I was eleven years old when I spotted my first Muslim. I didn’t actually know that he was one, or if I did, what it meant. The Flemish countryside wasn’t exactly rife with newcomers back in the days. It was the late eighties. Ronald Reagan had just past the torch to the first of the Bushes. MacGuyver was the coolest man alive, and I dreamt aloud of owning a double tape-deck radio while my peers elsewhere were switching to CD. Like I said; Flemish countryside. And from its deepest recess I moved to a new school. A bigger town. Still bum-fuck “Limbourg” but hey, 60.000 souls and counting, changing, diversifying. Come to think of it, I might as well have landed on Mars.
His name was Chaglar. To me the word ‘Turk’ by dint of, let’s call them uncles and aunts who had seen one or several, carried somewhat of an odor. For some reason the teacher sat me right next to him too. I remember the boy’s constant chewing, inseparable from the small bags of sunflower seeds like Gorbachev from that thing that lived on his forehead. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I asked. Just making conversation. “Six.” Shit. I was not in Kansas anymore. Both my parents hailed from larger families, but in this day and age? Gosh. We became friends in the manner of a bunch of suburban kids chaperoning a stranded alien. Looking back I think –I know that I was the E.T.; unworldly, withdrawn, preferring Lego over social interaction.
We sort of just walked around the play ground. Other kids played soccer I guess. Outside, baddies tore by on Piaggio scooters, lighting firecrackers, not giving a damn. More a George Lucas than Steven Spielberg type of thing. Now these… this was a different ball park. Moroccans! Muslim. They might as well have been Stormtroopers. Without any reflection I gave them my Jedi middle finger. I don’t know why. Neither of my parents were ever overtly racist in any transmittable sense, not counting ‘innocent’ prejudices or simply not any non-white-Belgian-Catholic friends. Perhaps a slight, hardly perceivable bias eludes the conscious mind. Subliminal, its obvious logical flaws unchallenged, nest in a child’s brain. Then, when you least expect it, you’re shouting an Arabic obscenity some Turkish kid just whispered in your ear.
There I stood, a fence separating my enemies from a coward. The 11 year-old brain has a way of seeing a fence, but not the unguarded entrance in the middle of it. “We eat Belgians raw,” they’d said in response to my taunts, proving my point exactly. Before I knew it I was running for my life. Onto the playground. Safety, and where is a teacher when you need one? Twelve-hour stints of building 747’s, Knight Riders and castles don’t quite prepare one for battle, let alone running away really fast. My bigotry had caught up with me at last and I could feel the cold hand of Islamic justice on my neck. This was it. I was done for. Life had been good for me so far. It was only going to go downhill from here anyway. High school, college, jobs, wife, kids, taxes and old age. I was ready. My formidable opponent, mid-teen, wispy mustache and all, looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t do that.” I agreed.
Sinai is a fictional story of ignorance in the face of “Holy shit, what the hell is going on here? I just came for the snorkeling.”