The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

4/17/11

Muslim Men and Little White Dogs - Kathy Riordan - Open Salon

AUGUST 12, 2010 4:39PM

Muslim Men and Little White Dogs

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rochesterskyline

The skyline of Rochester, Minnesota, by night. The building where I lived for eight months while my husband was critically ill in the hospital at Mayo Clinic is at the far left of this picture, with red lights on the roof.

I confess to not having read the holy books of many of the world's religions. Getting through the Old and New Testaments, plus slogging through three more books of scripture particular to the Latter-day Saint tradition of my youth, including the Book of Mormon, was challenge enough.

So when Middle Eastern men, women and children began running from my clearly harmless little white Cuban dog in horror as a puppy, how was I to know the basis for it?

A week before my husband's scheduled surgery for pancreatic cancer at Mayo Clinic six years ago, I was sitting in the concierge lounge of the Radisson Hotel in Rochester, Minnesota, and overheard a guest talking about a wonderful brand new high rise apartment building next door. "When we return, we'll be staying there," he exclaimed emphatically. "It's like the Ritz."

Well, Ritz might have been something of an exaggeration, but it was comfortably appointed and fully furnished, and I decided, even though our expected stay was only to be ten days, to check it out. On impulse, I rented a one-bedroom, spanking new, with two bathrooms and granite countertops in the kitchen and one of those clever European washer/dryer combinations conveniently placed. The 24-story building had just opened a week earlier and was said to be owned by Saudis (I was never sure who, but it was rumored they got government protection when they came). It had been purpose-built for Middle Eastern patients to have a place to stay long term while visiting and getting medical care at Mayo Clinic, but was open to all.

It just happened that for the first several months I lived there, I was the only American, and aside from a few Europeans who came and went and a handful of Asians, the only non-Muslim.

I loved it there. It was a wonderful place to live and made my life, which was completely inverted a week after moving in when my husband arrested in the hospital and began a long fight for his own life, much easier and more convenient. Further, the fellow residents were enormously supportive. Most had never met the husband of mine rumored to be in an ICU, though they saw me leaving and entering the building every day reportedly going to St. Mary's Hospital. They were gracious and compassionate in my ordeal, particularly the men, who were more visible and hung out in the business center late at night as I often did, the only place one could find Internet access then, comfortable furniture, and a big screen television.

When we first arrived in Rochester mid-July two weeks ahead of the surgery, the Jehovah's Witnesses were in town for a series of meetings which brought in a new group of JW's every weekend for several weeks. They toted small children, scriptures and briefcases as they headed off to their meetings every day. I flinched no more with one than the other, knowing that one person's religion was always another person's cult. I came equipped with a tolerance for other religions which did not diminish from traveling the world, and hoped my understanding of different people and cultures had been enhanced in that travel, whether in Italy, Ireland or Istanbul, whether I was entering cathedrals or mosques. I'd always managed to blend in with local customs and cultures, and at very least respect them, taken to its ultimate test when I was stranded in Istanbul after 9/11 for the better part of a week and chose to adopt the manner and dress of the local Turkish women. Fortunately, as followers of Islam go, the women of Istanbul were highly Westernized in dress and an oversized Escada raincoat and favorite scarf effected the transformation nicely.

I've tried not to be a stereotypical Ugly American traveling, bristle at those who channel it by demanding the world conform to their expectations. I've prayed in mosques and temples, celebrated holy days and rites of passage with Jewish friends, always respectful. My home is filled with the art and artifacts of several world religions, Judaica, Christian art and icons, and the prayer beads of many cultures.

wallephesus

A wall in Ephesus, Turkey, where Muslims and Christians alike scribble prayers and stuff them into the wall, offering them for the world, as I did the morning of 9/11.

The holy season of Ramadan descended on Rochester and our high-rise enclave, and I learned the extended graciousness of the men from all over the Middle East who were my fellow travelers, as they gathered in the business center every night without the women, bringing in banquets of delight prepared carefully by those absent women, food and drink, and passed them around in the late and dark. Although I was the only woman there, they offered to share them with me. I knew something about fasting from my own religious heritage, so knew the ironies and complications and even the general purposes of the fast. I wasn't fasting with them, but I was sharing in the breaking of their fasts and respectful of the tradition.

So for all their support and graciousness, it struck me odd that they'd step away from my dog, that small Muslim children would start to cry and run to their mothers' arms when they saw him, that men would walk off an elevator and go the other direction if I entered with him (and some, occasionally, even if I entered without the dog).

I had to know why, and consulted the Qu'ran, where I came to understand the Prophet Mohammed's teachings on keeping such animals and their effects on the efficacy of prayer. I understood.

Many of my Middle Eastern neighbors came to also understand, over time, that the dog was a therapy dog, a dog who saved not only my husband's life but my own, a companion, a reason to live, a reason to walk again and to fully rehabilitate for my husband, and over the time that I lived there those eight months from the summer of 2004 to the spring of 2005, we all understood better. Eventually, they saw the mysterious husband come home to that apartment, first in a wheelchair, and finally walking the same little white dog, and they nodded in respect. Some mothers approached me with their children to ask if they could come closer, and see the dog, if not pet it, so their own children would understand the differences of another culture. Men graciously held doors open for me, and nodded in silent respect.

We'd gone through Ramadan together, and all come out transformed. The great leveler, that city in a cornfield which brings together people and cultures from all over the world, had thrown us into mutual crisis and brought us to mutual respect and mutual understanding.

Every Ramadan, I am reminded of this, that journey, that enlightenment. Muslim men and little white dogs.

littlewhitedog

The little white Cuban dog who curiously inspired fear in small children while saving our lives.

Muslim Men and Little White Dogs - Kathy Riordan - Open Salon