Friday, June 21, 2013

Service Hours for God

You ask for nothing in return.  Yet you sit with me for hours, over coffee and croissants.  Speak with me in Arabic, correct my grammar, feed me vocabulary.
You're just 17 years old and I'm an "imra' al kebeera" a woman of a certain age - older, even, than your mother.  You're a recent high school graduate, preparing for university.  It's summer and you have friends to see, parties to attend.  You talk on the phone, walk the mall, listen to music.  You know the cafes and shops, carry a leather covered cell phone that rings and rings.
young girls get hands "henna-ed" for special events, at parties, "just because"
You won't let me pay you.  For your time, knowledge, help.  Why?
You shrug, ask: "What shall I call you?"
The question is respectful.  It acknowledges the sanctity of my name and my position (ie, age).  In Middle Eastern culture, names reveal secrets as they outline a family's history.  And, while Middle Eastern women in the same generational bracket refer to one another using first names, some older women prefer youth to use the Kunya (mine is Umm Chris, "mother of Chris," who is my son and first born child).  The question also recognizes the practice in my culture to refer to an older, married woman using her husband's name: "Mrs. Kennaley."
I prefer to close the gap:  "Please call me Cindi."
You are fashionable in long skirts and blouses with color coordinated head band and hijab.  Your dark eyes are bright with enthusiasm and fun, your smile patient ("try to remember the word, Cindi; I will wait").
You are goal driven, motivated, inspired, intelligent, fun, funny, beautiful (ما شاء الله)*.  You speak Arabic and English and a multitude of dialects: Egyptian, Syrian, Gulf, Moroccan and others.  You claim your English wasn't as good two years ago (when you transferred to the American School) as it is now.
Your English is very, very good.
You want to go into politics in your home country, with an outspoken desire to attain a status never before achieved by a woman there, veiled or otherwise.  "It will be difficult."
You nod, "Maybe I begin with a position in the ministry."
You speak eloquently about the problems facing your country (not Qatar): poverty, mismanaged agriculture, poor use of historical sites, corruption.  Your ideas for improvement are mature, thoughtful, reflective, wise.
We are serious, silly.  We laugh, joke, tease one another.  "Titkallameen 'araby, speak Arabic," you say, when I lose the words.  "Mooreh, relax," you remind, when I am frustrated.  You are a patient, knowledgeable teacher and it's easy to forget your relative youth.
When the check ("al fatoorah") arrives we battle over it - and not in a playful way at all.  "Tafaddali, please accept," I insist.  It's crazy, but we're both near tears.
After a pause, I ask again: why do you help?
You smile.  "In my religion, one who helps another without return is rewarded in Heaven.  Being good, kind, helpful.  It's expected.  This is Islam."
ladies prayer space

 "One who moves to fulfill any need of his brother, and makes effort for it, will find it better than itikaaf [to remain in masjid with the intention of worship] of ten years; and one who performs itikaaf for one day for the pleasure of Allah, he will create a distance of three ditches between him and the hell - and each ditch has a width which lies between East and West, or between the heaven and earth." (
"…In Islam, helping others and solving their problems is not only an important virtue, it is also a profound act of worship.  It is a means of righteousness that promotes peace on Earth and allows us to earn Allah's eternal reward in the Hereafter…This hadîth shows us that the greatest form of devotion, the best way to please Allah, is to provide service to humanity…" (
It's kind of like (in America-speak): service hours for God.  Nice.

Perhaps my desire to learn Arabic is not as critical as building an orphanage in Ethiopia.  This doesn't minimize the value of your aid:  humble service shares faith through action.  This concept exists in Christianity too:  " love, serve one another."  (Galatians 5:13)
Still.  It can be hard to accept favor from another person, whether it's a family member solicited for financial and occupational counsel or a 17-year old girl giving up a summer morning to tutor a conversation-hungry foreigner.  Part of the gift is allowing the person on the receiving end the dignity of reciprocation, however modest the effort.
I unfold the bill.  "Please let me do this small thing."
You smile and the room warms like sunrise at the dunes.  "Same time next week?"
Yes, please.

* ma-sha'-Allah: "What God Wills," spoken after a compliment to acknowledge appreciation for God's everything comes from God and anything divinely gifted may also be divinely re-acquired.


Peggy said...

What a beautiful picture of the development of a relationship. And a view into a culture I thought I understood better than I do. This whole series is incredible.

Lucinda H. Kennaley said...

WOW (ma sha Allah). Thanks for the nice words!!

Anonymous said...

Lovely exchange! Do you meet every week? HOW DID YOU MAKE THE CONTACT?

Lucinda H. Kennaley said...

She's the daughter of a woman I met through my classes. :) En sha allah we'll meet each week!