my clothes to dry so I can finish stuffing my bags, but it looks like everything will fit, which is a very, very good thing.

Tonight, my friend Dan Yousaf gets in from America.  We met over the summer program and lived in the same building; now, we’re together again in the fall.  CIEE is having him spend the night at my place, then move to his new apartment (he’s not in a homestay) tomorrow.  It’ll be a good night–all four of the continuing students are going to get together and eat.

Tomorrow morning at 11:45, I get to move to the new hotel, the Belle Vue Hotel, which looks far too nice.  It turns out that I have next to nothing to do all week.  As a continuing student, orientation is mostly pointless so I am exempt from nearly all activities.  I still get fed by CIEE and get to meet the students at dinner, but I won’t be shuttled around in a bus all day.  My only activities are a placement test, oral interview, and homestay orientation, which is new for me.

On Thursday evening, my family will pick me up at the Belle Vue Hotel.  I have no idea who they are or where they live–I find that out Thursday morning/afternoon.

One more thing–as a continuing student, it turns out that I get priority registration into the area studies classes that I want, which means I should have International Relations in the Middle East and Paths to Peace in the Middle East as my two political science classes.  I have to drop by the office to pick up the information on that tomorrow or Wednesday.

Okay, I’ll let you all know more information as it comes in.  Until next time–ma’salema.

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Smith: Mosque debate shows need for better understanding of Muslim beliefs

This article also appears in the online and print editions of the Daily Nebraskan.  View it here.

On Sunday, August 22, a man wearing a skullcap walked past two crowds of protesters in New York City-one group in favor of the proposed mosque and community center to be located in a building currently bearing the signage of a Burlington Coat Factory, the other group against it. Due to his headgear, which resembled traditional Muslim wear, he was verbally assaulted by the anti-mosque crowd-despite the fact that he was not Muslim.

On Tuesday, August 24, a Muslim taxi driver in New York City, Ahmed Sharif, was stabbed in the throat, upper lip, forearm and thumb after being asked if he was Muslim.

Also on August 24, a man in Seattle punched a clerk, who was wearing a turban, on the side of the head, and shouted at him, “You’re not even American, you’re Al-Qaeda. Go back to your country.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”

America has an unfortunate history-to say the least-with judging people on appearances to create stereotypes and generate hatred. We’ve done it to Native Americans, to African Americans, to Asian Americans, to Hispanic Americans, to Irish Americans, to Catholics, to Mormons, and now (though this really is nothing new) to Muslims.

And yet our founding documents proclaim, in quite strong words, that this is not what the United States of America was founded on-at least in the area of religion. Muslim-Americans have the same right to worship freely as Christians and Jews and Hindus-yet today, religious leaders openly call for the banning of not just the construction of mosques conveniently located in the same general area as the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the construction of new mosques nationwide.

In fact, respect for Muslim countries runs almost as far back as the founding of our country. In 1797, President John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which proclaimed “the Government of the United States of America… has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen… the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation.” Also, the treaty was approved unanimously by the United States Senate (think of how rare that is today).

Given that the federal government signed this treaty at the same time that we counted slaves as 3/5 of a person, it’s truly remarkable how far back we have regressed. Instead of realizing we have “no character of emnity” against Muslims, groups of Americans (I do not pretend to say all Americans) have decided that Islam is composed entirely of the people who attacked us on September 11, 2001.

Interestingly enough, these people generally proclaim themselves to be the most anti-terrorist and the most patriotic of all Americans-when in fact, they are doing nothing more than enabling what Osama bin Laden and his cohorts desire, a true clash of civilizations. If bin Laden succeeds in defining Islam as a whole according to his warped interpretation of the Qur’an and over a thousand years of religious precedent, then the West has no choice but to be at war with Islam.

However, Islam is not what bin Laden thinks it is. The very root of the word Islam in Arabic is the same root as the word for “peace.” And Muslims-any Muslim I have talked to, in fact-know this. From a taxi driver who told me that he wanted peace negotiations to fail, hated Mahmoud Abbas, and said all Palestinians support Hamas, then told me that he has nothing but respect for Christians and Jews as people, and is called to respect them by his religion; to the moderate Muslims who teach Arabic through my study abroad program, every single Muslim I have met decries killing and terrorism, in accordance with their faith.

