Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.

Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.

I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.

Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.

Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.

I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!

Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.”  I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or  any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.

Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think,  “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!

Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.

Do Not Lie to INS!

Fatma first entered the United States on a visitor’s visa late last year. She had recently gotten married in Jordan, and her husband had relocated to the United States after obtaining his “green card.”  At the time, I wondered why and how she came on a visitor’s visa. I thought that the spouse of a citizen or permanent resident must enter on a resident visa. Well, regulations change, and it was none of my business, anyway.

They settled into married life, and then she decided to travel back to Jordan to visit her family. Since her visitor’s visa was good for multiple entries for five years, she felt safe to make the trip. Her husband stayed behind because he finally got a wonderful job, after months of sending resumes, attending interviews, and consulting the employment agencies. They did not plan to be apart for more than the duration of her visit– a few months– so she went, and visited her family.

Several months later, she boarded a plane to return to the Untied States.

Upon landing, she was taken into a private room and interrogated regarding the purpose of her travels. She spoke through an interpreter, since she does not speak English. I became aware of the situation when my daughter phoned me in a panic.

“They’ve taken her into a room! They’ve been questioning her for four hours!” Fatma is my daughter’s sister-in-law.

Her husband, with my son-in-law and my grandson, had been waiting for her to emerge, but they never so much as caught a glimpse of her.

“They’re going to send her back to Jordan!” my daughter cried. “She needs a lawyer. We need to find a twenty-four lawyer. Now! They are putting her on the next plane!” They would put her on the next plane for another ten hour flight, without letting her even see her husband for a few minutes, knowing that she would not see him again for a long time? They would do that?

My daughter’s internet connection was down, so I got on my computer and discovered that such a category of lawyers does exist— immigration lawyers available twenty-four hours. I texted my daughter five phone numbers, and waited, and wondered what could have gone wrong with Fatma’s re-entry to the United States.

My daughter called me back an hour later. She had spoken to several lawyers. They couldn’t help, because Fatma is not a citizen or permanent resident, and therefore is not legally entitled to representation.

“Well, what’s the problem with Immigration? Why won’t they let her enter the country?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said my daughter.

“What did they ask her? Why did she say?”

“They asked her if she was married and she said no. They opened her suitcase and found the wedding photos.”

Bingo!

“That’s it,” I said, ” you do not lie to INS! Don’t they know that by now? Haven’t they learned that you cannot lie to INS?” I started shrieking.

“You cannot lie to INS!”

“Why not?” asked my daughter, “she lied to them the first time, and it worked.”

“You do not lie to INS! They can SMELL lies!”

I was flabbergasted that Fatma and her husband would even consider lying to INS, but upon reflection, I realized why they had done so.

He had just obtained his permanent residence. He won’t be eligible for citizenship for three more years. As a permanent resident, he can apply for her residence visa, but the process will take years. They have no legal path to bring her here in a timely manner, and he has just become established on a career path here, so he does not want to give that up, for fear he won’t get another chance. So now they sit, apart, he in the States, she in Jordan. He will be able to visit her once or twice a year if he is lucky, if his new position gives him more than the measly two-week vacation that Americans get at the beginning of their career paths.

They’d better not try another lie, because now she has a flag on her file, and future efforts to immigrate will be scrutinized.  This new family now hangs in limbo, this Arab family that is trying to become American, trying simply to join other family members already here, to have and raise their children in a healthier society than that from which they’ve emerged. Her husband is from Iraq.

His family was able to evacuate Baghdad because of the war. They relocated to Jordan, where they lived for several years, and then, one by one, came to the United States. I hope Fatma will be the next one to come. I almost hope they think up another lie that won’t be smelled by INS. Newlyweds should not be separated during the first years of their marriage, especially after all the hardships these families have already suffered, through no fault of their own.

Now, however, they will have to endure several more years of hardship, for the sin of having lied to INS.

INS did, indeed, put her on the next plane, and her husband went home to candles, roses, and tears.

Crying, “Wolf!”

Last year, a newspaper article published the salary of my employer’s CEO—  over $3M.  That’s not $3M over the lifetime of his employment, nor is it a $3M windfall reward for record profits. It’s $3M a year, each and every year! (For the record, I will never see even $1M in my entire life, let alone in a single year.)

I couldn’t believe it. I felt as though I’d been smacked in the face, considering that my immediate supervisor had been imploring the staff to be more frugal with supplies, and the supervisors above her had authorized the replacement of good quality supplies with cheaper ones of inferior quality.  

The trend continued. They removed our fast, modern copy machine and replaced it with a slow one that appeared to have been in a warehouse, unsold, for years.  They restricted overtime, and made us take “comp time” instead of pay, when the workload required an extra hour or two. Meanwhile, the CEO resigned, and a new one came. Cost-of-living raises for the rank and file were delayed, then suspended, and we knew why.

Another CEO (there are more than one?) resigned from the same company with a $7M compensation package, and when hundreds of the staff complained bitterly, the administration published a ten-point bulletin in defense of CEO salary packages. Among other inane defenses was this: That’s what good-quality CEOs cost, and we want good CEOs, don’t we?

Eventually, most of us got our $.25 per hour raise, and one of us got a black mark on her record for spouting off to the wrong person about the disparity between CEO salaries and the salaries of the rest of us who actually do hands-on work.  The organization I work for is huge, spanning several states, marching towards a monopoly on its product, thanks to our CEOs, presumably, but I no longer buy the austerity pitch I hear from supervisors and low-tier administrators.

