dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Oman Journal {Day 1}

Riyadh International Airport

 

In January, I spent two weeks in Oman studying Christian-Muslim relations through a graduate program partnership between Hartford Seminary and Al Amana Centre. This is a narrative dispatch. You'll find other dispatches here.

Oman Journal: Inside Understanding

{Day 1} Where we arrive

 

On the journey-by-air from Frankfurt to Muscat, I landed in Riyadh on New Year’s Eve. As the plane touched down, a beautiful, serene hint of dusk appeared in the partial vision of the plane’s windows. It was—indeed—the last evening of the year, according to the Western calendar. And surely it was the last evening this American evangelical could say: I have never known the Arab world.

For me, this Arabian moment marked a first trip to the Peninsula—into the cradle of Islam. Looking out through the plane’s windows, I was lost in one of those unconscious reveries. Soon enough a loud voice overhead snapped me back to reality, Saudi Arabia-style: [Paraphrase] If you have any pornographic materials, turn them in, and if you have any alcohol, turn that in as well. I did not have either contraband item on my person, but this was Lufthansa Airlines and the announcement came in a German-accented English, so, somehow, it sounded serious and seriously funny. Ah yes, the long Saudi arm called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was reaching out "to stop the sinning," as British historian Robert Lacey has characterized it in Inside the Kingdom (2009).

As we departed Riyadh for Muscat, a young man named Ali and I sat beside the exit doors. Ali hails from Salalah, Oman, and teaches Arabic as an adjunct professor at a small college in Iowa. He was on his way home for the semester break, and he was brimming. Eventually the plane took us over Bahrain and near the Strait of Hormuz. Given Iran’s blustery threat to block the strait, pondering U.S.-Iran relations became a foregone conclusion high above land and water. Meanwhile, Muscat was nearing, and I was brimming.

How, exactly, did I arrive here?

My interfaith encounters and relationships with Muslims formally began in 2007, when, as a pastor in a university church in Clemson, S.C., I initiated a meeting with a group of Muslim leaders at the mosque of the Islamic Society of Clemson. Our initial conversation—over Domino’s Pizza—would evolve into a weekly Qur’an study at the mosque. There, on Old Stone Church Road in the relatively deep South, I cut my teeth on Christian-Muslim dialogue and interfaith friendship. Now, I was landing in the so-called Middle East—further inside a continually hoped-for understanding.

nfe

The Song of Machpelah is an interfaith writing project borne out of 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.