An American friend recently explained to me that it is in the religion of Islam to annihilate us and that many Muslims hate America. I find these beliefs disturbing, as they are nowhere to be found in the beliefs of any Muslims I have met. And I don’t just know moderate Muslims-I taught a woman in an English conversation class who sincerely believes that Mohammed is mentioned twice in the Bible. But even she widely differentiated her beliefs from the radical Islamists, from bin Laden to Hamas to the differing parties of the Muslim Brotherhood. Do Muslims generally dislike American culture? Even that is uncertain. Many prefer traditional marriage, a specific role for men and women inside the family, and the wearing of traditional clothing-but many also frequent “moderate” places in Amman, where you’d swear you were in America if not for the Arabic being spoken around you.

It is for these reasons that Islamophobia, seen in as diverse regions of the United States as Seattle and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is so worrisome. There is no reason to fear Muslims-no reason for the recent Newsweek poll that indicated that 52 percent of Republicans believe President Obama “probably” wants to impose Sharia (Islamic) law on the United States, no reason to commit hate crimes and no reason to oppose the building of mosques. Islam is in line with our founding traditions of supporting religious freedom.

What is far more troubling than our strain of Islamophobia is the fact that the rest of the world (especially the Muslim world, which gets excellent media coverage through al-Jazeera) sees this. It does not matter that our president’s middle name is Hussein, or that he hosted an iftar (evening meal during Ramadan) at the White House; Muslims still dislike Obama because he’s in Iraq and Afghanistan and is insufficiently supportive of Palestinians. And while Muslims in the Middle East are still able to distinguish between their strong distaste for the American government and their respect and admiration for the American people right now, as they see more of the hate from the American far-right, this ability will inevitably grow more strained.

We often think of the conflict between Israel and occupied Palestine, or the growing power of Iran, as the main problems for America in the Middle East.  Yet it seems that our focus on them obscures the birth of a bigger problem within our own borders.

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Really sorry about not posting.

Like, really sorry.

Except during Ramadan nothing happens in Amman, so I had nothing to tell anyone.

Anyway, I’m vacationing in Rome now, so I’ll give you all a little briefing on what has happened thus far.

First point–if you ever have the opportunity, fly Royal Jordanian Airlines.  Great food–for an airline.  Great service.  You can tag your own bags in Amman’s airport. They serve a full meal on all flights over 3 hours–like, I don’t know, a flight to Rome.

Getting into Rome, I managed to make my way through Fiumicino Airport and Termini Station and find my way to Piazza del Popolo.  I’m staying at the Hotel Locarno, which got a great review in Lonely Planet and either great or terrible reviews online.  Turns out?  It’s pretty awesome.  I’d recommend it to anyone staying in Rome–very safe location, a bit far from downtown to walk, but walking in Rome (in this area, anyway) is really nice and easy–no hills.

Monday, I went to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica.  I don’t have any words to describe the Museums or St. Peter’s–just go to the link at the bottom of this page and look at pictures.  Pictures don’t even do this justice.  I will mention, though, that we are not allowed to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel, but I did anyway, very surreptitiously.  Thus, they are somewhat blurry and poorly aimed, as I took them from my lap.

Today, I went to the Pantheon and two churches, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Minerva and the Basilica di Sant’Agostino.  I wanted to go to the Chiesa di San Luigi, but I couldn’t find it.  Turns out I was about a block off from finding it, so I’ll go back and see it some other day.  Again, no words to describe seeing these massive, massive structures–just go check out the pictures.  I will mention, though, that it seems like every church in Rome has just oodles and oodles of famous artwork and about 100 chapels filled with famous frescoes.

It’s hard to find words to describe how I feel in Rome.  It’s the very heart of Christendom and my faith, and the Vatican–indeed the whole city–is a place both straight out of my dreams and out of history at the same time.  I can’t describe the incredible peace I feel after attending Benediction–in Latin–in a side chapel of St. Peter’s, or the deep emotions you feel after seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta.  I just have pictures.

I’ll write again tomorrow.

Vatican pictures:  http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2088079&id=1172677535&l=499d34deb5

Church pictures:  http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2088244&id=1172677535&l=c963c4e7d9

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Christians can find meaning in Ramadan rituals

Crosspublished in the Wednesday, August 25, edition of the Daily Nebraskan.

