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4/19/2009

Disciples of the Prophet Mohammad: Part One – Abraham and Mohammad

I’m a marginal Jew at best. For the first time this year, I missed attending services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which puts me into a caste of Jews I’ve known and feared for quite some time: the seculars. I’m just another pork-eating-shellfish-shucking-cheeseburger-grilling “Jew.” But before I reached this state of abject atheism, I was an avid scholar, and even spent a year teaching religious school to sixth graders. One of my favorite figures that I remember well from my brief half decade of Jewish scholarship was Abraham. He wakes up hearing the voice of God, telling him to go to Canaan from Ur. And he does. God tells him a ridiculous claim that his elderly wife Sarah will give birth to Isaac. She does. And in one of the most difficult portions of scripture to explain, Abraham even goes so far as to offer his son as a sacrifice to the Lord. He doesn’t. It was all a test, an examination of the purity of his faith.

I’m not entirely sure if I’ll reclaim my faith in God again like I used to have. I probably will never regularly attend Sabbath services, or wear kippah, or reclaim my Hebrew language faculty. But I’ve gained a lot in my life since then. My philosophy now seems to be based around faith in my friends, and the transformative influence they have on my life. This essay is about many things, but mostly, it is about the religious experience I feel I have when I’m in the presence of Mohammad Haidar.

The prophet Mohammad is forbidden to be depicted in a painting. Brief research indicates that this is a new phenomenon. I’ve seen plenty of murals of the prophet from antiquity, but there was also that big stink when the Dutch drew those political cartoons. Ignoring the politicization of Islam, this rule speaks to the inability of any artist to adequately describe what Mohammad is. The metaphor works perfectly for my Mohammad.

The prophet Mohammad is Middle-eastern. Mohammad Haidar is decidedly Midwestern: the collective averaging of the common characteristics of life. He is of average height, with large hands and arms that frame an enormous barrel chest. He watches a lot of television; his dorm room is adjacent to the house lounge with the widescreen TV. Favorite television program: America’s Funniest Home Videos. Favorite movie: Rocky. Favorite sports team: The Steelers. He has the most popular name in the world. Mohammad is this great big median of the world. A Muslim farmhand-looking tough guy who likes big guns, big tits, and laughs vigorously at the sight of an unsuspecting victim being nailed in the balls on candid camera. Everyone calls him Big Mo. Needless to say, my cosmopolitan private university sensibilities (Doctor Who, Lost in Translation, the Chicago Cubs, respectively) have been complicated in the two years I’ve known him.

When you’re talking to Mohammad, you’re speaking to certainty itself. He does not doubt himself. If he asks you a question, I assure you it is either rhetorical or it is about physics.

I think everyone who lives in my residence hall has a personal favorite example of a Mohammad Question. We’re watching a Steelers game, and there’s a black man in uniform called Will Witherspoon. Mohammad tells me there are few black men with the last name Witherspoon, and the most popular Witherspoon is Reese, a white woman. His question is simply if it was likely Resse’s ancestors once owned Will’s ancestors. The physics questions tend to also fall into the same category. He’s actually looking for an answer this time, but he’ll furiously explain why his modeling is superior before he yields.

I’ve seen Big Mo stumped exactly once. He once asked me “who is the tall black guy on the Celtics?”

The NBA’s Celtics.

The league basically composed of tall black guys. The answer was Kevin Garnett, but come on.

What the hell is Mo doing at the University of Chicago? That seems to be a two-part answer as far as I can tell. First of all, he’s brilliant. The reason he is so strong willed about physics, or chemistry, or anything else he is studying, is because he actually knows what he’s talking about. He once called up a lab to ask “when the fuck they were going to give him his scholarship.” While he certainly isn’t the arugula-munching Proust-reading picture of the U of C, he’s got a first class mind, no doubt.

The second part of the answer reveals the tragic flaw of the deity figure. He’s short. Way too short to play Division I athletics. Mohammad is convinced that is he was above or around six feet tall, he’d be playing in the Big 10. I have no doubt that in this alternate universe where Mo is both gigantic and towering, he’d be an NFL superstar. But he’s realistic about his options, and understands what can and cannot be. Big Mo is wise, and was an excellent Division III NCAA player.

The tense in that last sentence is important. He’s not on the varsity squad any more. He takes the time he once spent dead lifting, squatting, and pressing in the gym and channels it into another Mohammad appropriate cliché. Big Mo is the king of IM sports. When he’s on the field, there’s an ugly elegance to his movements, like a circus elephant balancing on a ball. He handles the soccer ball with precision, throws a Frisbee with surprising finesse, and can heave a dodge ball like a hard slider. When he’s on the sidelines, I can only think to describe him as the most dedicated coach I know.

“Stay on your man!”
“Talk, guys, c’mon, TALK!”
“Godammit, Graham, keep your head in the fucking game, son!”

He is this magnificent voice from the clouds, or on high, telling me what I need to do or where I need to go, and I obey his word. I am Abraham, waking up to discover I am inheriting the promise of a new world. A promise that has betrayed the familiarity of my identity. This new world Mohammad promises is a frightening one. It is one I am not used to, and have only comfortably lived in for the last six months, at most. I am Abraham, leaving home to follow the voice of some divinity, and I am scared. These scenes from my life in this time play like sketchy reruns of biblical stories played over some reality I was once certain of.

Mohammad comes into my room and tells me to go to play dodge ball. Specifically, he tells me to “use my fucking linguistic skills or whatever” to persuade others to follow me. Scott Silberman, the parent figure who always tried to get my friends and I to go outside and play sports instead of video games, hosts a touch football game, the “Turkey Bowl” every thanksgiving break. This November past is no exception. Following Mohammad, my skills have improved, and I go on to catch every pass thrown in my direction, including three for touchdowns. Scott later tells my mother that he is impressed “at what an athlete I’ve become.” This seems like a ridiculous thing to say. To this point, Abraham has not asked me to sacrifice anything to him more than a few hours of my time each week. I have left Ur, and I have not missed home.

1 comments:

irshah said...

I never realized that you were such a talented story teller. Very refreshing stylistically. I also want to meet Mohammad, he sounds like a fascinating man.