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In 2012, I went to the Sahara Desert seeking a spiritual experience. In my wild imagination, the emptiness of the desert would transplant me to a transcendental plane beyond my limited self. Clearly, it never happened. At least, not in the way I had imagined.
The experience I was seeking came in the most mundane and unusual way – in the midst of a local hammam in Fez, Morocco. Back then, I couldn’t foresee how this experience would open doors within me and pave the way for activism grounded in shared humanity and receptivity.
After a few days camping in the Moroccan Sahara, near the Algerian border, all I desired was a shower. My romantic expectations of the desert were blown away in the first windstorm. I had sand in all possible parts of my body and clothes. I was sweaty and grumpy when I arrived back to civilization, though relieved because I would finally wash myself.
To my disappointment, the hotel manager informed me that there was no water in the premises. But, I had no reason for concerns. He would walk me to the nearest hammam, where local women have gathered and bathed together for centuries. Initially, I held a lot of resistance. The idea of washing myself in front of strangers was odd and brought discriminatory thoughts to my mind. Without options, I surrendered to his friendly invitation.
When I was delivered to my destination, I was surrounded by Muslim women. Mine was the only white and western body in the changing room. It was my first intimate contact with the Muslim community and I had to undress in front of them. It felt uncomfortable and embarrassing.
I was not only exposing my flesh, but my prejudices as well. I discovered that I too feared Muslims and my fear was related to negative images of Islam. The physical act of stripping of my clothes revealed unknown inner barriers. My judgemental walls were built upon years of dehumanising propaganda against the Muslim community.
Yet, the women’s welcoming approach challenged my judgements.
The local women received me, a foreigner, in their sacred gathering space with open arms and smiles on their faces. They were curious to know more about my story. I, on the contrary, was projecting fear and preoccupation. I shut myself to them.
As the matriarch escorted me through the hammam chambers, an internal shift took place. Perhaps, it was her kind attitude or the genuine hospitality I was experiencing. While we moved to the dark and steamy centre of the hammam, my inner barriers were dissolved.
There I was, naked with five other anonymous women. The atmosphere had changed dramatically. Fear gave way to trust and receptivity. I became interested and wanted to learn more about them. In the darkness of the room, my eyes couldn’t see any difference among us. We were all the same. Between water buckets and scrubbing, we talked and laughed with intimacy, like old friends do.
I left the hammam with my body and soul cleaned. This was my spiritual experience. In going beyond my inner barriers, I contacted a different reality. The reality of our shared humanity. From that day on, I started seeing Muslims as potential friends, instead of threats.
In 2015, I returned to my hometown in South Brazil and learned that there was a Syrian refugee community living there. They were invisible to the host society, with little opportunities in terms of social and cultural integration.
It was my turn to show hospitality and friendship to the Muslim community. So, I built relationships with women and children from the community and started listening to their needs. Language and cultural differences were the main obstacles for them. In spite of the challenges, we created a project that offers Portuguese lessons and cultural exchange, among other activities. Above all, we became friends.
Since islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment follow a global pattern, they are also present in Brazil. The project, therefore, also raises awareness to local authorities and educates members of the host community, from schoolchildren to university students. The intention is to restore collapsing humane values through humanizing talks and workshops.
Worldwide, the atmosphere we breathe is dense and infested with fragmentation, uncertainty and hate against “the other”. It’s challenging to recognize our sense of disconnection, fears and intolerance. It’s difficult to acknowledge how we contribute to the sustenance of this atmosphere.
However, unless we do so, our activism will feed the same atmosphere we’re attempting to counter.
Under the current toxic and divisive political climate, we often forget about the transformative power of human-to-human connection. Given the scale of the crisis, there might be an inclination to focus on the macro levels of politics and economics, or to put our energy in accusations against enemies, overlooking the power of relationships built upon hospitality and kindness.
Activism grounded in shared humanity and receptivity has the potential to restore humane values within our global society.
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