First, let me say that it’s good to be back writing for the Daily Nebraskan this fall, albeit from a very distant location. As some of you may know, I am currently living and studying in Jordan, a very different environment from the United States, to put it lightly.
Living in a predominantly Muslim country has both advantages and disadvantages. For a political science major studying international relations, it’s a veritable gold mine of events and interests. For a Christian, it is either oppressive or refreshing, depending on whom you ask. The population of Christians in Jordan is only around 7 percent, depending on which statistics you believe. Jordan hasn’t conducted a census since 1979 and most of the Christians live further north, in cities like Ajloun and Madaba, though there are a substantial number here in Amman. However, the most overbearing aspect of Muslim culture is occurring right now. Many of you, in fact, may be familiar with it. It is the holy month of Ramadan, and as my Muslim friends say, “Ramadan Kareem,” that is to say, “Ramadan is generous.”
During the holy month of Ramadan, as commanded by the Qur’an, Muslims cannot eat or drink from just before dawn (around 4:45 a.m.) until sunset (around 7:25 p.m.), and yes, this extends to water. Nor can a Muslim smoke, which is a problem for much of the population. I often get in a taxi around 7:15 to go visit friends and see the driver smoke a cigarette, finish it and immediately light another one. Nevertheless, the religious fervor and belief is so strong that temporal, material desires like smoking fall before the desire to please Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God, not another entity).
In fact, it is forbidden by the Qur’an to put anything in your mouth other than a toothbrush all day. Exceptions to fasting are limited to travelling and sickness, neither of which has affected me. Many businesses, and certainly all restaurants, are closed during the day, and many Muslims stay up all night and sleep during the day. In Ramadan, regardless of whether you fast, you have to get used to doing absolutely nothing on the weekends, and often during the week as well.
In the spirit of cultural understanding, I decided that I too would fast for Ramadan. Two friends from my study abroad programs joined me in this endeavor, and it turns out that my Muslim friends are exactly right — Ramadan is indeed generous.
Foremost among all the benefits of fasting Ramadan, I have developed a stronger relationship with my friends. Having neither eaten or drank all day, there is something tangible and powerful about finally being able to share a meal at sundown, when we go to each other’s apartments and cook homemade meals together. Granted, none of us even remotely know how to do any traditional Middle Eastern cooking, so our Ramadan has an American flair. We’ve had grilled cheese sandwiches on pita bread (or khobz), stir-fry, burgers and spaghetti, among other dishes.
In any case, everything tastes better after not eating all day. I advise anyone who has a distaste for a particular food to try fasting for a week and then eating it for the end of the day meal (called iftar). Maybe you’ll have the same experience I had with vegetables: After only liking a few before coming here, I’ve now discovered a real taste for them.
Ramadan has also caused me to really appreciate the friends and family I left behind in America, the support network that I never thought I’d have to utilize. Being eight time zones away for seven months does cause one to miss things and people in America. Ramadan only intensifies this, as all day I don’t eat or drink, so I have plenty of time to think about my friends and family. I’ve talked to my parents more consistently during Ramadan than I had in the previous two months.
Surprisingly, Ramadan has actually made me a stronger Christian. This is a touchy subject, granted; many of you may be wondering why someone who identifies as a Christian would fast at all. Like I said, I originally did it for the culture, but I now find myself finding religious benefits. Not eating means more prayer, and each call to prayer I hear (I live about two blocks away from a very loud mosque) reminds me again to pray.
And, of course, there are cultural benefits, too. As a Christian there is nothing like telling a Muslim “I’m fasting too!” They don’t understand initially why a Christian would fast, until you explain. But in any case, they’re flattered and there is an instant sense of kinship and companionship in a collective struggle not to eat or drink.
I have found the month of Ramadan, now half over, to be my most enjoyable time in Jordan. It is hard to even describe the true benefits of it, but most of all, I would say it has made me more grateful for what I have, both in Jordan and in America. I look forward to eating during the day again, yes, but at the moment I am content with recognizing that Ramadan is indeed generous.
Zach Smith is a junior music and political science major currently studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. Reach him at zachsmith@dailynebraskan.com.

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An Interesting Homily

Hey everyone. Sorry I haven’t been posting lately.  In all honesty, there’s nothing too interesting going on here aside from the 110-degree heat on Friday.

However, I did want to share with all of you a really interesting and, in my opinion, refreshing homily that I heard at Mass on Saturday.  First, a little background:  I attend Mass with two (non-Catholic) friends, but as they don’t really know of a church and I have a declared denomination, they follow me there.  One of my friends is a Methodist, one a (former?) Baptist.  The Methodist friend–let’s call her Jane–tends to have very similar theological beliefs to me–for instance, supporting gay marriage, being pro-choice, and most importantly, believing that a truly loving God would not deny the gift of salvation to anyone.  My other friend–let’s call her Monica–is a bit more theologically conservative, reflecting her upbringing, but she also has her own doubts about that theology, brought on by witnessing the deep suffering and tension and plight of the Palestinian people, and a confusion about a religion that believes only its believers will have salvation.

