A Muslim and a Jew Break Roti in Mumbai

MUMBAI, India -- The first surprise comes when she answers the phone. All I know about this woman -- let's call her Fatima -- is that she wears a black burqa and niqab that covers her entire face except her eyes.

I call, expecting a timid woman. I know that contrary to the stereotype, many women who wear burqas are highly educated. And yet, I subconsciously assumed Fatima only spoke Urdu or Hindi. I am taken aback when she answers the phone speaking perfect English.

She also sounds friendly and inviting. She calls me "dear."

I arrive at her home in a Muslim neighborhood in central Mumbai, and she greets me with a warm smile and a hug. "So nice to meet you!" she says at the door.

Fatima is wearing a strikingly fashionable salwar kameez with bright pinks and blues and a delicate blue veil covering her head, shoulders and chest. Had I gotten it wrong, I think to myself. I wanted to meet a woman in a burqa -- who's this lady?

Again, I had consciously known that women only wore the burqa when they left the home or in front of men. But in my imagination, these women were covered in black at all hours of the day and night.

We sit in Fatima's living room, and she serves me fruit juice and dates. I leave my notebook in my bag, wanting to make her feel comfortable. In hindsight, I think she was more comfortable than I was.

We chat, and she tells me about her ancestors. One had moved to India from Ethiopia, another from Afghanistan and another from Western Europe. They had come as traders.

Her history reminds me of my own. Jews throughout time migrated from country to country often as merchants, acclimating themselves to their new lands while maintaining their own distinct culture. Normally, in an attempt to make an interview subject feel at ease, I might have compared her story to my own. I might have said, "Oh, just like my family!"

This time, I do not.

My Indian friends tell me that I need not be afraid of being Jewish here. This is not the Middle East, they say. It's not even Austria or Poland. India is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have almost always lived in peace with their neighbors.

After their reassurance, I have decided to be open about my religion. I tweet about celebrating Shabbat, I talk to my friends about my culture, I am writing this article. Being Jewish is a huge part of my identity, and if possible, I'd rather be open about who I am.

And yet, I am still careful.

As Fatima and I chat, she explains Allah's teachings with a sense of deep love for Islam. She speaks calmly, her body at ease. She shares with me different rules that govern her. "Islam is a way of life," she says. It teaches one how to live in a peaceful way, at harmony with others.

Prophet Mohammed says don't kill a bird if you don't want to eat it, she tells me. Yes, I think to myself, Rabbinic law also forbids hunting for pleasure.

Fatima tells me that Muslims must give a percentage of their annual earnings to charity, called zakat. That is similar to in Judaism, I think to myself. She says she has a small box in her house where her family puts change for the needy. I think of my Sunday school classes at Temple Beth Shalom in New York and remember bringing change each week to add to the tzedukah box sitting on the teacher's desk.

In the background, we hear a man begin to chant in a low, melodious voice over a loudspeaker. Fatima silently recites the muezzin's words, and then translates for me the azaan or call to prayer.

Fatima talks like a rabbi, telling a parable with every point she makes. As we sit on her floor and enjoy a lunch of roti, dal and vegetable dishes, she tells me a story about two men walking with a camel. When the young man sits on the camel and the old man walks nearby, people criticize the younger one for making his elder work hard. When they both sit on the camel, the community criticizes them for putting so much weight on the animal. The men jump off, tie the camel's legs to a stick and carry the animal down the road. People then laugh at them for working while the camel gets a free ride. No matter what you do, Fatima says, people will judge you.

Thinking I will get points for celebrating a Muslim holiday, I bring up the street festival in honor of Prophet Mohammed's birthday that I had attended the previous week.

Fatima shrivels up her face in a look of disgust. "This is all crap," she says, pointing out the window. The festival had taken over her streets as shopkeepers blared loud music and men rode by dancing and singing on big trucks.

"Money should go where? To these things? These are pagan habits," she says. "This is not the way of our Prophet."

Throughout our conversation, Fatima frequently addresses the issue of men and women being separate. She tells an anecdote about diamonds and says, "Allah made women precious."

"We are exactly as a yummy cake with a lot of ice cream," she says. "What happens to it? You see humans pouncing on it, you see flies pouncing on it."

To protect women from being pounced on like a dessert, they must separate themselves from men.

As Fatima describes the comfort and joy she gets out of following Allah's direction and covering herself from men, I think of my visit to a Jewish Chabad House in Venice years ago. I had popped in to see the synagogue there, and the rabbi's wife spotted me -- young, eager and open -- sat me down for a Kosher lunch and spent two hours explaining to me why Jewish women should follow God's rules.

Coming from a Reform background, I had been raised believing that women's equality meant that women should be treated the same as men. This rabbi's wife turned that argument on its head. She said God viewed women as even more special than men and therefore gave them certain obligations.

The rabbi's wife described to me the mikvah, a body of water that a woman must cleanse herself in after menstruation. Rather than condemning the practice because it assumes that a woman needs to be purified after menstruation, this woman described the mikvah as a spiritual experience even nicer than going to a spa. Once a month, you go to this separate facility, take off all your clothes, clean your nails and comb your hair and then submerge yourself in a body of water.

Both Fatima and the rabbi's wife said that women must keep themselves separate because men cannot control themselves. Muslim and Jewish women cover their hair, which is considered super sexy, and must stay out of sight while the men pray, lest they distract them.

As I leave, Fatima and I make a date to meet again. I have been debating if next time I should be open about my own heritage. I want to give Fatima the benefit of the doubt, and I know that my assumption that she might dislike Jews is one more stereotype I have of Muslims in this part of the world.

On the other hand, I am a Jewish reporter working abroad in a time of great hatred against the state of Israel. It is not a myth that many Islamist extremists associate all Jews with a state they consider evil. While Fatima is not an extremist, I know nothing about her neighbors and friends.

At the end of the day, I am still scared.

I begin to realize that I am not going to be telling Fatima I am Jewish. One meeting with a woman who has thus far shattered all my prejudices is not going to crush this last one. Assuming that there may be some in Fatima's wider community who may wish me harm or could cause problems for me is one prejudice that will not be broken down so easily. At least not yet.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India