I’m knocking at Aamilah’s door, here to meet her and begin tutoring her in conversational English. Aamilah is Saudi Arabian, and as I stand here outside her door, listening to her move about inside as the minutes pass, I wonder if not answering the door right away is some kind of Saudi cultural thing and whether I should keep knocking or text her or just wait.
Here’s a cultural thing: cake, dates, almonds, rice snacks—all laid out on her coffee table. It’s a hospitality I’ve encountered before, when I lived in the Philippines and when I visited my Italian college friend’s home. It’s lavish, and it worries me. How can I ever deserve all of this or even adequately appreciate it? Should I have brought something to contribute?
Aamilah (not her real name) is young and pretty, with long dark hair and lovely caramel skin. We smile at each other and spill out a jumbled mix of introductory words and syllables. We’re nervous. She fills our tiny teacups with what looks like hot miso broth, cloudy and a light yellowish color. “It’s Arabic coffee,” she says. “Have you had it?” I haven’t. I can’t figure out what it tastes like.
“Is it regular coffee? I mean, from coffee beans? Caffeine?” I adjust my questions, seeing her confusion. She doesn’t know the word ‘caffeine,’ and it takes our next four meetings of halting conversation and Google searches for me to figure out what exactly it is: real coffee but with the addition of saffron and/or cardamom. That’s what it tastes like, I realize: cloudy saffron water.
“We to like, uh, to eat the dates? With the coffee? It is, uh, tradition?” she explains, indicating the dates. These are not the usual Deglet Noor dates of East Coast grocery stores, tough and sugary. These dates are small, glossy, and so soft that they melt into honey on my tongue.
Aamilah moved here with her husband and daughter while her husband attends school, and they’ll return to Saudi Arabia to live after he graduates. I have no problem understanding her English, but she stumbles often on vocabulary and mixes up syntax. She often catches herself switching genders, calling her daughter “he” and her husband “she.” I’ve taught and tutored writing for many years, but this is my first time tutoring conversation, and I’m not sure whether I should keep correcting her or just talk with her, asking questions and supplying and defining new words as necessary. I decide on the latter. The point is communication, and I want us to enjoy ourselves.
And so we talk. Our conversations drift from our families to Saudi Arabian weather, landscape, and culture, including dating and marriage, good cities for shopping (Riyadh and Jeddah), and a brief and, on my part, ill-advised foray into the criminal justice system (let’s just say that she had never heard of public beheadings). At our second meeting, we come to the topic of religion, and religion is where we remain, as I have all kinds of questions about Muslim practices, holidays, beliefs, and sects, and she has all kinds of questions about “Trees-chi-ans,” including the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
“So you have three gods?” she asks, when I try to explain the Trinity.
“Well, no, it’s like three parts of God.” I’m trying to explain the belief that Jesus is God. She looks highly skeptical. “Like a rope,” I say. “You know how you can take apart a rope, that it has separate threads? But it’s all one rope?” I feel especially pleased with this metaphor, and she nods.
“Okay, okay,” she says, but I can tell she isn’t convinced. She has heard of Jesus, “Isa” as she calls him, but she believes he was a good prophet who will follow Muhammad when they both return to earth during the end times. “Islam, One God,” she says, holding up her finger. “One.” I try to explain that Christians also believe in one God, that Jesus is part of God, and, when she asks why we have two Bibles, I try to explain the connection between the Old and New Testaments. I explain the practice of animal sacrifice for sins in the Old Testament and how Jesus’s death in the New Testament represented the ultimate sacrifice that covered all sins past, present, and future, making possible our direct connection to God without mediation by temples and priests.
“Isa came back to life?” she asks.
“That is what Christians believe,” I explain. “Because he was God…so he could bring his physical body back to life.”
I feel both amused and chagrined to be sitting here explaining the Gospel like I was taught to do in Sunday School. Other than a brief spurt of evangelical zeal when I was 8 and “witnessed” to a friend in school, I never “shared the good news” with anyone, at first due to shyness and later to a growing seed of rebellion against something I didn’t know how to define. Now, so many years later, I face a challenge my Sunday School teachers would envy—to share the Gospel with a Muslim. I worry a little that I might accidentally convert her. And if I did, what would her husband do?
I admit to an irrational fear of her husband, based on nothing except the knowledge that he is a practicing Muslim and a man. “How is she doing?” he asks me at the end of our session. “Should I reward her? Has she done well?” He’s teasing, and I laugh politely, but when I say, “Yes, she’s doing great, wonderful!” I say it with a tiny lurking fear that if I say anything else he might beat her. I know better. I can blame my reaction on the media coverage of Muslim countries and on my fear of male religious authority in my own tradition. But the fear feels deeper than culture and religion, older than even this lifetime. Wherever it came from, I brought it to this world with me.
