Archive | religion

in which we discuss unicorns, world religions, and whether barack IS in fact a muslim

About two weeks ago, we got notification from the boys’ school that today, 17 June, would be a national holiday and the school would be closed.

National holidays on short notice. One of the perks of life in the U.A.E.

I’ll give you a minute to think about how parents in a large metropolitan area in the States, say New York, might react to a holiday delivered so casually. The brouhaha about banning soda would pale by comparison.

When the boys came home from school last week, excited for the long weekend, I asked them what holiday was being celebrated today.

Boys: It’s the day that Mohammed rode a unicorn to Jerusalem and met with all the prophets and they had like a prophet party.

Me: A unicorn?

Caleb, emphatic: Yes! Or maybe some other magical creature, no, no, Abdullah in my class said it was a unicorn. And that Mohammed met with God, too.

Me, again:  A unicorn?

Liam, patiently, the way one speaks to the elderly:  The word is buraq and that’s the word for unicorn or any magical creature.

Caleb, unconcerned about translation issues: What is a prophet, actually?

Me, realizing yet again that what my children don’t know about religion (any religion) would fill all the holy books, combined: Well, a prophet is a holy person who–

Liam: Noah was a prophet!

Me: Um…sort of, I guess, and some religions see Jesus as a prophet, but Christians see Jesus as the son of god–

Caleb: Whose idea was it to be Christians?

Me:  The followers of Jesus called themselves Christians but they were originally Jewish —


Me: Yes but in this part of the world–

Boys: Jesus was from ABU DHABI?

Me: No, but this part of the world, the Middle East, is where Islam, and Judaism, and Christianity all began, thousands of years ago.

Boys: So is Mohammed from Abu Dhabi?

Me: He was born in a place called Mecca, which is a holy city to Muslims, but he also lived in a place called Medina.

Caleb, getting at the heart of the issue: Did Jesus ever ride a unicorn?

Me: I don’t think there are unicorns in any Jesus stories. Just donkeys.

The boys are unimpressed. Unicorns are cool. Donkeys, not so much. The boys wander out of the room to worship at the altar of “Star Wars the Old Republic,” which is our household’s primary religion. I turn to my holy book in search of answers to questions about Mohammed and the unicorns.

Wikipedia, praised be its name, says that the unicorn holiday is actually Isra and Mi’raj, which celebrates the night that Mohammed rode a magical steed to “the furthest mosque,” in what we now call Jerusalem. Apparently, at least in the realm of Wikipedia truthiness, this journey is also where Mohammed bargained with God about how often Muslims should pray. God originally asked for fifty times a day and Mohammed got him down to five.

Mohammed’s magical steed was called buraq. You can pronounce it “barack.”

And there you have it. Some Tea Bagger confused unicorns with Presidents.

(And no, I’m not saying anything about believing in unicorns being more or less ridiculous than believing that Obama was born in Kenya.)

Buraq also, according to my online holy book, can be translated as “a beautifully faced creature.”

So while it’s clear that Barack isn’t a Muslim, it seems entirely likely that he could be a buraq. After all, as I said to the boys: have you ever seen Barack and a buraq in the same place at the same time?



When you’re done reading through these various Wikipedia links, check out my review in The National of Lauren Groff’s entertaining and thought-provoking new novel, Arcadia. For that matter, if you’re searching for a good book to read on vacation this summer, look over there at the Amazon box. No, not the little ordering box, but the long box, with books in it, just to the right. Lots of good reading in that box. Help yourself.




Continue Reading · on June 17, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, Children, Education, expat, Kids, lost in translation, Parenting, Politics, religion

nuns on a bus

The pitch: So there are these nuns, right, maybe a Sandra Bullock type and an Amy Adams type, who decide it’s time to challenge corporate bigwigs and oh yeah, maybe also the Pope, about their misplaced priorities.

Hollywood Muckety-muck: Uh, nuns? The last big box office we had about nuns involved Whoopi Goldberg, gangsters, and a lot of singing. How about aliens? Could you do alien nuns?

