Navigating Sin and Confession in the Middle East
One of the areas in the world I find endlessly fascinating is the Middle East. The sights, sounds, smells, cultures, religions and — yes — even languages. Maybe it’s interesting because it’s so different from my own upbringing as a conservative white Mormon male raised in Utah. Or maybe it’s because I’m a glutton for punishment.
I’ve spent several years in various parts of the Middle East — mostly engaged in studying the Arabic language. While that involved thousands of hours of coursework at various universities across Israel and Egypt, it also involved thousands of hours conversing with Arabs in hopes of honing my language skills.
While each conversation in Arabic was unique in itself, it seemed that two topics *always* entered into the conversation: religion and politics. Political discussions usually included a touch of US foreign policy criticism sprinkled with re-litigating any number of wars between Israel and her neighbors. Such discussions were exhausting, primarily because everything was always somebody else’s fault. But religious discussions often took a turn toward the unexpected.
The initial religious discussions usually started with an Arab man telling me of his piety and Islam’s important role in the world’s history. And while I had studied the Qur’an and was well versed in the five pillars of Islam, most religious conversations would cover at least several of them. Many assumed that the reason I was speaking Arabic was that I had converted to Islam. Strike one, I would tell them — realizing full well they would not be familiar with this reference to baseball. Well then it must be I was with the CIA, they posited. Strike two. Few could understand why I was simply interested in learning a foreign language as a way of better appreciating a culture very different from my own. God forbid an American learn a little more about the Middle East.
Once the friendly pleasantries had come and gone, I began to notice a very peculiar trend in my conversations with Arab males. The longer we spoke in Arabic, the more likely our conversation would evolve into a full-blown confessional. What? That’s right, we could be talking about some abstract UN resolution, and then, bam! Out of nowhere come the skeletons from the closet!
Having grown up Mormon, our religion doesn’t have formal confessions, though our clergy (called a Bishop) would often listen and advise our members on navigating a painful or complicated challenge. I sensed the difficulty of the role of confidant.
The first few times these confessions happened in the Middle East, I found it endearing and entertaining as it seemed like a self-deprecating way of expressing humility. Mohammed feels attracted to girls before marriage. Hani sneaks an occasional beer after a long week. Nothing of real note and certainly nothing warranting eternal damnation. I try to live and let live because I know I am far from perfect myself.
And then things would get weird. Really, really weird. Uncomfortably weird. So weird that I literally wanted to run away and forget that we were having the conversation.
First there was Hamid at Sharm al-Sheykh in Egypt. He was my divermaster during one of my frequent scuba diving trips to explore the beautiful reefs of Raas Mohammed, one of the most pristine marine environments in the world. Hamid — as it turns out — did quite a bit of exploring of his own beyond the coral reefs as he loved to flirt with his scuba clients leading to a number of sordid affairs with both married and unmarried female clients. Why would I know this? Why should I know this?
One day, after our third and final dive, I was on the bow of the boat getting some sun and listening to some Van Halen on my headphones. Suddenly, Hamid was beside me sipping a beer, recounting the incredible day we’d had and the aquatic life we’d witnessed. None of the other foreign scuba clients spoke any Arabic, so Hamid felt at liberty to get a few things off his chest. And apparently, I was the least threatening khawaga (“foreigner” in Arabic) he could find.
“You know I am good Muslim, yes” he asked. “Allah biya’rif” (God Knows), I replied hoping that would assuage any guilt and end the conversation. It’s my way of patting him on the back and telling him not to worry. I’m neither interested nor prepared to take a confession from a complete stranger on the bow of a scuba boat somewhere in the Red Sea. But it’s too late.
“It’s just that I when I see a beautiful woman, I want to sleep with the beautiful woman. And so I do. Every day — sometimes I cannot keep up. Islam says no good but I cannot help myself. Maybe I am a very bad Muslim,” Hamid continued. Suddenly, it dawns on me that Hamid is looking for absolution having calculated that it might come fairly quickly from somebody he perceived to not be religious at all.
