Travel opens us to new worlds. I have lived my whole life in rural areas in New York State, quiet places that have little diversity. I have really never known a Muslim even though there is a mosque in my area. Like many Americans, I know very little about Islam. Unfortunately in my country there is a lot of suspicion about the people of this religion and almost a taboo about wanting to know knowing more about them
I found out our guide was Muslim as he took great pride in telling us about the Mughals, Muslims who came from Persia (present day Iran ) and ruled India from 1556-1707. They ran a consolidated government that used local people to collect taxes in cash from agricultural sources and trade. The arts flourished especially in the form in architecture. Forts, mosques, and mausoleums, notability the Taj Mahal, were build under their reign. Tolerance was encouraged as Hindus were integrated into the governing process. But as time went on, systems broke down and the Mughals lost their hold on India.
Our tour guide was the first person of the Muslim faith I ever had an opportunity to really talk to. He was kind and very patient with me as I tried to sort out all the sights and sounds of India and relate them to what I knew and hoped to learn. On one of our last days, I mention to him that I wanted to buy a terracotta cup that is meant to absorb the excess water from the yogurt. I really thought this was clever and I wanted to show people back home. Near the Ganges River on the way back to our bus, the guide stopped our group at a stand and asked us if we wanted a chai tea. A few of us, including myself, said we would. Our guide paid for them all and then he handed me a larger cup, a yogurt cup, that he had some how gotten from the vendor. I was thrilled by this kind gesture. This little cup is my most precious souvenir of the trip. Its meaning goes beyond its efficiency. It represents a new knowing and a change of heart and mind that will always stay with me.
In America, as part of my country’s culture, I was programed to suspect and fear anything to do with the words “Muslim” or “Islam”. It is so much easier, as a human beings, to label people with broad brush strokes and dismissing them, sometimes forgetting they exist or, even worse, hating them. We don’t take times to listen to stories and really look at reality and gather facts. I’m now spending some time learning about Islam and I will no longer feel uncomfortable doing it.
I have my first Muslim friend. It is sad that it took almost a lifetime to find one but I feel so fortunate that it was him.