Muhammad and Me: A Very True, Very New York Story
By Donna Sherman
I walked off my cancer treatment moments much like a distance runner might walk at the end of a long race to prevent the build up of lactic acid. Since the fall of 2009 I’ve had many visits to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and I developed a habit, which I call my Post- Medical –Walk- Down (PMWD). My Walk Down looks something like this: I walk out the doors of whichever upper east side building I happen to be in, decide on a direction and commence to walk.
I walked to give my anxiety a physical release. I walked to quietly chant my personal gratitude prayer. I walked to give myself time to move from one realm of my life to another.
Most of my PMWD walk downs were unremarkable. Some were awful as I negotiated crowded sidewalks while feeling weak or nauseous. A few have been delicious because I had minimally invasive procedures and/or I had a meeting with one of my doctors that moved my mind closer towards the “I might be getting closer to on the other side of this cancer” side of the equation.
It’s June, shortly after noon. I’ve just walked out of the main building of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Care having had a visit with the surgeon who performed my surgery in November of 2009. After this appointment and an invasive procedure in which a scope was placed up my nostril and then down into the back of my throat, I exit the hospital on 68th and head west for my PMWD.
I’m guessing I was somewhere around 58th and Madison when my feet said: “Girl, you need to give these new- sandal -blisters a rest.” So it’s stretch out the arm time- time to hail a cab. A few minutes later a cab stops to let out a passenger. The driver sees me and gives me the “ OK, you’re on” look.
Exit a tallish, well dressed man who holds the door for me and says, as he’s points his head towards the driver, “He’s a good guy– when he’s not stepping too hard on the pedal.”” I reply: “ Better buckle my seat belt.” The passenger pays the driver, they exchange smiles and handshakes and I’m surprised and impressed by their mutual good cheer.
“ You two seemed to get along, is he a friend? “ I ask.
“ Just met him- he’s from Israel.”
“Cool, I didn’t hear much of an Israeli accent.”
“ No, he speak good English and spend much time in New York. Good man”
I feel a sudden urge to really talk with this man- this random cab driver that I am sharing time and space with because my sandal straps are hurting my toes.
“Where are you from?”
“Aren’t elections happening right about now? What’s your take on things?”
My driver begins to talk, in a general way, about the Mubarak regime and the difficulties of life for many Egyptians.
I ask him: “Think Egypt and Israel will maintain peace”?
He replies, “ I hope so.”
“Me too. I’m Donna. I’m Jewish, and I have to ask you: “Do you think that Jews and Muslims are like brothers and sisters who fight without stopping to notice how, at their core they are more similar than different?”
One of my cancer gifts is that it often leaves me unhinged from my usual reticence and cautious nature. I feel foolish after blurting out this question.
“ Yes, we do. I’m Muhammad.”
Now I’m thinking, this guy is humoring me, an American who knows little about actually living in the Middle East with its intractable conflicts and complexities. Again, I feel foolish but my filter is temporarily missing in action so I ask him this:
“At core, do you think we are brothers and sisters?”
I’d been sitting directly behind Muhammad since getting in the cab. Now, I move over to the right side so I can see more of his face. He’s looking in the rear mirror as we are stopped somewhere just south of Columbus circle.
He says: “Today, all my passengers so nice- today I smile more then usual.”
Okay, so I’m not being perceived as a babbling idiot.
“Seems like you’re pretty nice yourself.” I reply.
Muhammad tells me a little about Alexandria, how it is very Mediterranean, how the food and architecture is Greek influenced. Good universities. He tells me about his schooling. Then he tells me how medical care is much cheaper there than here. How you can buy five diabetes pens there for the cost of one here. I respond with a vague agreement that our health care policy needs some tweaking when he begins a story about having had a cancer. Now, I’m catapulted into full-unhinged zone: “ I’ve just come out of an appointment with one of my doctors at Sloan Kettering! I’m dealing with cancer too! “ I just had a scope put through my nose and throat so my surgeon could check my neck. It hurt something awful.” The way I say this- with excitement and recognition- is as though I’ve discovered that Muhammad and I share love for the same odd indie movie. For a moment I feel foolish again until the next thing that flies out of my unhinged jaws is:
“I’m sorry, I am not happy that either of us is dealing with cancer but I’m guessing you understand this boldness that comes over me? And relief…. relief when the news is not as bad as expected. Do you know what I mean?”
It occurs to me that I might be breaking some protocol by being so open with his man who could be a devout Muslim but the truth is, while I blurted out that I was Jewish I did not ask anything about his religion.
I launch into some more rambling talk about fear, gratitude, pain and my appreciation of modern medicine. I tell him how my once fat, raised neck scar is now barely visible. I ask about his current condition. He wants to know what kind of procedures I have had. We exchange more medical talk. Then silence.
Muhammad is quietly negotiating the crawling mid-town traffic puzzle.
After some more silence Muhammad says:
“ I have tears. Today God brings me good. Remind me that people are good. Now I remember that people are good. I have tears. We both stay healthy.”
He begins playing with his phone. I refrain from launching into my hyper- vigilant, control freak mode and manage to not say: “ Please don’t pick up that phone while driving!” Then I see that he’s holding his phone over his right shoulder and on the screen is a photo of his wife and child. “Beautiful family” I say, meaning it.
I think better of having him turn is face towards the back of the cab so I don’t scroll my to family photos.
“I don’t smile much when I work. Today I smile. God bring me people to remind me of him,”
I say something like “Maybe it’s you, or us, who choose to let the love in. I really don’t know if a God orchestrates these moments or if we choose to widen into what feels like God- like moments; but, if God is ALL then, I’ll go with that! “Muhammad, are you my brother?” I was unglued from caution or carefully crafted words, I had to ask – and this time I felt neither silly nor naive.
“Yes Donna.” “I am your brother.”
Now we’re quiet and about to pull up to Port Authority. I gather my bags and open my wallet to pay him.
I move to back to the left side of the cab so I can exit on the sidewalk. I’m reluctant to leave as I have this desire to know so much more. Where was he when 9/11 happened? What was it like to drive a cab and be named Muhammad? Does he fudge his name if he senses mistrust? Does he have Jewish friends? What happened that caused him and the Israeli passenger just before me to become so friendly? Will he get continued cancer care here in NY or back in Egypt? How much family is back in Egypt?
But I know how moments as rich and unexpected, as this one can’t be exploited and how attempts to stretch them out only diminish their beauty.
I exit the cab. I’m feeling many things at once. There is optimism in this mix of emotions I’m enveloped in and profound appreciation for the fact that New York has stung me again with its potential for synchronicity and raw, random human exchanges.
I leave the cab. Muhammad steps out and looks at me. We’re both smiling and I see that he really does have tears in his eyes. I’m taken aback.
“Brother?” I ask.
“ Sister?” He asks.
I smile, nod and salute him. I have no idea why I do this; I never salute people – I’m more of a subtle Namaste slight bow- of- the head -kind of person- but the salute just happens.
“I think we meet again.” He says.
I lift my shoulders with a kind of “Who knows?’ expression.
I doubt that we will ever meet again in the vast cauldron that is New York City; but I do know, as I am walking into the wide teeming- with -life main terminal of Port Authority that a future meeting does not matter. I know that today; during a cab ride from the Upper East Side, Muhammad and me met. We absolutely, truly met.
photo credit: From collage piece by Lila Nadelmann lilanadelmann.com