At some point in our lives, we all must leave our Eden. Our little paradise. A hometown. A country. A relationship. A dream. Even our own mind.
At some point, we become the stranger in the strange land. Where everything is foreign to us, and we are foreign to everything.
Once, in graduate school, I was told by a student from Saudi Arabia that even the Prophet Muhammad instructed believers to show mercy to animals. This could then merit the forgiveness of Allah.
We were sitting at a rather old wooden table in the university writing center. I was her tutor, and she was struggling to write in English. And just below that table, beside my chair (and laying on top of my feet) was the furriest, friendliest mutt I had ever met.
“Diego” was a rescue. He had thick, black fur, and he looked like a cross between a Flat-coated Retriever and a Great Pyrenees.
And Diego was a service dog in training — with me.
The student was terrified of him. Most of the Saudi Arabian students were.
In Saudi Arabia, dogs — often undomesticated and feral — ran freely in cities. Biting the residents. Biting her.
Despite the fact that, in her country, animals are assigned to an inferior status by the Qur’an, some hadiths (traditions, and the foundation of Islamic theology and certain laws) even ordered that the most impure breed of dogs (specifically, those with black colored fur) must be killed.
I learned a lot that day. That semester. We both did.
“While marching towards Mecca they passed a female dog with puppies. The Prophet ordered that they should not be disturbed. He said there is heavenly reward for every act of kindness done to animal.”
– Shamim Aleem, Prophet Muhammad (S) And His Family: A Sociological Perspective (2011), p.49
Fortunately, Diego seemed to read the situation, sensing the students’ uneasiness. And he mostly slept by my feet throughout our sessions. Soon the Saudi students warmed to him. Some even stroked the fur of his neck, marveling at its cleanliness.
Toward the end of the semester, I saw that student less and less. At her final tutoring session, she presented me with a gift.
She sheepishly admitted that she and her fellow female Saudi students had struggled remembering my name. Instead, they described my appearance (among each other and to the writing center administrator) — “the nice, helpful woman with glasses.” When the administrator couldn’t narrow down who they were referencing, they added “with the black dog.”
“But now,” she said, “we call you Al moudarraseh maa el kalib el aswad.”
The teacher with the black dog.
In English, we wouldn’t think much of this. I know. It sounds about as meaningful as saying the teacher who owns the dog.
But for them, she explained, the title means so much more. It indicates a mutually reciprocal relationship. Where the dog chooses to be with that individual, and the individual choose to be with the dog.
No ownership involved.
Perhaps our life journeys are just like that. The journey chooses us, and we choose it.
I have often felt like a restless traveler, wandering reluctantly. That is when I remember my Arabic name. And it is like a sweet melody urging me onward.
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