This Christmas story will, I hope, show that sometimes, during the magic of the Yuletide season, people at odds with one another due to religious doctrine or other factors, can learn to “love thy neighbor,” as the Bible directs.
A large moving van was pulled up to the vacant house next to the Cunningham home on a late November day, and Chris Cunningham, staring out his dining room window in curiosity, saw a couple, of darker complexion, get out of a car which had parked just behind the van, appearing to direct the movers in what to take from the truck first and carry into the house.
The man was dressed more or less conventionally, but had a black beard, short, with no mustache. The woman wore a scarf-like head covering which hid all her hair and her neck.
“Hey, honey, we’ve got some kind of weird new neighbors moving in,” Chris called to his wife Angie, who was preparing lunch in the kitchen.
“Weird? What do you mean?” she asked, walking to join him at the window.
“Well, look,” he said. Angie gazed out the window at the new arrivals. “Hmm; what are they? They’re not black, are they?” she asked.
“Don’t think so. Some kind of Middle East, I guess. That would probably explain the headdress on the wife, wouldn’t it?” answered Chris.
“Yeah. Muslims.” Angie said it tonelessly, with no hint of anger or disgust. She and Chris didn’t believe in judging individuals by what they believed or the color of their skin. But she didn’t sound overjoyed at the prospect of Islamic neighbors, either. Too much Mogadishu, years ago. Too much 9/11. Too much Muslim-related mayhem and murder all over the world. She and Chris both felt a little uneasy at the prospect of having followers of Mohammed as neighbors.
They both felt a nudge at their sides. Arthur, their German shepherd, nosed in and put his front paws up on the window sill so he could check out whatever Mommy and Daddy were looking at. He stared, doing a, “Rrr?” sound in his throat, as if, “Why do those people look different from MY people?”
“What about it, Rrrthur?” asked Chris, using their favorite nickname for their canine friend. “You think these people from far away will be good neighbors?” Arthur looked Chris in the eye, searchingly, as if saying, “Well, I’m willing to meet them halfway!”
Just then a little girl came running out of the house next door, wearing a headdress like her mother’s, plus a shirt and long pants. Arthur suddenly yet out a little yelp, stared at her, fascinated, with his tail wagging to beat the band.
“Why, Arthur, you act like you’re in love!” Angie said, and she and Chris both laughed.
“Hey! What are you guys all looking at?” came the voice of 10-year-old Trevor Cunningham, who had come running downstairs. He planted himself beside Arthur, giving his buddy a behind-the-ears rub as he looked out. “Wow! What a weird-looking girl!” he exclaimed.
In the other yard, Aziz al-Muhammad, the husband and father of the family, watched the movers carry the couch into the house. His wife, Falisha, was showing them where to put it in the living room. He had reminded her before they got out of their car to make sure her headdress was completely hiding her hair, before she came into view of the two “infidels,” as he called the White Americans who were the movers.
Their 10-year-old daughter, Jessenia, had already run up and down the stairs inside, excitedly checking out her new home. And she had made that one trip out into the yard, showing herself (unintentionally) to the Cunninghams and Arthur.
As he stepped into the house, Aziz shouted, “Jessenia!”
“Yes, Father,” she answered from upstairs.
“You do not go outside the house today without my permission. This is a strange new neighborhood to us; I don’t want you out running around until I am able to investigate the infidels living here more thoroughly.”
“Yes, Father,” Jessenia answered. There was a mixture of disappointment and resignation in her voice.
Chris walked over to the Al-Muhammad home the next day when he saw Aziz outside, raking up the last remnants of the fall leaves left by the previous owners. He introduced himself to the new neighbor, who spoke civilly enough, but seemed to have a stand-offish, reserved air about him. Aziz said he was a chemist who had just taken a position at one of the drugstores in town. He and his wife and young daughter were originally from Saudi Arabia, he told Chris.
The two men bid their cordial “Seeya laters” after a few minutes, with Chris telling Aziz that if he and his family needed anything, not to hesitate to ask him and Angie. Aziz brightened a little at that, saying, “Thank you!” and sounding like he meant it.
“Well, now we’re on a first-name basis, if that makes any difference,” Chris chuckled to Angie when he re-entered the house. “He seems like a decent enough guy, but still strange. Strange …”
Aziz rescinded his decree that his daughter not go outside, after a day or two, and she began to play in the yard, on the side of their house next to the Cunninghams’. It was only a matter of time before Trevor and Jessenia met — and they did, one afternoon when he came outside to shoot some baskets on his outdoor goal. He looked over curiously at his new neighbor, who appeared a little embarrassed and shy at seeing him for the first time.
