“Barbara--that woman across the aisle from you--she’s crazy,” said Arthur. We were on a plane headed to Paris. The flight would continue on to Tel Aviv and we were surrounded by Orthodox Jews and a church group from the mid-west. I really didn’t want to hear about a crazy person. I looked. She seemed perfectly ordinary—a fresh faced woman in her thirties, attractive in an open, friendly, way.
“Why do you say that?”
“She’s reading the Bible.”
“Arthur, that doesn’t make her crazy.”
“She’s wearing a jumpsuit.”
Still no red flags for me, but I started paying attention.
\When the stewards came around to offer us lunch the woman next to our neighbor requested a Kosher meal.
Our neighbor said, “You’re ordering Kosher? May I ask, exactly what does that mean?”
The Orthodox woman said, “We observe certain ways of preparing food, especially meat, and we keep meat and dairy separate.”
“Well, that’s just fascinating. How do you know all that?”
“It’s written in our Holy Book.”
“I see. Now, is that the Quran?”
I thought OY, and waited for at least a verbal bomb but the Orthodox woman simply said, “No, the Quran is the holy book of Islam. Ours is called the Torah.”
“Well, that’s just fascinating,” said our neighbor and we all settled down to enjoy our lunch.
I’ve told this story for years in a snarky, don’t I know better manner. I’m sorry for that.
The lady in the jumpsuit asked, in a polite and friendly way, and the other woman answered in the same manner. How many times have I turned away, not asking and keeping my ignorance to myself. There were endless times when If I had only asked, my life would've been infinitely simpler and more interesting.
What did I know about Islam? Muhammed Ali, Elijah Muhammed—it seemed kind of mysterious and forbidding and when Cat Stevens declared himself a Muslim I felt he’d gone over to the dark side. I lived in ignorance for many years.
I dropped out of college and went to art school but it always bothered me that I hadn’t finished my degree. I took courses over the years and in 1998 I found out about Empire State College, part of the SUNY system, where adults can get credit towards a bachelor’s degree for life experience. The Art Student’s League had kept track of the time I studied there and I only had to take one course for credit.
That course was Indian and Islamic Art. As in any culture, Islamic art is entwined with the religion so first we learned the five pillars of Islam.
That class made a big difference in my life. This was a whole new world. I learned that in the Islamic tradition a garden is an earthly depiction of Heaven. The intricate patterns, brilliant colors and slightly off kilterperspectives really spoke to me, awakening my creative yearnings and inspiring a whole new series of drawings.
My faith and my art were intertwining again.