20 July 2007 0 Comments

"Quick, woman, go and get the Koran!"

I have never been a religious man. Which is why I’ve always wondered why so many Palestinians want me to become Muslim.

I’ve been asked, quite formally, to accept Islam on three occasions during the course of my reporting from the Middle East. Two of them I consider to have been somewhat pro forma queries from deeply religious Muslims who simply viewed it as their duty to request that the stranger standing before them should join their faith. For example, a Hamas journalist in Nablus spoke with me at length and, on shaking my hand to say goodbye, put his hand to his heart and said: “I invite you to submit to Islam.” “Oh, well, thanks very much,” I said. “That’s rather nice of you. Cheerio.” Similarly, a Hamas fugitive in a Gaza refugee camp peremptorily offered me his thick, muscular hand with the same invitation, before disappearing up a stone staircase into the night, his M16 slung across his chest. I told him I’d think about it.

The third occasion, however, was a closer shave. I was in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, interviewing the family of a young man who had gone to study at a religious school in Turkey, only to turn up dead on a battlefield in Afghanistan a few months later. The family didn’t want to talk about their son’s death, for fear of Jordan’s secret police, which was decidedly unamused by migrant jihadis amongst the Hashemite kingdom’s population. So my fixer and I decided to ask them about the boy’s Islamic studies, to draw them out, and then to try to move onto his possible reasons for fighting against the Americans in Kabul. I’m a good listener and I suppose I must have looked a lot more interested in the details of Islam than I had intended, because the dead boy’s 60-year-old father began to get rather animated.

“Perhaps you will accept Islam,” he said.

“Well, perhaps,” I said, trying not to be discouraging.

He pushed the red and white keffiyeh back from his brow and rubbed a tear from his eye. “You will accept Islam and become our son, to replace the one who died.”

Oh, dear. “That’s rather nice of you…”

His wife, a thick set woman who had given birth many times, appeared excited by the prospect of gaining a son without going through labor. Or perhaps she was just happy to see her husband enthusiastic about something for the first time since their bereavement. The old man turned to her. “Quick, woman,” he said, “go and get the Koran!”

As the heavy lady puffed to her feet, my fixer whispered to me. “We have to get out of here,” she said. “They’re going to get you to make the declaration of faith on the Koran.”

“I don’t want to be rude,” I muttered. “But I don’t really want to be Muslim, either.”

She apologized, saying we had to be back in Amman before darkness fell, and promised that we would return soon. As we left, I saw the sad, generous old man’s silhouette in the blue light from his window and I almost felt sorry that I hadn’t let him convert me.

There was also the time an upper-class Palestinian woman wanted to convert me, so she could get me to marry her. But I don’t consider her to have been quite as disinterested in her motivations as the other three offers, so I don’t include her here.

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