Letter from Mumbai

“Working Abroad In A Time Of Great Hatred”

Monsoon season is not the time to apartment hunt. I spend days traveling around Mumbai’s suburbs, getting soaked as I jump in and out of auto rickshaws, helping a friend look for that perfect one-bedroom. We find it — finally — and begin the deal-making process. But the next day the broker calls. There’s a problem, he says. The housing society does not care that my friend works for a fancy multinational corporation. No Muslims allowed.

Discrimination by housing societies in India is nothing new. They often use a thinly veiled euphemism for no Muslims: “vegetarians only.” But to me, a Jew and a vegetarian, the society’s rejection still feels like a kick in the stomach. I imagine the broker telling me, “Sorry, no Jews allowed.” I would be outraged.

About a year ago, I gave up my comfortable SoHo job and Brooklyn apartment and moved to India to work as GlobalPost’s correspondent in Mumbai. I wanted to develop my skills as a reporter and learn more about this dynamic, quickly changing country.

From the beginning, Mumbai’s Muslim community, which makes up about 15 percent of the city, intrigued me. I would jog along the Arabian Sea in shorts and a t-shirt and notice the women in black burqas and niqabs covering their faces. I saw them riding on the back of motorbikes and one sitting on a bench with a man’s head in her lap. I realized how few Muslims I knew growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley.

I spent an afternoon with one burqa-clad Muslim woman, expecting to be exposed to a totally different view of the world. But as this woman — let’s call her Fatima — told me about her religion and family, I kept comparing her life to my own. We sat in her living room eating dates, while Fatima told me how Muslims must give a certain percentage of their income to charity, called zakat. I imagined my Sunday school classes at Temple Beth Shalom in New York and remembered bringing change each week for the tzedaka box.

Prophet Mohammed says don’t kill a bird if you don’t want to eat it, Fatima told me. Yes, I thought to myself, rabbinic law also forbids hunting for pleasure.

Speaking like a rabbi, Fatima told a story with every point she made. She compared women to a “yummy cake with a lot of ice cream,” and said we must protect ourselves to keep men from pouncing on us like flies.

As she described the comfort and joy she derives from keeping herself separate from men, I thought of my visit to a Chabad House in Venice, where the rabbi’s wife taught that women must keep themselves separate because men cannot control themselves.

I marvel at the similarities between the Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women I have met during my travels. Here in Mumbai, whether it is in the form of discrimination or religious teachings, I continue to see connections between my Jewish background and the Muslim community.

When I shared with my grandmother back in New York the difficulties my Muslim friend faced trying to find an apartment, she told me about her own struggles 60 years ago, when, after neighbors complained about the possibility of a Jewish family moving onto the block, the owner refused to sell to my grandparents. As I watch my friend in Mumbai get rejected from apartment after apartment, I cannot help but empathize.

And yet…there is still a part of me that holds this community at a distance. I did not tell Fatima that I am Jewish. As she talked about her ancestors, I wanted to say, “That sounds like my family, too.” But I held back.