Salaam wuallakum!

Ahh, some of you know how to answer that. Let’s practice. When I say “salaam wu-allakum,” you respond, “Wu allakum salaam.”

You’ve probably heard those phrases at events, in movies, with friends. You probably know salaam is the Arabic word for peace. When you add “U alla akum” it means you are wishing peace to the person you are greeting. The “alla” of the phrase is of course, the Arabic word for God. So it is God’s peace you are sharing.

What you may not know is the root of the word Islam is found in salaam – peace.

So why am I talking about Islam? I’m not a Muslim; I’m not an expert in world religions. But a few weeks ago, I heard member Ray Preston talk about his musical life journey from thinking all we need is love, to what we really need is RESPECT, Aretha-style. That resonated for me because of an experience I had many years ago. Last millennium in fact, if you can think back that far.

It was the mid-70s, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, in North Africa. It’s a Muslim, Arabic-speaking country, and I was a teacher in a village north of Marrakech a few hours, and at the base of the Middle Atlas mountain range, called Souk Sebt. I was the first westerner to teach at this school. I taught English because the Moroccan government wanted youth to understand English because of its dominance in industry and tourism.

I was a new teacher, straight out of journalism school in Kansas. I come from a Catholic family with ten children, who went to Mass every day. Solid, firm values. No ambivalence about right and wrong. None. We knew who we were.

I had four classes of 50 students each. And among the 200 students, four or five were women. The classrooms were crowded. There was no glass on the windows and Saharan sand often blew through.

After a few months of teaching beginning English, it was time for an exam to see how the students were doing. In countries like Morocco, academic achievement is one of the few ways out of a life of extreme poverty. I told them a test was coming up. And when the day arrived the families of the students were praying, out loud, right outside the classroom window. The stakes are very high for these impoverished students.

And this was the first exam I had ever given to anyone. To examine the progress of 200 students, first I had to find 200 sheets of paper. Then I had to hand write each of the 200 tests. We had occasional electricity in my village, no running water and certainly no duplicating machines.

In teaching a foreign language we used a full immersion method. Even in beginning English I spoke no language other than English in the classroom. That’s how I was taught Arabic.

So, without much instruction, I passed out the tests to the first group of 50. Almost immediately the students started cheating. I hear, in Arabic, shouts of, “Mohammed, what’s the answer to number 3?” “Raschid, how are you answering number 5?”

I’m appalled. They are cheating, openly, right in front of me. Without any hesitation. It was a disaster.

When class was over, I went to the headmaster. “Mudir,” I said. “The students were cheating. Can you help me figure out how to manage the classroom?” I was a very new Arabic-speaker, and that’s what I hoped that I said to him. He responded he would.

Immediately he blew a whistle, which meant everybody had to leave every classroom and come to the sandy yard that the build circled. Then, in front of the entire school, he asked me which students were cheating. I felt dread. I told him it was Mohammed and Raschid.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a length of rubber cut from the tire of a car, and began beating them. I was horrified. Never had I considered this as an outcome of my seeking help.

A few days later I was able to get to the next village that had Peace Corps Volunteers. One of them had been one of my Arabic teachers. And he had gone to college in the US and spoke perfect English. He and his wife, a Peace Corps Volunteer, were good friends and I knew I could ask him anything.

‘Mohammed,” I asked him. “What did I miss here?”

He said, “What you failed to do is understand our values. In the Koran the value of helping your friend is far more important than what you are calling cheating.”

That was a moment of great clarity for me. I had not prescribed the behavior I thought appropriate for during an exam. And if I had spoken it in English, would they have understood? In the moment when presented with the test paper, absent my direction, their instincts were to help each other. I had not told them they couldn’t. And, we didn’t know each other very well yet.

I realized that what I considered my values should not supersede theirs; that there were many paths to one goal, and to an ethical life. And that defining their behavior from my lived experience did an injustice to theirs.

It took me some time, but I figured out a solution. The next time I had an exam, I wrote out 200 tests, passed them out, and asked them to help each other figure out the answers. And then we graded them together and talked about what we learned. The next day, however, I brought another 200 handwritten copies of the test, with four separate versions. I told the students there were different versions, and that I didn’t want them to help each other because I wanted them to help me know if I was a good teacher. which they did.

I’m telling you this story because what I learned from that experience is indeed that only by understanding and respecting the values of others can we build common cause and reach joint goals.

As adults in the world, it is our responsibility to build bridges across chasms. And as members of this movement, that is a compelling responsibility.


NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.