I’ve never been a religious man. Which is why I’ve always wondered why so many Arabs want me to become Muslim.
I think it’s because I’m a good listener. As a journalist and writer based in the Middle East since 1996, I’ve never adopted the approach of many other outsiders who seem to enjoy arguing with religious believers in the region—trying to convince them, it seems, that they ought to trade in their backward, uncivilized attitudes for democracy and iPods. I, on the other hand, listen to what the people I meet have to say. I show that I’m interested, because that makes people open up.
The result is that my Palestinian crime novels have great insights into the way Palestinians – including the deeply religious among them – think. Many Arabs have told me they find the books very empathetic, without losing all critical facility.
But sometimes listening so attentively gets me into trouble.
I’ve been asked, quite formally, to accept Islam on three occasions. Two of them I consider to have been somewhat pro forma queries from 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. He wasn’t someone you’d take issue with. 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 along with a local journalist named Rania, I decided to ask them about the boy’s Islamic studies to draw them out. I then hoped to move onto his possible reasons for fighting against the Americans in Kabul.
I suppose I must have looked a lot more interested in Islam than I had intended, because the dead boy’s 60-year-old father became rather animated.
“Perhaps you will accept Islam,” he said.
“Well, perhaps,” I said. Being nice.
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 good 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, Rania 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 to them,” I muttered. “But I don’t really want to be Muslim, either.” I’ve never thought of myself as a particular victim of the restraint supposedly endemic in my native land. But I realized it would be terribly British of me to accept a new faith just because I was too polite to refuse.
Rania apologized, saying we had to be back in Amman before darkness fell. She 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 to Islam, so she could get me to marry her. But I consider her motivations to have been less disinterested than the other three offers, so I don’t include her here. In any case, I didn’t refuse her because I didn’t want to be Muslim…