This city is so peaceful. As the bikes whiz by, I notice the absence of the cacophony and polluting fumes of traffic. I’m walking down the sidewalk in brown leather shoes and a tucked-in dress shirt while eating bougie gelato. I love gelato. I look up and notice the blue sky. It’s a deep blue and the clouds have distinct borders. I’m in Salzburg, Austria for a conference and I’m loving this city. Just as I marvel at the clean streets and begrudge the abundance of luxury vehicles, I turn the corner and see my sister on the floor asking for money. I immediately cross the street and reach in my pocket to hand her the change I received at the gelato stand. My sister is donning the flag of Islam on her head and I greet her with the anthem of Islam, a greeting of peace. She smiles and says, “Allah yijzeek al-khayr” – God reward you with the good. As I walk away, I smile at the beauty and seamlessness of our interaction.
I continue walking back to the conference hall. I review my rehearsed words as I finish my gelato. My presentation is on the data I generated regarding the controversial use of bisphosphonate anti-resorptives in the setting of chronic kidney disease mineral bone disorder. The nephrologists in the crowd won’t be too thrilled. In my head, I am considering all the different questions I could be asked, when I see another of my friends on the corner of an intersection. As I approach him, he brings his hands together and bows his head. When he raises his head again, I smile at him. I don’t have any more change so I reach into my pocket and hand him 5 euros. He has a cup in front of him, but I decide to hand him the money. I think this might make the money more of a gift than a charity. I can see hurt in his eyes as he tries to find a way to thank me. Reaching out I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze, pointing up with my other hand, trying to tell him that I will pray for him. While my hand is on his shoulder, he turns his neck and kisses my hand. I say, “No, no!” and withdraw my hand. I feel ashamed. I know I should be the one kissing his hand for accepting my miserly gift of 5 euros while knowing full-well that I have another 10 laying comfortably in my pocket. Ten euros that I will, over the next couple hours, undoubtedly spend on a sacherwurfel from the bakery next to my fancy hotel and then on another helping of overpriced gelato.
Lost in my thoughts of embarrassment, I begin to walk away, and as I do, he yells in German, “Guter mann!” – good man. Halfway across the street, I think to myself, I may not be a good man, but I have the opportunity to try, and so I turn back around.
Ten euros was all the money that I had left on me. But 10 euros was all it cost to earn the respect and love of a man I had only met minutes ago. Excitedly, the man begins to talk to me in German. His name is Damien. (We spend a good 5 minutes on my name. I would say, ‘Mo-ham-mad’, and he would then repeat after me, ‘No-han-nam’). Damien is a father of 3 kids. He was doing well for his family until his wife lost her vision. He said, “Now my heart is still good, but children’s stomachs are empty, so my hand is outstretched.”
I notice the tears in my eyes. I had never heard German spoken before, and I shouldn’t know what he’s saying to me, but I understood every word. Home is where the heart is, and this man is my neighbor. As I leave Damien for the second time, I point up again and then turn my palms up to the Heavens in prayer. He says, “Allah.” And I repeat, “Allah.”
On my second day in Salzburg, I take the long way to the conference center, hoping to run into my friend Damien. I turn the corner and there he is, sitting at the end of the block. My stride lengthens and my steps quicken. As I approach him, I see him leaning left and right, squinting his eyes; he’s trying to see if it’s me. He leaves his corner and yells, “Nohannam!!” while jogging towards me and we embrace each other as brothers and lifelong friends. And as my neighbor and friend embraces me, I realize I may not be a good man, but Damien is willing to show me how to become one.
Photo Credit: Sam Rodgers