Exit Interview

Sara, marching behind a nun, at the State Capitol.
Because she has been deemed a suspicious person, I am uncomfortable using her real name. For the purposes of this tale, I will call her “Sara.”

She is a Canadian, and she had come to the Rio Grande Valley with eight other colleagues to see what she could learn about how our community cares for its children. She is a physician, and her life’s work is to care for others. In her case, she carries a special interest in the poor and to the little ones—those who are “other” in our health care system.

Sara is also a faithful Muslim woman, someone who each day wears a hijab, a veil, which covers her hair.

Last week, we traveled together to Austin, to participate in a march protesting Texas’ pending anti-immigrant legislation.

It was 4am when we hit the highway in Brownsville, aiming to join the march by noon.

 “Ok,” I said, driving north, “I know nothing about Islam. Help me understand.”

 “OK,” she echoed, and for the next five hours we talked about God and faith and community, about mercy and forgiveness, about hard choices and fundamentalists.

We covered prayer and fasting, the Muslim restrictions on interest (on loans) and its insistence on charity.

The conversation circled again and again to the basic tenet of religious faith—it is love in action that frees us from ourselves, and brings us peace.

After a couple of hours, it was Sara’s turn to drive. We had been discussing the notion of submission as the key virtue in Islam as she put the car into gear. She went from 0 to 70 miles an hour in fifteen feet, cutting off a tractor trailer, merrily skipping up the entrance ramp onto the expressway. “My mom is a driving instructor,” she noted, as the tires squealed, “but I never really got the hang of driving.”

I submitted myself, rather irreligiously, to total body fright, as she cut across two lanes of traffic and settled into the last part of the drive.

When I recovered my breath, I asked her about women’s role in Islam.

 She smiled and said, “Let’s start with the veil—it is my choice to wear hijab, and to follow this commandment from God.  It reminds me of my faith, it’s like the veil that nuns wear and orthodox Jews. With the veil, I can be an ambassador of Islam to those around me. And because women have become objects in this society—judged on their looks—the veil takes me away from the superficial realm  and allows me to be judged based on my character, on my contributions to society and not on my appearance. It is a form of modesty in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its mind. It is not just my head that I cover—I take care not to put my body on display. It is a way to help me and others keep the right focus in life.”

I discovered that Sara talked the same way that she drove—quickly and daringly. Unlike her driving, which had made me think about whether or not my will was up to date, the conversation with her left me thinking  about life and all of its possibilities.

We made it back to Brownsville; Sara and her colleagues finished up their work and their month-long coursework.  They were impressed by the solidarity in the border communities, worried about children held in detention, overwhelmed by the need and the lack of resources. It seemed to me, as well, that they had fallen in love with this corner of the United States.

Sara was the last one to depart. As she approached airport security, she realized that she was going to have to submit to the indignity of the body scan machine. Like everyone else that was traveling that day, she was electronically strip searched.  Sara’s one consolation was that she would, at least, be spared the shame of being patted down.

But no, her silken-polyester veil, although worn as an effort at modesty, and as a sign of respect for others, made her “other”, and, therefore, suspicious. She was pulled out of line. Her head was patted down, a silly, demeaning act, given that the scanner had already searched her entire body.  There were no scanner-invisible weapons concealed under her scarf, and Sara was allowed to head home to Canada.

Sara called it her exit interview from the course on the Valley, for she had come to our home to discover what it was like to be outside systems of care, to be “other.”  As she left, she was examined and judged to be, “other.”

The lessons of that experience would take hours to tell, and I pray one day to get to have that conversation with her.

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