Talk To Me

by Martha Nelson

Today I met a young man from Pakistan, travelling on the train from London to his first year at university in Glasgow. It would have been so easy not to talk to him, but surprisingly, he initiated the conversation by asking why I was travelling that day. In fact, I was enroute to Edinburgh for business, and since I knew Glasgow quite well I tried to give him some picture of what life might be like there.

It turned out that my travelling companion had only arrived in London the day before – and had left his family and all he knew to obtain a  Master’s degree. Although his English was excellent, he said he wanted to improve it by studying here – and so I gave him some suggestions I’d learned from studying languages myself. He was clearly eager to mix with English speakers as much as possible and not miss any opportunity.

“No Place for Racism”

As we shared about our families, I was also touched to hear that his mother had died only a year ago, and he’d left a father and two siblings back home. He wouldn’t know a soul once he got to the university. As I described the warm welcome I had always received (as an American) from my Scottish customers – many now friends – I hoped the same would be true for him. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure. I just hoped so. I remembered the billboards I’d seen in Scotland saying “No Place for Racism.”  Why were they necessary?

Eventually I suggested that we get some tea from the café bar in the next carriage – at which point he explained that he was observing Ramadan  - the Islamic holy festival when Muslims fast from both food and drink every day (until the evening) for a month.  I had heard a little of this religious observance and asked him more questions about it, and he explained about the prayers he prayed five times a day, plus a special prayer in the evening during this period. I was touched by the openness and humility with which he portrayed his chosen religion. I mentioned that prayer was also important to me and that I was a Christian.

As we talked about the English culture and climate – and my own American background (even though I’ve lived here 27 years) – I remembered some of my own feelings of leaving America at age 26 for a strange land where people at least spoke my native language. I could appreciate the courage it must have taken him to leave everything he knew for a whole year in a foreign country where Islam is not the dominant religion.

Nations or People?

I mentioned that I had once studied the four major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. He explained that at the second annual Islamic observance (the journey to Mecca in Egypt) animals were sacrificed – and I asked, “Just like in the Jewish faith – to forgive sin or make things new again?” – and he was surprised to learn this similarity with Judaism. In fact, I don’t think he knew much at all about other religions. I also wondered what he thought about Americans – because although his manner to me could not have been more respectful and open – (and I was old enough to be his mother!)  I was aware of the fact that some Pakistanis hate Americans. That morning the headlines had been filled with pictures of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, bombed by madmen who wanted the Americans and British out of their country.  He may well have wondered what Americans’ attitudes were toward his homeland – and perhaps I was the first American he had ever met. But the beauty of this conversation was that we weren’t “representatives” of “countries” or “religions” – we were both just people.

This young man then expressed that he didn’t care what religion other people had – that he didn’t judge them by their faith – but by how they behaved. I agreed and said I knew that Muslims or Christians who killed people in the name of religion were showing neither faith nor respect for God – since both faiths condemned that kind of behaviour. That the wars and evil some caused in the name of religion had nothing to do with what that religion taught. And that when you looked at the major world religions, we really had much more in common with each other than we had differences.

Soon we reached Edinburgh and the young man offered to lift down my suitcase. We shook hands and expressed our best wishes for the future – and I will probably never see him again. However, long after parting I was still thinking about our conversation – and I think he may have also. God only knows the barriers that may have been removed during that hour or two on the train – just because he had the courage to talk to me.

Talk to me. And let me talk and listen to you. That is what would change the world more than all the talking “at”.

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