“You’ll like Muhammad,” my father told me, smiling a bit devilishly. “He’s a very smart and snarky kid.” Five minutes before I was to meet the 20-year-old son of a prominent Emirati sheikh, I had no idea what to expect, and that’s what my dad intended.
I was visiting my dad for three weeks in Al Ain — a 4,000-year-old “oasis city,” the ancestral home to Abu Dhabi’s ruling family — where he teaches journalism at the largest national university in the United Arab Emirates.
In a few minutes, a white 2009 Porsche Cayenne GTS pulled up to the apartment and a bespectacled male, 5-foot-5 and weighing no less than 300 pounds, wearing a traditional white kandoora and a white safra on his head, squeezed out the driver’s door.
“Muhammad!” my father greeted him. “This is another new car?”
“Yes, this is my new new car? Do you like it?” he asked, walking over to shake my father’s hand. “I think it’s too expensive. But it has very nice features.”
Muhammad spoke rapidly and in fluent English, showing the thought process behind his words.
“I thought you just got a new car three weeks ago, an FJ Cruiser,” my dad said.
“I did,” he answered. “My dad didn’t think the last one was nice enough for me. Perhaps this car is too nice though, no?”
“Perhaps. Muhammad, I would like you to meet my son, Max. I’ve told you about him.”
Uncertain of how to greet him, I instinctively went for the bro hug, clasping one of his hands and throwing my other around him firmly.
“We do not hug in my culture,” Muhammad said. After a beat, he laughed.
“He’s yanking your chain,” my father said. “OK guys, have fun. Muhammad, he’s all yours. Now, I don’t want to hear about any alcohol, tobacco or women.”
“What?” Muhammad said as my father smiled at him.
“Don’t corrupt my son,” my dad said, laughing. “Muhammad, I’m just yanking your chain. Have fun.”
“Later, dad,” I said, giving him a hard pat on the shoulder.
“Why do you disrespect your father by hitting him like that?” Muhammad snapped.
My dad and I looked at each other. He turned to Muhammad and said, “Don’t worry, there was no disrespect in that touch, just trust and warmth.”
“Ahh,” Muhammad said, opening his SUV’s door.
I got into his Porsche and we drove off.
“I want to buy cars from America,” he blurted out. “Do you know how I can do this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “My interests do not lie in cars.”
“Ahh. Where then do they lie?”
“Primarily in history.”
“Ahh. That is intelligent!” He smiled broadly. “Let us discuss history then. What do you know of Sun Tzu?”
Not nearly as much as he did, it turns out. Over the course of the next hour driving the palm tree-lined streets of Al Ain, our conversation shifted from Sun Tzu, to an analysis of the virtues of the “Five Tiger Generals” of the Shu army from the ancient Chinese historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” to the ethos of the Persian Immortals, before we arrived at the topic of the Greek Hoplite infantry as we pulled up to the upscale Al Ain Mall.
After just an hour, I was convinced that he was one of the five most intellectual people my age I have ever met. During our drive I tread water, offering interesting tidbits to deceive him into thinking I had nearly the wealth of information that he possessed. So I decided to throw a curve into the subject as we parked the Cayenne.
“You know, Muhammad,” I said, exiting the SUV, “I’ve always been fascinated by how the Greek military harnessed homosexuality to be such a powerful tool for success in battle.”
“What are you talking about?” he snapped back at me, peering over the top of his glasses.
“Well, in Thebes, for example. The greatest fighting force known to ancient Greece was the Theban Sacred Band, 150 pairs of homosexual lover-warriors, who fought so fiercely because they were in love with the fighter next to them.”
“You are mistaken,” Muhammad says, angrily. “The Sacred Band warriors were pairs of brothers, as in sons of the same father. I do not know where you got your information from.”
“I got my information from my Greek-history professor, the former dean of Yale College,” I said. “The Spartans, too, were notable for the love affairs between their warriors, you know.”
“The Spartans were all heterosexuals,” Muhammad said, defiantly. “Do you know the story of how they met their wives?”
I did and chose to marvel at his version rather than press my point further.
We walked into Al Ain Mall, past the ice-skating rink, Christmas tree and Santa stockings, beginning to stroll the stores. After a few games of foosball, we stopped at the crowded Starbucks.
“You know, Muhammad, I don’t mean any offense by saying this,” I said, sipping my coffee. “I am just being candid, but I can’t get used to watching women walk around dressed all in black.”
“They wear the sheyla and abaya,” he said. “In Islam, a man must be covered from the navel to the knees, and the Koran states that women should wear the hijab covering themselves from the ankles to the neck. A woman is to be respected and should not be exposed to any man but her husband.” He continued his discourse on the hijab and the “true respect” afforded to women by this custom.
