An Inconvenient Youth

David Pearson finds himself engaged in an ongoing interreligious dialogue, of a sort, with a fiery young Muslim.

“Where I come from, we would not have this problem. We do not invite dogs into our homes. We kill them.”

So said the swarthy young cashier who’d just rung up my Gatorade for $1.69, his comment occasioned by my answer to his question about the wristlet I was wearing. I’ve been hassled by my share of snarling canines over the years, so a few years ago I started strapping on a small canister of pepper spray whenever I head out for a run, bike ride or walk.

The latter of which I was about to start. Hence the stop for hydration in the convenience store, which sits close to a leafy corporate campus I stroll through each Saturday morning.

“Kill them?” I replied. “Where are you from?”

“Pakistan,” he answered. His eyes flashed pride. Cockiness. Maybe just a hint of defiance. I liked this kid. Didn’t really feel like having this conversation right then and there. But I liked him like I like all straight shooters. Wanted to hear him out.

“Are you Muslim?”

“Yes,” he said, and it quickly became clear he had no qualms about presenting himself as a spokesman for his people. Given his youth — late teens, early 20s — this posture amused and impressed me at the same time.

“We don’t go out of our way to kill all dogs, just the problem ones,” he added. “But one thing we never do is treat a dog like a person.”

“Well, I actually love dogs,” I said. “I just don’t want to get bitten. But you have a point. In this country we often seem to care more about pets than people.” 

With that, a certain low-level interreligious dialogue was launched. We’ve had three of these over-the-counter conversations so far. That first one mainly consisted of him talking and me listening. His English was good. He complained about life in America and contrasted it with the warm and wonderful society he says he left behind. I took it in for 10 minutes or so. Did my best not to let the word running through my mind — “disaffected” — show up on my face. Or in my words. Yet. 

The following Saturday, I figured it was my turn. He’d been blunt so I would be too.

“You know, I was your age once,” I said after we’d exchanged pleasantries and, oh yes, compared philosophies on the nature of religious belief. “You come across as feeling sort of alienated, just as I did. Could that be because your attitude is that of an observer, not an active member of the community? Why don’t you volunteer for some sort of service? You might be surprised how your outlook will change when you trade fault-finding for people-helping.”

His facial muscles relaxed from defensiveness to deliberation. Score. “Gotta run,” I said. “See you next week.”

Last time I went in, I looked to downshift. Ease back on the accelerator. I plunked down my cold drink, fished for exact change and asked him if he’d read The Kite Runner. He had never heard of it, so I synopsized Khaled Hosseini’s masterful novel of friendship, betrayal and redemption in the life of an Afghani who emigrates to the United States. The cashier said he respected that I was a pursuer of truth rather than a protector of turf “like most people.” (Never mind that the book was a big bestseller in this country.) And he was intrigued by the enthusiasm of a Catholic for the literary achievement of a Muslim. 

I offered to loan him my copy. No, he said, scribbling the title on a scrap of paper. He’d buy his own. And would look forward to seeing me again so he can tell me what he thinks of Khaled Hosseini.

“The best way forward,” Pope Benedict said when he visited Turkey last year, “is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common.”

Ten minutes and $1.69 a week don’t add up to a great leap toward that goal. But it’s a start. 

David Pearson is the

Register’s senior editor.