As a practicing Buddhist, I might seem like an unlikely candidate to write a novel about love and friendship between Muslims and Jews, but Sweet Dates in Basra was inspired as much by my Buddhist faith as by my father’s experiences of growing up in Iraq.
The novel opens in the 1930s with two best friends – one Muslim and the other Jewish – who play together with barely any awareness of their differences. Their families may not worship on the same holidays, but when their mothers share special celebratory pastries, the only conclusion the boys reach is that “religious diversity is good for dessert.”
With the onset of World War II, as Hitler begins his march across North Africa, the boys develop an awareness of the wider world with all of its prejudices. But the religious riots that break out after the war reaches Iraq only strengthen the friendship between the two boys.
In the novel, the Jewish boy is hiding in his home as violence tears through the streets when he receives a note from his Muslim best friend quoting their favorite poet, Khalil Gibran, who writes, “You are my brother and I love you. I love you worshipping in your church, kneeling in your temple, and praying in your mosque. You and I and all are children of one religion, for the varied paths of religion are but the fingers of the loving hand of the Supreme Being, extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, anxious to receive all.”
This sentiment – that all people are equally beautiful before God – was taught to me all my life by both of my parents, and I was especially impressed by my Jewish father’s deep love for his fellow Iraqis who were Muslims. Unfortunately and unjustly, these days Muslims are too often perceived as the “enemy” because of the unforgivable and atrocious actions of a very tiny minority. But that makes my father’s experiences all the more important and illuminating.
My father and I both felt the time was right to depict his close ties with his Muslim “brothers,” as he genuinely thought of them, in a novel. Sweet Dates in Basra is an imagined story, complete with a beautiful maiden, a forbidden love, and the near-miraculous escapes from brushes with danger that are the stuff of fiction. But the heart of the story – depicting the transcendent power of universal love that Khalil Gibran so eloquently expresses – is fact.
Realizing this on a large scale may still just be an ideal, but it is an ideal that Iraq was founded on; as one of the characters recalls, Iraq’s first monarch, King Feisal, once said: “There is no meaning in the words ‘Jews,’ ‘Muslims’ and ‘Christians’ in the terminology of patriotism. There is simply a country called Iraq, and all are Iraqis. I ask my countrymen to be only Iraqis because we all belong to one stock, the stock of our ancestor Shem. We all belong to that one race and there is no distinction between Muslim, Christian and Jew.”
So how did a girl who has been practicing Buddhism for most of her life end up writing about the common threads joining the major religions of the West? The answer lies in the teachings that I embrace, those of the thirteenth century Japanese priest Nichiren, as conveyed to me through the modern-day Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI).
Buddhism explained what my father and his friends showed: that all people have the inherently equal potential to become enlightened, and that by tapping this enlightenment within ourselves while caring for others we can realize peace. “If we dig deep enough within the great earth of each person’s life, we find flowing there the same underground channels of empathy and compassion. This source gives rise to an immense range of human diversity, a symphony of life, in which each of us is endowed equally with a unique role and purpose. Our struggle to return to this source is thus central to bringing about a genuine renaissance for all people,” writes SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, who I dedicated the book to and regard as my mentor.
Fundamentally, my Buddhist faith helped me appreciate my father’s experiences of growing up Jewish in a Muslim country – and continues to give me hope that people of all religions will someday be able to coexist peacefully.
This post originally appeared on Book Club Cookbook’s guest author blog.
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