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Listening in Silence - the Universal Language

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Based in the UK, Egyptian Pediatric Emergency Physician speaks to a multifaith, multicultural group of her spiritual journey.

Our first impressions of other religions and cultures are often of how different they are. We notice the visible differences - in behaviours, customs and dress - and also the different beliefs and teachings. And because we notice them first, it is often these differences that set the agenda for dialogue.

A more productive alternative is to start by focusing on our shared humanity - our struggles to do the right thing by our families, how we balance the pressures of modern living with the demands of our conscience, our quests to live meaningful lives.

This talk by Dr Omnia Marzouk, a physician based in the UK, was given to a multi-faith, multicultural group. Though speaking as a Muslim, hers are experiences with which anyone can identify.

"I was born in Spain, come from Egypt and studied medicine in Australia. I continued my postgraduate studies in England and continue to work in Liverpool. I am proud of my Egyptian, Arab and Muslim traditions but I realize that over many years my life has also been greatly enriched by my encounters with people of other backgrounds and faith traditions.

I spent my teenage years in Australia where my father was the Egyptian Ambassador. There I became aware of the western stereotype of Muslims and Arabs as uncultured, uneducated, with oppressed women and widespread extremism. It did not match up to my extended circle of family and friends.

Seeing an integrity gap between theory and practice in some religious people from all faith traditions, I began to question the relevance of a belief in God and moral values. As I was going through the usual teenage upheavals, I was invited to take part in a youth conference where I met people who were part of Initiatives of Change. I was immediately struck by their quality of life. They had an integrity that I admired. To try and capture an experience similar to theirs I embarked on my first experiment of listening in silence while sitting on a hilltop surrounded by gum trees.

In that very first time of quiet I had some rather unexpected thoughts. My father had a habit of leaving his loose change on the dressing table when he returned from work and I had routinely helped myself to this change without asking his permission. My other thought was a realization that I was jealous of my older brother who is much more gregarious and outgoing than I was. It came to me that I should apologize to both of them. I was very skeptical that these thoughts were of any significance. But being a true scientist I decided that I would follow these thoughts through before I abandoned the experiment as a complete failure! I apologized to both my father and brother. After that apology I felt that a burden that I had not even been aware of had suddenly lifted. My relationship with both of them became much deeper and richer as a result.

So I decided to continue this experiment a bit longer. Each day I had a short time of silent listening to search for any inspired thoughts for the day.

The thoughts that came seemed to fall into two categories: either thoughts about things I had to put right or unexpected thoughts that gave my day a different direction or emphasis. Occasionally a thought to reach out to a specific person coincided with a point of need in their life that I had not been aware of. As I continued to have these daily times of quiet, the gap between the theory and practice of my faith gradually narrowed and I started to pray, fast and read more about my Muslim faith and to be inspired by it.

I realized that there was no contradiction between living my faith, living by absolute moral standards and living life in the 21st century to the full, embracing all that science and technology have to offer.

A few years later, while studying medicine at university, I decided to go a step further. I decided to submit my life totally to God: to consciously seek God's will for all aspects of my life, work and relationships, where and how I would spend my money. My central driving compass was my Muslim faith. But I felt I had two other callings: One was to treat children in my professional life as a doctor as if they were my own. The other was to build bridges of understanding between people of different cultures and traditions. In this journey, one of my constant personal tools has been times of quiet reflection in addition to times of prayer.

As a Muslim I pray 5 times a day, and this is vital to connect me with God and pray for issues that are on my heart. But I personally find I still get additional benefit from a separate time of silent reflection, turning the torch light inwards to ensure that I constantly review my life as well as seeking direction for the day.

In my pressurized work as doctor, clinical director and lecturer this time of quiet in the early morning represents a lifeline that can sustain me through the day's demands. As life has got busier I have increasingly found a need to have further times of quiet: when I need to collect my thoughts for a difficult meeting, a decision that has to be made or just to renew my sense of peace when my life and work overcomes me.

Have the thoughts I receive affected my daily life? At the most basic level it has meant simple decisions such as not using the hospital telephone for personal calls or the photocopier for personal work. When there are differences of opinion within our medical team I've decided to reach out to the people involved to show that it is the issues rather than the people that are in contention. And I have apologised when, as clinical director, I have made a mistake in handling situations or colleagues.

Some of the thoughts have been much more challenging. I wanted a world free of corruption - was I prepared to return $100 that I had been paid in error? My thought was 'God will reward you ten-fold for your honesty' but I still hesitated. The day after I finally decided to return the money a letter arrived with a cheque for $1000 for overtime I'd worked.

Was I really prepared to work wherever God led me - did I trust his leading enough to turn down a job offer because of a thought in my quiet time? I felt the grip of fear when I turned the offer down, without knowing what next. But 6 weeks later I found a job in Liverpool and felt clear this was the right one to accept. It has been my home ever since.

During the last years of my father's life he needed to live with me in Liverpool due to increasing health problems. He was happy to be there but I knew that it was his deepest unspoken desire to die in his home in Egypt. We only spent 4 weeks a year in Egypt so, given his rather precarious health, I thought this was unlikely. One winter his illness took a turn for the worse and I cancelled our planned trip to Egypt. Then he seemed to improve so I wondered whether we should go after all. In a time of quiet my thought was that we should travel on one of two dates and that I should let my father choose. The day he chose happened to be the first day of Ramadan.

The night before we were due to leave he complained of severe chest pains. After taking some emergency medications, I encouraged him to rest. I was left with the dilemma of whether or not to travel. My choice was no longer just a personal one as it would affect my father as well. After much prayer and reflection I had a single thought 'If your father sleeps for 3 hours and wakes up OK, travel, have no fear and trust in God'.

By late the next day we were in our family home in Cairo and my father's spirit and health revived. He spent three wonderful days at the start of Ramadan seeing close relatives and meeting his best friends. On the third night as he lay in his bed and we were praying together he died suddenly. I felt overwhelmed by God's merciful leading and timing. Whenever I have doubts or fears I remember those days to give me the courage to obey those thoughts that come in the time of quiet and to remind me that whatever the circumstances God walks with us through the difficulties and often gives us more than we long for and deserve.

Like many people, I struggle to understand life's complexity and to reconcile myself with so much pain and suffering. I sometimes feel helpless and downhearted in the face of world events outside of my control. As I grow older I am less sure what the right questions are and even less sure that I have any answers.

The only thing I am SURE of is that in silence, in the depth of each of our hearts is the answer to any question we long for, if we truly listen and search for the truth. Each one of us can be led step by step if we make a choice to listen.

I would like to end with a poem from Jalaludin Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet:

"Why are you so afraid of silence?
Silence is the root of everything.
If you spiral into its void
A hundred voices will thunder messages
You long to hear."

by Dr. Omnia Marzouk, an Egyptian Muslim who lives in the UK. She is a Pediatric Emergency Physician and Director of the largest children's ER in Europe. The daughter of an Egyptian ambassador, she has traveled widely to facilitate dialogue and understanding between different faith groups.

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.