What’s in a Salaam?

CLIMBING the stairs to the 3rd floor, I am making my way to Radiology. I have just left a patient on Six West who is suffering from new-onset hemoptysis. A portable chest X-ray was done quickly, and there is a question of a fluffy infiltrate in the right apex. The opacity could be a tumor, and like most diagnoses based on imaging, I need to review the findings in person. To have a friend in the department of “rays” is one of the biggest gifts an intern can have when working in a hospital. It means cutting through unnecessary red tape and getting your Alms read on time.

I walk down the corridor past “Ultrasound”. The CT reading room is a dim, square enclave with glowing lightboxes set on the walls and flickering computer monitors on every tabletop. A few pale-faced radiologists man the room, huddled in clumps around two or three screens, talking in low voices. I eagerly seek out the one who seems the least busy. He’s a tall, handsome fellow, with black flowing hair and a goatee. He’s lounging casually in a swivel chair, legs sprawled out, leafing through a large manila envelope of black films. He looks like a new guy, a resident.

“Omar,” says a physician next to him with a nudge. “Did you dictate that pelvis yet?”

Omar nods in affirmation and starts hanging films up on the lightbox.

Omar. A glimmer of hope flashes before me. There are so few Muslims in this hospital that I wonder if I have a new friend. The sterile environment at work catches up to me, and I long for signs of familiar comforts. Despite my excitement, I force myself to stop and think. To look at, he has Caucasian features, and his skin is a light shade of olive-brown. He could easily be Pakistani or Indian, maybe Egyptian. Palestinian? At the same time, 1 can’t rule out Latino descent … maybe he’s Omar Rodriguez? Less likely if he’s not pitching for the Red Sox’s.

I strain to get a better look at the nametag dangling from the lapel of his white coat. Ahmed, I read. Dr Omar Ahmed.

I approach him. uAs-salaa – ” but I catch myself quickly before I blurt it out too loud. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but in the professional setting of the hospital, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

On the one hand, there might be the attending physician who overhears me, and ignorantly links us to the Taliban. I sort of doubt that, and at any rate, I have no qualms about openly identifying myself as a Muslim. My hesitation stems from my sensitivity to the other person. IfI were to greet him in Arabic, would he panic and ignore me? Reply under his breath? Or stand up and hug me like it were Eid? It’s really so hard to tell in this day and age. Judging from his name and outside appearances, he would seem to be a Muslim (as if there is a physical appearance that defines “Muslim”). And if he «Muslim, what assumptions am I allowed to have about him? Is his Islam just an artifactual birthright or a way of life, like breathing?

As-salaam Alaikummeans many things to me. On the one hand, it’s a secret handshake that opens locked doors and allows me to instantly make friends. At ISNA, for example, I might meet a new African-American brother, shake hands, As-salaam Alaikum, He breaks out in a wide, knowing smile that says, you know, I pray to Mecca too! Just a few words and I know this brother will remind me to make wu’du.

There’s even a proper way to say it Shake hands firmly, and then look straight into his eyes. Smile genuinely. Or on concluding salaat after turning your head right, then left, you reach out to your neighbor, gently clasp their palm with two hands, and then touch your left breast, right over your heart. It’s as if you can feel their sincerity, their intensity pass into you.

Amongst guys, it’s just “salaams”. Like “what’s up, chump?” The only movement you make is a quick upward chin nod. Hoodies hanging tough. BuL if you’re Hyderabad! and meeting a shriveled granny the size of Yoda, you have to cup your right hand near your forehead and bend over at the waist into an L-shape as if you are about to go down into sijda. Don’t go too far at first: inevitably, one of your parents will say in Urdu, “Pate mey mundi dallow,” roughly meaning “put your face into her stomach.” It’s a polite way of saying you can never bend down far enough to show respect to the elderly. “Jeet rahoo beTaa…” (“Live long, kid…”)

So, what to do here? I could go with the simple greeting, “salaam,” which is culturally safe like a sarnosa. Abbreviated and quick, it’s non-committal, but still hanging bait for any would-be takers. “Salaam” is one of those things I say even to my Jewish friends who know the word is close enough to “shalom” that they deem me culturally sensitive.

Perhaps, just a step lower, I could go around solemnly pronouncing a single word – “Peace!” Somehow, that makes me feel like Tonto in the Lone Ranger. Or some kung fu master condescendingly referring to others as “young grasshopper.”

So, what am I afraid of? I’m not so much worried about how I’ll look, but whether or not I’ll embarrass him. Maybe he’ll label me a mullah for so openly sharing my identity. Of course, these same mullahs would reject me as a heretic for not adding ” wa-Rahmatullahi waBarakatahu.” Or for mispronouncing my “eins”.

If only I had some visual clue! Sometimes I’ll pass a Muslim woman walking in the mall, wearing hijab, and a tingling sensation of pride runs through me. Of course, they choose to wear it for themselves, not for me, but I get wrapped up in the same spirit and identity. It’s a visual badge of courage.

“You okay? Can I help you with something?” The same resident turns to me with a quizzical look.

“Yeah, sure.” I’m not sure why I even feel the strong need to say something to him. I may be obsessively over-analyzing the moment, but I almost feel like it’s my responsibility – an im- perative – to say something. One day, Hazrat ‘Umar and eAIi passed each other in the street. No words were exchanged between them. The chance meeting happened a second time, and Hazrat ‘Umar went to the Prophet to complain. “Why won’t ‘Ali pay his respects to an elder by at least greeting me in the proper fashion?” he wanted to know. The Prophet sent for ‘Ali to come before them. Perplexed, Hazrat ‘Ali ex- plained, “I didn’t greet you first because I know that there is a greater reward for it. By remain- ing silent and giving you an opportunity to accost me, I was hoping to give you the full reward.” My, how times have changed …

I hand Dr Ahmed the films, and he puts them up on the board.

“Yeah, I agree,” he says, noting the coin lesion in the right upper lung field that I had seen earlier. “It’s possible your patient has a Pancoast tumor. I’d suggest a further work-up.”

No kidding. These days, what am I allowed to assume about him? I still wonder why it means so much to me.

“Is that all?” he says again, placing my films in their cover and handing them back to me.

“Are you from Pakistan?” I ask timidly.

“Yeah – studied at Aga Khan,” he beams. “Good guess, yaar (friend)! I came to the States a few years ago and love it! No going back …”

“Omar!” barks the same physician, who is now across the room helping another group of doctors and medical students. “We’re heading out for drinks after work. Interested in coming again?”

“Where at?” Omar shouts back, not blinking.

“Oliver’s. Happy hour is at six.”

“Sure thing! But only if you can hold your liquor … last time you were so weak …” He winks at me over his shoulder. “Let me just finish reading the last few films here, Sam.” He turns to me. “So, are you from the motherland too?”

“Born here, parents are from there, kind ofT I’m not sure what to make of the wink. Is the joke on me or the senior radiologist? “Well, I need to get back. Thanks for reading the films.”

“Any time, any time.” Omar swivels in the chair and addresses the lightbox before him, dictating into the microphone.

I pause for a moment before leaving the room, more embarrassed than him. Why do I care? Why can’t I take such a simple greeting for granted anymore? The wink bothers me. Deep inside, the only word I can muster is khudhaflz.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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