The pitch: No, really, these nuns are great. They outfit this big bus and are going from town to town talking about the real mission of the church, you know, all that loving thy neighbor as thyself and stuff.

HM-M: Kinky. Like “Big Love” meets “Sister Wives” or something? Or could we go with maybe there’s a bomb on the bus? Or terrorists?

The pitch: No, just…nuns.But really radical nuns.

HM-M: Radical? But you said there aren’t any bombs or terrorists. Do they do any second-story work, any rappelling down buildings, maybe we could set the story in Dubai or Morocco, maybe a sand-storm?

The pitch: Well, Wisconsin has been kind of a battleground lately…

HM-M: Nah. We’ll pass. Just nuns? On a bus? Bor-ring. Snoozeville, babe. Never gonna sell.


As usual, Hollywood gets it wrong. There are nuns on a bus. In Wisconsin. And if I were in Wisconsin I would be following them around, a Nunnish groupie, applauding them at every stop.

Go, nuns, go.

I don’t know from nuns, really. I’m not Catholic, never been Catholic, and although I taught at a Catholic college for fifteen years, there weren’t many nuns on the faculty, probably because they knew to be wary of the Christian Brothers who ran the school (me, a non-Catholic, didn’t realize this fact until it was way too late). Let’s put it this way: a friend of mine (a lapsed Catholic) said the Christian Brothers were comprised mostly of men who couldn’t cut it as priests or Jesuits.  snap!

The Vatican – home of the Popety Pope and his Popers – issued a report that said yeah, nuns are doing good work with the poor but that those good works don’t matter as much as the Nunnly silence on Really Important Issues: abortion and gay marriage. Apparently speaking out against gay marriage is waaaay more important than, you know, helping the needy.  Even worse, nuns have been arguing with their  male superiors (which in Catholic-land I think means pretty much any dude in a black dress with a white collar – so Coco Chanel, don’t you think?) about things like the all-male priesthood and celibacy.

Who knew nuns had such balls?

So these ballsy nuns on the bus? They’re riding through nine states between Wisconsin and Virginia to protest budget cuts in programs that support families and children; they have said that the budget cuts are immoral. And when a nun says you’re being immoral, I dunno but that you should probably pay attention.

Seems to me that these nuns have taken a truly radical position: they want to help the people who no one else wants to help. I’m not a particularly God-oriented person, but in my limited knowledge of the Bible, I thought one of the Big Commandments, right up there in the top five, was “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Last time I checked “love” doesn’t mean fire your neighbor’s ass, cut off his unemployment benefits, deny his health insurance claims, and then scold him for going on welfare.  That’s not “loving,” that’s “screwing,” and not in the fun recreational sense of that word. (Bill McKibben has a great essay about loving thy neighbor, which you can read here.)

My pretend Hollywood muckety-muck gets it wrong. I think Nuns on a Bus will be a blockbuster and I hope they’ll be budget-busters, too, because the Ryan budget is immoral and all the more so because it comes from the political party in the U.S. that likes to tout its religious bona fides.  More money for guns and the military, less for food stamps and health care, more tax cuts for the uber-wealthy? Hmm. The religious text the GOP seems to be following is the one about the Pharisees in the temple – but the GOP sees the Pharisees as the good guys.

Here’s the thing that Ryan and all his friends at the Tea Party might want to think about when they ask “what would Jesus do?”

I don’t have a direct line to the Big Guy, but my hunch is that Jesus? He’d get on the bus with the nuns, and ride, ride, ride.


Continue Reading · on June 15, 2012 in Education, Feminism, Politics, religion

a saturday morning view

So the boys started this morning at a soccer–dammit, football–school about 20 minutes drive from our apartment.  As I sat there staring into the morning sun, I realized I was looking at my new life in a nutshell:

a football field (okay, that’s a holdover from my old life); a construction site (sometimes it seems as if the entire city is under construction, one way or another); sunshine; and Islam, in this case the Grand Mosque, built in honor of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE.

