Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Face of Peace

Mohammed Azziz

A Face of Peace

I had never met a Mohammed before.  I had never met a Muslim before.  Living in small Arkansas towns for 36 years, then Alaska for 11 more, the chances were slim that I would have crossed paths with one. Then in 2000 Drew and I accepted jobs at Cairo American College and spent the next four living years in Egypt, a country where approximately 85% of the population is Muslim.  

Mohammed Azziz was the first Mohammed I encountered.  I remember naively thinking, “He must be very special to have the same name as THE Mohammed.” As I gradually met more Egyptian men teaching and working at the school, driving taxis, selling souvenirs, delivering groceries, and parenting students in my 2nd grade classroom, I quickly deduced that at least one out of every three Egyptian males must be named Mohammed.  Sharing a name with thousands didn’t make “my” Mohammed any less special.

We had been in Egypt for less than 24 hours when I walked into my new classroom.  I had spent most of the night before, wide awake, at our dusty kitchen table scribbling the same question across my journal pages, “What have we done!?” As I sat in a jet-lagged Twilight Zone, surrounded by a jumble of desks and boxes of books, Mohammed, the custodian for the 2nd grade classrooms, opened the door.  In his 25 years at CAC, he had surely seen this pitiful sight before - a teacher new to the country, new to the school - close to tears.

“Mrs. Twylla,” (which sounded more like Mrs. Shwylla), “I am Mohammed. Welcome to Egypt." He  extended his hand and smiled, the same glad-to-be-alive smile that I never saw Mohammed without. Until 9/11.

We worked together that day, hanging blue and yellow bulletin board paper, arranging desks, sweeping, dusting, stacking books, creating a space for children to learn and grow.  For the rest of the year, Mohammed greeted me every morning, cleaned my classroom every afternoon. We learned about each other’s families. He taught me an Arabic word each day and, like Professor Henry Higgins (though more gently), asked me to repeat and repeat until correct.  My favorite expression was the one I heard him say whenever anyone needed his help, “Moofishmooshkala,” “No problem.”

I was writing the day’s schedule on the board, the first day of school after 9/ll, when I heard the door open. Mohammed entered.  Pale, solemn, shoulders sagging. He walked directly to me, took my hands in his, and with tears in his eyes, looked into mine.  “Mrs. Twylla, I’m so sorry what happened to your country.  It’s crazy people, crazy people.”  

I nodded. “I know, Mohammed, I know,” the only words to escape before sobs swallowed the rest. Sobs of loss…. and overwhelming hope.



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