Friday, 21 April 2006

Litaarafuu: The Search for Mutual Understanding

How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing great, and thank you for coming back to visit my blog. I’m warning you though; this entry is verrrrry long, but verrrrrrrrrry interesting, so bear with me.

Last week I was in Abu Dhabi, participating in the Muslim Danish Youth Dialogue forum hosted by the Tabah and Ta’aheel foundation. Its title, Litaarafuu, comes from Verse 13 in Chapter 49 in the Qur’an, which partialy reads “…We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other…” Litaarafuu means “that you may know each other,” and this was one of the main goals of the forum.

This conference was so amazingly spectacular that I have no idea where to start or what I should focus on. But I guess the best place to start would be the beginning. Bism Allah Al Rahman Al Raheem (Literally “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” and Muslims say this whenever they begin anything).

I was the youngest delegate and (often felt like) the most unaccomplished person there, with almost everyone having finished their Bachelor’s degree (if not their Masters) and all giving me the impression of being very important people. For example:

“Hello I’m President of the Danish Youth Council.”
“Hello, I’m Editor-in-chief of Islamica magazine.”
“Hello, I’m President of the Danish Liberal Youth.”
“Hello, I’m a host of a television show”

And so and so forth. It made me feel that I had gotten accepted as a delegate by mistake, and if so then Alhamdulelah (Thanks to Allah/God)! So it came as a complete surprise when I was chosen as one of the eight delegates to lead the four workshops (2 delegates for each workshop, one from each delegation). Subhan Allah (Praise be to Allah–used usually to show surprise).

Our first day was simply an orientation day, where we got to know each other. I was amazed to realize that the Muslim delegation had come from all over the world—from Egypt, USA, Singapore, UK, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and many more countries. I’ll admit I was a bit apprehensive that day, since I didn’t really know what to expect of the Danish delegation. On one hand, I was scared of us not being able to get along; and on the other I was scared that we would all want to get along and so would “act” to keep things running smoothly. But I definitely had an image of the “other” in my mind, even though I was trying my best not to be in any way prejudiced before I met the Danish group.

My initial reaction to meeting the other delegation was shock that there were a number of Danish Muslims participating in the dialogue. For me, that was a surprise because it made me realize that I had unintentionally created two “sides” in my mind, painting them in binary opposition, and that the Danish Muslims had no place in my two sided view. It forced me to face up to the fact that painting two sides was a silly idea, and that it’s not simply a case of being one or the other; it was much more complicated than that. So that was the first step in breaking down the barriers that at least I had put up.

We went to an art exhibition later on that day (after lunch at an AMAZING Moroccan restaurant) featuring Islamic art and jewelry at the Muslim Women’s Union, before visiting a cultural center that showed us what the Emirates used to be like in terms of its dress, food, culture etc. I really liked this quote that was up on a wall: “Whoever doesn’t know and preserve their past, can have no present and no future.” Or something like that anyway We were then invited to dinner in the house of a very important person (sorry, didn’t quite catch who he was *oops*) and the generosity of our hosts was simply unbelievable— not to mention the glorious food. Do you think it’s even remotely possible for me to learn to cook like that? *grin*

The next day was when the real work began. After (the usual) sumptuous breakfast, we attended a series of lectures by a very distinguished set of panelists from both sides, discussing whether we were facing a clash of civilizations or a clash of semantics. Instantaneous translation into English/ Arabic was available, and the amount of effort put by the organizers in getting such distinguished panelists is amazing, as were the actual speeches—they gave us a lot to digest before we started the workshops. And can I just say how strange I felt moderating the session with Kasrsten? (My Danish counterpart). Our discussion question was “Is there an intrinsic contradiction between freedom of expression and respect for religious and sacred symbols and sensitivities?” Imagine trying to fit that discussion into 90 minutes. Overall, I think we did an ok job, and it was really the workshop that allowed people to open up and start discussing things truthfully, without trying to sugarcoat their beliefs and convictions.

After the workshop we all took a bus to a Bedouin camp/ tribe two hours out of Abu Dhabi, and this was definitely one of the best and most memorable experiences of my life. The sheer hospitality that was showered upon us was humbling and truly astounding. The girls were all given golden charms (that’s right: gold!) to hang from our watches, and we were greeted with men wearing traditional Arab dress who sang us a greeting song they’d made up just for this occasion.