Anyway, I could never convert Aamilah even if I wanted to. She loves her faith. She shows me pictures of Mecca during Ramadan. She explains the daily prayers and her study of the Qur’an. She shakes her head dismissively when I ask about the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. If she knew the word “apostate” she would use it to describe the Shi’a. The Shi’a are misguided. They have left the true faith.
“The Qur’an talks about Isa and Mary,” Aamilah says, and shows me the passage in its beautiful Arabic script. This comes after I have tried to explain the Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life versus the Protestant belief that Mary married Joseph after Jesus was born and had several more children with him. “Yosef?” she says, confused. She has never heard of him. “Virgin?” she asks, the word clearly foreign, clunky in her mouth. “You know,” I say, “uh…did not have sex yet.” I say the word “sex” as if it is clearly foreign, afraid that maybe it will offend her. “What?” she asks, and so I repeat myself several times until she says, “Oh, yes! She was made to have pregnant by God! Yes, the Qur’an says this.”
An angel had to tell Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, I continue. Otherwise, he would have divorced her. Aamilah interrupts me. “In-jeel?” she asks. “Yes, angel,” I say. I try to explain that angels are messengers of God. “Ah!” she says. “Messengers of God! Yes, I know this. The Qur’an—in-jeel? The Bible—in-jeel?” What a lovely idea, I think, books as angels. But when I try to explain the difference between message and messenger, the conversation breaks down. Allah doesn’t have angels, apparently. How do you describe an angel—a ‘being of Light’? What does that mean?
Aamilah begins to press. My explanations of Christianity have been tempered with “Christians believe.” She wants to know what I believe. But how can I begin to explain my nuanced, New-Age, Buddhist version of Christianity? She has never heard of Buddhism. “Bood…boodism?” she tries out the word. I’m at a loss. “We can talk about that next time,” I say.
But the next time, she has written on her iPhone a history of the prophet Muhammad; I hunch over the screen with her, correcting her grammar and learning that Islam most certainly has an angel tradition. The angel Jibreel opened baby Muhammad's chest and took the black bits from his heart. But Aamilah pronounces angel “angle,” while Injil is the Arabic word for Gospel, the message—thus the confusion of the week before. The “angle Jibreel” visited Muhammad again, when the boy had grown, to give him the Qur'an, the inspired words of Allah. I imagine Jibreel as a corner, surrounded by a host of angels bent acute, obtuse, perpendicular.
In this moment, Aamilah is herself Injil, a holy message, her excitement about her religion and her love for her Prophet and his wife Khadija shining in her eyes.
I love the way I believe in, too, but working with Aamilah has made me even more aware of how strange these beliefs are, ungrounded in tradition or history. Christians would look at my version of Christianity as Aamilah sees the Shi’a Muslims, a dangerous misinterpretation of the one true religion. How can my scrap-heap of beliefs ever compare to her faith, so grounded in community that entire cities grow silent to hear the call to prayer sung from the spires of the mosque? How can I explain a belief system based on love?
“Do you feel, uh…love for Allah?”
“Oh, yes!” she nods. “I love Allah!”
“And do you feel love from him, that he loves you?”
“Oh, yes!” she says. “He loves us if we pray and are good Muslims.”
I don’t ask “What if you’re not good?” I will not press. This woman seems content, happy, grounded. She will return to her country this summer and travel to Mecca with her family for Ramadan. She speaks of this month of fasting, prayer, and devotion with longing. God is great, the call to prayer begins. Allahu Akbar. God is great, God is great, God is great, God is great. They break the fast each night of Ramadan with dates, she tells me. I eat another date. This date is great, I think. Praise God.
 Here’s what happened. At a lull in the dialogue, she asked if I had any questions about Saudi Arabia, and the first and only thing I could think of was that a man I dated for awhile had lived in Saudi Arabia and seen public beheadings. He described the experience to me, clearly still shaken by it. I shouldn’t have asked Aamilah about it, but it did lead to some new vocabulary for her as I tried to explain the prison and execution system here in the U.S. I drew a little courtroom, with stick-figures of judge, lawyers, and jury. I drew a stick man in a prison. I spelled out the words ‘criminal’ and ‘death penalty’ and ‘prosecute’ and ‘represent.’ I asked if she ever watched “Law & Order.” She hadn’t.