This is a true story. An anecdote, really. A dot that can perhaps be connected to other dots to make something more impressive, but right now is just a dot.
My first long trip without my family was a research trip my university organized to Senegal. I was barely eighteen years old. Ostensibly I went to research the roots of American music in West Africa, but I had absolutely zero experience as a musicologist and no idea how to go about doing research or any scholarly work of any kind. The ‘unknown unknowns’ involved in the enterprise far outweighed the other categories of knowns and unknowns by a ratio of maybe thirty-to-one. So as a scholarly endeavor, my trip was a complete waste of money and jet fuel.
For the vague purpose of personal growth and spiritual/intellectual development, though, it was a total win, and the stories of my week-and-a-half have provided fodder for many a drunken conversation in the years since.
One that I reflected on this morning, in light of some recent developments:
The university arranged for a luncheon with the University of Dakar, where I sat next to one Mamadou, who was as bored as I was until I revealed that I was here for the music. His father was a musician, he told me, and he invited me to his house to meet with him. I agreed, figuring that was the end of it, because at that age I had a habit of offering and committing to things that I had no intention of following through on (and now, for the first time, I wonder how many people are still mad at me because of that).
The next evening Mamadou showed up and, even though I had plans to relax by the pool, I got dressed and followed him home. I didn’t even take the basic security measures of telling any of my friends that I was walking out of the hotel with some guy I just met and didn’t know where he was taken me or for how long. I just went.
I remember that we walked out of Dakar’s lovely colonial downtown to a massive bus-and-taxi stand, where we boarded what Mamadou called a “Senegalese subway:” a big military-type truck where passengers jumped on and off for a small fare. I remember that the truck was packed and ‘m sure I was quite a curiosity for the other passengers, but I have a habit of completely ignoring people when there is a landscape to look at, so all I remember was watching the pretty downtown give way to shabby concrete buildings and finally open out onto dirt roads lined with small bungalows. Did we cross a river at one point? I have vague memories of doing so.
Mamadou’s house was a small white one-story building with packed-earth floors that impressed me by being both clean and waterproof. (My linoleum floors in New York were neither.)
I met his mother and teenage sisters, and then was ushered into the living room with his father and older brother, and the conversation immediately turned to music.
I was wholly out of my depth. I didn’t know any of the musicians, very little theory, and only some of the instruments. It didn’t matter. The father sat on what looked like a beanbag and rattled on and on in a lilting French-inflected English, about songs, performers, America, France, Senegal, food…all manner of everything. I remember him being funny. And he liked the Beatles. He and the older brother, who didn’t speak English at all, played a duet on the kora for me. The girls, who came and went as they saw fit, sang along in stretches. They taught me part of a song, enough so I could sing along, too, but sadly the melody is entirely forgotten.
And then it was time to stop. From inside their house you couldn’t really hear anything outside, and what little sound did make it through was covered over with the music and the conversation. The passage of time was only marked by the mother coming to tell us that the sun was almost down, and everyone sprang into action. There was a small wardrobe or closet or something similar in the corner, and Mamadou went to it and began handing out prayer rugs.
Mamadou reached one out to me, and then his father caught my eye and asked me, “Are you Muslim or Christian?”
Correct answer: neither. But that wasn’t a choice, was it?
In that instant, a machine-gun flash of images shot across my mind: a friend in high school who learned my religion was different from hers and promptly stopped talking to me; a teacher who interrupted the lesson on “Don Quixote” to give a long lecture on Jesus, very pointedly directing it at the Jewish kid in the front row; the friend who quickly interceded when his mother asked me to lead the prayer at dinner, and then suggested later that I probably shouldn’t stay for dinner anymore; the number of times throughout my youth where I lied because telling the truth just wasn’t worth it, and might even be dangerous.
Woven through those thoughts was the extremely little I knew about Islam–this was before 9/11, but the reputation was already pretty bad. I was in a stranger’s house, far from the city, and nobody knew I was here.
I looked up quickly at the framed picture of the Kaaba that was the only decoration on Mamadou’s living room wall and weighed my options quickly. Quick thinking is not my strength. I looked down from the picture to the father, who at that point let a broad and warm smile stretch over his face. “We are all God’s children,” he said, and then took the rug and led his family in their prayer.
I stayed in my chair, and closed my eyes as if in prayer, because it seemed a respectful thing to do and more than anything at that moment I wanted to be respectful, because his smile had more than earned my respect.
When prayers were finished they put away their rugs and sat back down, and we resumed our conversation, until the mother came back a little while later with a giant bowl of spicy rice and fish. At traditional Senegalese meals (I am told–hopefully it wasn’t a prank on the visiting foreigner) everyone eats out of a single bowl, scooping the food out with bare hands. It all feels very sweet and communal, even though I normally can’t stand having my hands dirty, and licking my fingers clean didn’t seem polite when I was about to stick them back into the bowl. My hosts kept talking and singing, and if they found my religion in any way unpleasant then they didn’t let it on at all. For my part, I was genuinely elated for the rest of the evening. Up to that point in my life I had literally never had anybody ask me what my religion was unless they were already looking to pick a fight or win over a convert. For an evening there I was madly in love with the world and all of its beautiful possibilities.
I ended up staying out so late that Mamadou had to find a friend with a car to drive me back, since the trucks either weren’t running or weren’t safe in the middle of the night. When I got back to my room I was in a lot of trouble for running away without telling anyone, and was forbidden from wandering away on my own for the rest of the trip, which was embarrassing but fair.
Later on, nobody read my report on West African music, which was also embarrassing but fair–it was rubbish, and almost entirely researched in New York, thus negating the entire stated purpose of my trip.
I want to have a poetic statement here at the end that connects this little dot to all manner of bigger dots and adds my voice to a much bigger conversation happening all over the world, but I don’t think that I can. The line between pithy and trite is too fine for me to parse, and I don’t want to screw it up. I just want to take a moment to remember that bewildering feeling of love and humanity that I felt when this old man looked me in the eye and assured me that we are all God’s children, with a compassion and authority that should have settled the matter once and for all.