For many years, my husband and I have hosted students from around the world. These students were studying English at our local university, before going on to earn degrees in their areas of career interest. For the most part, they came with near-zero English skills, and chose to stay with a host family for their first term to enhance their acquisition of language skills and to ease into American culture with some family-based insights and assistance. The students came from all over the world, and we learned as much from them as they learned from us.
Some of our students were from the Middle East, including United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. All of them were male. Their time with us was very enlightening for us all. For me, it served to balance the atmosphere of distrust that has entered our society since 9/11, and the more recent acts of terrorism.
The great love and caring that each young man had for their family, and for the institution of family in general, was amazing. Both fathers and mothers were spoken of with utmost respect. Family was thought of often, contacted frequently. (Skype is a wonderful thing!) Packages arrived from “home” regularly for our students, with gifts of familiar food and special things that they liked. Each little sister and brother was doted on, talked about often, as were older siblings, parents, and the extended families. Gifts were carefully chosen for each.
I had seen videos of Muslim mothers rejoicing when their suicide bomber sons blew themselves up. I know now what a total aberration that is, what a corruption that is of a people whose lives are very closely bonded and loving, for whom family is extremely important.
Friendships, too, were close, tolerant, and affectionate. It is clear that relationships are valued more than profit in that culture. The importance of family has influenced the formation of language as well. In English, where properties are handed down through generations according to strict conventions, we have many specific names for specific relationships: brother, sister, half-sister, step-sister, sister-in-law, cousin, niece, nephew, and so on. In Arabic, if I understood them correctly, there is no word for cousin, nephew, niece, etc. There is only brother and sister, mother and father. A cousin might be explained, if the issue of relationship was pressed, as the brother who is son of his father’s brother. But anyone who was related to the family was called brother, was called sister–all are simply family without qualification. The Arabic students were mystified at the complexity of our family/relationship words.
The respect for family that the young men brought with them was extended to us, their American host family, and they were thoughtful and courteous. As their English improved, we had many open and honest conversations, which was a wonderful gift.
All of the Muslim students were very proud of their countries and culture, and wanted to study hard and learn so as to improve not only their own lives but also for the greater good of their country. They wanted to contribute to the world, to their world.
They were very well-versed in their religious beliefs, and were well able to explain and share. In fact, they could be downright evangelical in their faith at times, and always unafraid to voice their point of view. They were totally willing to be countercultural in our society, and to resist those things that they regarded as wrong: drinking, cursing, immodest dress, eating the “wrong” foods, etc. (Naturally, this isn’t across the board, many individuals gave into a double-standard and behaved differently than they would have at home in Saudi Arabia, but all of our particular students were very faithful to their upbringing and family expectations.)
Their witness to Islam was most impressive. They faithfully attended prayer services at the local mosque every week. Prayer, and God, was always a priority. No matter what they were doing, at the proper time for prayers they stopped, and retreated to their room to pray. They performed their ritual preparations, and praised and worshipped. The prayer times occurred 5 times a day, as I recall, and took about 15 to 20 minutes to complete. They even set their alarms to rise before dawn, pray, and return to sleep. Praying was the last thing they did at night. It reminded me of the old Christian practice of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is probably only done regularly in monasteries any more. Yet these young men, with no one watching and no one holding them accountable, willingly and cheerfully held fast to this tradition. We should be so faithful to our own practices!
I am glad I had the opportunity to get to know these Muslim students. When I see news reports and hear of acts of prejudice, I am able to balance it out with my own experiences. I wish that everyone had the opportunity to either travel or to host people from overseas. It is a wonderful way to open up our own perceptions to other people and other ways of living.