I live in a Muslim country–the call to prayer sounds five times a day, women walk around swathed in black, the grocery store has a specially designated “pork room” for non-Muslims. So on the one hand, the influence of Islam seems inescapable.

But like this image of the mosque that hovers only in the background, it’s possible, as a non-Muslim to go about daily life as if you lived in, say, Santa Barbara or something (but with fewer women in tank tops).  I can buy liquor; I don’t have to cover myself in black to go outside (although frankly, with all the holiday eating, an abaya may soon be my only sartorial choice); I don’t have to be escorted everywhere by my husband (something for which we are both grateful).

In fact, it feels a little strange, this ability to float along the surface of life here without having to learn more about local culture–but then again, even “local” raises a question: in a country where about 85% of the population is non-native, what exactly constitutes “local culture?”  Drinking camel milk and eating dates can’t be the extent of “local-ness,” can it?

At the moment–probably because I’m still so new here–I’m more intrigued than frustrated by what I don’t know; I like thinking about the complicated collisions that happen between ancient worlds and modern. I don’t know if I will ever understand this part of the world–maybe I’m doomed always to look at it from afar. The Grand Mosque, in my photograph, looks like it’s just on the other side of the construction site, but in fact, it’s at least a few miles down the road.

There’s a great writer in Canada whose blog is  Last month she wrote about her guiding word for 2012. Her word is “shift.” I like that word a lot–shifting paradigms, shifting perspectives, shifting attitudes, tectonic shift…it’s a good word.

If she hadn’t chosen “shift,” I might choose it for myself.  But instead, thinking about the mosque, thinking about this odd place where I find myself these days, I think 2012’s guiding word will be: discover.

Look underneath, look within, explore, reveal…all of those are embedded in “discover.” That’s what I’m going to do in 2012.

What would your word be?


Continue Reading · on January 7, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Discoveries, environment, expat, me my own personal self, religion, Travel, UAE

Religious Instruction, Early Morning Version

Caleb came in for an early morning snuggle. 6:13AM on Friday morning, which in this part of the world is Saturday. Well, actually, it’s like Sunday, the day of worship. Tomorrow, Saturday, is like Saturday.

Anyway. It’s early, I’m sleeping, he’s chatty.

Caleb: Why do the Muslims make Friday the weekend?

Me (into the pillow, trying to remember what I was dreaming about): It’s just the way their religion works, that Friday is the day people go to the mosque—the church.

Caleb: What is the Muslim religion, though?

Me: Um…be nice to each other and be peaceful. Most religions are like that.

Caleb: Even the Christian religion?

Me: Uh-huh…religions are about peace.

Caleb: Then why do so many wars get fought about religion?

Me: Don’t you think you want to go play on the computer now?


Caleb: Yes. But still. It doesn’t make any sense.

Continue Reading · on October 21, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, Children, Parenting, religion

The Meaning of Easter?

As we drove in from JFK on Saturday, having just landed after a 13 hour flight from Abu Dhabi, Caleb said “now we can do that painting eggs thing for the Easter Bunny?”

The Easter Bunny thought fast. “Well, I’m not sure we have eggs at home to boil and then paint. The Easter Bunny might not come this year because we don’t have any eggs for it to hide and it knows we were away. So we’ll celebrate spring another way.”

Caleb wasn’t having it. “NOT COMING? He always comes! And with chocolate bunnies and maybe little presents in the Easter baskets, like cars or something.”

The Easter Bunny closed her eyes and wished she were still sitting in business class with the nice flight attendants plying her with champagne.  Then the classic punt: “we’ll see.”