“Hi,” the boy said. “You guys getting settled in OK?”
“Uh … yes,” Jessenia said, finally making eye contact with him. Then she glanced down again, and added, “It’s a different neighborhood than we’re used to, though. We came from Saudi Arabia.”
“Where is that?” asked Trevor curiously, putting up another two-pointer toward the goal. “Oh, it’s over in Asia — in Arabia,” Jessenia answered, starting to relax and warm up to him a little.
Then suddenly, around one corner of the Cunningham house, came Arthur, ambling along, until he saw Trevor — and JESSENIA! The dog gave a little yelp of delight, his tail began to wag a mile a minute, and he came galloping over to the two children.
When Jessenia saw him, fear suddenly shone in her eyes, and she shrank back, trying to stay as far away from Arthur as she could.
“Oh, he’s OK,” said Trevor, thinking she was just a little afraid of the big dog because he was — well, a BIG dog. “He’s very friendly. Matter of fact, Mom and Dad said when he first saw you out our window he acted like he’d fallen in love with you!”
Jessenia continued to look warily at Arthur, not coming any closer. The dog, apparently sensing how uncomfortable she was, had stopped dead still and was gazing at her with a look that was both loving, and knowing.
Finally Jessenia said, “My family is Muslim. The Koran teaches us that the dog is an unclean animal, which should never be allowed in your home, because if an angel wants to come in there, and a dog is there, the angel won’t enter.”
“That’s crazy!” cried Trevor. “Why, Arthur is clean as a whistle! We give him a bath once a week! What do you mean, ‘unclean animal’?”
Jessenia’s gaze was locked with Arthur’s now, and the fear in her eyes was changing to a unique understanding … even a suggestion of — could it be love? Arthur stared back, willing to wait for acceptance, voicing a low-pitched “Urrrh” in his throat.
Suddenly both children and the dog jumped when Jessenia’s father voice roared at them from the al-Muhammad house: “JESSENIA! Get away from that filthy beast! You know we have nothing to do with canines!”
“B-but father, I didn’t touch him or anything; I was just talking to Trevor here, and –”
“Don’t you talk back to me, my daughter! You go into the house immediately, and I’ll deal with you later! And you, boy, get your filthy hound away from my property line!”
Trevor was intimidated by the Muslim’s anger, and Arthur sidled over to hide partly behind his master.
“Come on, Arthur, let’s go back in the house,” Trevor said, watching Aziz carefully as they backed away.
Once inside, Trevor hunted up Angie, saying, “Mom, that Muslim guy next door is weird. And his girl is, too. They don’t like dogs; the father about had a cow when he saw me out in our yard with Arthur, talking to the girl.”
Angie looked at her son, a little puzzled, then said, “Well, honey, maybe they had a bad experience with a German shepherd once; maybe that’s it.”
“I don’t think so, Mom; that’s not how I understood what they said. It’s like, in their religion, they’re not SUPPOSED to like dogs.”
Angie went on line later and googled “Muslims + dogs,” and discovered that there WAS a strong prejudice against dogs in their beliefs — to the extent that, if a dog is in a Muslim’s house, and an angel wants to enter, the angel will stay away because of the canine presence.
Christmas was approaching, and Chris and Trevor got the ornaments and lights out of the attic and entered on their annual Yuletide ritual: Decorating the fir tree in their yard — on the side next to the Al-Muhammads. They always enjoyed this, and the previous neighbors had loved seeing the glowing tree when they looked out their windows.
But not Aziz. As they were decorating the tree, he came out of his house, all frowns and scowls, approached Chris, and said, “Look, Mr. Cunningham, do you have to put that seasonal decoration right where we can’t look out our windows without seeing it? We are Muslims, and we find such open celebration of a Christian festival very offensive!”
Chris took a deep breath, climbed down from the ladder he was using to string the lights on the higher branches of the tree, and said, “Look, Aziz: When you bought that house, you bought the property it’s on. You DIDN’T buy this whole neighborhood, and you DON’T have the right to tell me what I can put in the yard of my own house! And by the way, I didn’t appreciate the way you yelled at my son and our dog the other day. They weren’t hurting you or your family or your property. I had hoped for us to be good neighbors, but you’re making that kind of difficult.”
“So are you, my friend!” answered Aziz. He turned abruptly and stomped back to his house. Chris and Trevor could see, a moment later, the curtains being angrily closed on the side by the tree.
“Dad, are those people nuts? They don’t like dogs; they don’t like Christmas …” Trevor asked, as he strung the silver icicle chain around the tree.
“Son, they believe in a different religion than we do. But they don’t have the right to expect us to accommodate them on every little thing,” answered Chris. He looked toward the Al-Muhammad house and sighed.
