As you may know if you’ve followed my blog or know me in person, I spent a total of 7 months in an Arab-Muslim country in North Africa, Tunisia. Once was a study abroad experience to study Arabic, and then I went back last summer to teach English. Given all the religious debate and Islamaphobia in the country lately, I’d like to take a moment to just share some stories.

My first week in Tunis, our director and his two assistants were more than kind to us and made sure that we were safe at all times. Our teachers gave us lessons in basic Arabic so we wouldn’t be totally helpless, and we were escorted around the city.

My first host family was awesome. A divorcee and her two teenage sons, they took me in and literally treated me like family. She even called me her binti, or daughter, to her friends (which, needless to say, got some strange reactions since we definitely do not look related). She even drove me into the city every morning for class for the first few weeks because she was scared of me taking the bus on my own in an unfamiliar place (not that it wasn’t safe, but she was just overprotective). The other Americans in my group had very similar experiences.

Every Tunisian I met welcomed me into their homes with open arms. They fed (and overfed) me, made sure I was comfortable, and gave me the utmost hospitality. They know that many Americans don’t like Muslims, yet they didn’t let that taint their view of me. I couldn’t even communicate with some of them and yet they still went out of their way to show me that they weren’t like the crazy Muslims I see on TV back home. They were thrilled to be able to break that stereotype to at least one American.

One time we went to the house of a friend of my host mom. I’m not sure her exact position, but she was some religious figure in the local mosque. My host mom was joking about how I have such a small appetite (especially compared to her 2 boys), so I tried to say in Arabic, “No, I like to eat!” Instead I said, “I would like to eat,” nheb nakol. This woman jumped out of her seat to go and make me dinner, even after I insisted that’s not what I meant and she didn’t have to.

The many people my age that I met were eager to talk about American culture: movies, music, Michael Jackson, and even politics (especially in the spring of 2008 during the Presidential primary). They showed me the best cafes and clubs to go to, and were eager to take me out and introduce me to people.

Last summer, I needed to find a place to stay last minute. Both of my bosses immediately jumped at the chance to host me, and my old director also helped me find a house and more teaching opportunities.

Two of my host moms were very religious, but it took me weeks to even find out, as they would pray in their rooms with the doors closed while the kids and I watched TV or did homework. When discussing their religious devotion, they said that it was a very personal thing, their personal connection between them and God. They were not about to impose it on anyone, not even their children (which is more than I can say of most Christian parents in the US). In fact, the only time I debated religion or was pressured to convert was with my American Christian friends who tried to get me to “see the light.”

My real mother, who took some convincing to let me go in the first place, came to visit for a week and absolutely loved it. Everyone treated her the same as me: with open arms, extreme hospitality, and plenty of food. All of the other Americans I met loved their experiences there and want to go back to visit. All of the Tunisians I met were the most open-minded, friendly people ever, eager to learn as much as they could. That’s not to say there weren’t a few assholes I met, but that will be anywhere. Some of my friends observed Ramadan, some merely abstained from drinking during Ramadan. Some never drank, while others rivaled the alcohol tolerance of my college friends. Some considered themselves moderate Muslims, others said they were simply agnostic and didn’t care at all for Islam or any religion. They were laid back (especially due to the heat), and I love them all and still stay in touch with many.

Now, does this sound like the type of people who want to kill us? Do my friends, my 2nd and 3rd families, do they sound like the type of people who hate Americans and want us all killed? Who want Islam to rule the world?

People ask me why I care so much about the Park51 community center in lower Manhattan. As an atheist, and someone who doesn’t particularly care for organized religion in general, I still believe in the freedom to worship. After living in a Muslim country for 7 months, I simply cannot understand why people hate them. I have never felt LESS pressured to convert to a religion as when I was over there. I have never felt LESS unwelcome or judged as when I was over there. I understand that there are extremists in every religion or group, but that has nothing to do with my friends.

Muslims as a group aren’t out to kill us. They want everything that all other Americans want for them and their families, and they shouldn’t feel pressured to sacrifice any of it due to a small fringe group. How many stories must I tell about my Muslim friends until this is clear?