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When the Light Gets In: Muslims and Jews Standing Together (If Only for an Instant)

Community members hold a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. From
Community members hold a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. From

Samsara is, by definition, mired in loss and destruction, and people need hope if they are going to survive. Ordinary Buddhists going about their daily lives need more to go on than the dismal hopelessness orchestrated by cyclical existence.

Of course, Buddhism can be said to provide the ultimate hope—the hope for awakening and freedom from pain—but that is beyond the reach of most of us in this lifetime. It is such a far-fetched imagining, so nuanced and difficult to achieve (so the tradition keeps reminding us) that sometimes I really don’t see the point. Awakening may provide us with splendor and fields of green, but until then the Buddhist promise is that this world will continue disappoint.

And disappoint it does. The United States recently had a devastating week on the domestic and the world stage. Three violent assaults in as many days, each of them likely tied to the violent rhetoric of US president Donald Trump. First, more than a dozen pipe bombs were mailed to some high-profile political opponents of Trump (by a virulent Trump supporter), then two Black people were shot in a Kentucky grocery store simply for being Black (the assailant had first tried to enter a predominantly Black church but was unable to gain access, so he opted for a grocery store instead; apparently, any two would do). Then the most violent assault on Jews in American history: 11 shot dead and six injured in a Pittsburgh synagogue during prayers on a Shabbat morning.

One strike after another, all of them hate-filled, politically motivated, devastating. And all of this rooted in a presidency that has repeatedly violated its platform with bigotry. Samsara has fulfilled its promise a hundredfold by being everything Buddhism promises it will be. 

But then, hope showed up. It may not be much, but it was enough for the moment—at least for me. In the midst of chaos, the Muslim community of Pittsburgh provided relief. Knowing all too well the cost of such assaults, recognizing the (familiar) trauma that will be seared into the community’s history for generations to come, the Muslim community of Pittsburgh ran into the burning synagogue and offered everything they had. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, because no family should have to worry about funeral costs at a time like this. And they stood on a platform and offered themselves; their bodies and their hearts. “Whatever you need, we are here,” they said. “We will stand with you. We will pray beside you. We will protect you if you are scared.”

The horror of the shooting helped heal communal fissures. From
The horror of the shooting helped heal communal fissures. From

Many people believe that Jews and Muslims have been at each other’s throats for centuries, but history is actually more optimistic for once. The two communities lived side by side in relative harmony for centuries in the Middle East—my Egyptian Jewish family is a case in point. Although I have relatives from Syria and Lebanon, and probably Iraq too, our family eventually congregated in Egypt and has declared itself Egyptian ever since. I grew up hearing fabulous stories about Egypt, the “Mother of the World,” about the seductive singer Omm Kalsoum, Groppi Café, and the many rooftop gardens they loved so much.

I remember going to the Middle East for the first time when I was a teenager and discovering familiarity everywhere I went. The sounds, the voices, the cries to Allah for every moment of surprise, enthusiasm, frustration, or superstition. The steaming breads dipped in olive oil and the succulent pastries flavored with rose petals. The Turkish coffee intertwined with fortune tellers. A sense of humor replete with corny “dad jokes” recited with a cheeky grin. Everything in the Middle East was familiar to me, despite it being my first time there.

But it was not really my world anymore. The Jews were no longer a feature of the Middle East. The world my family wrapped me up in was a world of the past. The Arab experience I found so familiar belonged to others.

The Middle Eastern landscape changed dramatically after the Second World War. Lines were drawn into desert sands that refuse to be erased. Jews and Muslims turned on each other, stopped recognizing each other, and they are killing each other to this day. Jews from other lands who ate different foods flooded the Middle East with their horror stories tattooed onto their arms. Nation-states were summoned into existence, armies rose out of the ashes. Kinship was lost. Jews and Muslims found themselves on either side of a concrete wall. The kinship I grew up immersed in—a kinship based on my grandmother’s regular exclamations about Allah—was a kinship drenched in nostalgia. It wasn’t real anymore. The Middle East was instead awash with virulent hatred.

When the Muslim community of Pittsburgh stepped onto their stage and declared an absolute commitment to their Jewish neighbors, something stirred inside me. A memory of a time past. They reminded me that these communities can still form ties of kinship, that they are not bound to follow the trajectory of pain to which they have been wed for so long. They reminded me that, despite contemporary land politics, despite traumatizing narratives and experiences, we can find each other. We can go back to sharing pita bread with hummus and regale each other with 1,001 fabulous tales.

Buddhists pay respect at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after the shooting that left 11 people dead. From
Buddhists pay respect at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after the shooting that left 11 people dead. From

The violence of recent events was particularly pronounced because of the history in which it was rooted. The history of the American Civil War, of racism and slavery, of anti-Semitism, the Second World War, and of a paradise lost in the Middle East. Each one of those attacks rang with historically entrenched pain. Samsara emerged in all its glory, smashing any faith we might have in social progress.

But in between the moments of violence, light flooded inthrough the cracks. Hope took the shape of a Muslim community extending its hand to its Jewish neighbor. Relief embodied. 

I am sure it will pass. Samsara is nothing if not consistent. But the light got in and I wanted to bask in it, no matter how fleeting it might prove to be.

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