From Sarmad Ali’s new blog, Baghdad Life:

I celebrated my first Christmas in 2004, after I had moved to the U.S. to attend Columbia University. One of my classmates, who became one of my best friends here, invited me first for Thanksgiving and then for Christmas. We went to Berkeley, Calif., where his grandparents lived. It was a welcome break from the hectic pace of New York, and it was nice to be with a family again, several months after having had to say goodbye to mine in Baghdad.

My friend’s grandparents are devout Christians. They attend services, read religion books, and often recited prayers when we sat down to dinner. They were also interested in learning about other religions. I was peppered with questions about the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, about Muslim religious holidays and about everyday life in Iraq. The more I talked about my background, my family and my life back home, the more nostalgic I felt.

On Christmas Eve, my friend’s family took me with them to services at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, Calif. I was nervous about attending. We sat in the second or third pew. The church was nearly filled. During the service, my friend, who was sitting next to me, chuckled as he saw me reciting the prayers alongside them. My first impression of the service was that it was easy to pray compared to Muslim group prayers in mosques on the first day of Muslims’ Eid, the biggest Muslim holiday, which is being celebrated now. To be able to pray, Muslims had to ablute their arms, feet to their ankles and face and kneel many times. None of that was required in a church service.

My Berkeley Christmas adventure was far different from my experience at home. Growing up in a Muslim country, I always felt there was a divide between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. For example, intermarriages were almost unheard of. When I went to college — the first time I had female or Christian classmates — some of us seemed ready to disregard our customs. We formed strong bonds with Christians and would have been comfortable marrying out of our faith. Unfortunately, interfaith romances often ended when a Muslim or Christian parent found out. Many parents, and some students, felt that marrying out of one’s faith would be a sin.

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