by Aysha Griffin
Last week, in the midst of the well-publicized heatwave in Europe, I took myself to a municipal pool in Girona. I’d been avoiding it, although it’s a short walk from my apartment, imagining hoards of screaming kids. But it was a scorching hot day and I wanted to tan and cool off. Who’d have guessed I’d have an extraordinary encounter?
The area around the large pool is spacious, with free lounges. I took one from the stack and rolled it to an area away from families with children.Peaceably, I soaked in the sun. Finally I dove in to the pool that was remarkably unpopulated. Floating on my back, eyes closed, a big splash hit my face.
I rolled on my side and looked around. A small, skinny girl with a mouthful of silver braces smiled weakly at me, “Oh, perdone!” she exclaimed. “No problema,” I said, “Nos estamos divirtiendo aquí.” (We're just having fun here). Impulsively, I splashed her back. We laughed. I noticed her girlfriend looking shocked that an older woman would do that. I went back to my swim.
Climbing out of the pool, the two girls swam up and the oldest-looking one, a busty beauty with dark olive skin and thick black hair, said, “Hola!” I sat on the edge of the pool as they gathered around, two young teenage faces beaming up at me. “Are you English?” “No, American. And you?”
“We’re from Morocco!” exclaimed Braces Girl, in English. “You speak English?” “Yes, I’ve been studying it.” “You?” I asked the beauty. “I understand but don’t speak,” she replied haltingly. We spoke of music and movies in English as theirprimary way of learning the language. Then Beauty turned her dark almond-shaped eyes to gaze into mine and asked, “Do you believe in God?”
They awaited my answer. “I believe we are each a reflection of God… and you are goddesses!” They looked at each other in amazement, grinning as if I’d spoken a divine transmission.
“Do you believe in God?” I asked. Braces eagerly replied, “Oh yes, we’re Muslim.” To which the Beauty said, “Well, I have questions.” Given that they were wearing two-piece bathing suits at a public pool, I said, “You must come from more liberal families.” “Yes!” said Braces. Beauty asked, “What do you do?” When I said, “writer,” their curiosity increased. “I want to be a writer!” she declared.
Holding court poolside with these Muslim teens at my knees, I began to feel uncomfortable.“Would you like to join me over there?” I asked pointing to my lounge. Both Beauty and Bracesquickly exited the pool, as Beauty explained, “We’re best friends. I’m 13 and she’s 15 but I look older.” “Yes,” I agreed, “but we each mature at different rates. You are both beautiful.” They smiled at each other.
Sitting on my lounge, Beauty did most of the talking, in Spanish. “I want to start a blog about The Mysteries.” “Which mysteries?” I asked.“You know, the big questions about life, like why are we here? Who am I? Why is there so much violence in the world?” I was amazed. It had been years since I’d talked with teens, and never to Muslim teens. And here she was, only 13. I realized I too was thinking about this when I was 13. I’d found a kindred spirit.
After several minutes they asked if I had Instagram, if we could keep in touch. We exchanged contacts. Oumayma, the beauty, Safaethe sweetie with braces, and me, an American expat (old enough to be their granny) who can’t wait to learn more from these fabulous teens from a culture about which I know so little.
My introduction to any Muslim community was a few months before when Judith Fein, an American travel journalist friend, came to visitme in Spain. She has spent time in Tunisia, with great admiration for her Muslim friends, and even organized a series of conversations in Santa Fe, NM, called “Muslim Women Speak”. It wasattended by hundreds of non-Muslims who, like me, knew little or nothing about the religion, values and way of life.
On our first day at the weekly street market, Judiestopped women who were wearing a hijab (head scarf) and asked where they were from; something I’d never do. The women were at first reticent, until she spoke some Arabic phrases. They were from Morocco and spoke Arabic and Spanish; some also spoke French and Catalan. All lived in Spain for years.
When told about an Iftar – the evening meal during the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from sun up to sundown – open to all in a nearby neighborhood, Judie insisted we go. I was hesitant, thinking I’d feel like a gatecrasher, but I didn’t want to violate Judie’s mantra of “say yes,”so I agreed.
The civic plaza was filled with long tables andseating for hundreds, covered in white paper with breakable plates, glasses and silverware. Men worked under a white canopy preparing the food, while male servers and greeters welcomed us.Soon all of the seats were filled. Near us, friendly women engaged us in conversations. The food fantastic: Harira soup, dates stuffed with almond paste, spinach and cheese briouats (fried pastries), batbout (flatbread) and honey-laden sweets.
As the servers cleared the tables and people gathered on the sidelines, we met the husbands and children our tablemates. Judie introduced me to Malika, a “certified housekeeper” with a warm countenance and who has since become a trusted helper and friend.
As we left the plaza Judie asked me, “Did you like it?” How could I not have been enchanted by such kindness and incredible food? I’d heardrepeatedly, “Everyone is welcome,” and there was no proselytizing, which I’d expected. Judie was delighted, her mission accomplished. “Now that you know a little about the Muslim community and how hospitable they are, you can never not know it.” True, and I am grateful for this knowledge that has expanded my heart and my world.
Aysha Griffin is a travel writer and business/money coach based in Spain. She can be reached via AyshaGriffin.com