Visitors help you view things in a different way

Entertaining visitors from out of town — or better yet, out of country — is a great way to see new things, or at least see old things in a new way.

This has been a busy time for international visitors. We’ve recently had business delegations from China and Brazil, as well as our visiting journalists from Turkey and Armenia.

Katty Kay, a BBC correspondent who grew up in the Middle East but is 100-percent Brit, was in town as the featured speaker for the Downtown Book Fair. At lunch, she had much praise for Tallahassee — but noted that it’s a really bad town for hair. That was news to me, but my boss, Mary Ann, confirmed that whatever a woman’s hair does naturally — lie straight or bounce into curls — our heat and humidity will make it do the opposite.

Ofelya, our visitor from Armenia, got greatly exercised talking about our state bird. “What kind of bird sings at 4 in the morning!” she demanded. I guess I usually sleep through it, but indeed, last night I awakened to hear an energetic mockingbird tweeting to the street light, the moon, who knows what.

Mehmet, the journalist from Turkey, took a liking to alligators. And, since everybody asked him after a trip to Wakulla Springs, “Did you see alligators?” he drew the conclusion that to see a gator is to become somehow a real Floridian. Then again, Mehmet wasn’t too keen on a North Florida staple — grits. In a show of extreme politeness, he choked down a serving, but when the guest sips water with every bite, you know you shouldn’t serve that dish again.

The most eye-opening part of Mehmet’s five-night stay in our house, though, was a religious exchange. He joined us for a Presbyterian church service on Sunday, and the next day I joined him for prayers at a local mosque.

The same old Sunday service is suddenly new when somebody from a different faith is with you. We Presbyterians jokingly call ourselves God’s frozen chosen, but the service really is quite active. Stand for call-and-response, a prayer and a hymn, sit for a reading, stand for a hymn, sit for another reading and a sermon, stand for the creed, sit for the offering, proceed to the front for Communion, sit again, stand for the final hymn. It’s a great lower-body workout.

It sounds stupid, but — sitting next to a Muslim — I was amazed at how often we use the words “Jesus” and “Christ.” Most Sundays, those words just flow over me.

At the Islamic Center of Tallahassee, I was the newcomer. I removed my shoes outside the front door, then went into a tiled room for the ritual washing. I rolled up my sleeves and pant legs, said “Bismillah” (it means “For Allah,” though I didn’t tell Mehmet that I already knew the word from the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody”), then washed my arms and hands, neck and face, and feet. Mehmet wisely brought paper towels from work, so we could dry off and put our socks back on.

Inside, the mosque looks like a church from which somebody stole the pews and altar. The main room is plain and carpeted, and a few men there sat on the floor and conversed, waiting for the prayers to begin.

On some signal unseen by me, the men lined up behind a leader, and I watched as they followed him through motions that included standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating themselves with their heads on the carpet. Each new station was preceded by the leader uttering a quiet “Allah akbar” (God is great), but the prayers were silent.

The prayers lasted just a few minutes, then it was social time again. Mehmet said that, at large mosques in Turkey, it’s not unusual to see scores of people, sitting cross-legged or reclining on their elbows, sharing the day’s news of family and the world while children race about doing what children do everywhere.

At the mosque near Doak Campbell Stadium, the talk was of Mideast politics (“How’s your buddy Mubarak?” one man asked, ribbing a student from Egypt) and of religion. We talked about the Christian Trinity and they laughed at how “Allah akbar” to many Americans is a phrase associated only with terrorists.

But there was no terror here, no fear. I came away refreshed, the same way I feel after short morning or midday services or evensong that we attend occasionally. I’d been yanked out of my rut, and I saw my city, its people and my god in a new way. That’s an hour well spent.

Mark HOHMEISTER – Tallahassee Democrat, the USA

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