Cultural Faux Pas

I’ve spent the entire school year talking about different ways to navigate cultural competency – in life and also in the field of psychology. So, naturally, I got on the plane to come to Sarajevo this summer thinking I’m a mini cultural guru. Not so much . . .

It was the second night of the peace march. I had finally gotten it together after the events that occurred earlier that evening. It’s time for Muslim prayer, and our tent is just steps away from the group of men who are lined up to pray. At one point one of the men turned to someone in our group and asked for a blanket. I grabbed a few sleeping bags and began to walk through the group to place the blankets in front of the men who are about to kneel in the itchy field of grass, weeds. . . also those pokey plants.

For the next few minutes I was convinced I had put some good juju back into the universe for myself. Wrong. When prayer is over, a very nice man comes over and begins to explain his beliefs about prayer to me. When they pray, everyone faces the Kaaba in Mecca. From what I understand, the idea is that the everyone faces East so that the connection from God can come down through Mecca and out towards the people. At this point in his explanation I assume he’s just sharing all of this to teach us about his religion. Wrong, again. He goes on to explain to me that when I walked in front of them to put down the blankets I interrupted the connection between the people and God, but to them, it wasn’t a sin because I did the deed with good intentions. Any other time and it would have been a funny “oops, sorry” kind of moment. Not that day . . . I proceeded to unleash a wave of tears in front of this poor man because it was just one more thing after a rough day. But, looking back now, I catch myself trying to contain the laughter of unknowingly ruining Muslim prayer. Oops. Ya live and ya learn.

Alas, the more you learn, the more you’re certain that you know absolutely nothing.

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