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This Story is by Shahina Begg about the challenges of family friendships …
Shahina is a co-founder of WISDOM, the group that produced “Friendship and Faith” as both a book—and this online magazine you are reading. Within her own family, Shahina is part of a remarkable multi-generational tradition of crossing boundaries in friendship. Born and raised in Hinduism, she converted to Islam as an adult. After reading Shahina’s story this week, you will meet Shahina’s daughter next week.
This is the story of how I first met one of my best friends in life—and it was not at all what I expected when I set out on this long journey.
I was born into a Brahmin-class family in Hinduism. Of course, the caste system is not as important as it once was, but our culture and our Hindu traditions were important to my family. We did not go to the temple frequently, but we always visited the temple for special occasions. To this day, when my siblings visit my mother near Goa, in western India, she takes them to the temple. Because I converted to Islam, I no longer go to the temple like they do—but I always make sure that my mother is able to visit a temple here in the U.S., when she comes to see us.
My own interfaith journey began in my childhood and has extended through my entire life. I grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai, which is a very cosmopolitan city; I had friends of different faiths as I was growing up. Dad was the assistant commissioner of police for Bombay and Mom was a homemaker. I came to America in 1973 and began working on a Master’s in Business Administration in January of 1974. That’s when I first met my husband, Victor, who was studying business as well. I was 20 and Victor was a little older. About a year and a half later, we got married. When I first came to America, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay here for good—but meeting Victor made the difference.
My dad was very open-minded when he heard the news. At first—as many Indian families do—he wanted to check on Victor’s family. He was very busy with his police work at the time, so at first he sent one of his officers over from Bombay to Hyderabad, where Victor’s family lived. However, this officer came back and said: “There’s some problem with the family address. I can’t find the place.”
Dad asked me about this, and I said, “There must be some mistake.”
Finally, my father himself went to Hyderabad. He met Victor’s family and he said to me, “Victor has a very good family. Now, I’m going to give my blessing for your marriage.” The one piece of advice Dad gave me was: “Don’t think of moving back and settling in India again. The society here still is not ready to let you live happily here. Make your life in America after this.”
So, even as we were preparing to get married, there was some anxiety back home about the different backgrounds of our families. When we got married here, we actually celebrated these differences and it became quite an exceptional gathering of people in 1975. We had our civil ceremony at the Oak Park City Hall, near where I lived at the time. This little city just north of Detroit still has a large Jewish population. As we arranged to get married, the mayor of Oak Park became quite intrigued with the whole idea. I was from a Hindu family and was getting married to a Muslim in a ceremony performed by this mayor, who was Jewish. The mayor was so fascinated by our story that he presented Dad with a key to the city of Oak Park.
At that time, Victor’s parents were not able to come for the marriage. And, soon, Victor and I moved to Canada for a few years to complete our studies and to work in the Toronto area. I had converted to Islam just before we got married, but at that time neither Victor nor I were as involved as we are today in Muslim traditions. This more casual approach to our religious traditions eventually led to some anxiety when I made my first trip back to India to see my family and to meet Victor’s parents. Because of our schedules, Victor couldn’t get away for as much time as I planned to spend—a couple of months.
This was a very important trip. After living in the Toronto area for about five years, Victor and I were about to immigrate back to America and to settle permanently in the U.S. In January of 1979, our first child, Sami, was born and, by early 1980, we wanted the family back in India to have a chance to see little Sami. As it turned out, Sami celebrated his first birthday in India.
As I set off on this long journey, I had no idea how the meeting with Victor’s parents would go. His mother’s name was Hasina Sultana, and his family was very well-known in their region of central India. Victor’s grandfather was chief justice of the Hyderabad court and his uncles also were justices. I had not studied much about Islam at that point. I did not cover my hair like I do now. I didn’t even know all of the Arabic prayers that are important in Islam. What would Victor’s parents think about me? I heard the old jokes about problems with “in-laws” and I began to worry. This new relationship was going to be even more complex in my case. I was coming from another faith and I knew that Victor’s mother was very religious.
My first stop in India was Bombay, where I stayed with my family for a couple of weeks. Then, my parents made the train trip with Sami and me to Hyderabad—a journey of about eight hours. We rode on the old-style trains, in which the compartment doors opened right onto the platform. As the miles passed, I did get a little bit scared about what would be awaiting us when we arrived. I was wearing loose Indian clothing, which was appropriate, but the type of scarf I was wearing did not completely cover my hair in the Muslim style.
When we finally arrived at the station, we had not even left the train when one of Victor’s younger sisters showed up at the door of our compartment. She had come to look me over. But as she reached out to hug me, I could feel the strength and the warmth in that hug. I could feel her love reaching out to me. Then, she said, “You look nice! And, there’s nothing to worry about. Mummie will love you. She is looking forward to seeing you.”
Still, I wondered what would happen. We stepped out of the train, and everything was so loud on the platform! Many Indians travel by train, and the crowd was rushing in all directions. Porters were shouting. I put Sami into his stroller to make it easier to walk through all the people. Where was Victor’s family in that big crowd? I could not see them at first. And how should I greet them?
In Hindu custom, we kneeled down and touched an elder’s feet out of respect, but this was not the case in Islam, I knew. In Islam, the only one you kneel to is Allah, and you show affection for other people with an embrace. Would I get this right?
Then, I saw through the crowd these people with flowers—a huge garland of white jasmine and roses. It was my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, another sister-in-law and her husband and kids. They all were waiting to greet me with these flowers, which they placed around my neck. This was such a warm welcome full of embraces.
Our entire time in Hyderabad was wonderful! I knew very little about Muslim prayers and my mother-in-law brought in a teacher each day, so I remember that time, as well, because it’s when I learned a great deal about the basics of prayer in Islam. Victor’s mother was a petite lady with nice features and a particular way of carrying herself, so that you could tell she came from a noble family. She liked to wear a sari and sometimes wore flowers in her hair.
Later, she came to live with us in our home in America for 12 years, before she passed away in 1994—and she became one of my best friends. It was so easy to love her. She did things like quietly praise me to other people, when I wasn’t around. I first heard about this from friends who would tell me what she had said. That surprised me, at first. But it taught me that all those old stereotypes about “in-laws” were totally false—at least in my family. I was blessed to have those years with her.
Here’s another example: At first, I wasn’t a good cook—at least not in the Hyderabadi style of cooking—but she was such a good teacher. I cannot recall her ever criticizing me. At first, she would cook things herself and show me what she was doing. As she got older, she would sit with me in the kitchen as I cooked. When the food was done, she only ever said good things about the dishes.
She had one specific spot in our family room—her chair, where she would settle in each day and begin her routine. She loved soap operas on television and she also loved to pray with beads, chanting the names of God with the beads. She also would turn on an audio player near her chair to help with the chanting. All three things were going on at the same time: soap operas, the beads and the audio for the chanting. She loved it. And I loved her.
Sometimes I think about that train ride across India as I wondered what she would be like. As I wondered: Would she accept me? As it turned out, our family was blessed. And, most importantly, so much of what she did in our friendship was quietly done. She always used to say to me: “Whatever good you do for others, never boast of it. If you do, your goodness will be washed away. Whatever good you can do in life for someone else—do it quietly and with the full intention of your heart.”
(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)