Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bring on the Muslims!

After spending the summer in an Islamic country I have decided I would like to know more about this culture. Fortunately I have a friend at WPI from Pakistan and I just found out that the new guy that sits behind me in the office is from Saudi Arabia.

Why does Islamic culture interest me? Well, unfortunately 95% of what Americans know about Muslims comes from the news. The news is great but it only reports the major events of the world. If NBC covers the Islamic world as well as it does long distance running then we are going to have an education problem. We only end up hearing about bombings and oil sheiks and terrorists. The thing is: it's not like that even in Pakistan. I never had to dodge suicide bombers or anything like that. However, I should explain that a little bit more. On the way out when I stayed in Islamabad they gave us newspapers (in English) at the hotel every morning. I learned that Pakistan has far more bombings than we ever hear about. Most are directed at military road blocks or places where westerners gather like expensive restaurants. Some bombings are even directed at mosques. So it is dangerous.

They also have a slew of political problems. From education and safe drinking water to the bureaucracy and tribal conflicts that we often hear about. In that part of the world, families and tribes often carry more clout then official governments. The nations, or at least Pakistan, is divided roughly into valleys. I spent most of my summer in Baltistan, where they speak Balti, as well as Urdu and a little English. There are other locations as well such as Waziristan, which is a very dangerous place and is a breeding ground for terrorists due to the extreme levels of poverty and education. I learned from Three Cups of Tea that some of the Muslim teachers that are pressuring boys into terrorism can not even read. Teachers that can not read!

We happened to be in Pakistan on July 25th which is a Shi'a (Shiite, spellings vary by source) holy day. We were stuck in a traffic jam for a religious self flagellation ceremony. We were with one of our Ismaeli cook staff and he said that Ismaelis never did that kind of thing. They were very peaceful, despite the fact that I learned recently that Ismaeli is a form of Shi'a so it might have been a Twelvers holy day and not a general Shi'a holy day... I asked the man from Saudi Arabia about this and he said that most 99% of the people in Saudi Arabia and most of the people in Egypt were Sunni and they never did that either. Another holy thing that caught my eye was the issue of prayer five times a day. The loud speakers could be heard whenever you were in a large enough town but I never once noticed a change in the people on the street. I saw only a handful of people pray the whole seven weeks. There was never a rush to the nearest mosque when the loud speaker came on. People didn't rush to their homes and the street never emptied around prayer time. However, Friday morning is their weekly holy day and you could easily tell that most stores were closed and there was far fewer people on the streets than normal. The point is: "Muslims" are just like "Christians" and "Jews" when it comes to practicing their faith, most don't practice too hard.

There is also the issue of the women covering themselves up. Which is not a bad thing at all. The thing is that for seven weeks in Pakistan besides the woman at the hotel desk in Islamabad and the women at customs in the airport the only females I talked to were a pair of nine year old girls in Hushe (the middle of nowhere). It seemed in general that the women worked in the fields and took care of the children and the men walked around main street. So I don't understand the whole male/female relationships thing yet.

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