Fright Night Redux

The following story appeared as an Op-Ed feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 3, 2011.


"They can scare us, and they can comfort us." {Jonathan Safran Foer, on words}



In September 2007 our Honda Odyssey idled in the gravel parking lot of a mosque in Clemson, South Carolina. As it turned out, the unadorned aluminum structure sat ironically and lonely on Old Stone Church Road in the Deep South. Suddenly my then two-year-old daughter voiced the words that apparently reverberate in America from time to time: “Mosque...scary.”

A man named Abdul had invited our family to join the Muslim community in the Clemson area for a veritable potluck dinner. Southern fried hospitality meets hijabs, thawbs and take-your-shoes-off. Only God knew what the scene would actually be like.

I was already downloading the church fellowship halls of my youth: utilitarian fold-out tables; rickety metal chairs; desperate parents imploring their children to eat something nutritious before stuffing down the sugar, running around mad and spinning into orbit within sacred space like some Pentecostal or Sufi.

Abdul did say there would be Algerians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Turks, Pakistanis and Indians. So the casserole selections were certain to be noticeably, if not deliciously, different from those famed potlucks I treasured.

Earlier that year, in March, after a bit of righteous persistence, I had initiated an informal Christian-Muslim dialogue at the same mosque with five Muslim men. In no particular order: the middle-aged Algerian chemical engineer with the vintage Osama-like beard; the Ghanaian Ph.D. student with the warm, infectious smile; two young graduate students, one Turkish, one Moroccan, the Moroccan wearing a black jacket a la Grease; and an African-American from North Carolina, a Baptist who converted to Islam in his late teens. My first table experience with Muslims, I will not too soon forget how veggie pizzas from Domino’s efficiently calmed this Christian minister’s shaky nerves.

Wanting in some way to share these new friendships with my family and hoping to model, albeit feebly, how to begin to move beyond – or through – barriers, I was now blessed by the seeds of a possible mutiny right there in the mosque parking lot. Naturally, I really should’ve known better; two-year-olds are intuitively skilled in the fine arts of how to throw a passionate but sustained rebellion. Take note, Arab Spring.

Intense, and with a burgeoning dramatic sensibility, my daughter vocalized the words again for all the minivan to hear – this time, drawing out the mosque scaaarrry for full theatrical affect and then smiling almost perversely. Honestly, what was going on?

In a parental flash-forward I saw our girl wandering in the mosque, eyes wide and lips pursed, uttering those two words to any Muslim man or woman in unfortunate earshot. I pictured the mosque leadership scurrying about in an absolute quandary. Like those Israeli guards upon seeing a red balloon, with Yasser Arafat’s face on it, flying past a West Bank checkpoint in Elia Suleiman’s fine film Divine Intervention.

Seemingly coming from out of nowhere and packaged together so succinctly, her words had arrived – and three years before the Park 51 hubbub near Ground Zero in New York City and the arson attack at an Islamic center in Tennessee. Like a preternatural journalist, our cute little thing was on the scene, reporting live from the American religious front, mouthing prescient syllables ahead of her time. In fact, her proclamation foreshadowed Rep. Peter King’s congressional hearings on Islamic radicalization in American mosques by approximately four years.

Meanwhile, my wife and I simply looked at each other, aghast. Is this really happening? We had taken special religious and cultural care to brief our children on the experience, and this is the thanks we get? I remember feeling caught in the vortex of a genuinely surreal moment, overwhelmed by a thick and uniquely American irony – democratic ideals and religious pluralism, mocking us. And in a foreign-made minivan, for God’s sake.

“Kate, sweetheart, no, no, no, it’s not scary. Why are you saying that?”

“Mask. Scaaarrry…”

You have got to be kidding me. Oh my goodness. Wow. Whew. What an unknowingly clever two-year-old, a real unsuspecting jokester.

For my wife and me, one word had sent relief washing over us. “Dear,” we said, “it’s a mosque, not a mask.”

Talk about being lost in transliteration. Why must language always play the cruelest games?

But leave it to the Halloween season – in the hands of an innocent child – to bring us some much needed light. There was our sweet daughter, giggling, babbling in our faces about the darker things that haunt those of us who are the less innocent children. No matter our adult view of the world, no matter our robust accumulation of knowledge, no matter our unparalleled access to this knowledge, no matter our spiritual development, willful prejudice, suspicious ignorance and irrational fear often have a knack for keeping us, well, exactly where we are – sitting in the parking lot, like a two-year-old.

In Christian-Muslim relations it goes without saying: not all mosque doors are created equal. We should continue to be, if anything, realists about barriers. Still, notwithstanding the predictable ones, it is the unforeseen ones – internal and far more frightening – that can make getting through each other’s doors a small act with a high degree of difficulty.

This is, of course, only the beginning of what our family learned on a very eventful Saturday night that did not include a college football game in dear old Clemson. Stepping inside that mosque and moving beyond the masks and the words we’ve misunderstood had a remarkable effect: it started pushing away a lot of the so-called scariness.


The Song of Machpelah is an interfaith writing project borne out of my Christian-Muslim exchanges, experiences and ongoing study. At Machpelah, God willing, in small, medium or large ways a living song will arise. And it is a composition being put together by both Christians and Muslims. Peace by piece. For more on the project, go here.


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The Song of Machpelah