She strides in a fashionable pantsuit with a rhinestone-studded headdress in gossamer fabric. She talks with a strong dose of American accent, charmingly peppered with Singaporean colloquialisms as she explains the economic rights of women under Sharia Law.
She mesmerizes her students with politics and policy and her celebration of the utter professionalism of Muslim women that she embodies and epitomizes. She drives a Benz family sedan and shepherds her kids through weekend gyms and first visits to the dentist while administering graduate degree programs with utmost competence.
I’m Catholic. For the longest time before arriving at the threshold of adulthood, before I learned critical thinking through years of ponderous education in the West and before venturing out into the messy and exciting world of diversity and difference, I’ve assumed that everyone followed the Vatican Pope.
Until I met Suzaina over lunch of Coke Zero and a roastbeef sandwich. She demolished all my disbeliefs.
We’re all born and bred by rituals that we humans invent that anthropologists claim allow us to navigate this world with regularity, help us organize our brains perpetually bombarded by sensory data, prevent meltdown from data overload and provide our lives with meaning beyond mere biological survival.
Thus, in the rituals of my religion, we hear confessions from our designated parish priest, fast on Fridays during Lent, sing at dawn Masses nine days before Christmas and give alms to the poor. This gives us that added benefit of identity and belonging. During Sundays of exhilarated ritualistic singing and the occasional bombastic homily of an enthusiastic priest, we experience a sense of communitarianism. As we step out of the chapel door, we are renewed in this steadfastness, and tomorrow feels unthreatened.
Through rituals, we learn to demarcate, to establish boundaries of action and develop standards of appropriate behavior, to separate ourselves from others not quite like us.
Thus, when our family moved to the southern Philippines in the late 60s, we lived among the Muslim community, but separately. Their rituals were largely hidden from our view and we heard none of their prayers. Their mosques and our Catholic churches were kept safely apart.
We would see the women in floral sarongs in the marketplace selling cultured pearls, woven mats and blankets, and multi-colored jars. Beyond talk of transactional commerce, nothing more was said, only the swift traffic of paper money that sealed and ended the exchange.
Beyond ritualistic performances of daily life is that added element of what we human beings do - we construct what the sociologist Peter Berger calls a “cognitive map.” In that invisible zone up in our heads lie our ideas and beliefs about others. We learn it very early, almost at the moment when we become aware of a social world around us. Almost always we never examine it, nor do we lay it bare open to questioning.
This would not be so problematic if we have a shared cognitive map. When the other humans in our neighborhood espouse the same ideas and beliefs, and thus never raise the occasion to engage in any cross-checking. We live life daily, secure in the unquestioned notion of a stable galaxy of thought and emotion, convinced that our children and theirs too will travel across the same mental universe as we have.
Because then, we all know where we are, the ground on which we stand, the destination we believe we are all headed for.
Difficulties arise, however, when our maps don’t quite coincide, when the ideas and beliefs about each other and the views about the world differ, when ritualistic practices clash, or seem strange and bizarre, like the slaughter of animals or the hour of worship or even the very identification of who God is.
The sharp deviation in the content of those cognitive maps, long unexamined and held inviolate, begins to grate and annoy. Before long, there’s name-calling and stereotyping.
We start to imagine the worst among them. We see their habits and shake our heads in disapproval, we imagine their smell, we raise our eyebrows in how they comport themselves in public. Prejudices creep in, sprout and grow like the proverbial giant beanstalk that Jack must hack away before it overtakes the entire edifice of our humanity.
Beyond Suzaina’s faith and mine is the almost daily practice of our friendship over lunch, tea and Sunday strolls along the East Coast Parkway. We steal away at the staff lounge for a quiet afternoon so we can trade stresses and gossip like women around the water well. Between her Koran and my Christian Bible are our unexplored worlds that begin to unravel in between bites of afternoon snacks. There is the length and breadth of experimentation in both our reckless youth, a sudden delight in people we both knew, loved and emulated despite time, age and place.
And then the distances close.
There is nothing, not even the seemingly eternal truths of our faiths that will stand in between this sturdy friendship, the same faiths that have erupted elsewhere in lengthy wars, caused mindless deaths, wasted away generations and propagated hatred.
I once heard on National Public Radio (NPR) in Boston some ten years ago about two classmates at MIT, one a Palestinian the other an Israeli, who passionately promoted a weekend outing to catch a movie or hear a jazz concert together with their other Palestinian and Israeli classmates. And then top it off with a Starbucks café latte on Harvard Square.
It’s a simple journey, they said, that begins with something aromatic brewing over a stove and passed around from hand to hand. At the end of that chain, when stories have been traded about settlements and grandchildren playing in the olive orchards, something would have changed, a little nudging within that has moved forward, an idea chipped away in the cognitive map that is no longer frozen, a kernel of a new belief breaking open to blossom and grow.
The talk show ends with these two classmates insisting on the poignant principle of simplicity and ordinariness rather than complex peace talks and protocols of agreements.
When human beings do daily things together by walking the thousands of miles to close the distance of history and biography through conversation, the walls of suspicion, fear and prejudice break down, much like the resounding trumpets did at Jericho thousands of years ago.
For Suzaina’s next visit, a bottle of Coke Zero stands ready in my fridge.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at email@example.com)