Aurin: a parable of inter-faith friendship

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I am delivering a hunk of still warm teacake to the young Bengali bride in the apartment next door. Her name is Aurin and she hovers nervously in the darkened back room of her one bedroom apartment. I tell her that I have visited her country and it was beautiful. She doesn't say much and I am not sure if the English I am speaking is slow enough. She sets the plate of teacake aside on her cramped bench top with thanks.

*****

Aurin has returned my plate. In place of the teacake is a myriad of Bangladeshi treats.

When I go over to say thank you, Aurin sits me down for chai. She rescues the stilted conversation with a wedding photo album full of pictures of her beautiful frightened self. It was not Aurin's choice to come here. Her marriage was decided upon overnight and swiftly arranged. Syed, her husband, had been in Australia two years already and she was to join him as soon as her studies were complete.

*****

I have planned a day trip to show Aurin some of Melbourne. We hide from the drizzle in the cake shops of Acland Street and though she is too scared of non-Halal ingredients to taste anything, Aurin appreciates the window displays.

At the National Gallery we follow a volunteer guide around the classical art displays and Aurin impresses everyone with her knowledge of ancient Greek mythology. I am surprised and intrigued. She explains to me stories that she learnt at the University of Dhaka. We find a pub that serves (what we think are) halal Nachos and demolish a plate whilst watching the rain.

*****

Aurin has emerged from her pristine kitchen and dust free plastic flowers next door and is writing assignments on my lounge room floor. She spreads her notes out in a semi circle amid my mess of throw cushions, half painted canvasses and crinkled tubes of paint. She hopes that this short course will give her a way in to the Australian workforce. I correct her grammar and serve her vegemite on toast.

Aurin is taking my lead and trying (grimly) to cut down on the amount of sugar she has in her tea. I stir in one and a half generous teaspoons and tell her it's one.

*****

Syed is working late. Nightly, Papuana (from three apartments along) and I meet at Aurin's for chips and Bollywood movies in front of the heater. Our favourite actors are Sharu Kahn and Amir Kahn, Priety Zinta and Kajol. We talk at length about the way Sharu can dance and people and places we miss. Aurin describes her father and the white chrysanthemums growing in her Bengali village.

*****

It is Ramadan and the long month of fasting in solidarity with the poor.

I am trying not to eat in front of Aurin or cook anything that can be smelt next door. I am acutely aware of the hungry all over the world and cautious in appreciating each mouthful consumed secretly during daylight.

I tell Aurin about Jesus' teachings that anyone with two tunics must give one to a person who has none and anyone with food should do the same. Aurin tells me that her religion says the same thing. I cook in smaller portions and am careful to share as much as I can.

*****

I am borrowing Aurin's vacuum cleaner. Actually we are calling it a co-op as Papuana has also been using it on occasion. It adds itself to the growing list of items (hot water bottles, muffin tins, quilts, Panadol, CDs, red onions, lemons) that are daily borrowed and returned, giving each of us an excuse to drop in on the other for a cup of chai.

*****

Aurin is conflicted about her headscarf. It seems to be playing a role in her ongoing difficulties finding acceptance in her new home. A First Class Honours in Community Development and Aurin is having trouble finding work in a dress shop.

*****

Aurin is furious. Ramadan is over and Aurin and Syed have prepared a banquet. Platters of fast fried pakoras, chickpeas in a spicy cold sauce, moist hunks of peeled melon and plump semi dried dates — the first food Mohammed consumed after fasting. Watchers have been appointed throughout the state to sight the moon and declare the exact moment of the festival. The waiting is solemn and table beautiful.

A neighbour, who has singled me out as the only non Muslim guest at the table, is recommending a DVD on the real life of Jesus along with a couple of suggestions about what he has observed of my lifestyle from his apartment across the courtyard. Aurin is serving him hard boiled eggs in livid silence.

*****

Aurin is scandalised by my smoking. She is standing out on the balcony and dodging smoke to tell me so.

'I know, I know, I am a bad Muslim.'

'Not a bad Muslim, Cara. You are a bad nurse!'

*****

Aurin is draping her shawl over my shoulders. Syed has made us hot tea and banished himself to the bedroom. I am crying. Crying and crying and Aurin is telling me that in the beginning Allah took the rib from a man to create woman and when the right two people are bought together, that severed rib is severed no longer. That perhaps he wasn't the right person for me after all.