Five minutes later a group of heavily perfumed women, wearing flashy-and-sequined sheylas and abayas, walked by. Muhammad looked at me, raised his eyebrows, turned to them and began barking softly but rabidly at the group, like a wolf in an old cartoon. They passed by quietly, and I wondered what barking and a hijab had in common.
We ditched the mall and drove 30 minutes outside the city, taking a jagged, winding road to the top of Jebel Hafeet, the tallest mountain in the UAE, to smoke shisha. As Muhammad packed the fruit-laced tobacco and lighted the coals, he told me at least four times that I must not tell his father or my father that he smokes, because his father would kill him if he found out. He again criticized me for disrespecting my father.
“You know, Muhammad,” I said, shifting the subject. “I really appreciate all the hospitality and generosity you’ve shown me.”
He smiled, puffed on the shisha, held the smoke in, and said, “It is our culture and it is Islam to always show such hospitality to our guests. In our culture, the guest is sacred. We do anything and everything for our guest. It does not matter what. If they have a need, we provide. If they offend us, we do not give offense back. It is a beautiful tradition.”
Muhammad continued on the subject for 10 minutes, explaining the special place guests hold in his Bedouin culture. He never once passed me the shisha.
I told him I had to go to the bathroom.
“I as well. It’s over there,” he said. “I go privately. I do not want you to see me. I have a very small penis. We all do, you know. In Islam, we cut off the tip of the penis, how do you call that in English again?”
“Circumcision,” I answered. “Yeah, we do it, too.”
Muhammad stopped in mid-stride. “You’re Jewish?” he snapped.
I stumbled and said quickly, “I am American. In our hospital system, circumcision is very common.”
“Ah,” he sighed, accepting my answer.
I told him that circumcision is more than a religious practice and that there are health-related reasons to do it. I did not say that I am an American Jew. Internally I questioned whether I had just denied my religion or had merely avoided making it the focal point — and the distraction — of our time together.
We continued walking to the toilet. As we walked, Muhammad said, “I do not want to get into a religious discussion, but I am very curious to learn from you about the tenets of Christianity.”
“I am not the most devout person,” I said, walking a thin line with my words. “I doubt I can be of much help here, but feel free to ask.”
He didn’t ask, but for 10 minutes he told me his “view” of Christianity, which was unlike any version I knew. Finally he said, “The thing I disagree most about with you Christians is that you make your leader, the pope, into a semi-divine figure. No human should ever be made to be more than a human.”
I let his comment sink in for a moment. “You know a lot of Christians are Protestants, not Catholics?” I asked.
“Protestants, you know. You know Martin Luther, right?”
Muhammad was fluent in his religion, the history of his people, and many other people in history, but about the Reformation he was completely uniformed. I told him that many Christians don’t follow the pope and that hundreds of years ago in Germany Martin Luther posted what were called the “95 theses.” As we got back into the Cayenne and left Jebel Hafeet, I continued my version of Reformation SparkNotes. Muhammad listened intently and halfway down the mountain said, “Ah, so you Protestants believe more in a personal relation with God than in the power of the structure of the Church.”
The phrase “you Protestants” unsettled me. I decided to shift the discussion to politics — quickly. Muhammad took it in the direction of the politics of the Crusades.
“One of the biggest problems that I have found when you anoint a figure like the pope is the political capacity it gives a man to act as a tyrant. You know, the decision to send out the First Crusade by Pope Urban II has been analyzed to have been primarily a political maneuver.”
To Muhammad, the wounds of the Crusades had not been salved by time. He ranted for several minutes before I cut in.
“I am sure that I may have some gaping holes in my education,” I said, “but from everything I have learned all the flaws you are pointing out in the Crusade — you know, the evil of ‘go forth and kill the infidel and convert the heathens’ — are pretty inherent in the Islamic concept of jihad as well.”
“No! No!” Muhammad shouted. “A thousand times no!”
“You know not of what you speak. Jihad is at its center a peaceful concept,” he continued, taking a sharp turn down the mountain road. “Yes, it has a place for war in territorial terms, but not in spiritual terms. In a jihad we do not go out and forcibly convert. We let the people live their own lives and let them see how we live ours and let them see the beauty of our ways and make their own decision to follow Allah as we do.”
“Interesting. So in political-theory terms, the difference between a Crusade and a Jihad is akin to the difference between hard and soft power?”
“Ah, you are so intelligent,” he said, smiling.
“But when you have a single figure with too much power — a tyrant, if you will — like the pope for example, you set the stage for power to be wielded too roughly.”
“That is an interesting thought.”
