Myriam, Morocco, My Mother, Me -- And George Gershwin

Where and how do Myriam, a Muslim Moroccan university student interested in gender studies; Rachel, a deceased mid-century Jewish American housewife born in the Bronx, New York; Hindi, a Franco-Moroccan singer; and me, a Professor of Theatre from The George Washington University (GW), intersect around a classic American torch song from the 1920s written by George Gershwin, a first-generation American, born of Russian-Jewish immigrants?

These extremely disparate elements somehow coalesced, thanks to a series of unlikely events, resulting in a profound connection across nationalities, religions, continents - and even time....

Let me share my experience with you, and see what conclusions you draw....

It began this past April, when I traveled from GW to Al Akhawayn University (AUI) in Ifrane, Morocco, as a Visiting Professor, working for a second time with Professor Kenza Oumlil and the students in her Media and Gender course. I directed a creative project based on interviews the students conducted with fellow AUI students about how changing gender roles and expectations in Morocco impact their lives. The transcribed interviews became a 45-minute play, performed on May 3rd as a staged reading for a large and enthusiastic audience of AUI faculty and students.

But what does this have to do with the unusual intersection of time, space, music, and people?

To prepare for the staged reading, on Friday, April 29th, I held a workshop with the students, where we discussed having music in the play. One of the students, Myriam (coincidentally, my mother's middle name), offered to look for songs relating to the stories in the script.

On Saturday, April 30th (coincidentally, my mother's birthday, as well as my colleague, Kenza's!) I got an email from the editor of GW Today, the online weekly newsletter that goes out to the GW community. She was doing a short piece for the newsletter, asking faculty and staff to suggest a song they would want to "put on their mother's playlist for Mother's Day," and invited me to contribute something. I sent the following paragraph to her at about 9 p.m. that night:

"My mother was a wonderful jazz pianist. She was too shy to play outside the circle of family and friends, but growing up I spent most nights, after the dinner dishes were done, singing to her expert accompaniment. She had a special love for the songs of George Gershwin, and I'd want to put his song, 'The Man I Love,' on my Mother's Day playlist, just for her. She passed away in 1986, but I think of her often, and I love recalling these musical moments we shared."

Just minutes after I pressed "send" on my laptop, Myriam sent me the online link to a song which she thought would work well in the play: 'The Man I Love'!!! She had listened to the Franco-Moroccan singer, Hindi Zahra's cover of the song at about the same time I was writing about my mother!

Astounded by this set of coincidences, I shared the events with a friend, who told me that they might not simply be "lucky accidents." He told me about a psychological study which found that people who experience similar "coincidences" are particularly alert and sensitive to the people and environments surrounding them. In addition, they communicate - both directly and indirectly - an openness and receptivity to others.

Another friend said my experience made her realize how many connections we all might have across borders and cultures - if we permit ourselves to explore, rather than shut down in the presence of "the other."

I admit that I was amazed by all the coincidences - the profound connection felt by a young woman from North Africa for an American torch song from the 1920s; the understanding passing between the Muslim Moroccan student and a Jewish American professor old enough to be her grandmother - me; a memory of my long-dead mother linked to two young women thousands of miles apart, one the editor of an e-newsletter at GW, and the other an AUI student who shares my mother's middle name, Myriam; the birthday which my colleague, Kenza (who is the same age as my oldest daughter), and my mother share....

There are so many ways one can shut down - rejecting another person based on age, gender, religion, nationality, race, appearance - and the list goes on.... By staying open to the people and impulses around me, I had a spiritual - I might even say "magical" - experience. I feel lucky - but as my friend says, perhaps this isn't luck at all. Perhaps these are not random events, but are, rather, the result of the impulses we send into the universe - and what we allow ourselves to receive in return. Perhaps we could all feel more connected to others, regardless of apparent differences, if we were willing to banish fear, look and listen more openly, and say, "Yes!" to the life around us.