Contents: May/June 2002
e n c o u n t e r
The Arab in the Median
by Sarah Oelberg
It was a late night in early December. I had just gotten out of a marathon session at the Humanist Institute in New York City, and decided to walk to a favorite coffee shop to unwind. When I got to Amsterdam Avenue, the light was flashing "Don't Walk," so I ran, and made it to the median strip before the traffic started. I looked up, and a large, swarthy man dressed in Arab headgear and robes was stepping onto the narrow median from the other direction. As the traffic whizzed by on both sides, I tried to ignore him. In fact, I turned my back to him. I have always felt safe in New York, but this man looked so intense, his eyes sparkling with the passing lights. There was something about him . . .
Firmly, he took hold of my shoulder and turned me around to face him. Looking straight into my eyes, he said, "Have you ever seen a pigeon die? Well, I have." Suddenly, I was afraid. I envisioned my body being thrust under the wheels of the passing cars. I think I let out a little squeak. I was sure my luck had run out. Then, his grip loosened, and, still looking deep into my eyes, he continued, "Have you ever seen a young boy die? Well, I have. Have you ever seen a soldier die? Well, I have." He was reciting a poem, a wonderful poem about death and war and peace and the consequences of killing. It was a poem of protest to the Gulf war, which was then gearing up toward its climax. It was a poem that haunts me still, and I would love to get a copy of it. But, alas, I do not know the poet's name, even though he went with me to get coffee, and we talked quite awhile.
He was a Muslim cleric, a man of peace, on his way home from meeting with a group of American children whose parents were in the army and far away in the Gulf. He was trying to help them make some sense of why their parents were there, but he confessed it was hard, because it made little sense to him. He also wanted those boys to understand that Arabs were not all evil, and that his religion, Islam, was really a religion of peace that Saddam Hussein was not following Islam, but was an extremist. I told him my own son was in the army in Saudi Arabia, and we had a very intense discussion about the whole sordid business. I don't know why I didn't ask his name, or for a copy of the poem, if he had one.
A couple of years later, I saw a man on the 34th Street subway platform who looked like my friend, but when I approached him and said, "Have you ever seen a pigeon die? Well, I have," he only looked at me strangely and walked away. He probably thought I was crazy.
We all tend to rush to judgment about people. We walk around with a wad of fear inside us, so we see potential assailants everywhere. We expect the worst of other people, from whom we withhold the best of ourselves. We are especially wary when the other person is a member of a group that we have some reason to believe might be threatening.
I wonder what would happen if we responded to the real people in the real places where we live instead of to the stories we have heard about what has happened to other people somewhere else. I wonder what would happen if we looked into each other's faces expecting to see allies instead of threats. I suppose it would be a dangerous way to live. Then again, what do I know? I am the one who was afraid of the gentle poet, when all he wanted was a sympathetic companion.
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Oelberg is minister of the Nora Unitarian Universalist Church in Hanska and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato, Minnesota. This essay is adapted from First Days Record: A Journal of Liberal Religious Responses, December 2001.
Copyright © 2002 Unitarian Universalist Association