Matthew Lillehaugen

Unexpected Opportunities

            When I decided to apply for the Peace Scholars program, I knew that it would be an incredible opportunity. I knew that, if I was selected, I would get to spend the summer studying peace and conflict resolution, exploring the power of dialogue, and meeting people from countries all around the world. I knew that I would have the chance to visit the beautiful country where so many of my ancestors had lived. I knew that I had a lot to learn, but hoped that this would be a safe and encouraging environment in which to do so. While that has all been true, in many regards it has been what I did not know beforehand that has made this experience so special thus far. I did not know how down-to-earth, friendly, and welcoming the students from the Balkans would be when we met them in Lillehammer. I did not know how easy it would be to find nature in Norway’s largest city (a ten-minute ride on the metro can get you to the beautiful lake Sognsvann and it’s only a little further the other direction to the harbor) or that I would be invited by some Norwegian peers at church to join them for waffles and card games one night. The list goes on and on. One experience, however, has stood out for being by far the least expected, and perhaps the most impactful, opportunity I have had, not only to grow but also to put the concepts of dialogue that we have been learning to work.

Last Friday, a friend and I decided to explore the Grønland neighborhood on the East side of Oslo. It is home to a large percentage of Oslo’s immigrant community and, as a result, is a fascinating collection of foods, languages, and cultures from around the world. We have frequently been told that Oslo is a diverse city, but it was not until I visited Grønland that I began to grasp the extent of that diversity. From the moment my friend and I stepped off the metro we were clearly minorities, an experience that neither of us have had very frequently.

One destination that we particularly wanted to visit in Grønland was the World Islamic Mission’s mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in Oslo. The intricate tilework was remarkable, even though the tiles on the minarets had been ruined by the harsh Norwegian winter and had not yet been replaced. I had read that the mosque was not open to tourists, so we had only intended to view the mosque from the outside; however, while we were still marveling at the mosque (we hadn’t even pulled out our cameras yet), a bearded man in his late thirties, wearing a long white robe, pulled up and offered to show us inside after he finished prayer in fifteen minutes.

This was a completely unexpected opportunity. Neither of us had ever visited a mosque in the U.S. before, let alone a completely different country. We were unsure what the standard protocol would be and were concerned that we were probably going to do something offensive. While the mosque had a separate entrance and room for women on the ground floor, since we were going in after the prayer time my friend Liza was able to come with us through the main entrance and up to the second and third floors – areas that were typically reserved for men. As we removed our shoes before ascending the final staircase to the third floor, we could begin to hear one of the imams at the mosque singing and reciting the Qur’an in Arabic. Muslims are currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan and, as we learned, that means that someone must recite the entirety of the Qur’an during that month. It also means that able Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise until sunset. We followed the sound of the singing up to the beautiful room – with more of the intricate blue tilework from the front – where Muslim men gather for prayer five times a day.

As we had toured the mosque, our guide had been telling us about some of the history and fundamental tenets of Islam. He was very open to our questions and made it clear that we were not going to offend him, even by asking difficult questions. This allowed us to engage in meaningful dialogue with him, and I think all three of us came away enriched by the experience. While we were talking, the imam that had been singing came out of the chamber and invited my friend and me back to join them for Iftar, the breaking of the fast later that evening. If I thought getting a tour of the mosque was unexpected, then this invitation was truly amazing. Not only were we not Muslim but the offer was extended to Liza as well as me, even though all of the Muslim women at this mosque broke their fast at home. Still a little bit overwhelmed, we accepted the offer and decided to come back in about an hour to join them.

When Ramadan is in the heart of the summer (as it is this year), fasting can be quite a challenge for Norwegian Muslims since the sun rises so early and sets so late. On this particular Friday, the sun did not set until 10:42. We were quite nervous and mildly uncomfortable as we made our way up to the room where the meal was to be held, but the experience was definitely worth it. The meal was delicious and, although most of the people were seated on the floor, the two of us were seated at a table of honor next to the table with the elders of the mosque. We had a traditional Pakistani meat and potato dish, some coconut rice, fresh fruit (a tough commodity to find in Norway), dates, and sweets. The hospitality with which my friend and I were received was remarkable and I am sure we will never forget this experience. Unfortunately, our time passed much too quickly and before we knew it, our Muslim hosts were cleaning up the food and preparing for their fifth and final prayer of the day.

As I walked down the stairs to the sound of the muezzin calling believers to prayer, I could not help but reflect on how this tied into the underlying purpose of our time in Norway. In Lillehammer we learned about dialogue as a way to make yourself visible to the other. It requires a degree of vulnerability but ultimately does not require either side to come to any agreement. There is a time and a place for negotiations or academic discourse, but in our world today we too often forget about the power that the simple act of sharing experiences can have. I am hopeful that I will be able to apply what I learn this summer in my future career – presumably in the field of international relations – to encourage people around the world to see how much they have in common with each other. Then maybe, through dialogue, we will be able to make the world a better and more peaceful place.

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