It all began when one student insulted another by saying his father drinks beer.
“As non-Muslims, we drink beer. It’s okay for us,” said another teacher in the room.
And that was the cue for these children (8-12 years old) to try to convert us to Islam. The transformation from English students to fiery missionaries was instantaneous.
They began with the teacher who knew the least Arabic. They had him repeat Arabic words, one by one, until his Islamic oath was finished. When he’d repeated his final word, the children burst into applause and praise of God. This non-Arabic-speaking teacher was unaware of his new conversion or the path he’d set these children upon.
“What’s happened?! What’s happened?!” I shouted in Arabic.
“Hu aslam! Aslam!” rang out the jubilant chorus of children.
Then, the biggest child, a 12-year-old girl a full head taller than everyone else, took the lead.
“Say ‘I love ‘Issa!” she demanded of the new convert.
“I love ‘Issa” the teacher said quietly.
“Say ‘I love Allah’!”
“Say ‘I love Allah’!”
“I love Allah.”
Again, the children burst into jubilant cheers and praise of God.
Closest to me was Sultan, one of my favorite students. He’s around 10-years-old, has white skin, black hair and eyes, and a cute wide smile. Less then five minutes ago he had handed me the business card to his family’s restaurant, named “Sultan,” and invited me for a birthday meal.
“Say it Dov,” he said nicely.
“Ana la,” I said, waving my index finger side to side.
Then came Sultan’s younger sister, who has skin and eyes like her brother, her dark hair in pig tails, black-rimmed glasses much too large for her face and was dressed in overalls—she’s usually the paradigm of a sweet little girl. But I can no longer see her sweetness.
She ran to me, her eyes bulging, yelling, “Inte la! Inte La!” Then she grabbed the collar of my shirt and began yelling, “You’re obligated! You’re obligated!”
The passion in her eyes was well beyond anything I’ve ever seen from a girl so young. It was a mix of rage and worry, those big glasses magnifying their effect.
“I’m sorry but no,” I said calmly.
She became disgusted, released my collar, which she shook so hard I thought she might rip it, and walked away seemingly fed up with me.
The children then returned to the other teacher. They tried to get him to repeat more lines, but he’d finally realized his mistake.
“Chalas! Chalas!” he shouted.
The sister of Sultan gripped his collar as well and began yelling at him. “You’re making a mistake! You’re making a mistake! You must pray. Prayer!”
Then there was sporadic shouting from the other children of “sawm (fast) u salli (Prayer). Sawm u Salli.”
A group of the young students approached me: “We like John [the other teacher] but not Dov.”
Sultan was aghast that my students would speak to me this way. He quickly came over and hugged me. “ Please, we don’t want you to go to hell,” he said.
I persisted in my refusal. Then, another usually reticent student, with lanky limbs and all dark features, tried to persuade me.
“We respect all religions: All types of Muslims, and Christians—but Jews, we don’t like Jews, because they hit us.” (My students aren’t aware I’m Jewish.)
I’d had enough. I was appalled, frightened, and quite frankly, stunned at what had happened to my students. This is especially true of Sultan’s little sister. Her mix of rage and passion was almost surreal. Once so sweet, once full of praise and friendliness towards me—it all had quickly dissipated and left a strange monster in its place.
I dismissed the class in a burst of shouting, and left the classroom to sit at my desk in the other room.
But Sultan and his little sister didn’t want to leave until I had acquiesced to convert.
“Should I bring you a Qur’an next class?” offered Sultan.
I picked up the book of American poetry in front of me, and said, “No thanks, I have Shi’er (poetry).” But the little girl, who had quickly become a crazed zealous missionary, didn’t understand the way I’d said “poetry,” and ran to the other teacher to ask what this other thing was that I had preferred to her beloved Qur’an.
“John! John! What is Sh’ier what is Sh’eir,” she asked in a hurried voice. I told him I meant poetry. She ran back over to inspect the book but knew it was too hard for her too read. Her inability to understand this book I thought more important than the Qur’an confounded her, and she finally gave up
As we were pushing the last two students out of the glass doors of the building, Sultan looked grief-stricken: “Think about it. Please just think about,” he pleaded. And I closed the door.
The precise significance of this attempted conversion is beyond my understanding. I don’t know whether these children are just particularly zealous, or if they represent the larger population. The area they come from is impoverished and very religious.
These children were true believers in the dictates of their religion, and seemed to carry a real fear of hell, and true devotion to God. For some, this may be inspiring. My experience with religious Jews is that they tend not to manifest their declared beliefs to their fullest extent. But more than anything, these zealous children frightened me.
I was once a young Orthodox Jew, and I believed in heaven and hell, but I can’t recall ever possessing such an intense fear and devotion to God and my religion as a child. Never could I imagine the young Dov conducting such a passionate plea in the name of Judaism. Perhaps this is because Jews have utterly suppressed their desire to convert others to Judaism, while conversion remains an essential part of Islam. Similarly though, I could not ever imagine the young Dov becoming so enraged by someone breaking Shabbat.
It is probably true that some of the students were simply concerned about me and the other teacher. They didn’t want us in hell. But others, like Sultan’s sister, seemed sinister. She was quite literally enraged, and not on my behalf, it seemed to me, but for a religious vision of the world she perceived as under attack.
The late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, “It takes religion to make a good person do a bad thing.” I can’t help thinking this sweet little girl was a prime example. I fear for her future, and for all children raised as she was, from any religion.
Have you another interpretation of this story? If so, I look forward to hearing it, whether it shakes me from this despair or casts me further into it.