The Strength of a Heart


Tell me a piece of news or history – a date or a name or an event – and there are no guarantees that I will remember it. But give me a human story, a part of personal history to go with it, and I can hardly forget.

So when the media began paying attention to the plight of Burma in recent years, I already knew something about the country. The images of protesting monks wrapped in red cloaks across television screens and web pages was only a part of it. Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country, where religious persecution and the violation of human rights are major issues, and those who suffer abound.

And although “[m]any religions are practiced in Burma […] the Christian and Muslim populations do […] face religious persecution, and it is hard, if not impossible, for non-Buddhists to join the army or get government jobs, the main route to success in the country. Such persecution and targeting of civilians is particularly notable in Eastern Burma, where over 3000 villages have been destroyed in the past ten years.” [1]

And as little as I still know about the country and its history, it’s the Muslims of Burma that I know and care about most.

Image of Sunni Mosque in Burma, courtesy of Umm Papoose

When I met J. in Egypt, she was a prospective student at al-Azhar, making her way through some preliminary years before she could get into the actual University. We walked to Qur’an class together after school hours twice a week, across the sidewalk of a busy street filled with humming cars and taxi cabs, kids in uniform going home from school, and kiosk vendors selling items by the side of the road. Sometimes J. and I walked along in silence, and sometimes we talked; but even in our silence, I felt the  attachment one student of Islam feels towards another.

We had been introduced one night under a starry sky, as two people who could speak English. “She’s from Myanmar,” they told me, pronouncing it “My-nu-maar”. My-nu-maar? I had never heard the name. “It used to be called Burma,” they said. Burma? I had some vague recollection of having heard that before.

“How do you say your country’s name?” I asked J. once we began talking.

“My-an-mah,” she said, pronouncing it with a distinct difference from what I’d been told in Arabic.

Oh. My-an-mah. I would have to practice it to remember.

J. and I conversed in a mixture of simplistic English and Arabic,  and as we settled into conversation, I soon found that I preferred speaking to her in Arabic anyway. But I was grateful that someone had found a reason to introduce us.

We set out late one day on our way to Qur’an class, and trying to make it in time, I rushed briskly along the pavement with J. close beside. Or so I thought until I look around at one point and found her standing a few feet behind, her hand clutched to her heart, her back slightly hunched over.

“J.!” I went back to her, “Are you ok?”

She stood still, silencing the pain in her chest.


“I’m ok,” she said, finally, slowly.

“What’s wrong?”

“My heart,” she said, “It’s weak. When it’s hot outside – I can’t take the heat.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have been walking so fast, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t want to make you late for Qur’an class,” she said. “It’s ok, we can walk fast, it’s just the heat.”

We continued on to class that day, together, slowly.

J. was a soft-spoken girl, as gentle and sweet as they come, and equally inspiring. I loved sitting with her in her tiny dorm room, with its simple but cozy furnishings. My eyes were constantly drawn to the few rows of shelves above her head, filled up with Islamic books. Fath al-Bari, the 15 volume commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari, took up most of one shelf.

“You’ve read it?” I asked her once, “It’s really long.”

“I had to study it in Myanmar,” she said.

And as I asked more about her life and schooling, I learned that her father was a Sheikh in Burma, a man active in the field of da’wah. He was involved in one of the few Islamic institutes in the country, and I listened in awe to his education and accomplishments.

But the conversation quickly turned to scenes of horror as J. described the treatment of Muslims in the country.

“It’s not safe for us there,” she said. “They come and they burn down mosques, they kill people. Every year, they burn mosques.”

“They burn mosques?” The thought itself was sickening. “J., who are they?”

“The Buddhists.”

“Buddhists? Just different Buddhists?”

“Yes,” she said, and I was sure there were details missing.

“Can’t the government do anything about it? Can’t you complain?”

“The government knows. They don’t care, they don’t do anything about it,” she said. “They even burnt my father’s institute once. We had to move, build it somewhere else, but it’s not safe. Every day, I’m afraid for my family.  I call them and I worry about their safety. It’s not good, it’s not good at all.”

Fear was written on her face and she stared into the distance, as if re-witnessing some familiar scene of fire and bloodshed and human screams.

“J. …” I began, but could think of no words to say.

And I realized that her heart carried burdens of which I would never know.

“But do they bother you in the streets?” I asked. “Will they hurt you if they just see you?”

“We have to be careful when we travel, but they don’t usually hurt us in the streets,” she said.

“So it’s ok, they don’t bother you when you wear hijab?”

“Hijab?” She startled, and her eyes widened.  “No, no, no –” She shook her head in horror.

“You didn’t wear hijab there?” Coming from the daughter of a Sheikh, and a student of knowledge, I couldn’t believe it.

“We can’t wear hijab,” she said. “It’s not safe. If they see us in hijab…” Her hand flew up to her heart.

The time I spent with J. was precious, but limited. Had I met with her more often, I might have become more proficient in Burmese history than I am.

As it is, I think back to our conversations, and I am humbled by those people in our world, those Muslims still struggling and sacrificing for the sake of Allah. And I am amazed that above everything – beyond the burning of mosques and institues of knowledge – the enemies of Allah are so keen on fighting and preventing the wearing of hijab.