What Is Promised to Us

A Tanzanian Muslim and an American agnostic discuss the hereafter. And bowling.

A Tanzanian working in America on a Green card, he lives in a one-bedroom apartment an eighth of a mile from his office in New Britain, CT. He talks frequently of his homeland but not of specifics, never mentioning the warring neighbors of Uganda in the north; the Indian Ocean shores shared with Somalia (mother country of Mogadishu, formerly the most dangerous city in the world); to the west the Democratic Republic of Congo (land of Kinshasa, where Ali and Foreman once fought the “Rumble in the Jungle,” now plagued by tens of thousands of homeless children).

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan KeeltyOn the way to Berlin Bowling Center, he asks me: “Do you think there’s bowling in heaven?”

“How do you explain thunder?” I answer.

“Do you think everybody bowls a 300 in heaven?”

“I doubt it.”

“I think so. Everything in heaven is perfect. So everybody would bowl a perfect score.”

“Then why would anyone want to bowl? If everyone bowled a 300, there wouldn’t be any competition. Isn’t that the point of sports? I would imagine if everyone were shooting a 300, it’d get boring pretty quickly.

“I don’t know. I’ve been bowling for a while. Getting a 300 has got to be exciting.”

He came to America maybe six years ago after he won a lottery in his country to study in the States. He later earned a B.S. in finance from Central Connecticut State University and went to work for the school shortly thereafter.

“Think about it this way,” I say. “If everybody picked up a paintbrush and painted a perfect Picasso or a Monet, all the galleries in heaven would get pretty boring, right? Art is about imperfection. The pursuit is in working towards perfection. Same as in bowling.”

“Do you paint?”

“No. I’m just making a point.”

It’s uncertain when his interest in bowling started. It is clear, however, that for five of the past six months his interest became obsessive, almost dogmatic; hours at the alley, dollars at the lanes: On shoes, a custom ball, entrance to a league. He changed his shot to the hook. He sweeps his back leg. He knows how far to turn his wrist on the release. There’s intense concentration on his face when he steps up to 10 pins; the same intensity when walking away for one or two; a slight exaltation when walking away from zero. It’s now rare to see him walk away from three or more.

He asks, “What do you think heaven will be like?”

“Assuming there is a heaven?”

“Yes.”

“There’s all that Catholic idealism — you know, walking on the clouds in a pristine paradise with the angels. Then there’s the idea that your soul leaves your body, so heaven isn’t anything resembling Earth. It’s just a resting place for your soul with limited consciousness. I’m not really sure what I believe.”

“I think about the 72 virgins.”

The Houri. Translated as the splendid companions of equal age with lovely eyes of modest gaze. Pure beings or companions of paradise for humans and jinn (spiritual beings) who enter Jannah (Paradise) after being created anew in the hereafter.

“Do you think when you get to heaven God will have them lined up for you? Or do you get to choose?”

“I’m not sure how that works. I’m Catholic. You’d have to ask your people.”

“For me, heaven will be a nonstop sex. Nonstop with my 72 virgins.”

I shrug. “I’m no expert, but that sounds like the opposite of heaven. The pleasures of the flesh are the things churches tell you to abstain from on Earth to get into heaven. So why would you die, go to heaven, and be allowed these pleasures?”

“Because they are what’s promised to us.”

These are promises made not only for him. For “us.” He lives alone in that one-bedroom apartment. Alone, besides an uncle and aunt and perhaps a few cousins, in America. He thinks of his family back home in Tanzania, a country where Islam is the minority there as it is here. A country where 75 percent of the economy is dependent on agriculture yet only four percent of the land is capable to be cultivated due to the topography and climate. A country that exploits child labor; not excluding child sexual exploitation. A country where 1.6 million people are living with HIV/AIDS; an epidemic.

“There’s a saying in my country: it’s better to be a dog in America than a human in Tanzania,” he says.

That day was in April. A true spring day, overcast and humid with graying skies promising rain to come. I remember thinking that God could have opened the gates right then and let it rain and let the thunder roll. But God did not.

We rode back from the alley under mute, gray skies while God missed an opportunity to let some sort of divination occur, to prove some sort of point regarding his existence. Instead, the silence said to me — in a sublime but very real kind of way — that God might not exist. Or, worse, that God simply does not care.

Article © 2013 by Jesse Duthrie