Christmas vacation had started in the public schools, and Trevor and Jessenia were at home full-time for a couple of weeks. They began playing together (but only when Aziz was at his job at the drugstore) and getting to know each other better. And Jessenia, in defiance of her father (her mother was more tolerant, but in a Muslim home the father is the boss) had grown to love Arthur, who returned that affection with interest. Trevor and Jessenia would sit in the yard talking about school, families, and the like, while Arthur would lie with his head in Jessenia’s lap, and she would pat his head, scratch behind his ears, give him a belly rub, as Trevor had taught her. He told her about Christmas, about what a big world-wide holiday it was; and she enlightened him about the festivals that Muslims celebrate. They had become fast friends.
Falisha would peep out the kitchen window at the children and the dog occasionally. She was not entirely comfortable with her daughter being so near a dog — after all, she was a Muslim, too. But she could see how fond Trevor and Jessenia, Arthur and Jessenia, and Trevor and Arthur, were of each other, and she didn’t have the heart to tell her little girl to avoid them. Besides, Aziz was at work all day.
But he was a suspicious and controlling man. He came home at noon one day, unexpectedly, and caught the children and the dog playing in the back yards of the two homes. Aziz flew into a rage, slapped his daughter, and ordered her into the house. Before Arthur could get out of the way, the Muslim man kicked him viciously, causing him to yelp loudly in pain. The dog fled back toward the Cunningham residence with Trevor close behind. But Trevor yelled back at Aziz, “Mister, my dad’s gonna be really mad when he finds out about this!”
When Trevor told his mother what had happened, she was horrified and angry. She called Chris where he worked at a car dealership and told him about it. Chris went ballistic, jumped into his car and rushed over to the drugstore where Aziz filled prescriptions.
He stormed back to the pharmacy, barged in, and confronted Aziz in a rage.
“Listen, you raghead, you ever touch my dog again and I’ll kick your ass clear back to Saudi Arabia! You’re just lucky you didn’t touch my son, or I’d kill you!”
Aziz backed up slightly, but he answered, “How is it that your son is allowing that filthy beast to touch my daughter?!”
“You need to learn a bunch of things about living in America, Aziz,” said Chris, cooling down a little. At that point, the owner of the drugstore entered the pharmacy and ordered Chris out, and he complied.
Later, at home, both men expressed regret for their confrontation.
“Honey, of course Mr. Al-Muhammad shouldn’t have kicked Arthur,” said Angie as they sat at the table before supper. “He probably shouldn’t have slapped his daughter, either. But you made a public spectacle of yourself with going to that drugstore and blowing up at him.”
“I know, I know,” sighed Chris, staring down at the table. “Maybe come springtime we’ll have to put up a fence along the property line so we can keep peace. Anyway, let’s not worry about it now; it’s getting close to Christmas, so let’s enjoy it just as much as we can. And remember what it’s really about.”
Next door, at about the same time, Falisha was urging Aziz to try to compromise with their new neighbors. But she had to watch her words, considering their culture’s placing of the husband and father clearly above the wife and mother — and of Aziz’s tendency to explosive temper and violence.
“Please, my husband,” she said. “We are Muslims, and I believe in the truth of our faith just as you do. But to keep having these run-ins with our neighbors is simply making life unpleasant for us all.”
Aziz looked at her, thought for a moment, then said, “All right. I suppose we may have to make some small concessions, living in their country as we do. But do not forget that we are Muslim, and we shall live as the Koran commands, to the extent of our abilities!”
The Cunninghams by now had their in-house Christmas tree up and decorated, placing it by a living room window where you could stand in the house, admire the indoor tree, and at the same time look beyond it out the window and see the outdoor one also. Sort of a double take. They stopped worrying about the Al-Muhammads, who were keeping to themselves now. Jessenia did not appear in the back yard to chat with Trevor and pet Arthur any more — and they both missed her very much. Apparently her father had threatened a sound thrashing if he caught her out there again. Arthur would often put his front paws up to the kitchen window and stare out at the neighbors’ yard, whining softly because his girlfriend was not there.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived. The Cunningham home was well decorated from top to bottom. Angie had already started the elaborate preparations for the next day’s Christmas dinner; family members were going to be coming over. She also fixed a few little special doggie treats for Arthur.
After supper on Christmas Eve, the family was watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Christmas carols on TV. Arthur, tired from romping with Trevor in the new-fallen snow outside that day, had curled up on the floor and was sleeping soundly.
