Monday, April 25, 2005

My Jewish Aunty

My parents arrived in Australia during the mid-1960’s. My father had just won a scholarship to do his PhD at the Australian National University located in Canberra, Australia’s “bush capital”.
My mother was also offered a scholarship to complete further studies in Urdu. She already held degrees in Urdu Literature from Aligarh and Punjab Universities, and at least one university was prepared to foot the bill to turn her into possibly Australia's first Urdu scholar.
My mum had other ideas. She had a baby daughter and another on the way. She preferred to look after her new family home so her husband could pursue his studies and a career in academia.
My mother’s Urdu was superb. Her English was another story. She struggled in Canberra, a small city with hardly any persons who spoke anything resembling Urdu. She struggled even to buy bread from the corner store. Until, that is, she met Anne.
Anne was my mother’s age. Anne was not from the Indian sub-Continent. Anne was Jewish. And Anne was perhaps the first person to play a pivotal role in my mother’s life in Australia.
Anne regarded my mother’s weakness (lack of English fluency) as a strength. Anne spoke a smattering of Hindi, having lived in India for a number of years. And she saw my mother wearing her sari and struggling to communicate.
“Assalamu alaykum!” shouted this light brown haired, white skinned woman. My mother turned around, and saw this ‘gori awrat’ (white woman) speaking in some kind of Hindi and greeting her with a traditional Muslim greeting. They clicked.
Anne and mum made a deal. If mum helped Anne with Urdu, Anne would assist mum with English and with getting around Canberra (my mum could not drive). They would also swap recipes, and make sure all the food was kosher. Or was that halal? Who cares ... it's all pretty much the same!
Anne’s friendship with mum flourished. They were like sisters. Anne convinced mum to learn how to drive. And mum convinced Anne to learn how to put on a sari properly.
More importantly, their friendship taught them that Jew and Muslim need not hate one another. Events overseas can and should stay overseas. Real friendship can survive war and politics.
For mum, Anne’s religious identity was not a big deal. And in India, it usually is not. Muslim and Jewish communities in Bombay and Poona lived side-by-side for centuries. Just as Muslims and Jews joined hands to defend Jerusalem from the Crusading invaders centuries before that. Try telling some Palestinian extremists that their hero Saladdin appointed the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, Shaykh Musa bin Maymum (Moses Maimonides) to lead his medical team. Or that one of the first scholars in the community of the Prophet Muhammad was the former Chief Rabbi of Madina named Abdullah bin Salam.
But that is perhaps ancient history. Returning to the 1960's, Anne was present at Canberra Hospital when mum gave birth to her second daughter. Anne was one of the first to hold the new baby. Anne helped mum adjust to the second baby who was hardly 12 months older than the first one. I can just imagine the scene of these 2 women holding a crying baby each and trying to rock them to sleep or feed them or change their nappies.
Some months later, my Dad finished his PhD. They returned to Pakistan (the Islamic world's answer to Israel). Anne was at the airport to see them off. My mother kept Anne’s address and phone number and promised to write.
I had not yet arrived on Planet Earth at that time. So how did I find out about Anne? My 2nd sister, the one who had been held by Anne a few minutes after birth, was preparing for her wedding. Some 2 weeks before, I was at home when the phone rang. A lady spoke to me in Urdu. She told me her name was Anne and that she had just arrived from Israel where her son was working in a kibbutz. She said she was a friend of mum’s and insisted that I pass on her name and telephone number to mum.
"Yeah, right", thought the young campus Muslim activist . As if mum would keep Jewish friends.
Mum arrived home after a few hours. I gave her the message. She read it and was ready to burst into tears.
“Thumhe pata hai ke ye kon hay? Yeh mery saheli hay Canberra se. Meri bahan ki tara hai. Thumhare liye yeh khala ki thara han. Jis waqt thum payda bhi na huwe the!” [Trans: Do you know who this person is? She is my close friend from Canberra. She is like a sister to me. And for you, she is like your aunt. Even if at the time, you were not even born!]
Mum rang Anne, and they agreed to meet the very next day for lunch at a kosher café named Aviv’s located at Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach. I drove mum there. And the first thing Anne said, standing outside this kosher restaurant in this very Jewish part of Sydney was “Assalamu alaykum!”.
I waited for mum, who claimed she would only be an hour or so. 4 hours later, they both emerged, in accordance with the principles of IST (Indian Standard Time). Mum called me over and said: “Anne khala ko salam karo!” [trans: give salams to your Aunty Anne!].
Mum had also made an executive decision to invite Anne to the wedding. Seating was limited, and I was forced to withdraw an invitation given to a friend. My protests were of no avail.
“Thumhari yeh khala hay!” [trans: She is your aunty!]
Anne attended the wedding and gave her blessing to my sister and her husband. She had tears in her eyes. The last time she had seen my sister was as a baby hardly 6 months old.
My mother is deeply religious. Apparently some religious Muslims have a problem with Jewish people. Funny that.

When I was at university, I used to often pray my friday prayers at the Surry Hills Mosque. I'd then catch a movie. Afterwards, we would walk around the city and inevitably end up at Elizabeth Street or Castlereagh Street near Piccadilly. And in rubbing shoulders with all our Jewish "cousins" (as we's call them) with their caps and beards and beads, we'd feel like we were back amongst the crowd at the mosque! Well, they certainly looked similar.

I've heard some pretty crazy things about the children of Israel over the years from some of Ishmael's kids. But I have never heard my mother say anything bad about Jewish people. After hearing how Anne helped my mum, I could see why.
Through her conduct, her assistance and her love, Anne won a permanent place in my mother’s heart. She behaved like a true Jew, and won the heart of a vulnerable Muslim woman travelling in a strange land.
Imagine if more Jews and Muslims behaved like Anne. Imagine if we Muslims welcomed and befriended our Jewish neighbours. Imagine if we assisted people we saw in need. Imagine if we showed good conduct to all people.
When will we learn to stop fighting? When will we realise that the things we share in common are more important than the things that divide us?
Or, to adopt the words of one of the Talmudic elders: If we are not for ourselves, who is for us? If we care only for ourselves, what are we? If we don't love now, when will we start?
The Prophet (peace & blessings of God be upon him) had a Jewish neighbour who always hurled a constant stream of abuse at him. One day, the Prophet noticed that the neighbour was not hurling abuse over their common wall. He made inquiries and found out the neighbour was ill. The Prophet visited the neighbour and inquired as to his health. In doing so, the Prophet won the heart of his Jewish neighbour.
It’s all about winning hearts. Anne behaved more like the Prophet (peace & blessings of God be upon him) than many Muslims do. May Allah/G-d bless her and bring her even closer to Him.
(This article was submitted to the Australian Jewish News for publication. Time will tell if they print it. In the meantime, it also appears on that fabulous e-journal OnlineOpinion.)

© I Yusuf 2005

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