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February 13, 2014
A Fictional Middle East
I have never written a piece of fiction before. My first attempt, written in February 2014 over the course of a week, was prompted by a “call for fiction” submission to Mashallah News. The prompt was this (taken directly from the Mashallah News website):
Imagine alternate fates for what is, at present, a complicated Middle East. While the various crises sweeping the region might oppress our sense of what is possible and confine our hopes to a handful of initiatives, our imaginations are beyond the scope of contemporary limitations. By inviting writers to use the tools of fiction to contemplate the farfetched and seemingly impossible, we hope to spark a very real debate about what kinds of future Middle Easts are conceivable.
My attempt to answer this question is below, written 6 months after moving to the Middle East. Originally, my story did not have a title. I am still struggling with the appropriate title for this story, since I have a hard time summarizing my main point in four words. I hope you will enjoy it - feedback is more than welcome.
the future godless levant
“There is no such thing as religion anymore!” I say, ending my lecture. The eager students applaud and file out of the room as a few students stay behind. “So when you said Maronite Christians, you were talking about the Shiite Muslims, right?” one girl asks. “No, they were all Jews anyway!” says another, rather flippantly. I try to hold back my laughter as I explain that the definitions of separate religions and sects from the 21st century were different than they had been in the first century BC.
My students are all talented. But as headmistress, the students I advise are the most obstinate - the ones no other educator can handle. The ones who had been beaten as children for not staying quiet during nap time. The ones who had built a radio receiver from their parent’s old vacuum parts to listen to for satellite signals from outer space. The ones who have radical ideas about the isolation of the Middle East from the rest of the world. Or about religion. Or about the next privacy-invading technology. Or the military. The ones who will end up both destroying our civilization as we know it and the ones that will lead it to new heights. But all of them respect me because my brother is the mayor of our village. They know that they can discuss anything with me - I am the most patient and the most inviting. And no matter what it is, I will find out anyway.
I go back to my office to start my daily grading of papers and find a student from the morning class waiting for me.
“Can I confess something?”
“No need to confess - here we speak our minds.”
She looks me squarely in the eyes. “I think I believe in God.”
I look out my window and see the students sitting around the olive tree, eating lunch. I like to think I am part of that tree - rooted in tradition, but more like the olive who will either fall within the protection of the tree, or be carefully picked and taken for other purposes. Students have come to me with this before, so I am not concerned.
“It is no crime to believe in God, but you know religion is against the law.”
She looks at me like she is hiding something. I ask her, gently, “Are there others? Have you been meeting in private?”
She tells me the whole story - the readings, the meetings, the prayers. She and her friends have not decided what God they believe in, just that they believe in a God. Organized religion is against the law, punishable by imprisonment and heavy fines. But I know the way to reach the mind is through the heart. No amount of coercion, fines, torture, imprisonment, will make a difference of opinion. The change must come from within. She planted the seed in her own brain, and she must be the one to stifle it’s growth.
“A god is different from religion. A god is flexible, a god listens, a god helps. Religion is cumbersome, does not bend, and often gets in the way of how we really feel. It dictates how we act, how we feel, what we do, and does not tolerate differences of opinion. My true faith lies with people.” I told her my own story.
Before this village grew up out of the dirt, I lived in a different time and place. We were all children of farmers - simple and poor and bound to the land. We thanked our God for our crops, our parents, our lives, our futures. Our religion and our traditions were intertwined - they told us what to eat, how to dress, what we could do. We were dependent, we were stuck. I was blessed to be one of my family. We were rooted in our traditions, confident in our means. But then the wars came. People from a distant village, equally rooted in their beliefs came and told us our roots were infected and false. My brother and I fled, disowning all that we had known for so long. Our branch had fallen. I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping, I stopped praying. To me, our religion was dead. Our arguments had caused nothing but bloodshed, simply over what we could and could not do, or where we could and could not go.
We started our new lives on a small simple farm here, where our village stands, outlawing religion within the city walls. The olives that bore fruit in groves outside the new village were our new religion. We had no prayer meetings, we had no place of worship. People slowly came to the village, seeking refuge from their own droughts. We worked the land, made our village services, made our schools. The people who were moving to our village were the same age as those who had destroyed my former home. But the people who came were even stronger. They had hated, they had loved, and they had fallen from the comfort of their roots. Many who came had been so dependent on their religion, they did not know how to live without it. We held weekly discussions about what we believed, who we really loved. I came to realize that faith in an individual means more than faith in a being I have never seen. I believed that the widowed mother of three would find shelter from the horrors and pursue her dream of making clothes. She did. I believed that the young man who ran from his father’s zeal would build his new house with his bare hands and find a spouse to share it with him. He did. The child who dreamed in swathes of color became a painter. The elderly woman took her books out of hiding and started a library. Over and over, the strength of people who fled and came here were shown to me. I pray not to a god who listens to everyone, not to a god who judges me. I pray to a god who believes in the will of the individual. But I don’t pray to the God that told me that people were a certain way, that they had to act a certain way.
I look back to her, realizing I had been talking without looking at her, eyes fixated at the olive tree. “To me, my god is people. It is everywhere, in each and every person. But religion reminds me of the injustice I have seen.”
She looks at me, eyes glistening and glazed, looking off into the distance. “I am not ashamed to believe in god, but I am scared to grow on my own.”
“God is like the olive tree - sacred to each one of us, but free in form to grow. Religion is like the wire that holds the tree to grow a certain way. We all deserve our chances, we all have faith in our own way. But we are free.”
I leave her in my office; she needs time to collect her thoughts. I believe she will make the right choice. I don’t have faith in God anymore - no one does - but I have faith in her.
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