I originally wrote this on 9/18/2001 while I was feeling under assault from the constant media coverage of the terrorist attacks. I felt a need to revisit something positive relating to Islam.
I have been watching the National Geographic documentaries on 9/11 and that horrible feeling in my stomach returned, so I thought it might be a good time to dust off these old recollections.
"As-salaam alaykum," the gentleman said to me as he made his way slowly into my office, leaning on a cane and lowering himself slowly into the chair opposite me. I looked at him, hesitantly, not knowing the proper response. "It's nice to meet you," I said, extending my hand.
The man looked at me sternly and then said to me quite seriously and in a thickly-accented English, "This will never do. If you are to be the one who will help me improve my abilities, we will have to greet each other properly. When I say 'As-salaam alaykum' to you as I enter the room, you must return the greeting to me by saying, 'Wa alaykum as-salaam.' We will try this again." He got up out of his chair, left the room, and re-entered, saying "As-salaam alaykum."
"Wa alaykum as-salaam," I replied, misarticulating the words and tripping over the unfamiliarity of their sounds. A smile appeared on his face and he pronounced, "Now you can begin your work to help me. And I can begin my work to help you."
This mutual growth is not typically openly acknowledged by the person who is the one that is supposed to be doing the primary 'helping,' or by the person who is supposedly the one being 'helped.' But those of us that have been doing this for a while realize that this duality exists.
Mohammed was flown from Pakistan by his son, who was a doctor in the local community that frequently sent his patients to me. I received a phone call from the doctor one day asking me if I could do him a favor. I thought that this was a rather odd request from the doctor and could not begin to imagine what he wanted from me. "Please provide rehabilitation to my father," he asked. "He has had a stroke and he can not use his arm very well. I know that by bringing him here he will have a better opportunity for recovery." This began my relationship with Mohammed.
Most everyone in the U.S. is accustomed to doctors who have Middle Eastern, Indian, or Asian ethnicity. Many of our brightest and most talented doctors were born in other countries and came here to train, eventually becoming citizens. So even in the rural community where I lived, having a Pakastani doctor was not unusual or unaccepted. I suppose that when a person from another country immigrates that they do a lot to enculturate themselves, creating an ability to fit in with American culture, and even the local community. In this way we are sometimes not exposed to the richness of their native culture. Mohammed was not going to stay in the U.S., however, and so there was no reason for him to take on any habit or even superficial appearance of being American. As a result, all those that had contact with him grew in ways that were never before expected.
I was the only male working in the outpatient clinic, and he naturally believed that I was the Director of the entire organization. After all, who else would his son, the American doctor, arrange to have provide his rehabilitation? This caused quite a bit of turmoil in the building, as each time that he arrived he would state, "I have come to see Dr. Chris. Can you please find him for me, and tell him that his humble patient has arrived?" He would make this request of anyone that he saw, assuming that they all presumably served the purposes of being assistants to me. "Please go and prepare the room for me and Dr. Chris, as we will soon be ready to begin my rehabilitation." The *real* director of the agency thought it amusing when she was asked to do this. I probably didn't help by going along with Mohammed's perceptions, making requests of people that I really had no business making when he was there. It was all in good fun, and it actually did bolster the confidence of Mohammed. So everyone else went along with it too.
Mohammed recovered well. His ability to use his arm improved rapidly, and being immersed in a foreign culture re-affirmed his own connection to his native culture and religion. He would try to explain the Koran to me and spent hours telling me about his beliefs, and the faith that he had in Allah. "Not a leaf of the tree quivers, Dr. Chris, that Allah does not know of. He guides all that we do and has made all that we find beautiful in this world." He found such amazing comfort in being able to share what he knew with me.
"I knew that you would be able to help me," he said on the day of his last visit with me.
"Well how did you know this?" I asked, quizically.
He replied, quite seriously, "Dr. Chris, I knew that you were guided by Allah and that I was meant to come here when my eyes first saw your face. And although you have helped me be able to use my arm again, you have shown me that I have much to do in rehabilitation of my soul."
This seemed quite odd to me, as he was the one who spent hours teaching me about his religion, and I was the one who sat quietly and learned so much from him.
"Before I return home, I will grow a beard on my face again, just like yours. This is something that all men are supposed to do, and somehow I had gotten away from this custom. When I saw the beard on your face, I knew that you were a man of Allah. I am not shamed that I as a Muslim did not do this; I am now humbled, and am ready to return home."
Today, somewhere in Pakistan, I am hopeful that Mohammed is enjoying his day. And I am praying to God and Allah that he is safe and healthy.