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Anisa Mehdi Headshot

Do You Speak Muslim?

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The nurse who gave the meningitis vaccine asked where I was going. "Mexico?" she wondered. "India?" These places were just names to her; she'd never left the United States.

"Saudi Arabia," I said, "I'm making a film about a pilgrimage called the Hajj."

Into her blank stare I continued. "It's a documentary film series for PBS all about pilgrimage in different faith traditions. I am covering the Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj. It happens once a year, starting in Mecca."

For a moment she considered what I'd said.

"What language do you speak there?" she asked sincerely. "Do you speak... Muslim?"

The answer was embarrassingly obvious to me. Mecca is located on the Arabian Peninsula. People speak Arabic there. And since Muslims are from the world over they speak myriad languages. In fact, Arabic is not the primary language for most Muslims. More Muslims speak Indonesian and Chinese dialects and Urdu than those who speak Arabic.

"No," I answered gently and plainly. "I speak English and Spanish. The people of Arabia speak Arabic. And Muslims speak many languages."

She was satisfied. But I was not.

Do we, in fact, speak "Muslim"? Heading by car from Medina south to Mecca, about a four-hour drive, I had time to consider. My crew was resting, gearing up for eight jam-packed days in the Holy City and following pilgrims on the Hajj. There may actually be a common language with phrases such as Asalaamu 'alaykum (Peace be upon you), Alhamdulillah" (Praise be to God), Allahu akbar (God is greater - whatever there may be, God is greater), La illaha il Allah (There is no god but God), and insha Allah (Let it be God's will -- although the more cynical among us would say it's like "mañana" only less urgent).

It may be a language of practices that most of us understand (and put up with) like some men placing their hands on their hearts rather than shaking hands with women and vice versa, and making a ritual ablution before prayer that includes rinsing everything from your face, nose and ears to your privates and your feet. The language of eyes filled with knowing pride and compassion during the month of Ramadan when we go hungry and thirsty during daylight hours for an entire month. And increasingly a language called Muslim that speaks in defense of Islam in the face of fanatics and cults that seek to use faith to generate social unrest and political gain. The word for sociopathy in Arabic is "hiraba" and I wish that would become more common in the lexicon of Muslim than "jihadi." Listen to my commentary, "Rethinking the Word Jihad" on NPR's "All Things Considered."

The Muslim language is spoken worldwide in unique communities. And here in Mecca it is lingua franca.

When people are swept into the circumambulation of the Ka'aba, the black cloth-covered building in the center of Mecca's central sanctuary, they speak, feel, and hear Muslim all around. The greeting of peace among strangers; the give and take for position in the crowd; the resentment of folks who push too hard to complete their rituals. Speaking Muslim should mean being careful not to endanger anyone. To aid someone in need. To be hospitable, generous, charitable.

Let me be clear that I know there are many people who are not fluent in "Muslim." But during the Tawaf -- circumambulation -- people try and it's a joy to see. Pilgrims reported to me that they'd never been so squashed before. One tall man said he was lifted off his feet by the press; another saw someone crowd surfing. I've taken an elderly woman by the hand and walked with her around and around, speaking Muslim since it was the only language we shared, and keeping her safe and centered.

I keep asking the pilgrims who'll appear in this documentary, "How do you think you can take your experience home? How will you sustain the transformation you seek? How can the power of all the love and intention to 'speak good Muslim' be channeled into making the world a better place for everyone?"

It's a tall order.

But the Hajj is a tall order. Reckoning with the Creator is a tall order.

Hajj started today, 8 of Dhul Hijjah, 13 October 2013, in the campsite called Mina a few miles east of Mecca, and climaxes on 9 Dhul Hijja on the Plain of Arafat.

Insha Allah there'll be a fluency in speaking Muslim gained over the next few days.