Jewish Journal

Elmau & Dachau: A Muslim’s Testimony

by Mehnaz M. Afridi

October 4, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The author with her daughter, Ruya, on the train to Dachau. Photo by Scott A. Dennis

The author with her daughter, Ruya, on the train to Dachau. Photo by Scott A. Dennis

Barbed wire, loaded with death
is drawn around our world.
Above a sky without mercy
sends frost and sunburn.
Far from us are all joys,
far away our home, far away our wives,
when we march to work in silence
thousands of us at the break of day.
But we have learned the motto of Dachau
and it made us as hard as steel:
Be a man, mate,
stay a man, mate,
do a good job, get to it, mate,
for work, work makes you free!
-- Jura Soyfer (Dachau survivor)
I am a Muslim intellectual woman who teaches Judaism and Islam, a Muslim who seeks dialogue with Jews, a Muslim who sympathizes with Jews and understands the need for the state of Israel.

The past year has been an intense one for me and my family. On March 30, I gave birth to a beautiful girl, Ruya, who happens to share her birth date with Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician. At the end of June, I was invited to present a paper at a conference in Elmau, a small resort town 50 miles south of Munich. The conference was organized by the University of Munich's department of history and Jewish studies and co-sponsored by University of California. It was titled, "Judaism Through Muslim Eyes and Islam Through Jewish Eyes." I teach at a variety of Southern California universities, and I was honored by the invitation to be part of such a unique international conference, which included esteemed scholars and intellectuals whose work has had a deep resonance for me, in terms of both my political and religious thinking.

But my trip became much more than the academic experience, because while I was in Germany I took the time to travel with my husband and daughter to Dachau. My intention at the conference was to try to make some connections with Jews and Muslims from Europe, Asia, South America, Israel, America and the Middle East who were also in some manner involved with Jewish-Muslim relations. In post-Holocaust Germany, Muslims (mainly Turks) are treated with disdain, and the memory of Jews has become a distant past. Yet the uncanny coincidence of Muslim and Jew in Europe has fascinated me for some time.

As I watch post-Sept. 11 American and European images of Muslims, I am reminded of how Jews were depicted in 18th century British caricature: the Maltese Jew in his oriental turban. By the 19th century, the classic picture of the Jew was Lord Rothschild in formal wear receiving the Prince of Wales at his daughter's wedding in a London synagogue.

This image of a people turned over in a blink of a century. Religious identity (as a Jew or a Muslim) replaced national identity -- although very few people, I imagine, except perhaps the anti-Semites, remembered that the Rothschilds were once a Frankfurt family who escaped the Yiddish-speaking ghetto. For a time, Jews were imagined as all alike. Today, Muslims also are beginning to all look alike in the popular eye. My role at the conference -- to help differentiate these images and to connect with colleagues -- was clear.

But why did I want to visit Dachau? For whose memory? Perhaps I wanted to be a witness, a Muslim witness, who could testify against the outrage of Holocaust denial in the Islamic world and point out the deep danger in ignoring history and the memory of narrative.

It was the pairing of these two journeys that made this trip so pivotal for me.

The conference organizers hosted about 25 scholars at Schloss in Elmau, a luxurious castle surrounded by mountains, hiking trails, lakes and breathtaking beauty. My husband and Ruya roamed through the exquisite settings and enjoyed the hospitality of the University of Munich as I attended the sessions. It was my first conference with a baby along and I was filled with trepidation, but she was such an inspiration when I would catch her smile during coffee breaks.

The conference lasted two days and was filled with intense papers on Jewish and Muslim history, religion, politics, literature, poetry and art. Many of the scholars present were seasoned teachers, writers and intellectuals who brought with them an earnest desire to see Jew and Muslim as equals. They sought to describe the co-existence in many different realms of life, love, art, literature and religion. Muslim scholars openly critiqued their own cultural biases and the prevalent anti-Semitism in Islamic countries, and Jewish scholars were generous in their understanding of the contribution of Islam upon Judaism.

The most intriguing night was the last roundtable dialogue, when a local journalist put several personal and political questions to both the Muslim and Jewish scholars. Interestingly, the five scholars did not answer the questions, but each expressed deep and provocative sentiments of what it meant to have a Jewish or Islamic history, respectively. In response to their responses, the following questions were asked: How can there be real reconciliation? Memory and the effect of narrative are raw, so perhaps we need to deconstruct the images of one another, especially in the media? The conclusion of the conference remained open-ended, like most academic meetings tend to be, but there was a chill in the air that last night as some of the participants sounded pessimistic and some cynical.

A deep anxiety surfaced within me as I saw a sudden personal testimony rear amid the scholarly masturbation we had engaged in over the last two days -- in other words, how can a group of scholars end the mistrust between Jews and Muslims? Well, we can't. We have no power to resolve the problems of the Knesset or the Fatah or Hamas parties, but we can at least create dialogue and influence from these types of meetings.

But what is dialogue? It is a conversation between two willing parties. However, the willingness of many Jews and Muslims has become buried beneath the memory and effect of narrative and images, as well as death and fear. As the only Muslim woman at this conference, I witnessed some sincere thoughts from Jewish and Muslim men, as well as two Jewish women, who created a dialogue and understanding of how simply human both Jews and Muslims are.

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