We took cars to the top of sand dunes and watched the sun set. We prayed the Maghrib (sunset) prayer in the open under the skies. We got henna done on our hands; which is a paste made from leaves and is used to decorate the body—kind of like a temporary tattoo.
The girls were all given gifts of jalabeyas (traditional long flowing dress) matching with a hijab (headscarf). The men also got the male version of the Emirate dress, and we got to take pictures.

Just imagining how much trouble it must have been to find all the different sizes, match the colors, and wrap the gifts truly touches me. A caterer came all the way into the desert to provide us with a feast; I can’t believe how much trouble the organizers must have gone through, and for that I’m truly grateful. They even woke up the camels for us at night so we could pose with them and even drink their milk!! (Ok, it sounds disgusting, but really isn’t—it tastes like whipping cream). They were beautifully white too, unlike the brown camels I see here in Egypt. We were told that it was believed that the camels were directly descended from the Prophet Mohammad’s (Peace be upon him) camel, and so were priceless. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me from being scared of them

The topic of media and the role it plays in shaping our ways of thinking was discussed the following day, and let me just say how impressed I am with the fact that the Danish participants were all present even though it was Easter. Just imagining giving up my Eid (Islamic holiday) for a conference, no matter how fun it is, is difficult, and so I truly commend them. I hope you all liked the Cadbury crème eggs

The workshop aim was to come up with points we all believe in so as to be able to come up with a declaration, and I’m glad to say that we were able to do so. In the process, I was able to gain a better understanding of how each side thought, and the long bus ride the day before had also given us a very good chance at getting to know how each side regarded the issue and from what angle/ perspective. It’s difficult to express how normal interactions can affect the way you regard what someone is saying; but it’s true that the fact that each and every person I was talking to had ceased to become simply a name affected the way I interpreted their statements. Laughing with Maria over how much we liked dessert, and talking with Mads about the work he’s involved in with an agency in Egypt, made everyone more “real” (if I can say that), and that made their beliefs and ideologies so much easier to respect than when they were simply a homogenous mass presented to us through the media and our own limited knowledge. So definitely, I feel that we accomplished something, and I believe that even if we hadn’t been able to come up with a declaration to satisfy both sides; the simple fact that we went through the process was a very good step that bodes well for the promotion of a society that truly works towards mutual tolerance.

So leaving the (poor) organizers to codify and work on the declaration, we once again got on the bus, but this time headed to Dubai, which was also a couple of hours away. I spent my time being interviewed (eek!) by one of the Danish delegates who was a journalist, and we had a very interesting and enlightening conversation. On the bus, we were each given a gift of a frame with seven layers of sand in it to symbolize the seven emirates, and once again we were amazed at the generosity of our hosts, which seemingly has no bounds.

The bus dropped us off at Jumeirah (bear with me, I know I write too much!), which is a hotel that has a souk (kind of bazaar) which although isn’t authentic, tries its best to appear so. But I must say the Cinnabon (cinnamon pastry) booth kind of destroys the effect And speaking of Cinnabon; did you know that it doesn’t exist in Denmark and so most of the Danish delegates hadn’t tried it? Of course I had to remedy that ASAP, and allow them to feel the happiness that comes from 500 calories a roll

At around 10 or so the bus took us to a Lebanese restaurant (at least I think it was Lebanese), which had this gorgeous sea/water view, where we stayed until 2 am. It was my, Tea-Jeni, and Bar’a’s birthdays (what were the chances??) and so we all got a birthday cake. We got our birthday song sung in Danish (which I have to admit sounds a lot more enthusiastic than the English one), German, English and Arabic. And I felt so veryyyyyy special. And honestly I was touched. I know I’m starting to sound a bit redundant now, but each and every aspect of my experience truly did touch me in some way or another, which is partly why I’m finding it so difficult to stop writing so much, since I have no idea what I should eliminate. I guess you were right in your speech Mads, it is difficult for the media to pick which aspects of a topic to cover

The last and final day of the conference (almost done!) was a happy and yet sad day for all of us. Happy that we’d benefited so much in such a short time and yet sad that our idyllic days were fast coming to an end. How was I going to go back to a life with no cameras following me around? But on a more serious note, it’s true that everyone was starting to get a bit emotional, and although I didn’t and don’t usually show it, I was feeling kind of bereft that all the amazing friends I’d made were going to scatter to literally all four corners of the globe. So here I was sitting there contemplating that sad fact, when suddenly I’m told that I was chosen as one of the two Muslim delegates to get up on the podium and state my reflections on the conference, on what I’ve learnt, and what I’d benefited. And nonchalantly told that it was going to be in 20 minutes, and that the other speaker would be Moez Masoud, who’s a public speaker on Iqraa’, a religious satellite channel.

