March 28, 2016

Looking a Muslim Stranger in the Eyes & Calling Him a Friend.

Meena Kadri/Flickr

A Middle Eastern grocery store sits in a tiny shopping mall a little less than a mile away from my house. When I first moved into the neighborhood, my husband pointed it out to me.

“They have the best Greek feta cheese you can get anywhere,” he said. “It comes from France.”

Hm. Greek feta cheese from France. How enticing.

“I think I’ll check it out,” I said, and so began my three year relationship with almost daily trips to the “Caravan Market.”

From the big sheets of flatbread warm from the oven stacked next to the cash-register, to the bins of olives in six to eight varieties, to the boxes of produce standing on the floor bearing labels from small farms in California, to the olive oil from all over the world, the marmalade from England, and the chocolate bars from Germany, I have always managed to find something to buy.

But I have to admit that the food that they carry isn’t the only reason I have kept going back.

Being in the Caravan Market reminds me of the Italian delicatessens I would go to with my mother when I was a little girl; the “other-worldly” feeling to it, the you-can’t-move-freely-down-the-aisle crowdedness of it, and the friendliness of it.

I love all the different languages I hear spoken around me and I love all the smiles. The welcoming, friendly, “How are you today?” heavily accented greetings when I walk in—and I love the trust.

That’s what I said: Trust.

“Never mind,” the man behind the register told me. “You can pay for it the next time you come in.”

“You don’t want me to sign an IOU or something?” I asked. But he didn’t, shrugging his shoulders in that non-verbal way and adding that we all forget our credit cards from time to time.

“Not to worry. You’ll pay next time. I know you.”

Take that, Whole Foods!

When the terrorist bombing in Belgium happened the other day, I went to the market and stood at the counter waiting until the line was gone. It was something I had wanted to do several times, but hadn’t followed up on my impulse.

“Yes. Do you need help?” the man behind the counter asked me.

“You’re Muslim, aren’t you?”  I asked quietly.

Of course, I knew he was Muslim. They sell lots of women’s long black garments in the store and all of the women shopping there wear head scarves. I almost never see a woman like me—head uncovered—in the store. Besides, they are closed on Fridays between 1:00 and 3:00.

So, I knew it was a pretty good guess that he—and just about everybody else working or shopping in the store—was Muslim.

I could also tell that he was a bit shy about answering me—I saw a flicker, just a flicker of doubt come into his eye—Should I tell this white woman that I am Muslim, now? After that terrorist attack in Belgium?

He overcame himself and nodded his head solemnly and said that yes, he was Muslim.

“Of course you know I’m not Muslim,” I said. “But I’m here to tell you that whatever I am, I’m your friend.” I put my hand out and took his in both of mine.

“I’m wanted to come and tell you that because of what happened in Belgium, I wanted you to know.”

He teared up and I teared up as I looked him in the eye.

I let go of his hand and turned to leave.

“Thank you,” he said.

“No problem, I responded.

“I’ll be back tomorrow. I’m out of olives.”



Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Meena Kadri/Flickr

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