“So, for example, even if we postulate that Pope Urban II may have been trying to exert soft power, the structure alone of his position of power could have been enough to assure that it would be exercised through hard means.”
“Ah, intelligent,” Muhammad said. “But that seems a stretch. Are you driving at something else?”
I was: the Iraq War.
“Many commentators believe that a primary goal of the United States in Iraq was to bring democracy to the region,” I said. “It is now almost universally agreed that the only real way to export democracy is by the use of soft power.
“But the narrative of our recent history tells us that our executive, the American president, wielded too much power at the time the decision was made. In a way, you could argue that that is how the means toward the end of exporting democracy shifted from soft to hard.
“What I am trying to say,” I continued, “is that under our framework one could view the Iraq War as an American attempt at a democratic Jihad, which was ill-fated from the start to become a Crusade.”
Muhammad was agitated. “You know not of what you speak. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,’ said Wittgenstein. Or to paraphrase him, ‘Shut up.’ The one thing I did not want to talk about was politics and now you have brought it up and now I am angry.”
“I was just trying to do a conceptual thought-experiment,” I stammered. “I’m not trying to start a political, moral discussion of the event itself.”
“You know not of what you speak,” he shot back. “First, this was not George Bush’s war. That is a nice little delusion so you can tell yourselves that it was him and not America that was responsible. But, let me tell you, George Bush is an idiot and a puppet. A puppet for what? A puppet for Congress, a puppet for lobbyists, a puppet for the military and a puppet with strings leading back to all parts of America.
“It was not just him who made the war. To think so is pretty, maybe, but an irresponsible delusion. Divest yourselves of responsibility shortly after he leaves and look back with Obama upon the incomplete picture forever — that is what it allows you to do. It was not just Bush. Do not think that it was.”
“You know—” I tried to get in a rebuttal.
“I do know. That is the issue. I do know and you do not. Do not ever think you can draw a line connecting jihad and politics. We can talk more about jihad and history perhaps, but never connect jihad with politics. Jihad is religious. Not political.”
“I was just trying—”
“No. Now I’m angry. Do you know why I’m angry?” he asked, raising his eyebrows as we reached the bottom of the mountain road and turned onto the road to Al Ain.
“I am angry because you tried to mix religion and politics and that is exactly what has hurt our people. You always try to mix religion and politics. You always try to mix more politics. We are a people. We are not nation-states. You made us that way, and we have been sick because of that ever since. That, if you want to know, is why this region has had so many troubles recently. We are a people. We are not nation-states.”
“No. Let me finish,” he said, pushing the Cayenne to 140 kph. “If you want to have a conceptual framework for Iraq, consider this. Consider who Saddam was and what he tried to do. He was a leader put in charge of a mismatched set of three peoples. He would not be the impotent ruler that the stage had set for him to be. He would exert control and unite those people. We can discuss his methods at another time if you like.
“But for now, consider that he was the one man who could unite those people productively. He made the Ba’ath party, a party that called for Pan-Arabism. Unity amongst Arabs. Overcoming the nation-state system of politics that has been imposed on our people.
“He invaded Kuwait in 1991. Why? Just for oil and power, you have been taught. But your teachers knew not of what they spoke. He invaded Kuwait because it was always part of Iraq. Throughout all history. Only since the British decided to cut a sliver off of Iraq to deprive it of a coastline to keep it weak did those Iraqi people become their own Kuwaiti ‘nation-state.’ ‘Protecting its sovereignty,’ you have been taught. That sovereignty was not its choice, nor is it the region’s history.
“The attack was a symbolic move to assert pan-Arabism and help our people overcome the cards that you have dealt us. Saddam did not expect the United Nations to intervene. He knew the oil supply would remain steady, so he assumed no reason for concern. There he was wrong. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait may not have hurt the economy, but it hurt the world order. It was a challenge to the nation-state imposition that has been made upon the Arab people, and the United Nations did not stand for this challenge.”
He finished, and we rode on in silence. Finally, we arrived back at my father’s apartment.
“My father gets angry if I am out too late,” he said. “You must leave now.”
I turned and looked him in the eye. “Muhammad, I’m sorry for the turn our conversation just took. But I want you to know I’m grateful for the insights you’ve given me. I have never heard anything like that before. Shukran. Thank you.”
“Ah, you are intelligent,” he said, smiling. And without a smile: “But you know little of our people and our religion.”
“Thank you for being my teacher tonight,” I said, wanting to diffuse the situation.
“I like your manner,” he said. “Now my father will get impatient; you must leave. And don’t tell your father about the shisha.”
Max Eden is a junior in Morse College. This essay is a reconstruction of an actual conversation.