Flowers for Osama

Shortly after September 11th, 2001, when I was a 21-year-old waiting tables in Jackson, Michigan, a single, dark complected man with a loose-fitting suit coat ambled into my section one evening and sat down. His clear diction was tinged with a Middle Eastern accent, and his manner was unusually gracious and respectful, so much so that, as a waitress, I immediately questioned his intentions. Was he working himself up to ask for my phone number? Was he planning to walk on his bill? He began with a large bowl of soup and a plate of biscuits and corn muffins. The soup, he said, when I returned to check on him, was so good that he would very much like another bowl. After finishing what amounted to a tureen of soup and three servings of bread, he ordered a chicken tenderloin dinner, only with it he requested a double portion of chicken. The single serving dinner typically came with three sides; he ordered five.

By this point I had noted that the man’s loose jacket could easily conceal a vest of explosives. On my way back to the wait alley to hang his ticket, my hands began to shake, and my breaths grew short. I hung the ticket and sat down in the break room in an effort to collect myself. When his food came up in the window, I ran it out. After I had placed his several plates on the table before him, he asked what types of cobblers we had for dessert. I told him, and he ordered two – blackberry and chocolate, both with ice cream.

I knew then that he was eating his last meal. He would blow himself up here, possibly after finishing his cobblers, or he would drive to the large grocery chain nearby, or he would save his grand finale for the long line snaking up, even now, to the Detroit Metro Airport security checkpoint.

I could not bring myself to finish the table. I told Jan, the shift leader, that the man frightened me and that I was having trouble breathing. She ordered me to lie down on the break room bench while she brought him his cobblers and his check. She also brought me my tip, which was sizeable, and informed me with a chastising smile that he was a very kind man.

The man left as quietly as he had come. The news the following morning, I was relieved to note, reported no attacks. Jan kindly mentioned my paranoia to no one, and the incident quickly faded from my 21-year-old mind.

The above story is not one I am inclined to tell. In fact, this is the first time I’ve shared it with anyone in written or spoken form. I grew up in small-town America. Before that man wandered into my section that night, I can’t recall ever meeting a Muslim. At the independent Baptist church I attended growing up, the salvation of the Methodists five miles down the street was suspect, and don’t even get us started on the Catholics. After I graduated from high school, I attended the college that my high school band teacher attended, since college was a foreign concept and no one recommended anything else (unless you count the guidance counselor, who suggested all women, regardless of interest, pursue careers in cosmetology). That college, it turned out, was also Baptist and also located in the midst of miles upon miles of cornfields. At 21 years old, my world was tiny – I was one corn stalk in all those miles of corn stalks, one runty spear of grass in a five-acre field.

Now, ten years later, as a Mennonite and an ESL teacher, I have a very different view of things. Thanks to the many Muslim students I’ve had the joy of teaching over the years, personal experiences have trumped blind fear. When I consider Islam, I think of the Afghan refugees at the Christian community where I first taught English – how when they left we all held each other, Muslim and Christian alike, and wept. I think of the Libyan boxer who taught my intermediate speaking class how to spar and the Libyan woman who spent an entire Saturday preparing a five-course feast for me alone. I think of the traditional Saudi Arabian man who insists that I am not only a teacher but also a prophet, which is how teachers are regarded in Islam. I think of the traditional Saudi Arabian woman who speaks so quietly yet sets the curve on each test she takes and who, after a year in the United States, has begun adjusting her scarf in class, so that, for a brief second, you can occasionally see the lovely dark strands of her hair. I think of Ahmed, an old student who still visits my office monthly just to see how I am. Of Rafi, a current student who daily does me that under-appreciated service of laughing at all of my feeble jokes. They have names now, and faces. English joins us, and we make the art of peace together – each particular configuration of bodies in a room, varied shades of skin, bared heads interspersed with hand-embroidered scarves.

And yet, even now, my old fears still surface and echo in undeniable ways. When I first learned of Osama bin Laden’s death, something like joy coursed through me. In the space of that first minute, as I stood there in our sunny kitchen five months pregnant with our first child, lilacs out the window bobbing hopefully on the breeze, I placed my hand on the swell of my belly and thought, with profound relief, now for you, my love, the world is a safer place. It was only then I realized that I was exulting in the death of a human being, rejoicing that a man had been shot in the head, reveling in a belief I had unsuccessfully tried to smother: that it is possible to overcome violence with violence, death with death. That the only way to overcome evil is by killing evildoers rather than by pitting the strength of our souls against evil itself.
I would rather deny this part of myself.

I would rather ingratiate myself with those I respect, wooing them with stories of how I, against all odds, overcame my small-mindedness. I would rather scoff knowingly when I hear of instances like Newt Gingerich at the GOP debate last June comparing Muslims to Nazis. But the truth is that Newt Gingrich’s fears and my own are similar, at least up to a certain point. The biggest difference, quite plausibly, is that he has no shame in expressing those sentiments, while I have an excess.

When I first adopted the Mennonite faith, I assumed that change required a complete rejection of my past beliefs. Then, after a time, I came to understand that, rather than requiring rejection, it required honesty and a patient love of self. But eventually I realized that these elements alone are not enough. My honesty must involve reflective humility rather than sheer, blunt fact. My love must spread beyond myself and those with whom I agree and encompass those with whom I share very little, even those whom I consider to be my enemies, terrorists and neo-conservatives alike.

It is only in this way that I can grow. It is only in this way that I can understand the man in the restaurant, who, I realized years later, had most likely been fasting for Ramadan. The November sun had set that evening, and he’d relished his one meal of the day. His graciousness and respect, in that case, had simply come from a grateful heart. Perhaps they also came from the practice of Ramadan itself – a practice to cultivate patience and humility and to reinforce Mohammed’s teaching that one should never look upon another with disdain.

About the Author

Michelle Webster-Hein

Michelle Webster-Hein is a teacher, writer, and fledgling Mennonite who earned her BA in Music from Hillsdale College and her MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Eastern Michigan University. She encountered the Mennonites in 2005, when she volunteered at Jubilee Partners, an intentional community in northern Georgia, and she is now a regular participant of Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She lives with her husband and newborn daughter in Ypsilanti where she is working toward an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.