At first I figured he was in his twenties just having a good time, but things took a turn when he divulged that he was married with several children. Now I really feel awkward. “Hamid,” I say. “Maybe it’s time you stop sleeping with all these women and sleeping with the woman you’re married to,” I suggest. “But that is very hard,” he counters, “as she lives in Cairo (300 miles away). I suggest maybe he give up scuba diving. He doesn’t like that. I suggest maybe reading some books each night rather than having sex with his diving client. “No good,” he protests. “Don’t like to read.” It’s abundantly clear that Hamid isn’t looking to change; he’s looking for validation or absolution. I’m not qualified or willing to give either. So I just listen as he elaborates further on his tale of woe.
“This probably isn’t nearly as bad as you do in America, right?” he says. “Well, I’m a Mormon and we’re not allowed to even have pre-marital sex so I can’t really relate to anything that you’re saying, but you seem like a nice fellow. Maybe stop sleeping around and spend some time with your family,” I advise. Silence. He realizes this confessional was not going the way he had planned.
Once his preconception about my religiosity (or lack thereof) had been obliterated, that was the end of the confessional. Thank God. Once the boat docked, Hamid and I parted ways — me to my room and book (I was alone), and Hamid to…wherever.
A few years later, there was Moustafa the cab driver. By this time, I am married, and my wife and I decide to take an extended cab ride in Morocco from Tangiers to Fez. I negotiate the fare and away we went. Moustafa was a chatty fellow who becomes even more so once he notices I can converse in Arabic. We go through the obligatory questions about whether I converted to Islam or work for the CIA. But this will be a 4-hour cab ride, so Moustafa and I are about to get to know each other a little better. I try to keep the conversation on topics such as work and family, but to no avail. Moustafa has some things to say about politics, then religion, then his personal take on religion. I see it coming from a mile away: today will be Moustafa’s confessional. The only thing that isn’t certain is what sin he wants to get off his chest. And with 4 hours to go, we might be able to cover every last sin he’s ever committed.
I try to read my Lonely Planet while my wife naps beside me, but it’s no use. Moustafa’s vice appears to be betting on horse racing. Turns out he has a bookie and keeps his betting receipts in the glove box of his cab so his wife will never know. Yes, he is tempted by other women. Yes, he occasionally sleeps around, but really gambling is the thing that troubles him most. So he confides in me, hoping I will be the balm to heal his troubled soul.
“You ever bet on horses?” he inquires. “Never once,” I respond, not giving him an out. Truthfully, I’ve never bet on horses — I prefer basketball, but I leave that detail out so he can squirm a little more. “Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but I love the horses. It makes my life so happy and exciting, but Allah is very mad when I do this,” he confides. I tell him that if gambling is that important in his life, he’s probably taken it too far. “Help me,” he pleads. I ask him to give me all the receipts in his glove box so I can rip them up. He pauses. “No way, I cannot give these to you,” he protests. “Some of those are winners!” These confessionals are becoming exhausting. I am reminded how difficult it must be to serve as a Mormon Bishop. The answers to many of questions are so painfully obvious yet the confessor doesn’t want to hear. Also, when I’m interrupted from reading, I can be a grumpy asshole. I was blunt with Moustafa in assessing his situation: no more gambling; give me your receipts. Now. And stop sleeping around and spend some time with your damn family.
These are but two examples of scores of times where somehow my speaking Arabic and being an American put me in the position of being a confidant to those who had strayed from the path of Allah. I mostly listened, occasionally gave advice, and was consistently ignored. Ma’elesh (“oh well” in Arabic). Through these experiences, I learned that our preconceptions of one another can often be completely wrong. And much like my own conservative Mormon upbringing, some topics are taboo and difficult to discuss within a culture. Having a knowledge of Arabic while being an outsider to the culture made me an acceptable confidant target for Arab men to anonymously divulge transgressions. And while I probably didn’t make the world a better place, I expanded my vocabulary and learned that — even in one of the most religious regions of the world — people’s desires and actions really aren’t that different after all.