LU­NAR LEG­END LINGERS

False – but per­sis­tent – ru­mor Arm­strong con­verted to Is­lam

Toronto Sun - - COMMENT - SALLY TYLER Tyler is an at­tor­ney and pol­icy an­a­lyst in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. This col­umn first ap­peared in The Wash­ing­ton Post

The story told in First Man, the new Neil Arm­strong biopic, is by now a fa­mil­iar part of Amer­i­can his­tory: a tale of the early Apollo pro­gram’s ob­ses­sive drive to win the space race and get to the moon.

A less fa­mil­iar story for most view­ers is a per­sis­tent ur­ban leg­end about the first hu­man to reach the lu­nar sur­face.

I first en­coun­tered it in Yo­gyakarta, In­done­sia, in the 1990s, when I was trav­el­ing alone for the first time.

A So­mali named Ab­dul­lah, who had come to In­done­sia to pur­chase sarongs to sell in his store back in Mo­gadishu, was stay­ing at the same guest­house as I was.

As we chat­ted one late af­ter­noon, the muezzin’s call pierced the air, and I told Ab­dul­lah that I found it a very beau­ti­ful sound.

He replied with barely con­strained en­thu­si­asm:

“Is it true? Is it true about

Mr. Neil Arm­strong?”

Space fever had long quelled in the United States.

I hadn’t even heard Arm­strong’s name in years, so the in­quiry struck me as com­ing from a dis­tant left field.

My re­sponse was,

“Umm, is what true about Neil Arm­strong?”

He told me, mat­ter of factly, that when Arm­strong was vis­it­ing the Mid­dle

East sev­eral years af­ter his Apollo flight, he heard the call of the muezzin and asked what it was.

Upon be­ing in­formed of the sound’s source, the story went, Arm­strong said he had heard the very same sound on the moon. In the leg­end, he con­verted to Is­lam on the spot.

That was my first ex­po­sure to an ur­ban leg­end that held sway in parts of the world for decades. Arm­strong even ad­dressed it in First Man, the bi­og­ra­phy by James R. Hansen that the new movie is based on: “I have found that many or­ga­ni­za­tions claim me as a mem­ber, for which I am not a mem­ber, and a lot of dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies — Arm­strong fam­i­lies and oth­ers — make con­nec­tions, many of which don’t ex­ist. So many peo­ple iden­tify with the suc­cess of Apollo. The claim about my be­com­ing a Mus­lim is just an ex­treme ver­sion of peo­ple in­evitably telling me they know some­body whom I might know.”

Over the years, Arm­strong was in­un­dated by re­quests to ap­pear at Is­lamic re­li­gious ob­ser­vances around the world. He was so del­uged that he worked with the State De­part­ment in 1983 to send a re­jec­tion of the claim to em­bassies and con­sulates through­out the Mid­dle East, North Africa and Asia. It states: “While stress­ing his strong de­sire not to of­fend any­one or show dis­re­spect for any reli­gion, Arm­strong has ad­vised De­part­ment that re­ports of his con­ver­sion to Is­lam are in­ac­cu­rate . . . . If Post re­ceives queries on this mat­ter, Arm­strong re­quests that they po­litely but firmly in­form query­ing party that he has not con­verted to

Is­lam and has no cur­rent plans or de­sire to travel over­seas to par­tic­i­pate in Is­lamic re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Though the joint State De­part­ment state­ment helped kill the story in ac­tual news­pa­pers, the myth lived on through word of mouth and was then am­pli­fied on In­ter­net mes­sage boards, with new em­bel­lish­ments added as the leg­end con­tin­ued to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the globe. It didn’t help still the ru­mor mill that Arm­strong’s de­nial was sent from Le­banon,

Ohio, where he lived at the time. Some pur­vey­ors of the leg­end ig­nored the re­but­tal as­pect, and in­stead added a thread that Arm­strong was so de­voted to Is­lam that he had im­mi­grated to Le­banon (the other one). On­line posts even falsely claim that de­clas­si­fied NASA tapes made dur­ing the Apollo 11 mis­sion recorded Arm­strong and the other as­tro­nauts dis­cussing see­ing some­thing that ap­pears to be an open book just above the Sea of Tran­quil­lity, which pro­po­nents of the leg­end have taken to rep­re­sent the Ko­ran.

I have al­ways been en­chanted by the leg­end.

Not be­cause I be­lieved the con­ver­sion story, but be­cause it un­der­scores the essence, for me, of Arm­strong’s mythic place in our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tions — a sense of awe and won­der at the beauty and mys­tery of the uni­verse, cou­pled with a be­lief in the power of sci­ence to help un­lock those mys­ter­ies. It also serves as a tes­ta­ment to the at­trac­tion that Arm­strong’s ac­tual ex­ploits hold for the mere earth­bound, who can only look sky­ward and pon­der the brav­ery nec­es­sary to lit­er­ally soar into the un­known, as well as the sheer ex­hil­a­ra­tion that must have been its re­ward. Every­one loves a win­ner, and it is a uni­ver­sal trait to want to claim a win­ner as one of our own. Per­haps, if a lit­tle bit of the win­ner is in us, then maybe we too might one day soar.

We are told that sound does not travel on the sur­face of the moon, but if you could hear a song on the moon, what would it sound like? That’s a ques­tion I prob­a­bly would have never pon­dered had I not been on the is­land of Java that day shar­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a So­mali

He told me ... when Arm­strong was vis­it­ing the Mid­dle East sev­eral years af­ter his Apollo flight, he heard the call of the muezzin and asked what it was. Upon be­ing in­formed of the sound’s source, the story went, Arm­strong said he had heard the very same sound on the moon. In the leg­end, he con­verted to Is­lam on the spot.

trav­eler. It’s an il­lus­tra­tion of the serendip­ity af­forded by travel and I will al­ways be grate­ful for hav­ing heard the story from some­one who wanted to be­lieve it.

Ul­ti­mately, be­lief in the leg­end rep­re­sents striv­ing for con­nec­tion. On the day that Arm­strong died in 2012, Twit­ter feeds around the Is­lamic world filled with mes­sages re­peat­ing as­pects of the myth and show­ing

NEIL ARM­STRONG

grat­i­tude for his con­ver­sion. It was doubt­ful that any of the writ­ers had ever met Arm­strong; most were prob­a­bly not even born at the time of the lu­nar land­ing. Yet they con­tin­ued to re­peat the im­prob­a­ble myth, per­haps in the un­spo­ken hope that they, too, could be brave.

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