An Iftar is the time during Ramadan when the sun sets and Muslim’s break their fast. Although I’ neither Muslim nor was I fasting, I was invited to an Iftar dinner this week with a Turkish family.
As I drove my Persian friend to our dinner destination, she expressed her concerns for finding a job. A newly graduated computer engineer, she had just finished her Master’s and the grueling process of defending a thesis. Now, the job hunt was on.
“This is my dilemma,” she said as we drove through the city, watching the sun sink behind the clouds.
“My dream was to find a good job in computer engineering, maybe somewhere in California. But if I stay in the US, I will not be able to go back to Iran and visit my family. You know, because of the policies and stuff.”
I nodded to show I was listening, even though my eyes were fixed on the road, riddled with potholes giving my little Honda a beating.
She went on, “There are also jobs in Canada. Then I could visit my parents in Iran more easily. But if I go to Canada, returning to America would be difficult, and there are so many things I want to do here.”
Before we set out, my friend sat enviously looking at my photos from Niagara Falls. I casually scrolled through the pictures from my vacation and showed her the view from the American side.
“Julia, for you this is nothing but it is my dream to see Niagra Falls,” she said with a chuckle.
“BAM!” I hit another pothole, rattling my body as I tried to hold the steering wheel tightly. My fiend lived in the city center and the Turkish family we were going to see was a 35 minute drive north.
“Have you ever been in this kind of situation?” she asked, referring to her job search. I thought about my own search for employment. The way I wiped tables at a café for four months after I finished school. And the phone call that changed my status from “recent college grad” to “young professional.” But of course for my friend, being international, things were different. She was crunched for time with a visa that would soon expire. She was fighting language barriers, cultural barriers and the competition of a thousand other computer engineers.
Her situation reminded me of my summer grad school project. I am researching how HR teams could better recruit international talent. Although my project focuses on the HR perspective, it was eye-opening to hear the international person’s dilemma and the rising desperation in her voice.
At last we arrived and the sun had set. I pulled up my hair into a neat bun and followed my friend into the apartment of the Turkish family. The hostess wore a blue hijab and a long black skirt. Her face was all kindness as she hugged me and pressed her cheek to my right, then my left, and my right again. I awkwardly followed this greeting, feeling a bit stupid at my own discomfort. Then, I slipped into a chair at the table beside my friend and observed the other guests.
Across from me sat a Turkish couple who were guests as well. The husband was a middle aged man with a broad smile. The wife was petite and timid, raising her eyes with her nose kept down, and smiling at me as we made introductions. I stumbled through their names and turned to my left to meet the host. He was younger with a dark complexion and fierce black eyes. He smiled and told me his name, to which I politely nodded with no comprehension. Then a two year old boy, with curly black hair, charted across the living room and up into the man’s lap, eyeing me curiously and whispering something in Turkish.
We ate and talked for a while before they began to speak Turkish. The other guests had a little boy as well. He squirmed in his father’s lap, dousing his mouth with sour cream and pastry. The father asked us to excuse himself and the other man to go and pray. They got up promptly and went into the next room, leaving the women to discuss education, work, and visa problems. One of the women explained that she had plead asylum and was able to secure a visa. But, despite her PhD in civil engineering she was still searching for employment with no luck.
When the men returned we cleaned the table and retired to the living room for tea and dessert. As the hours passed I began to feel increasingly tired and I realized it was nearly eleven. But because they had slept for most of the day, no one was tired, not even the little boys who played on the floor, the little one knocking his mother’s tea all over the couch, only to return giggling with an ice pack pressed to his face. My friend asked the group for advice about finding a job. Some thought that Canada would be a good decision. But everyone agreed whatever opportunity came her way she should take.
And the discussion went on late into the night. My eyes began to close and my stomach to grow warm from all the food. The hostess sat beside me and asked about my parents. She was also from a family of ten. I don’t know if it was her hijab but I felt like I was talking to the Virgin Mary. Was it her long black skirt, her blue scarf, her pale skin and dark eyes, the high cheek bones and the long dark lashes? I also wondered at how someone who covered most of her body could be so beautiful. It was her smile, her animated face, and the way she pronounced words with such fortitude. It brought me to that part of the world where I’ve never been and I felt privileged to experience this Middle Eastern culture. I watched and listened with a quiet admiration, wondering what it must be like to grow up Muslim.
“We both come from Abrahamic religions,” she explained. “Abraham’s children bred Christianity and Judaism. Later on, Islam started. And so we have the same roots.” I never really thought I could find camaraderie with a Muslim, but we felt like friends, and her hijab didn’t seem to perplex me so much.
The hostess packed us food to go and we finally left around half past midnight. My friend climbed up into my sunroof as we sped off and told me to turn the music up loud. As the wind hit her face she laughed and captured the moment to share with her friends.
“My friends in Iran are so curious about America. They will wonder what has become of me when I share this,” she said with a smile.
I laughed at her silliness, and considered why this all felt so new. I thought about my earliest recollection of Islam, and yes it was during 9/11. I recall sitting in front of the TV every night as my parent’s watched the latest news in Baghdad. Islam was terrorism, brutal killings, roadside explosions, and suicide bombers. I’d never seen Muslims as kind and generous, nor had I considered the fact that we shared a religious background, not until now.