Kafir? Heathen? Shaytan?

When it gets cold and snowy like this, really deep in the bones cold,
sometimes it makes me think of the only funny story I’ve told in Arabic.
I’m figuring out how to fit it into my memoir,
though I’ve finally determined that it has to be there,
but in the meantime, enjoy it here.

snow on olives

It was January, and as I walked to school that morning, the usual hilltop winter wind whipped snow flurries in my face. Under my pants, I was wearing a pair of stirrup-pants—an early Nineties gem I’d unearthed in the Amman second-hand market—and I had two shirts and two sweaters under my wool coat and additional wool cloak. The bucket-shaped maroon fleece hat tugged down over my ears had recently arrived, a brilliant Christmas present from my mother in Maine, sometimes even a little too warm.

Even with flurries on the fierce winter wind, this might all have been overkill for the two and a half miles I walked to school in the morning, but there was no central furnace chugging away at the other end of my route. Some of the school’s classrooms were heated with small kerosene space heaters—the teachers’ room had two. But with broken windows in most classrooms and the wind whipping through our hilltop school, it was always cold. I had cut half the thumb and forefinger off of a pair of thin wool gloves so that I could hold my chalk while keeping the rest of my fingers warm. I drank twice as much tea on breaks between classes, trying to warm myself from the inside. And I never took off that hat.


The self-designated star of my first grade class was Selsabeel. The oldest of her three sisters, Sarah, was in my third grade class, and their mother sid Nur was my colleague, an Arabic teacher. They lived next door, and Selsabeel felt like she owned the school, or at least the classroom. She always started my class with the same question as I came through the door. “Yaa miss, bitHebbii allah?”—Do you love God?

“Aaa, tab’aan!”—Yes, of course, I would say, knowing it was the only truly acceptable answer.

This very cold January morning, the neighboring eighth graders had stolen the first graders’ kerosene heater, as they often did, having none of their own. I walked into the boxy classroom off the playground, in my two wool coats and fleece bucket hat, and Selsabeel had a different question. “Yaa miss,” she declared confidently, “you shouldn’t be wearing that hat. You should be wearing the veil.”

Smiling, I shook my head. “I’m not Muslim, yaa Selsabeel. I don’t wear hijab.”

“If you’re not Muslim,” asked Selsabeel, “what are you?”

Usually, I tried to avoid the direct lie, but sometimes I got cornered by a six-year-old. “Ana mesiHiyyah”—a Christian, literally a follower of the Messiah. As often happened when I said these words, I was remembering the times as a child when “I’m a Christian” had been used as an excuse to bully me and my family.

“What’s a Christian?” asked a small, high voice.

I could feel my pulse spike. This was a delicate question. I had to assume that whatever I said would be repeated at home later, and like any game of Telephone, probably distorted in the retelling. Whatever my students, their sisters and cousins said to their fathers at night would determine whether I was still trusted with their children in the morning.

“Well,” I said, hoping my Arabic was up to the task, “Christians are like Muslims, with the same Allah—one god—but different customs. Like, Christians don’t wear hijab, so I don’t wear hijab.” My shoulders sagged in relief. That was a good neutral answer no father would find fault with.

“Yaa miss Maryah,” asked another small, clear voice, “are you a kaafirah?” An infidel.

“Laa!”—No! My shoulders locked up again, my chest tight. “I’m not kaafirah!” That would effectively end my career in town. “Christians are People of the Book,” which was to say, people of the Torah, Bible and Quran, each a fallible human reproduction of the perfect book in God’s possession. “The same singular God, just different traditions.”

“Miss Maryah, are you a heathen?” I don’t remember now what the word was in Arabic, but that morning I remember that I recognized it immediately.

“No, not a heathen. Christians are People of the Book, believe in the same God as you.” I was starting to panic, with thirty-eight little faces turned up towards me, thirty-eight families who trusted me with the academic and moral development of their children, placed into my hands by my neighbor and headmistress sid Muna, the most powerful woman in town. I couldn’t get this wrong.

“Miss Maryah,” piped up yet another voice, “are you a mushrikah?”

My first graders likely knew this word from the story of the first thing that the Prophet Muhammad had done, upon returning to his home city of Mecca from exile in Medina. Going to the ka’aabah temple in the center of Mecca, he smashed the idols that had been placed there over the years the by the mushrikeen—the polytheists among both residents of Mecca and the merchants and traders who passed through on the trade routes between India and Europe. The ka’aabah, the Prophet Muhammad told his people, had been built by Adam after the Garden, rebuilt by Noah after the Flood, and rebuilt by Abraham after God saved the lives of his wife Hagar and son Ishmael, from whom all Arabs are descended. The ka’aabah was the temple of Allah, the one true God. Not long after, it became the point towards which all Muslims turn to pray.

I knew the word mushrikah because, like so many Unitarian Universalist teens that it has become a cliché of the faith, I had seriously pondered polytheism throughout high school and college. In fact, just a few weeks before this January morning, I had sat outside on solstice night, on a rock in the moonlight behind my house, cupping a candle in my hands and singing goddess hymns I had learned in youth group.

“Laa’aa!” I protested, hearing my voice rise in volume and pitch. “Not mushrikah! MesiHiyyah! People of the Book, with the same Allah as Muslims!”

But they weren’t done with me yet. One more voice piped up from the back left corner. “Yaa miss, bitHebbi shaiTaan?”—Do you love Satan?

“Laa’aa, yaa Habiibt-ii! No! BaHebb allah!”—I love God! I glibly lied. “Now, everybody stand up!” I said, launching into the game we usually played to open English class. “Sit down. Stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Jump!”


I told this story later in the teachers’ room, perhaps in part to ensure that it got back to Selsabeel’s mother sid Nur and the other teachers through me before a distorted version began to spread through the student body.

To my relief and delight, everyone laughed. It’s very hard to make people laugh in one’s non-native tongue.

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