Just as the Choir began singing, “Joy to the World,” Arthur suddenly awoke with a jerk, jumped to his feet, and let out a yelp of panic. He rushed to the front door, pawing at it and looking over his shoulder at the family as if to say, “Let me out! NOW!”
“What’s the matter, old boy? Did you hear Santa outside?” asked Chris teasingly. Thinking Arthur might have had a sudden call of nature, he hurried to the door and opened it. The dog raced out into the snow.
And then Chris heard it. Screams and yelling. The crackle of flames. And he smelled smoke.
Rushing out onto the porch, Chris looked toward the Al-Muhammad house — and saw it engulfed in flames. Aziz and Falisha were rushing around frantically outside, trying to charge back into the open front door, but being driven back by the flames and smoke.
Chris ran over, yelling, “Aziz! Where is your daughter?”
“She’s trapped upstairs!” he yelled, obviously beside himself with panic. “We’ve tried and tried to get back in, but the flames and smoke are too thick!”
Angie had already called 911 on the phone, and they could hear sirens approaching from the far distance. But it appeared doubtful they could arrive in time to save little Jessenia.
Suddenly a black streak zoomed across the yard and into the open door. It was Arthur.
“What is the matter with your dog? He will burn up, too!” screamed Aziz.
Chris rushed over, put his hand on Aziz’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, neighbor. I think he’s going to try to save your little girl.” But silently, Chris felt positive that he would never see his faithful dog alive again — or little Jessenia.
A minute passed; two. The three frantic people in the front yard (five now, as Angie and Trevor had hurried over to see what they could do to help) tried to figure out another way to get to Jessenia’s upstairs bedroom.
By this time, fire engines were pulling up from everywhere, firefighters unrolling hoses, a quint starting to extend its aerial ladder.
Then suddenly someone yelled, “Look! Coming out the door!”
It was Arthur, visibly coughing, moving at a slow trot. And hanging onto his collar, also coughing, and walking, unsteadily, but under her own power, was Jessenia.
“My daughter!” yelled Aziz and Falisha almost in unison. They rushed forward and embraced her, hugging and kissing their little one who they had feared was lost forever.
EMTs who had arrived on the scene checked out Jessenia — and then Arthur, also. Other than minor smoke inhalation, and a few stray, surface burns, they appeared to be OK.
“This doesn’t make sense,” said one EMT to another. “Coming out of a fire like that, well, it’s a miracle that they CAME out, let alone having only minor injuries.”
“Jessenia, my sweet — how did you manage to get down the stairs with all those flames and smoke,” Aziz asked his little girl after the EMTs had certified that her injuries were very minor.
“I — I don’t know, father,” she answered, still looking stunned. “I was asleep, and I was dreaming that there was an angel coming to take me somewhere. Then when I awoke, I was on my feet, holding onto Arthur’s collar, and he was guiding me downstairs. That’s all I can remember.”
The fire department got the fire under control in a half hour or so, but the house was very heavily damaged — uninhabitable, without major renovation.
“Well, we’ll just have to seek lodging in a motel for a few days,” Aziz told Falisha in a resigned tone of voice.
“What?!” asked Chris, who had overheard him. “You think we’d let you folks go to a motel when we’ve got two spare bedrooms right next door here? You’ll stay with us until you can make other arrangements!”
Aziz looked at him sharply. “Thank you very much, Chris. But you know, you and I, we had …”
“Never mind that,” said Chris.
An hour later, both families sat in the Cunninghams’ living room, with the Christmas tree shining as if pleased to see them all there. Angie had prepared coffee and doughnuts for the adults, and milkshakes for Trevor and Jessenia. And Arthur received some EXTRA-special treats, and much petting and fussing over, for his heroic act that had saved a child’s life.
“You know, although it is not our faith, your festival tree is very beautiful,” Aziz said quietly, gazing up at it. “Rather sorry now that I closed our curtains against your outdoor tree.”
“Well, Aziz, let’s not worry about that,” answered Angie. “We all have something to be very grateful for this night.”
“Yes, we do,” said Falisha, hugging Jessenia close. “Our child lives, still.”
Aziz looked thoughtfully across at Arthur, who was lying on the floor, head up, listening to the conversation and watching his family and the A-Muhammad family closely.
Aziz had not been able to bring himself to touch a dog, but his gaze toward Arthur was benign.
“Imagine,” he said. “The Koran teaches us that an angel will not enter a house if there is a dog in there. But when our little girl was in peril of death –” He stopped short then, sat up straight when he realized what he had just implied.
Arthur’s gaze never left Aziz’s face. And all present swore for years afterward, that the dog gave the Muslim man a long, slow wink.
And a Merry Christmas to all you loyal readers, and to my friends, everywhere!