Mystic Mondays December 12, 2016
The following post is an edited version of a blog post that I written while on my Rome to Rumi pilgrimage in the fall of 2014 just as the political environment was becoming fragile and dangerous in Turkey. Because of recent events regarding the treatment of American Muslims and an intention to dive into my From Rome to Rumi book I have decided to reprint this edited version.
Here it is:
I woke up in Kesan for my first full day in Turkey after cycling 1,500 miles through Italy and Greece. While eating breakfast the news on the screen above me didn’t look good. German shepherds, tear gas, armored tanks and vandalized storefronts and vehicles filled the screen. I had pedaled my way right into a political crisis. ISIS was attacking the Kurds just over the southern border. The Turkish government was slow to respond and the Turkish people were letting their displeasure be known.
I was in a foreign land. Didn’t speak a word of Turkish and had no idea of how Turkish Muslims would react to an American clad in funny spandex clothing riding through their country at the height of political unrest. I was soon to find out. I hadn’t traveled more than fifteen kilometers when a man with a bald head started gesturing my way with a large loaf of bread. He was inviting me to join him and his road crew for lunch.
I wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity nor take the risk of offending my new Turkish hosts. I was given a large tray filled with lentil soup, rice, some sort of meatballs and a half loaf of bread. I picked away at the items eating the most easily digestible items first. I didn’t want to stuff myself and find myself vomiting down the road later.
Next came an awkward dance. I couldn’t finish my meal, but it was also clear that I hadn’t eaten enough to satisfy some unspoken rule that I could feel in the air. The man to the left of me clearly expected me to eat everything that was put in front of me. The man to the right, who had first waved me over, was trying to guide me through the meal. Finally the message became clear—I could leave everything on my tray except for the meatballs. Those could not be wasted.
As soon as I finished the last meatball the man to the right snatched up my tray and shoveled the rest of the food off into the grass. Then he pointed to a herd of goats nearby and gestured between them and his mouth. They had killed a goat for this meal. Cultural and religious protocol demanded that all of it be eaten. The sacrifice of an animal was to not be treated lightly.
Only later did I discover that what I had been invited into was a celebration of Eid al Adha, “The Festival of Sacrifice” one of two high holy days on the Muslim calendar. One aspect of the celebration is that one-third of the sacrificed goat must go to the stranger, the pilgrim, and the needy. I just happened to come by at the right moment and I was the stranger who took my place in the unfolding drama of this holy celebration. When we parted we shared a deep embrace and the double kiss that is custom in the East. I was a welcome guest in this foreign country.
I share this today because in recent weeks we have heard that mosques are being threatened with violence and American Muslims are being targeted for harassment and even hate crimes. It is hard to imagine the Muslim brothers I met that day deserving such treatment and vitriol. They were just the opposite of the stereotypes we have concocted.
What I experienced that first day in riding into Turkey became the pattern for the next three weeks as I cycled into the heart of Turkey. I was repeatedly invited to share tea with shop owners and random people I had met. I was welcomed into mosques to pray without any hesitation or wariness on their part.
“Welcoming the stranger” is a way of life for the vast majority of Muslims. It’s a cultural expectation and a religious responsibility. I will forever remember my three weeks of being welcomed by Muslim brothers and sisters in Turkey in the middle of a political crisis.
Now it’s our turn. Let’s return the favor.