In the early days after my conversion, I received what seemed to me to be a very strange locution, one I do not understand to this day. Perhaps someone reading this will have some insight into the meaning of it, or, for that matter, the authenticity of it.
To understand any part of it, though, I will need to go back to more than a year before my conversion. At that point, I had spent nearly two years living and working in Jordan as the chief academic officer of an American university there. I had, in fact, no counterpart chief administrative officer, and so I took on that set of roles, too, until one arrived 18 months later. Although I enjoyed the job—especially the faculty, staff, and students, there were complications in carrying out my instructions from the home office because it was difficult to determine what constituted the “home office” on any particular occasion. It could be the local umbrella university to which we were attached; that president was my local supervisor. It could be the Middle East administrator; that person was my supervisor when it came to admin decisions. It could be the New York main campus vice president; that person was my supervisor when it came to academic decisions. Unfortunately, some decisions overlapped in nature, and all three supervisors rarely agreed. In fact, there was a good deal of jockeying for position among them, and I would often be left to commonsense in implementing whatever decision seemed to be best for the faculty, staff, and students. Always that decision met accreditation standards and so typically met with the approval of the academic vice president. Often, however, that decision was not particularly palatable to Dr. Abdullah, the Middle East administrator, who, by the way, held only an honorary doctorate and whose primary goal was to make money for the institute and for himself, regardless of whom might suffer. So, while he and I enjoyed an unusually cordial relationship, given the acerbic relationship he has had with my predecessors and successors, there were times that I needed to use all my wiles—female, younger, American, cross-cultural-chameleon, whatever ones I could muster—to placate him, hold him back from ripping into staff who were trying their best to do their job, and sweet-talk or logic him, as the case may have been, into retaining a deserved soul whom he intended to fire for a fleeting and unintended offense. More than holding him back, many times I had to push him forward—to pay people what they had earned or reimburse what they had spent. The tugs-of-war over these issues never ended, from the day arrived until the day I left.
This attitude of self-love and profit at the sake of any other person permeated everything he decided, did, and did not do eleven months of the year. During Ramadan, however, he splashed money onto the community, feeding the poor in large numbers (quite a manageable act for a multibillionaire as he was), and making a tremendously public show of charity in the name of the university. He himself spent Ramadan on omra (pilgrimage), in addition to making hajj before every Eid al-Adha.
Hajj is the at-least-once-in-a lifetime pilgrimage to Mekkah required of all Muslims who can afford it. Dr. Abdullah made hajj every year, seeming to understand this act in a way similar to which some young Catholic children understand confession: confession sets you free to sin again, enjoying a clean record against which to work until the next confession comes along to clean up your new dirtiness. In this way, it seemed, Dr. Abdullah believed that he could “buy” salvation by spending money once a year on the poor that he took from them during the rest of the year and making a pilgrimage to clean up his "dirt" before doing so.
When Eid al-Fitr (known as “little Eid” because it is only three days long) approached at the end of Ramadan, he would appear in Amman to celebrate in great joy. There were smiles all around, parties the likes that none of us working souls would likely see in any other context, and gifts for many. The same was true for Eid al-Adha (the week-long “big Eid”). My first Eid corresponded with my birthday, and Dr. Abdullah handed over the keys to a car, his birthday/Eid gift to me and arranged for a celebration with 75 leading university staff and townfolk in one of the most lavish restaurants in town.
That was the dual nature of Dr. Abdullah, and one never knew which side he would show. I fared well. I always had his smiles, and when he was about to mutilate one or another employee, I would be able to draw him away long enough on some trumped-up emergency to elicit his smiles again, not just for me but, more important, for those he intended to harm.
And so it went, more or less on an even keel, thanks to my ability to elicit his smiles that usually, although not always, prevented little worse from happening than the failure to pay people for their work. I constantly fought with him over that, including a $30K debt he owed me. I advanced a hefty portion of my salary one semester, based on Dr. Abdullah’s promise to reimburse me, to buy all the student textbooks because the bookstore would not order books until Dr. Abdullah had paid them the $75K debt he owed them. (He had sold the books and retained the money.) I should have been wise enough to know that he might do the same thing to me. He did. The rest of the year I scrimped and scraped to get by on the little that was left of my salary. (Fortunately, at that time in Jordan, before the Iraqi financial invasion, one could live on very little.)
When I left the university, Dr. Abdullah still owed me the $30K. He still does. At one point after I left, I wrote to him, suggesting that if he had any conscience at all, that if the purification of his soul that was supposed to take place during omra and hajj really did occur and he felt both guilty for not reimbursing the $30K yet awkward for any reason about returning the money directly to me, he could donate the amount, in his own name if he preferred, to the Middle East Institute of Special Education, which, as a new, unusual-for-Jordan-at-that-time, and struggling institute, could really use the money. Returning the money to me would indeed have been awkward for him since he was angry with me for considering taking a job in California. In a purely Arab way, he understood any discussion with a potential employer to be an indication of disloyalty. His negative reaction to the potential other-job situation propelled itself to heights higher than normal because I was a woman, in fact, the only woman he had ever trusted, and he had told this to anyone and everyone, saying that his level of trust in me surprised even him because, as everyone knows, women really are not capable of competing successfully with men, a rampant belief in the Middle East.
And so, one evening, a year later, with all of this in the background, I found myself walking around Old Mission, as I did so frequently in the early days after my conversion and thinking about Dr. Abdullah for no particular reason other than that he came to mind. He had been a significant figure in my life in the most recent two-year period, so, not surprisingly, I thought about him on more than one occasion. I prayed for him, as well. After all, it seemed to me that he needed prayer in order to move from the rules and regulations of religion and an impersonal God to a love-based spirituality and an immanent God. I wanted him to be able to feel the kinds of love, acceptance, and forgiveness I had felt and to be able to pass them along as I had been trying to let them flow through me and splash out onto others. How different his life could be!
That particular evening was probably the third or fourth occasion that I had prayed for Dr. Abdullah. I was getting ready to wax eloquent about the matter when I was startled by that Voice that always catches me by surprise and often completely confuses me. This time the confusion has outlasted and outranked other confusions, and to this day I do not know how to interpret what I was told. “Do not pray for him,” I heard.
This made no sense to me, and I am still unsure which “side” the instruction came from. I felt like I could not continue to pray for someone for whom I had been commanded not to pray. But was it God’s voice? Even while I accept that it is okay if God chooses not to provide greater clarity to me, I have a difficult-to-repress, almost seething, desire to determine authenticity. I just don’t always know for sure what is real and what is not. In this case, as in similar cases where I just do not know, I balanced benefit against harm, good against evil, and scripture against non-scripture and could not find a good reason not to follow these instructions. So, I ceased that particular prayer though I did not and do not understand why I should.
I told the story to a friend who is a Protestant minister. She told me not to worry about authenticity and simply stop praying for him. She would do that for me. I hope that is okay. I assume if it is not, she will find out in time.
Our Lady of Fatima [Flickr]
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