How Some Crayon Drawings Sent Me To Mosque

Adam Lichtenheld
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The woman gently pushed her daughter in my direction. With wisps of short, black hair and a soft, thin face, the little girl stared up at me, her brown eyes filled with unassuming innocence. I smiled and put my hand on her bony shoulder. The mother pointed, insistent. I peered down and lifted up her sleeve, finding nothing but a shriveling mess of scarred skin. Before I could ask what happened, her mother whispered, in thickly accented English, “Shrap-nel. From American bomb.”

As I looked at what was left of this child’s arm, and at the group of Iraqi women who now surrounded me, I felt a kind of paralyzing awkwardness. What do I do, I thought. Apologize?

I was visiting my friend Piper, who teaches basket-weaving and jewelry-making to Iraqi refugees at a community center in Amman. The center is in the heart of a dilapidated ghetto called Hai Nazzal, where the refugees live in shoddy edifices that appear ready to collapse on one another. Families of seven pack into one-bedroom apartments under pipes that leak over molding funiture. The winter rains flood their crumbling flats, soaking residents’ mattresses and making for long, frigid nights.

No one really knows how many Iraqis have fled to Jordan—some estimate several hundred thousand. Most live in legal purgatory, overlooked by immigration officials but denied access to education, employment, and healthcare. So they rely on the charity of people like Piper to learn simple trades, and to survive in the harsh conditions of their adopted country.

Strolling toward the community center earlier that day, I saw ominous clouds roll over the city’s parched hills. A group of children in tattered pants and sweaters kicked a soccer ball against an apartment building. I peered inside an open door and saw a bulb swinging from a shattered light fixture, illuminating a cement room that was empty except for two plastic buckets. By the smell, I knew that I had found the bathroom. Somewhere upstairs, a baby wailed, and two scraggly cats lept from a dumpster to fight over scraps of falafel.

I entered the community center complex and walked down an empty corridor. Its bare, pasty walls conjured up images of a mental asylum. At the end of the hall, I stepped into a gymnasium, which was stuffy despite the fans that whirred overhead. A group of Iraqi women sat around a long table, carefully dabbing plastic beads and silver pieces in glue and tying them together with twine. Piper was seated among them, her milky face concealed by long, brown bangs. She spotted me and waved.

The women took a break from their work and stared at me, the unkempt and unshaven newcomer. I wore stained khakis and a wrinkled T-shirt; they were covered in flowing black burkas that revealed nothing but their faces. Piper introduced me as “my friend Adam.” When the women realized I was an ally, they moved quickly, shoving ready-to-purchase earrings, bracelets, and baskets toward me. I politely declined. I hadn’t been this intimidated by women since the first time I set foot in a college sorority house.

As I went to fetch a chair in the corner, a display of children’s crayon drawings caught my eye. In one, airplanes knocked a kite from the sky and dropped bombs on buildings below, turning one of them into a colorful inferno. In another, the outline of Iraq sat beside two fingers displaying the peace sign, with the word “before” scratched in Arabic. Further down the page, a skull leered menacingly beside the word “after.” The children who made these drawings were probably seven or eight years old.

I tore my eyes from the wall and began to watch the women work. As they joked and laughed (How can they laugh? I thought), one of them leaned toward me.

“Are you American?” she whispered. I nodded.

I pictured the young girl that I had seen moments before and wondered what this woman must think of me—or any American. I nervously awaited her response.

"Americans are good people," she said, smiling.

As “class” adjourned, Piper and I followed the women out the door. I was starting to understand why Piper always wanted to watch Disney movies after a long day’s work.

“Sometimes it’s hard to digest,” she said. “There’s only so much we can do, yet there are so many to help.”

I was about to respond when the call to prayer rained down from the neighborhood mosque. Droves of Iraqis emerged from their homes and shuffled through the streets of their urban refugee camp. The men entered the mosque’s main hall, while the women scurried toward the female prayer area entrance at the rear.

A giant of a man came forward from the crowd and waddled towards me. His round, bald head sat in perfect proportion to his massive belly, which was covered by a dark grey djellaba. He bore a quarter-sized bruise on his forehead—a symbol of Muslim piety marked by putting his head to the ground in prayer five times a day.

"Habibi!" he bellowed, and slapped me on the back with one fat, meaty hand. With the other he pointed inside the mosque. I couldn’t help but gawk at the thousands of worshippers neatly arranged in the prayer hall, bodies erect, heads bowed, mouths moving silently. Never had I seen so many people emit such little sound.  The silence was broken only by the shuffling of loose cloth and bare feet as the worshippers crouched and bowed in perfect rhythm. It was both eerie and tranquil.

The man continued to beckon. I thought back to the disturbing drawings and the maimed little girl. It was “my” country that had done this to “them,” and the guilt lingered like a bad aftertaste.

So I did the only thing that I knew to do. I walked into the mosque and joined the lines of Iraqis. I nestled myself among them, bowed my head, and placed it to the mat, slowly.


Posted on 2/13/2009 by

Pete Muller

Pete  Muller

This is a very nice piece, Adam. Keep up the great work!

Posted on 8/06/2009 by

Ilana Alazzeh

Ilana Alazzeh

My heart goes out to you. I have been in similar situations (in the same country mind you) and it feels like your heart is ripping but in the end it's growing pains... and best of luck to you mate. My your horizons and soul continue to widen.

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