*****

Aurin has left a post-it note on my door. 'Cara I am cooking something new tonight. Knock on my door when you come home. Love you, A.'

*****

Aurin and I are cutting branches off the bottlebrush trees in our neighbourhood. She saw the idea for making an 'Australian Christmas Wreath' on Better Homes and Gardens and wants to know why I don't have one. She doesn't hang one on her own door, but she spends a lot of time ensuring that mine is up to scratch.

*****

In my apartment, Scottie and I are sharing our second bottle of wine. Aurin, who thinks he is 'very cute', is convinced he is the original owner of the rib that makes up my being. Mid way through our evening together, she drops in with a dish of warm green mango soup, two spoons and a mischievous wink.

***** 

In the church car park, Jess, Sally and I share our picnic blanket with Aurin. We explain to her in whispers that the 14 kids dressed in tinsel and pillowslips are actually angels, wise men and shepherds.

Aurin says complimentary things about the lyrics of 'Silent Night' and sings along to 'Jingle Bells'. Candle wax drips all over our clothes and I cut my finger on the plastic cup with a hole Stanley knifed out of the bottom of it.

A well meaning Christian friend prays for Aurin over the head scarf issue. I know she is not very comfortable, but does not let it show.

*****

The DVD recommending neighbour has been spreading rumours about Aurin among the Muslim Bangladeshi Community. He has said that Syed's new wife is out of control as a result of hanging out with that Australian. Mild mannered Syed calmly retorted that his wife was never in his control and she hangs out with Cara because she loves her.

*****

I have applied to do The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Aurin knows of a similar process in her religion. She thinks it's a good idea. 'Prayer is everything Cara. Without prayer we are nothing.'

Later when my pained efforts at daily silence are returning only bleakness and desolation she nods in sympathy. 'It is the same for me Cara. Prayer is not easy.'

*****

Aurin bets a café latté on Scottie 'proposing me' before the end of the week.

*****

Aurin thinks I disrespect my Bible. She picks it up from where I have dumped it on the floor and dusts it off with her headscarf. Later I find that she has surreptitiously tidied up my throw cushions and been giving hope to my potted plants.

*****

I am buying Aurin a café latté.

*****

Aurin is moving. I am wrapping plates in the Sunday Age, the coloured bowls of so many shared meals. She has made cinnamon chai and the bollywood music is turned up 'to annoy Mr DVD one last time'.

*****

Aurin has declared my cigarettes Halal for one day and I sit in the place where she once erected a no smoking sign on the brick wall between our houses. In her new workplace, Aurin is organising weekly shared lunches for staff to learn a little about one another's culture.

We ponder the ways we have changed and wonder at what Allah and God have in store for us next. We sip chai and laugh at the unlikely pair we must make. Multi-faith dialogue is just a conversation, over time, between dear friends.


Cara MunroCara Munro is a registered nurse and passionate supporter for of the interfaith dialogue. She has lived in India, Malaysia and most recently, the wonderfully multi-cultural suburb of Footscray in Melbourne's West. This essay won First Prize in the 2009 Margaret Dooley Awards.

Topic tags: Cara Munro, Margaret Dooley Award, Bengali, Aurin

 

 

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Existing comments

I really enjoyed it reading.
Jiten Maurya | 24 July 2009


The most uplifting story I have heard in ages.Good on you Cara! Hope Aurin does not move too far away.God/Allah must surely delight in your love and care of each other!!!
Cecilia Merrigan | 28 July 2009


Congratulations Cara for a deeply moving, playful and humane meditation on friendship.

The honesty and compassion that flows through your words is at times, breathtaking, and an absolute pleasure to read.
Jonathan Hill | 29 July 2009


Lovely story.! Good on you Cara. May love and friendships spread through educating our youth.
I also really loved Melbourne for the cultural richness.

Anna Lipoma | 29 July 2009


Thank you Cara, i was quite moved by your story. Friendship is indeed the 'engine room' of interfaith relations..
Andrew | 04 August 2009


So good to share your dialogue. Opening to each other in this very ordinary way, taking time, showing vunerabiltity is the extraordinary. Blessings to you both.
jo dallimore | 07 January 2010


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