I used to hold a similar belief, when I was a theologically conservative teenager.  But as many of you know, I had a long period where I was very confused, or ambivalent, about the truth of Christianity–or any religion!  When I came back to Christianity, though, I was also filled with the belief that a truly loving God, like the one described in the New Testament, would not deny mercy, forgiveness, and eternal life to anyone.  It has been my position that God’s forgiveness is for everyone, not just for a specific group of people.

Monica and I discuss that over and over again, because she, for reasons of her upbringing or some other reason, could not find a Scriptural basis for this belief.  This is understandable, because I had never even tried looking for a Scriptural basis for what I felt to be intuitive truth.  We’d always let the conversation go–until Mass on Saturday.

It turns out that the readings on Saturday/Sunday’s Mass applied perfectly to our discussion.  They were the following (I’ve copied from the New King James, which isn’t a Catholic Bible but may be more accessible):

First Reading:

“For I know their works and their thoughts. It shall be that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and see My glory. I will set a sign among them; and those among them who escape I will send to the nations: to Tarshish and Pul and Lud, who draw the bow, and Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off who have not heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they shall declare My glory among the Gentiles. Then they shall bring all your brethren for an offering to the LORD out of all nations, on horses and in chariots and in litters, on mules and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the LORD, “as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD. And I will also take some of them for priests and Levites,” says the LORD.  (Isaiah 66: 18-21)

Second Reading:

And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the LORD loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”

If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?

Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.  (Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13)

Gospel Reading:

And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.”  (Luke 13:22-30)

These readings have a common theme that the priest linked to–namely, that the salvation of God is universal.  While we find that our Christian faith means that the salvation of God is best expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, we humans cannot begin to fathom exactly what God can do outside of our small prism.

The priest noted a couple points–first, that we, as a consequence of human nature, tend to see ourselves as being right and therefore better than everyone else, even a little bit; whether it is with family, religion, political beliefs, what have you.  Second, he mentioned that it is a constant in all major world religions that salvation is universal–but that nobody wants to talk about it or knows how to talk about it, since we think about life through our own prism.

In the first reading, the point he took away from it was that God is gathering “all nations and tongues” together–that is, even in the Old Testament (not noted in casual reading for God’s especially forgiving nature) God is promising salvation for all people–and even will make non-Levites and non-descendants of Aaron priests, a crazy idea at the time.

In Hebrews, we are reminded that God chastens us all (while the English translation uses “sons” we ought to think of it as “sons and daughters”) equally.

And in the Gospel, Jesus tells us that salvation, yes, is offered to everyone, but we also have the opportunity to deny that salvation.   But this is a willful choice–not an unknowing or unwilling one; we cannot know how God’s mercy extends, or indeed how God manifests Himself in other religions.  It is my position that Christ is present in some form in all religions, whether as the necessary savior for all mankind, as we believe him to be, or as that constant element that all religions seem to hold in common; common beliefs, common threads, common values.  Or as something else entirely–if there’s one thing I know, it is that I don’t know the mind of God.

Anyway, it was a really, really good homily.  I wish I could have a recording or a text of it because it was far better than I’ve presented it.  Lastly, he noted that Catholics in particular used to hold a very exclusive vision of the kingdom of Heaven; but now, while reading the Bible and seeing new things that are revealed with increased wisdom and guidance, we are very, very unsure about how to talk about universal salvation and the sheer fact that everyone, be they Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or atheist, gets a full chance and a full opportunity to experience God’s mercy.

Food for thought.

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Islam and Christianity met somewhere around the year 2000.

Interesting article, to both my teacher and myself, on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (The Daily Dish) yesterday.

Turns out Pope John Paul II was in Bethlehem celebrating Mass in the year 2000.  Money quote:

The pope had just finished his homily, ending with “Assalamu alaikum,” when the Muslim call to prayer broke forth from the loudspeakers at a mosque that bordered on Manger Square. It seemed, at first, like a rude intrusion on the historic Mass the pope was celebrating in the Jubilee year. But John Paul sat quietly and listened as the muezzin sang God’s praise; he seemed to be savoring the moment. It was as if the Muslim prayer mingled with the Mass.

Just before the Mass ended, it was announced that church and mosque officials had coordinated the call to prayer, which had been delayed to accommodate the pope’s homily. It was a small matter, really, but this cooperation stirred the crowd, mostly Arab Christians, to cheers, applause and even to tears. A sacred space had been shared, and everyone was the better for it.

How cool.  And exactly how I think of the call to prayer when I hear it.

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