Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Eternal Sunshine and Muslim Food

on November 14, 2013

Brindisi port

We reached Brindisi, a port on the eastern coast of the heel of Italy’s boot. We could not take the land route to Turkey because we would have had to drive through Eastern block countries. As a diplomat from the “free world”, we could not possibly go behind the iron curtain.

This was before the days of the Internet. So Papa figured that logically,  there should be passenger ships from Brindisi to Athens. Unfortunately, none were available at the time we got there. We stayed in a greyish hotel until Papa finally booked us on a cargo ship.

We drove the car onto the ship and sailed away. Mama stayed in the cabin most of the time because of sea sickness. We ate in a large dining room and were allowed to get our own food at the cafeteria line. Papa told us of Greece, the land of eternal sunshine, where gods and goddesses lived with heroes and beauties.  I could not wait to see this wonderful place. Finally, one morning, the ship pulled into Piraeus. I ran to the deck.

It was raining. Everything was grey.

Papa, where is the sun?

rainy Piraeus


Back in our good old faithful Cadillac, we hit the road again. Soon we were on the stretch of highway that led to Turkey. For hours we drove on in total isolation. Suddenly, we saw two American students with backpacks waving their thumbs at us on the side of the road. Papa never stopped for hitchhikers as a rule of thumb. But he and Mama talked it over. We had not seen a single car for the past two hours. These two poor students would have to walk all the way to Turkey! Papa made a U-turn.

They were indeed Americans. Not a difficult guess. In those day, only Americans walked around with backpacks, trying to hitchhike. A young man and a young woman, both very friendly. Papa and Mama really hit it off with them. It was chatter and laughter all the way to the border. We two fell quiet, since we could not understand a word of English.

At the border, I became very tired waiting in the car. Papa and the Americans were talking with the border guards forever. Finally, they all returned to the car. It turned out we had to pay for something. Was it a visa? a border fee? I would never know. Whatever it was, Papa did not have the money for it. He ended up borrowing from those two hitchhikers, and wrote down their address in the States, promising to send it to them as soon as we reached Ankara.

We parted ways at some point, probably as we entered Istanbul.  The next thing I remember is Papa driving slowly through the streets of Istanbul looking at the store signs, looking for food. Suddenly, he stepped on the brakes! “Chinese Islamic Restaurant!” Incredible but true! We were in the land of Muslims, and here was a Chinese Muslim Restaurant with the tell-tale characters: Pure and True (Qing Zhen).

Few people outside of China know that Islam is called the Religion of the Pure and True in Chinese. Mosques are called Pure and True temples, and our food is labeled Pure and True the way they are labeled Halal in the West.

In recent years, a friend named Randa Hamwi Duwaiji researched the Qur’an from an etymological point of view. When she first talked to me about it, I had a rather bland reaction. I am embarrassed to say that it is not something that really enthralls one. “Oh, wow, a linguistic interpretation! So very exciting! Can’t wait to read more!” No.

So, I replied with polite oh’s and ah’s to her explanations about what she had found. At one point, she asked me, “So tell me. What is the meaning of the word, Islam?” Good thing I had researched this one. “It means,”  I gave the stock reply quoted by most books on Islam, “Voluntary surrender to God in a peaceful manner”.

“No!” she cried happily. “No, it does not mean that at all. Not peace, not surrender, none of it.”

Huh? That started to get interesting. “So, what do you think it means, then?” Randa now had my ear. “It means Pure and True.”

It was a thunderbolt out of the blue. How many times had I asked my Je Sais Tout Papa why our religion was called Pure and True? and he had said, because it is pure and true.

“Where did you get this from? what makes you say so?” Randa sighed. “I told you. In this dictionary, or lexicon, dating back to 400 years after the time of the Prophet. It is the oldest Arabic dictionary today and therefore the meaning of the words are closest to their original meaning 1400 years ago.”

I was still shaking from the discovery. “Randa, where can I find this lexicon?” She looked at me. “Fawzia, I gave you a copy last time I came. Remember?” No, I did not remember, and the truth is, if she had given me a book in Arabic, it probably ended up on a shelf gathering dust. “It is found everywhere in every bookstore in the Arab world,” she continued. “You can buy it anywhere. But Arabs do not like to research. They do not read what is under their own nose. I am Arab and I know that for a fact.”

I had to explain to her why I was so struck. And till today I ponder upon the wonder of language in tracing history. Islam came very early to China. So the earliest translations were the most accurate. Later, as our religion flourished in various parts of the world, each isolated local version took on its own coloring and flavor, until today, when the miracle of universal communication occurred. And suddenly, we found that the Chinese version is quite pure and true to its roots, and ancient version of this universal religion that is now found everywhere in a more modern form all over the world.

Qing Zhen     chinese mosque

One Response to “Eternal Sunshine and Muslim Food”

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