In September 2006, a young man from Indonesia joined our family. He was a recipient of the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) scholarship funded by the U.S. government in an effort to improve understanding and strengthen relations between citizens of the U.S. and the Muslim world. The scholarship was created in response to September 11th.
Muhammad Imran, or “Imo”, was the first Muslim we ever hosted. It was a last minute decision. We were already hosting a boy from South Korea for a second year. We had little time to prepare for Imo’s arrival or teach ourselves about his culture. He was already in the Bennington area and almost as soon as we agreed to host him, he came through our doors.
Imo’s first day with us was also our first lesson on “wudu”. Imo is a devout Muslim and prayed five times each day. He quietly used our downstairs bathroom before prayers and disappeared to his bedroom. I happened to be the next one to use the bathroom. When I went inside, I was astonished by the volume of water that had been splashed around the small room. Had a swan just washed itself in our bathtub??? I couldn’t imagine how water droplets had found their way onto the walls, the floor, the countertops, the toilet and every other surface in the bathroom.
Imo came back downstairs shortly after my discovery in the bathroom. I asked him to come with me and we went in the bathroom. I pointed to the water all around the room and asked him if he knew what it was from.
He said, “Wudu.”
“Yes, wudu. Ablutions. It’s our cleansing ritual before we pray.”
I was still confused. “But what is it? Why is it all over the walls?”
Imo said, “It’s holy water.”
“Holy water?!! Where did you get holy water?”
He looked at me while stating what he thought was obvious and said, “From your sink.”
I was more shocked. “We have holy water???!!!”
Imo taught me that all water is considered holy in the eyes of God. Wow! I don’t know if I was more surprised that we had holy water in our bathroom or that it was splashed all over my walls. I was still confused, but felt the topic was sensitive and I wanted to handle it sensitively.
At this time, there were six to eight of us using one bathroom on most days. We already had a challenge controlling the moisture level in the bathroom and fought to prevent mold and mildew from taking over the tiny space. I certainly didn’t want to interfere with Imo’s desire to practice his faith – but something was going to have to change. Ten months was a long time. I gave him a towel and told him he had to clean up all the water. I told him that our bathroom was not designed to handle water on the walls, floor and ceiling and that he would need to dry up any splashed water every time he performed wudu. He agreed. But I was still concerned that our bathroom with its plaster walls and ceiling could not withstand daily soakings.
I began my research in an attempt to understand and accommodate Imo’s needs. I learned that ablution (or wudu) is a form of ritual purification that has a history in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The purpose of Imo’s ablutions were in preparation for formal prayers. “For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.” ~Holy Qur’an 2:222
When performing ablutions, it is necessary to wash the hands, mouth, nostrils, face, arms, head, ears and feet, in a specific order and fashion. I could understand why this was a challenge for Imo in our little bathroom sink. I was surprised to learn that Imo was trying to wash his feet in our sink and wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with that. I contacted Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat who was contracted by the U.S. State Department to be a support person for the YES-Muslim students and their host families. He’s an Islamic scholar originally from Syria. I explained our predicament and asked for his advice. He told me this was a common problem.
Most of the YES students come from countries that are predominantly Muslim – cultures with many mosques, halal food, no school on Fridays (the Islamic holy day) and other things that help to cater to the students’ religious requirements. Their homes are better-equipped for performing wudu. Many mosques have special faucets and troughs that make this ritual cleansing easy and comfortable. Imam Bashar sent me some information to help Imo adapt his practice to our environment. He suggested that Imo use the bathtub instead of the sink. He explained that it was not necessary to use a lot of water – that ablutions could be done properly with a small amount of water. This experience provided great lessons for all of us. And Imo adapted easily.
There were many more lessons to follow. As well as more misunderstandings and efforts to educate each other. One afternoon I remember calling Imo from the bottom of the stairs several times and he would not answer me. I was annoyed because I knew he could hear me. I went to his room and saw that he was praying. Afterward, Imo explained that he can’t allow his prayers to be interrupted. Subsequently, I understood if he didn’t answer me it meant that he was praying. We learned about fasting and the holy month of Ramadan. We taught Imo about Halloween, he taught us Indonesian music. We ate Gado-gado and Coto Makassar. Imo loved my cooking and encouraged me to open a restaurant. I thought it was sweet flattery, but he insists to this day that it was 100% sincere. He also loved cereal and pop-tarts, so it’s hard to know.
Before Imo left, he painted some beautiful Arabic calligraphy on the wall of our kitchen. It’s a greeting for all our visitors and a constant reminder of Imo’s time in our family. George asked him to write “Peace and Happiness”. He wrote the message below which reads, “As-salaam wa rahma” and translates to “Peace and Mercy”.