My reaction? Total blankness. Of course I didn’t want to seem at all unprofessional, so I just nodded that that would be no problem. But inside I was like: “Ummm, what am I going to say?????????” Writing down some points would be helpful right? Only I can’t read my own handwriting most of the time so I rushed to the business centre, quickly typed up a few (I hoped) pertinent points, and then spent 10 minutes running around like a headless chicken trying to figure out why the printer wasn’t working. The manager obviously felt sorry for me, and printed my points from her own computer, and I dashed back to the conference room with literally seconds to spare. But of course, we were in an Arab country, so the 20 minutes turned to 40, and my heart rate slowed down. So now that I’ve totally embarrassed myself and proved that I wasn’t the calm, collected person (I hope!) I looked like; all I can say is that I hope my speech, if not great, at least in some way touched a chord in those who heard it.

And so the concluding ceremony included speeches by Moez and I (I never like saying the “and I” bit, it always sounds so formal), two Danish Delegates, and by some of the panelists like Dr. Karen Karma, Dr. Al-Bouti, and Sheikh Habib Ali Al Jifri. And of course the reading of the Joint declaration. Basmalla, the 7 year old daughter of an Egyptian actor got up and read us a poem, and I saw more than one person with tears in their eyes (of course I wasn’t one of them!!).
After her reading we were once again given gifts (surprise!), but this time by both the Muslim and Danish delegation. From the Muslim side we got books and DVD’s, and from the Danish side we each got a beautiful glass plate from Villeroy and Boch. We posed for group photographs (but of course I had a disposable 2nd rate camera and so no one is looking at me in any of them!) before heading off to Zayed University for lunch. Once again we were welcomed with effusive greetings and a spectacular meal. (I have decided not to weigh myself for a week or so as a result of these amazing meals, and can I just state for the record how glad I am that I can’t cook!!) And then one of the Danish delegates (I’m so sorry I can’t remember your name!) got up and gave us a spontaneous speech about his feelings towards the conference, and how much it had affected him. While listening to his speech, all I could think of was how such a short period of time could be the cause of such fervent and sincere expressions of feelings, and how grateful I was to get a chance to be part of that experience. Because no matter how much I write, this is one of those things that you simply had to be there to feel what I feel.

And if I tell you how saying goodbye a couple of hours later was one of the most difficult things in my life, it’ll be hard to believe because who gets so attached to people in four days? But these are people who have not just come into my life and left; on the contrary they are those who have left footprints in my life (as corny as that sounds) and whom I will never forget. Things like singing “Anamanam/ Tererereree” or “Hakuna Matata” on the bus, or waking up and finding that my roommate had despaired of me learning how to properly fold my clothes and had done them for me may seem trivial, but to me they are indicative of so much more. They show me that there truly is hope; that we are not as different as we think we are, and that at our core we are all human beings and that everything else can be resolved if we put our heart, mind, body and soul into it. Truly, and now more than ever, I believe that, and I will do my best to spread this belief to as many people as I know.

To all the wonderful people I’ve met: Minnie, Maria, Azeema, Karsten, Yasmine, Mads, Jan, Charlotte, Nimrah, Sarah, Hisham, Isacc, Hasanah, Tea-Jeni, Farida, and to everyone else. I just wanted you to know that I was greatly honored to meet you, and that you have truly made a mark on my life. Jazakum Allah kol khair (May Allah/God grant you Good things).

And for all of you who’ve read this far…wow, I’m impressed Thank you for deeming my words worthy enough of your time, and I hope you’ll be back to read my next entry which will be a LOT shorter since I will be in Alexandria, hopefully sitting by the pool and enjoying myself, with no time to write *grin.* And now I think I deserve that chocolate bar which I’ve been craving all day, owing to all the writing I’ve done

Until next time,
Salam Alaykum (Peace be upon you)Ethar

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