By the Waters of Babylon, Michigan
It has been a while since I have written anything outside of a letter to my kids at camp, or a few articles for my work.
This summer I’ve been reading more than writing.
I can’t say I have been reading for pleasure, as most of my reading has been the unending news and commentary on the news from the Middle East.
Concentrating on anything else has been challenging. Even the weekly meditative practice of clipping coupons before going grocery shopping can be distracted by another worrisome report about another hateful demonstration popping up in Europe.
So, there I was in the dairy aisle in a Detroit suburban supermarket without my Greek yogurt coupons when I hear …..
“You know, the news, it gets more terrible with each passing day …. Yes, they are beheading children… they fled with nothing….
….yes, I was born in Baghdad
…. I have no homeland to return to
… but what can you do, what can you do?”
The horrors of the world these days, they are never far away.
Especially in Michigan.
You see, only second to California, Michigan is home to the largest community of Iraqi immigrants in the United States. Half of them are Chaldean Christians. Studies from Data Driven Detroit, the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, and the Chaldean Federation revealed metro Detroit’s Chaldean population hovers between 100,000 and 120,000. Nearly 60% of that population owns a business.
The Chaldean people, one of the most ancient people on the planet. They are even mentioned early on in the Torah, the ancient city of Ur was part of the Chaldean empire, the city which was the hometown of Abraham, the guy who smashed the idols, the father of all three major faiths.
But getting back to present day ….
I felt so badly for this poor man. I wanted to express my sympathy, to let him know that people were listening and caring about the persecution of his people who are speaking out against the brutality ….
But he stayed on the phone.
And I had to pick out my yogurt.
So I circled around the aisles a bit more and did catch up with him at the check-out aisle.
He was off the phone.
“Look, I am sorry if I overheard your conversation, I just wanted to express my sympathies and sadness of what is going on in Iraq.”
He turned to face me and I noticed the gold cross pinned to the lapel of his brown suit jacket.
He waved his hand towards me as a sign that it was no problem that I was snooping on his conversation. He eyed my Star of David, the one I got in Italy, made of Merano glass, and then we spoke.
“Listen to me. These people. They are barbarians. They chased my people out of their homes with nothing but the clothes on their back. They are killing children by chopping off their heads, stealing the women. And for what? They are following the instructions of their prophet Mohammed, exactly to the letter in their Quran. They kill anyone who is not Muslim.”
My mouth hung open, shocked at his bluntness as what most of us would be labeled “Islamaphobic” for saying.
He looked at me again. He unloaded his two bottles of Coffeemate and his large container of dates and he continued.
“The Israelis? You are the only people who know how to deal with their mentality, they only respond to force. I grew up in Baghdad with Jewish friends. They were scholars and merchants, doctors….”
“Yes… I know there was a Jewish community there-”
“Yes, for 2,500 years, there were Jews in Iraq. And then, in the 50’s, Iraq kicked most of them out, drove them out,” and then he said something profound.
“You know, my Jewish friends said to me before they left…. something to the affect ‘They are kicking us out today, on a Sunday. They will kick you out by Tuesday.'”
I nodded in total agreement. I feebly mentioned to him that I had read a book, Farewell to Babylon … but why would he have to read such a book about the exile of Iraqi Jews. after all, he lived it.
“Ah yes, there is that psalm, we share with you, “By the Waters of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion….”
Right there, as I unloaded my greek yogurt and Multi-grain Cheerios, I was having a moment of deep spiritual connection with this stranger.
He went on to tell me that Jews and Chaldeans literally share the same blood line, before he moved up to pay. Before I knew it, I realized that the cashier and the bagging clerk were smiling, also listening intently to our conversation. When the man started to speak Arabic with them, I realized then they were also Chaldean.
You can learn a lot and connect with hurting people in a grocery store.
Next Monday, I will continue to learn more about my Chaldean neighbors as I attend a joint program with the Jewish and Chaldean communities of Detroit, as we build bridges of understanding and stand together against hate and terror.