Credit: Susan Katz Miller
I moved to Dakar, Senegal, just three days after getting married in 1987. When our plane landed on the other side of the Atlantic, I stepped into a new role as a Jewish girl from an interfaith family, married to a Protestant working for a Catholic organization, in a predominantly Muslim country.
Growing up in a small New England town, everyone I knew seemed to fall neatly into one of two religious boxes labeled Christian (the religious majority) or Jewish (the tiny religious minority). But on a deeper level, as the child of an interfaith marriage, this strict binary always felt forced. I knew that the religious world, and my own identity, had to be more complex.
In Senegal, I was immersed in a rich, interfaith mix. Many Senegalese ethnic groups celebrate indigenous African religious traditions predating the 11th century arrival of Islam in Senegal, often alongside or intertwined with Sufi Islam or Catholicism. My background as an interfaith child, absorbing two different religious systems from birth, gave me a framework for thinking about religious pluralism and fueled my desire to understand Senegalese religious practice. And I believe it predisposed me to embrace the interwoven religions of Senegal, as intricate and elaborate as the geometric patterns of West African textiles.
Credit: Susan Katz Miller
For those three years in the late 1980s, I was the only American journalist living in Senegal, covering everything from the conflict between Senegal and Mauritania, to a locust invasion, to cultural pieces for The New York Times. Few Senegalese I encountered had ever met a Jew: some had never heard of Judaism. I was proud to represent my people, explaining Jewish beliefs and culture to new friends, and to curious shopkeepers and taxi-drivers. I felt welcomed--as an American, as a Jew, as a person--in the Senegalese spirit of teranga (hospitality) wherever I went. But I had few opportunities to practice Judaism with any sort of community.
Instead, we were immersed in a vibrant interfaith world created through waves of conquest and colonialism, and the fusion of cultures. The President at the time, Abdou Diouf, was a Muslim married to a Catholic. In front of our apartment, around the corner from a mosque and across from a Protestant church, every Friday the street filled with faithful Muslims in prayer. We participated in the wedding of an white American friend from a Christian background to a Muslim Senegalese woman. And in the far south of the country, the Casamance, we attended traditional Jola ceremonies.
Credit: Susan Katz Miller
In Dakar, a bustling center of commerce, and a crossroads of black African, Arab and European cultures, I appreciated how the Muslim obligation to give to the poor created human connections in the midst of harsh urban realities. The streets of Dakar drew the poorest of the poor, many with bodies compromised by leprosy or polio. But because of the tradition of giving alms, the people who begged formed an integral and respected part of society, and we developed relationships with the regulars on the sidewalks of our neighborhood. In her tragicomic novel The Beggar’s Strike, Senegalese writer Aminata Sow Fall depicted the social disruption that occurs when the beggars refuse to accept alms. (The novel was turned into a 2000 film, Battu, by Malian filmmaker Cheikh Oumar Sissoko).
In Dakar, the rhythm of Muslim prayer also softened the frenetic urban hustle. When the muezzins called from minarets across the city, everything slowed to a moment out of time: a stillness to remind us that we were living on the edge of the Sahel and ultimately the Sahara: a region of Sufis stretching from Dakar to Timbuktu and beyond. And those of us from Christian and Jewish and traditional African religious backgrounds would pause as well, out of respect, but also relishing that stop-time reflection.
At Ramadan, this effect, of contemplation, of submitting to the heat and grandeur of Africa, was drawn out for an entire month. During the day, abstaining from food and water, many Senegalese returned to the customs of village life, putting work aside, sitting in the shade of mango trees together, waiting for the cool of sunset. And after the iftar meal to break the fast, nothing tasted better than attaya: tiny glasses of sweet and astringent green gunpowder tea, poured with ceremony from a daring height to achieve the right foam.
Credit: Peregrine By Nature
I miss living in a Ramadan culture. And I miss the simultaneously sweet and bitter taste of those shot glasses of hot tea on a hot African night. I miss it so much that once, years later, on a one-hour stopover in the Dakar airport on the way from Washington to a conference in Cameroon, I dashed into the airport and found a Senegalese customs official with a tea tray, and begged for a glass of attaya. And of course, in the spirit of teranga, he shared his tea with me.
I have had the good luck to live on three continents, building an identity from many strands of both heritage and experience. Even though my Dakar years were long ago now, I still feel the impulse to say “inshallah” when I speak of the future, “alhamdoulillah” when I speak of the past. And in the present, I celebrate projects such as #interfaithramadan, and The Big Iftar in the UK, as opportunities to realize all that can be positive about our complex religious world.
Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press). You can read more background on her story over on her website. Find her at susankatzmiller.com or on Twitter @beingboth.
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