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It was at my mother's kitchen table, surrounded by the smells of herbed olive oils and pomegranates, that I first learned of jihad. Every day, my brothers and I gathered around the low table for madrassa, our lessons in Islam. I always tried to sit facing east, toward the window above the long marble sink where a huge tree with sweet white berries brushed against the window panes. Made of a warm, reddish wood, our table sat in the middle of the kitchen and was surrounded by tesats, small rugs that kept us off the cool tile. Mother sat at the head of the table and read to us from the Koran and also from the hadith, which records the wisdom and instruction of Allah's prophet, Muhammad.
Mother's Koran had a hard black cover etched ornately in gold and scarlet. Her grandfather had given the Book to her father, who had given it her. Even as a small boy I knew my mother and father were devout Sunni Muslims. So devout, in fact, that other Sunnis held themselves a little straighter in our family's presence. My mother never went out without her hijab, only her coffee-colored eyes peering above the cloth that shielded her face, which no man outside our family had ever seen. My father, respected in our mosque, earned an honest living as a blacksmith. He had learned the trade from my grandfather, a slim Turk who wore a red fez, walked with a limp, and cherished thick, cinnamon-laced coffee.
Each day at madrassa, Mother pulled her treasured Koran from a soft bag made of ivory cloth and when she opened it, the breath of its frail, aging pages floated down the table. Mother would read to us about the glory of Islam, about the good Muslims, and about what the Jews did to us. As a four-year-old boy, my favorite parts were the stories of war.
I vividly remember the day in madrassa when we heard the story of a merciless bandit who went about robbing caravans and killing innocent travelers. "This bandit was an evil, evil man," Mother said, spinning the tale as she sketched pictures of swords for us to color.
An evil bandit? She had my attention.
"One day, there was a great battle between the Jews and the sons of Islam," she went on. "The bandit decided to join the fight for the cause of Allah. He charged in on a great, black horse, sweeping his heavy sword left and right, cutting down the infidel warriors."
My eyes grew wider. I held my breath so as not to miss a word.
"The bandit fought bravely for Allah, killing several of the enemy until the sword of an infidel pierced the bandit's heart. He tumbled from his horse and died on the battlefield."
Disappointment deflated my chest. What good is a story like that?
I could hear children outside, shouting and playing. A breeze from the Mediterranean shimmered in the berry tree. Mother's yaknah simmered on the stove green beans snapped fresh, cooked with olive oil, tomato, onion, and garlic. She would serve it cool that evening with pita bread, fresh mint, and cucumbers. My stomach rumbled.
"After the bandit died," Mother was saying in her storytelling voice, "his mother had a dream. In this dream, she saw her son sitting on the shore of an endless crystal river, surrounded by a multitude of women who were feeding him and tending to him."
I turned back toward Mother. Maybe this story was not so bad after all.
"The bandit's mother was an observant woman, obedient to her husband and to Allah and Muhammad," my mother said. "This woman knew her son was a robber and a murderer. 'How dare you be sitting here in paradise?' she scolded him. 'You don't belong here. You belong in hell!' But her son answered, 'I died for the glory of Allah and when I woke up, He welcomed me into jannah.' "
My mother swept her eyes around the kitchen table. "So you see, my sons, even the most sinful man is able to redeem himself with one drop of an infidel's blood."
The Blood of Lambs © 2009 Arise Enterprises, LLC