Sunday 19 January 2020

David Robbins: My daughter - the bottomless well of questions

David Robbins

As the father of a now six-year-old daughter, there are times when I hanker for the old days of when she was, say, 18 months old and life was simpler.

Back then, the job of a dad was straightforward: feed, cuddle and change nappies. Bathe occasionally. Throw in the air from time to time. Read bedtime stories. Ahh, the Mister Men years.

These days, parenthood feels a bit like trying to wing it while being interviewed by Seán O'Rourke on the News At One.

The questions come thick and fast. The fact that they are delivered in a cutesy-pie voice from the booster seat in the back of the car doesn't mean they're harmless.

The questions a six-year-old girl asks are deep and searching. They span the worlds of etymology ("dad, what does 'pure' mean?"), theology ("can God see me?") and ancient history ("what was school like when you were a boy?").

My explanation of the meaning of pure (which had cropped up in Mr Popper's Penguins) was, I thought, a masterpiece of clear exposition.

Admittedly, I had to skirt the whole virginal connotation of the word, but I ranged far over the subjects of sin, of redemption, of the innocence of youth and the danger of corruption. I think I even mentioned the Sermon on the Mount.

"But da-ad, I want a real answer, not just blah-blah-blah," came the Seán O'Rourke-like response from under the covers.

The next day, we were driving to Bray with the intention of climbing Bray Head. I have discovered through painful experience that walks over flat terrain hold no appeal for my daughter.

I've lost count of the number of times I have ended up carrying her on my shoulders on any walk with less than a 1:3 gradient. But give her a climb, and she's as happy as a Sherpa. ("What's a Sherpa, dad?")

It is during these quiet times, on long drives with the dog quietly getting sick in the back, that the great questions of life float to the surface of my daughter's mind.

"Dad?"

"Yes."

"What's a Muslim?"

I thought of deploying the old Kerryman's trick of answering a question with another question ("Where did you hear about Muslims?"), or the time-honoured therapist ruse of turning the question back on the questioner ("What do you think they are?").

But no. Here was an opportunity to explain the Islamic faith in a comprehensive, respectful, inclusive way. It was a chance to get in early, before any ill-informed prejudice could take hold.

I began with the field of comparative religion. All religions boil down to the same thing: love. Love God and love your fellow man. There was a noise from the back; I'm not sure if it was the dog or the daughter, but I took it as a sign to continue.

There followed a small digression on moral relativism before I came to the origins of Islam and birth of Mohammad in 570AD in Mecca.

I alluded to the spread of Islam among the Arab peoples, the Crusades, the great mathematicians of the Islamic world, and described the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo in some detail.

My tales of the Moors of North Africa and the nomadic Berber people were going down well, I thought. It was time to delve into doctrinal matters.

The Islamic beliefs surrounding the slaughter of animals, or the punishment of criminals, did not interest my daughter. The covering of female hair, however, caught her attention.

I concluded my disposition with a short, but I thought eloquent, exhortation towards tolerance and integration. I settled back to my driving, smugly certain that not many dads could have given such a comprehensive answer.

"But da-ad!"

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