November 19, 2016: Grand Mosques and Grand Desert Adventure in Abu Dhabi

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is located in Abu Dhabi, and is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.  It holds up to 40,000 worshippers, has four massive minarets, each 106 meters tall with designs incorporating elements from major periods in Islamic history, and 82 domes, each inscribed in gold with verses from the Holy Quran.  The courtyard, or sahan, features the largest marble mosaic in the world.  In fact, all of the mosaics are predictably world class, continuing Islam’s long tradition of not representing the human form in mosque art.  The carpet in the prayer room is the largest single carpet in the world, hand  knotted over two years by some 1,200 craftsmen.

I could go on and on like this.  The place is truly stunning, with the values and verses of the Quran represented symbolically in nearly every element of this truly epic structure.  It really is a monument to God – the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians, people of the book, for whom Mohammed taught respect and tolerance.

img_20161119_022501.jpgRespect and tolerance.  Two virtues Americans like to lay as foundational elements in our sometimes civil society.

There’s a lot happening at home in the US while I`m on this journey for understanding through the Middle East with the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber’s Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) Fellowship.  Most of what is happening at home does not involve as much respect and tolerance as we like to pride ourselves on.

I wonder how many people who claim Islam is a “religion of hate” (whatever that means) have ever visited a mosque.

I’d guess next to none, but that would be unfairly judging a massive group of people that I don’t personally know.  And it would make me no better than them.

So, as a teacher, I’ll return to my class and educate.  State standards don’t call for me to teach my 6th grade world history students about Islam, but I do anyway…  Because the alternative is that they learn about it from people like Donald Trump.

And that is clearly not ok.

These lessons are not intended to indoctrinate or push any agenda, except the agenda of thoughtful inquiry…   It is about teaching that other people might live differently or believe differently, but that from diversity comes strength, not weakness.  That the “other” or the “foreign” is not something to fear or shut out, but to engage.

After all, my mission statement is, as an educator and as curator of this site – to foster critical and historical thinking, greater cultural awareness, and a sense of wonder about the world and our place in it.

And here in the Grand Mosque is a building that is just one more piece of evidence in a case that must be made in the West: Islam is a religion of scholarship and art, not ignorance and destruction.  Islam is a religion of peace and beauty, and those who take its symbols and name to perpetrate acts of violence are just as sad and scared as those who now prepare to enter our White House.

img_20161119_073935.jpgI finished the day in a far less heady space – racing across the deserts outside Abu Dhabi with my friends, gripping the specialty roll bar inside an SUV with severely deflated tires.  Our driver, Rasheem, crests over dunes, blasting the windshield with a stinging spray of sand.  This isn’t totally safe, and it’s definitely not part of the fellowship’s official itinerary.  It may even be discouraged by the Bilateral Chamber.

But it sure is fun.

The emptiness out here is stunning, even just 45 minutes away from the city.  As the brightly lit malls and government buildings of Abu Dhabi recede behind us, there are few signs of life beyond the highway except some well-irrigated olive trees.

And once you get past those, it’s just you and the sand.

Drive over those dunes, and this may as well be a harsh and alien planet.  I don’t know that I could even find my way back to civilization on my own, save for the ever-shifting and highly tenuous tire treads in the sand.

img_20161119_082819.jpgLife in Arabia before modern times – with electricity, air conditioning, combustion engines, GPS, and desalinization plants – must have been almost impossibly hard.

Isolated, poor – a lot of work for meager return, in a life eked out on the margins of the habitable world.

No wonder the UAE is so eager to showcase their success in the grandest possible terms.

The Burj Khalifa.