Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is it Possible to be Friends With Those of a Different Culture or Religion?

I remember a time, perhaps 3-4 years into my Tunisia sojourn, when I wondered if it was a realistic goal to have deep or close friendship with people of a different culture and religion (specifically, at the time, for me, with Tunisian Muslims). I was doing well in Arabic, able to communicate, and spending a lot of time with Tunisian "friends." But then we kept running into surprises, where people let us down in some way or another, e.g., where ulterior motives came to the surface ("can you get me a visa to America?") or taking advantage of us, etc. I realized that expectations are very different in different cultural settings, and also, that in the case of a different religion, there is a different set of allegiances. So what can you count on, what depth of trust can there be?

My perspective changed over the next few years, as I came to the point of having Tunisian friends that I felt I knew fairly deeply and could count on.

But this week, here at the Building Hope Conference at the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale, as we have been focusing on building relationships - and we have talked about friendships - between Christians, Jews and Muslims, I have been thinking about this again.

I had a rather surprising "incident" the other day, on the second or third day here. On a break, I was talking with a Muslim from the Middle East, but who has lived for a number of years in the U.S. We were chatting, and I asked if he is married? if he has kids? how many? (we were interacting - I was sharing about myself, too) do his kids go to public school in the U.S., or a private Islamic school?

And then the surprise - he said, "you're asking a lot of questions." I said I was sorry, didn't mean to, was just chatting. He said, "well, you ask about kids, but then whether they're in an Islamic private school? - that's personal."

This interaction took me aback. We could attribute it to an intercultural faux pas (e.g., generalize that middle easterners are more slow to share personal information, which I know), but there are other factors involved:

1. I know Middle Eastern culture, interact with Middle Eastern Muslims all the time, and feel that I have a sense of how the interaction is going. I often get into discussion, in Jordan where I live, with people I meet even for the first time, about our families.

2. I didn't think of the topic as particularly sensitive. I'm interested in the education question because of my interest in the immigrant experience, as well as that of how religious people in general relate to the question of public vs. private religious schools. It seemed to me a "normal" topic.

3. We're here at a conference whose explicit purpose is building relationship, and we have been encouraged, beyond that, to seek friendship. We had been together for a couple of days, and I had already had this kind of interaction with several participants, with no sign of getting "too personal, too quickly."

So what to conclude from this? It may be something personal to this individual. Perhaps as a Muslim in post-9/11 America, he has had too many non-Muslims asking too many personal questions, and is suspicious (I don't blame him). Or perhaps he is a private person. Or there may be some other explanation all together.

Whatever the explanation, I find myself thinking again about the nature of friendship, and what I can expect, or hope for, in building relationship with those of a different culture and/or a different religion. 

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