Essay: The Woman In The Burka
She wore a full-length burka, the kind with just a tiny slit across the eyes. Holding a stroller with both hands, with three small children and her husband beside her, she patiently waited in line for her family’s turn to get on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride. Around her, loud carnival music was blaring amidst bright lights, junk food booths, excited children and crowds of happy, carefree people. Just a normal scene, with a normal Muslim family having fun on a beautiful summer night.
But the scene was hardly normal. The family was not at the State Fair or any typical carnival. They were at the “Israel@70” festival on the Detroit riverfront. There were several thousand local Jews taking in a genuine Israel lovefest, complete with countless Israeli flags, Israeli music, food and Jewish-themed activities. Yet there, in the midst of it all, was this Muslim family enjoying themselves just like everyone else.
I noticed this family while chatting with Rabbi Harold Loss. For a moment, we were both a bit transfixed at the sight of them. We commented that it was nice to see, but that we were also curious. The juxtaposition was just too glaring — this ordinary Muslim family among throngs of Jewish attendees celebrating Israel, many of whom were Orthodox families with lots of children in tow.
What was this couple thinking? I wanted to know. Did they care one lick about attending a celebration of Israel or were they just looking for a night of family fun? Were they trying to make some kind of bold political statement about inclusion and co-existence, or really just oblivious to it all? The family had presumably paid to get into the festival, so it’s not like they just wandered into the area. So, was there anything to read into their attendance, or was I just overthinking the whole thing?
I said nothing to them. I only watched them enjoy the ride and then get off and happily walk away. All I could do was let my imagination wander. I wanted to believe I was witnessing a tiny glimpse into a beautiful possibility: true, peaceful, nonchalant co-existence between Arabs and Jews. It was especially tempting to want to believe this because the night was slightly tinged (of course) by anti-Israel protesters. Outside the festival there was a small, vocal group with anti-Israel chants and placards, and in the sky a helicopter flew back and forth carrying a banner reading “End Israel Occupation of Palestine.” So perhaps, in light of these sober reminders of reality, I wanted to believe that this family was symbolic of a tiny bit of hope.
There are approximately 65,000 Jews and 300,000 Arab Americans in Metro Detroit. Despite the Arab-Jewish conflicts that exist around the world, here in Detroit, we generally get along remarkably well. There’s essentially no violence, no hateful acts and frequent peaceful interaction — whether it’s in malls, restaurants, workplaces or wherever. It is beautiful thing, and we should recognize, cherish and protect it, and do our part to sustain it. Seems to me this family was doing just that. But I had to ask myself: Would I have done the same thing? Would I have gone to an Arab festival celebrating an Arab nation? Would you?
I’ll never know what that family was thinking, but still I give them a lot of credit. They chose to spend their time and money to attend an “Israel@70” festival. I think they were making a statement to the Jewish crowd. I choose to think they were telling us that it’s not enough to just talk about peaceful co-existence; you have to live it. You can’t just give lip service to your values and only attend occasional rallies lectures or marches or exchange articles on the internet. To bring about change, you have to live the change. You have to actually engage in the ordinary acts of life.
It might be as simple as taking your family to a summer festival and taking a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan director for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.