Saturday, January 06, 2007

Eid ul-Adha: A father (mother) and son affair

I started this post last Sunday, and I finally have some time to finish it. School started on Wednesday and I'm teaching an interesting class this quarter, different from our usual classes. It is an introductory class taken by a wide range of engineering students. I have a little over 200 students, which is expected on a campus with over 50,000 students, but it is really huge in comparison to our department's average class of maybe 20-30 students! So, it's a different ball game all together, requiring different methods, different styles, etc. Interestingly, the adjustments that I have to make are sort of connected to real ball games and to the subject of this week old post. In sports broadcasting, you usually have a minimum of two: one doing what's called the "play by play," and the other doing "the color." The new class requires more of the former skills, and I am generally more comfortable in smaller classes that are more suitable to a "colorful" style. I am talking about style of delivery, not necessarily a difference in the amount or quality of information. A colorful style does not necessarily mean an imprecise or lean message; on the contrary, it can be quite far reaching, but there has to be some latitude, some flexibility. To the extent that raising children is an educational affair, there is an interesting parallel between work and home for me. In my family broadcast, Hannu does the play by play, and I do the color. Of course we trade tasks back and forth, and we both have to play both roles as required, but in general that's our natural division of educational labor.

For the first time, this year I decided to tell Ahmed and Tala the story of Eid al-Adha. Ahmed in particular is becoming quite keen on the stories behind such occasions. I don't think he is old enough to get some of the morals, or intended morals anyway, but I have noticed lately that all subjects with a high fantasy content, religious stories included, are head turners for Moody. Now, if religious faith be a "light," as they say, then I'd say that I'm generally transparent, perhaps "reflective" at times, but never emissive. Still I often get reminded by my wonderful wife of my educational responsibilities, which is fair enough. So the word "theory" figures heavily in certain educational conversations I have with Ahmed, often presenting alternative "theories" side by side. As a scientist, of course I can't quite conceal my partiality to the experimentally verifiable.

On Saturday, we discussed the theory of Eid over lunch. I tried to stay close to the standard model, "...and Abraham told his son that he'd received a vision from God..."

"What was his son's name?" Moody interrupted, blocking my turn around the bush! The identity of the son is a point of controversy, in fact, and I intentionally tried to keep it generic. But not with Moody!

"There are a couple different theories on that," I started to explain, "He had two sons, Ismael and Isaac and..."

"Ismael, Ismael," Hannu piped in, rescuing the conversation. lol lol lol

"And Ibrahim said God had ordered him to slaughter Ismael," I continued.

"What? Slather his son?" Moody readied himself for protest.

"Well, hmm, uh, ..." I hesitated.

"That means cut his throat with a knife," Hannu chipped in casually, between bites of a Hareesa laden, baguette supported, olive-oil-soaked tuna fish sandwich that is one of my signature creations.

"That's not fair," Moody protested. "God is supposed to tell him to let his son rest from his chores, not kill him!"

"Theoretically, you see...," I mumbled on.

"Wait till you hear the end of the story," Mom said. "Grrrumch!"

"And as Ibrahim and his son prepared to follow divine orders, angels brought a big ram to be sacrificed instead of the son..."


"Well, in fact we do kill fruits and vegetables..." I said.

"Then there will be no chicken nuggets, no cheeseburgers and no hot dogs for you!" Hannu gets down to nuts-n-bolts.

"What? Hot dogs are not meat!" Moody chuckled.

"Some of the experimental evidence might support that proposition," I threw in.

"Then why do we always say 'beef hot dogs'?" "Beef is cows' meat." Hanu "cuts" through the chase!

It was an interesting conversation. A while later, Moody stressed to me that if I should ever get a vision... I assured him that would not happen any time soon. I also added that Ismael's readiness to sacrifice himself meant that no other kids would be sacrificed ever after (in theory.)

Eid dinner was fantastic. Our guests were two families of my colleagues. Paul retired a few years back, after a distinguished career, including membership in the US National Academy of Engineering. One of Paul's traits is using few but sufficient words. When he visited us after Tala's birth, he said that with a son and then a daughter, we had the million-dollar family. This time, after chatting with kids a little, he recalled that his mother would say, "Those kids got all their buttons!" His wife, Betsy, is a really special person. She is a pottery artist, and she has a certain cheerfulness about her that is so genuinely contagious. It is uncanny, really.

Ahmed Dragon
Our other Eid guests, Yunzhi and his wife Liz, are both from China. They moved to the US for graduate school. Yunzhi is about my age, and in addition to many professional collaborations, we often discuss cultural topics without any inhibitions. We often compare notes on growing up in places that were subjected to "cultural revolutions," one a mere theoretical fart, and the other with measurable consequences. He was impressed that I knew, in China they call Muslims "Hui," and I told him it is thought to be derived from the Arabic "Khouy" meaning "My Brother." So now he is always telling me "Hui" stories, like how much he loved to eat lamb at Hui restaurants. Yesterday, he was so impressed by my and Moody's Libyan dress that he decided he had to get hold of some Chinese traditional clothes for himself. I learned more about Chinese culture from Yunzhi than any other source, and what's more, there is no coloration to blur "theory" and "experiment" in our conversations. Liz's father is a calligrapher, and when Moody was born, he gave him the name Ahmed written in Chinese characters, with a dragon to commemorate Moody's birth year. He also brought sheets showing the historical evolution of the word dragon in the Chinese characters. Interestingly, Yunzhi and Liz, in keeping with Chinese tradition, gave money to the newborn, which is the same thing as the Libyan tradition of giving Niheela to the newborn. Of course it came in a special ornate envelope that seemed designed just for such an occasion--we don't have that part in Niheela!


  1. What a lovely evening. To learn about anothers culture over a meal is the absolute best. People relax and enjoy each others company and are willing to share their lives with each other. I suspect your guests learn as much about you and your background. These are little pearls of time that I wish we all experienced more often. What a necklace it would make if we all made a pearl like yours. We would be able to hang the necklace around our planet!

  2. I am having difficulties with my children as well to it comes to sensitive subjects, I suppose it has to be done but in a carefulway as I am sure you are doing.
    thank you for sharing the evening with us.

  3. lol...i was telling the story of prophet Ibrahim once to a group of kindergarten students at a Saturday school...and the kids didnt believe me!!!

    I worked with a Chinese man once and he told me that he enjoyed eating lamb at Muslim restaurants in China too!!!