And that’s why, after the boys were asleep, the Easter Bunny found herself roaming the pillaged aisles of Duane Reade, Walgreens, and Food Emporium, in search of something–anything–that would count as Easter Bunny offerings.  Here’s what was left in a walking-distance radius at 9pm on the Saturday before Easter:

12 plastic eggs with schlocky “toys” inside, which I supplemented with jellybeans; 4 Reese’s Pieces plastic eggs; 2 big Lindt bunnies; and 2 nerf footballs. Pathetic, I know, but the Easter Bunny had jet-lag.  These triumphs of plastic commercialism were hidden around the apartment and lo, in the morning, there was much joy and jellybean eating.

That’s the meaning of Easter, as near as my kids know.  I talked a little bit about Easter as a time of “new beginnings,” which is why we use the eggs, and about spring and re-birth.  Note that avoidance of any actual religion here.  The closest Caleb knows to anything is the story of the First Matzoh but as far as he’s concerned, that’s a story about bad guys chasing good guys and I think he’s pretty sure that Moses looks like Frodo (aka Elijah Wood), in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies.

Religion, in our household, doesn’t have much of a foothold. I heard Liam a while back talking to a friend of his about what J. was learning in Catholic school (J. will be confirmed next year). J. said “well, there are prayers you have to know, and you go to Mass, and stuff…”  Liam thought a minute and then, “what’s praying for? And what’s a Mass?”

Walking through Abu Dhabi the other night after dinner, we walked by a mosque, its green light shining from the minaret. “I know what that is!” Caleb exclaimed. “It’s one of those special places and all the different people who believe stuff go to different ones, right? What do people believe who go to a mosque?”

Every year at Easter and Christmas I tell myself that this year I will spend some time with the boys explaining the various stories and every year I do a little bit and then give up.  I don’t think I believe in god, or God, or anything, particularly, but often that makes me feel like I’m missing something–a larger community, if nothing else, and a way to encourage the boys to think about the world beyond their own needs and desires. We’re moving to a place where religion is unavoidable–that five-times daily call to prayer is a sure-fire reminder of the world of faith–so maybe now the time is right for us to embark on a little “introduction to world religions” course.  It’s not that I want the boys to believe in god, necessarily, but I think they need more information than we’ve given them thus far, if only to make sense of where we’re going to be living next year.

I grew up going to an Episcopalian Church. I remember three things: I was a horse in the Noah’s Art pageant; my mother taught Sunday school (reluctantly, she later told me; it was something she did because “she thought she should.); and the minister’s wife had a mustache and thick man-hair on her arms.

Husband grew up as a Zorastrian–seriously.  Zarathustra and the whole deal.  Zorastrians–Parsis–were driven out of Persia and settled mostly in India and what is now Pakistan; the religion sees the world in terms of the fight between good and evil.  Husband had a “nav jut” when he was puberty-ish (about the same time a Jewish kid might have a bar mitzvah); he had to recite some lines in an ancient language, memorize some prayers, and a few other things.  For a while he wore a special undergarment, like an undershirt, that had religious significance, but he gave that up when it started to be a pain in the ass to change for gym…and he’s never looked back.  You could say he’s a “lapsed Zorastrian.” Husband’s mom was a Protestant, so there was a bit of a flap on his father’s side of the family when they married, but the upshot is that Husband grew up with Christmas but not much else by way of religious celebrations.  I know there are some Zoroastrian holidays on the calendar but Husband doesn’t remember what they are, when they are, or how they are to be celebrated.

In short, we got ourselves some heathen kids and our holidays are primarily chocolate-based. I want the boys to know about faith and what people other than themselves believe, but I think it’s time for me to make my peace with the fact that this family isn’t ever going to be a faith-based operation, at least not on my watch.  I’m hoping that if we can institute family traditions (whether built around chocolate or some other eating venture), we will be building a sense of community and continuity.  Mom-101 wrote about this the other day, about making her own Seder for her kids and that she can make the traditions how she likes and not be beholden to the “shoulds” and “always haves.” If she can do it, so can I, right?

So. Happy Easter and Passover and alhamdulillah and whatever else there is: happy spring and happy chocolate bunnies to you all.

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Continue Reading · on April 24, 2011 in Children, family, religion

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