We all know the standard traditions of marriage in America: something borrowed, something blue... the groom doesn't see the bride before the wedding... processional and recessional... the kiss, the toast... the newlywed couple cutting the cake and smearing it on one another's faces, throwing rice on the departing couple. But there are also some nonstandard traditions that include a wide array of practical jokes.
My brother masterminded one on Grace and me. He and my parents kindly offered to move some furniture into our apartment while we were away on our honeymoon. After hauling in the furniture, my brother blew up a couple hundred balloons and filled our only bathroom with them. When I say filled, I mean that the room was jammed with balloons floor to ceiling. (It must have been a challenge to squeeze the last few dozen in there!)
Imagine us returning home after midnight from our honeymoon in Bermuda. Bleary-eyed and emotional about spending our first night in our apartment, we wandered around with a mix of excitement and exhaustion. But when we tried to open the bathroom door, it...wouldn't...open!
Once we diagnosed the problem, the question became how to treat it. Popping several hundred balloons after midnight would surely elicit 911 calls from our new neighbors, and not make the ideal first impression: "They must have a shooting gallery down there in Apartment 101!" Or, "Wow, that new marriage doesn't seem to be going too well. Guns already!"
So we gingerly reached in and began pulling out balloons, one at a time. After 15 or 20 minutes, the bathroom was more or less empty, but a slow tide of balloons had spread through our apartment, covering the floor of our living room, dining room, and kitchen like a motley tide. "We'll deal with it in the morning," I told my wife.
The next morning, I stepped out on our front stoop to survey our new neighborhood as my bride slept in. There I bumped into a boy of about eight, rushing into the apartment building like a bat into a cave. He struck me as friendly and energetic, maybe precocious, maybe even brash. "You're the new guy," he said. "Gotta go!"
By his breathless pace, I suspected the unspoken end of the sentence was "to the bathroom." I sat down on the stoop to ponder what I was going to do with a couple million -- more or less -- balloons. A minute later, the boy returned and plopped down on the step next to me, still breathless but talkative. He was Armin, eight years old, from Iran, lived in the apartment directly above ours.
If life were a cartoon, one of those little light bulbs would have appeared above my head about three minutes into our conversation. "Hey Armin, do you like balloons?" "Sure. You got some?" "Come with me," I replied.
We went up one flight of stairs and when I opened the door and he peered in, his eyes opened wide and he flashed me a huge smile. "I can help you, Brian. I can help you with these." But instead of grabbing even one, he raced down the stairs and out the door. I could hear his little sneakers slapping down the sidewalk. I was a little puzzled, but Armin seemed like a young man who knew what he was doing.
A few minutes later, the door opened -- no knock: I learned that Armin never knocked. In came a stream of kids, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. Each of them took as many balloons as he or she could hold, the little ones two, the bigger ones three or four. A few minutes later, they came back for a second load, and after a few loads, all the balloons were gone.
That day earned us a heroic reputation with the neighborhood kids and a slightly less stellar reputation with their parents who had to endure the random sounds of popping balloons for days to come. But it also began a friendship with Armin. I'd have to say that Armin was my first Muslim friend.
Soon we got to know his mom, Liza (Anglicized from a Farsi name). We never succeeded in getting Armin to knock. I think we became his second family, which meant a lot to both him and his mom, for reasons that gradually became clear.
Armin's dad was a graduate student at the university where I was also studying. He had come to the U.S. a year before his family to get things ready for their arrival and to get acclimated to his studies in a foreign language. A few months after their arrival, Liza realized that her husband had grown close -- very close -- with an American student, and soon, he moved in with her, leaving Liza and Armin stuck in America with no husband, no father, no work and no English.
We and our balloons moved in about a year after the break-up. In that time, Armin had gone to school and mastered English as only kids can. Liza got a job at a McDonald's, and her English had improved from non-existent to broken but functional. Over the next few years, our friendship deepened, and Liza expressed that friendship in a most delicious way: Iranian dishes delivered to our door. We once hosted a party for her Iranian friends. It turned out Americans, back in those days after the Iranian Revolution and the hostage situation, weren't very welcoming to Iranians, so word spread that Liza knew some Americans who liked Iranians.
My brain was filled with the same ignorant misconceptions about Islam and Muslims that most Americans share today. Liza and Armin reeducated me. They helped me know Muslims as my neighbors, my friends, human beings who struggled with the same mice and cockroaches that we did in that grimy little apartment building.
Since then, I've been blessed with many more Muslim friends in my life. Each has brought a gift to me, but none greater than Armin. By becoming my first Muslim friend, he forever shattered my preconceptions and false assumptions.
The standard approach to Muslims from my Evangelical upbringing was: be nice to them when necessary in order to evangelize them; otherwise, see them as spiritual competitors and potential enemies. Armin was the first instrument of my conversion away from that sub-Christian attitude, and he was an ideal agent for conversion. As my neighbor, it was pretty hard to ignore Jesus' commandment to love him. As a child, he didn't pose a threat. As my benefactor -- the angelic agent of post-honeymoon balloon-removal -- how could I not be grateful to him? And as a naturally bold and precocious child who never learned to knock before entering, he was determined to be part of my life unless I locked the door.
I'm glad I didn't. Thank God I didn't.
This essay is an excerpt from "My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, And Transformation" from Orbis.
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