In fact, I no longer buy it from anyone higher up on the food chain, certainly not from politicians who cry and moan about how the United States is going to run out of money in two days. Who are they trying to fool— each other, or the working class people who are already accustomed to the “necessity” of preserving  CEO salaries?

Relish, Sauce, or Chutney?

My mother, sister and her husband are football fans and Tea Party Republicans. As far as they lean to the right, I lean to the left, and they know it. By virtue of numbers, however, they feel no restraint in verbalizing their dislike of America’s president and all of what he symbolizes. We were together last night for dinner. My sister cooked a roast with potatoes. She also made salad, and my mother contributed a cranberry relish.  I contributed nothing.  I do not muster much enthusiasm for this sort of dinner. By way of showing appreciation, I offer to clean up and wash dishes. This is my usual contribution. My sister and her husband would not enjoy the kind of food I’d like to cook for them– Arabic or Indian style recipes I’ve become comfortable with over the years.

The three of them conversed, as usual, slugging insults at the Democrats, predicting doom and damnation for the country unless the Republicans get back in power, because the Republicans are the only real patriots, you know. The rest of us have wandered too far off the “right” path, ha ha ha…

I kept my mouth shut during this, because I had nothing to say. They are full of emotion. I am not. I do not get excited over political differences, but I do get excited about people who are narrow-minded, who do not recognize that this is a world of full of societies that get along just fine using rules that could turn the stomach of an American of either political persuasion. Representatives from those societies are permeating every corner of American life, doing so legally, even.

Years ago, kids were taught that America was a “melting pot.” That meant that American culture would be an amalgam of the many cultures from which Americans had risen. America had no historical identity of its own, no national character (we weren’t taught about Indians, in those days.)  The original immigrants were supposed to pool their cultural identities to craft something from which an American identity would emerge. So today, do we now have a national identity? Does America have an identifiable character which is desirable and should be striven after?

My table companions would not have considered such a question. They already knew the answer, evident in the speeches of Sarah Palin and and FOX “news” celebrities.

Halfway through the meal, my mother offered my brother-in-law some relish. He said, “I don’t eat relish.”
She said, “Well, call it sauce. Have some sauce. How about chutney? Have some chutney.”
He said, “Chutney? That’s even worse.”

They continued, moving from politics to football. They actually feel a sense of personal worth that’s attached to the local team and the skill with which the team plays and wins games. This is another area with which I have no resonance, no connection at all. The relish dish was in front of me, so I put a dollop on my plate, and tasted it.

“EWE!” I exclaimed, with wrinkled lips and squinty eyes. “This is sauce! I don’t eat sauce— I eat chutney!”

All three of them fell silent, looked at me blankly, and then resumed whatever it was they were saying about the football game to be played next week. I didn’t laugh– didn’t need to laugh. They’re not stupid; my point had not been lost on them, but they couldn’t say anything. That’s OK. I enjoy cleaning up. I also enjoy washing dishes. I can excuse myself from having to sit like a lump on a log and listen to more of the same.

It’s not their viewpoints that offend me; it’s their arrogance, their assumption that no other political party could possibly work for the betterment of American society. They are Christians, and they “know” that only Christians will go to Heaven. How can I exchange ideas with people like that, how can I examine doctrine or delve into any system of belief– political or spiritual– within the framework of civil social intercourse?  All I can do is tell them that I eat chutney, even though they know that already.

Agitated

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I allowed myself to get embroiled in a blog conversation with someone whose objective was only to inflame, ridicule, provoke, and insult. See:
I bent over backwards to accommodate A’idah’s points, give weight to her accusations, and maintain objectivity at the same time. In the end, I had to extricate myself, and I’ve been agitated for two days.

Why? What sort of emotional complex gets activated, not only in me but in many people, when religion is on the table?  This question seems more important than the conversation we’d had in the first place. The topic was Islam, of course. What other topic, these days, inflames to the extent that Islam inflames?

Islam is the third largest monotheistic religion in the world. It’s been around for centuries. Something is right with it. The best way to address troublesome issues regarding Islam and the West is to admit that something, indeed, is right with it. That “rightness” underlies all else, and needs to be acknowledged before any of us– Muslim or non-Muslim– will be able to purge Islam and cultures of the deviations have taken hold and drawn us all under the rubble.

A’idah and I were at cross purposes, and I knew it from the start, but why did I yield to the bait? The answer lies not with the conversation, but  with me. It goes all the way back to my conversion to Islam in 1987. No, it goes back further, to my rejection of certain aspects of Christianity. No, it goes back further than that, even. Maybe it goes all the way back to birth, when my cozy world spit me out into cold, noisy air and assaulted me with tactile irritations, blinding brightness and speed-of-light motion that induced a most terrifying vertigo, followed by prodding and rubbing and the shock of my own first breaths.

Then I heard my mother’s voice.

Religion is a response to birth trauma?

Does that sound far-fetched, or atheistic?

Even as a believer in Allah, I can accommodate the idea that religion could be a response to birth trauma.

Well, be that as it may, I remain agitated, angry even, at how Islam has been kicked and slugged and stabbed and blasted by people who take pleasure in the attack, who do not ask the hard questions, do not even pretend to dig into the substance of the matter, but condemn with sweeping verbosity, and polish their skills at sarcastic dialogue with bitter, lip-licking delight.




Book Review: “A Thousand Spendid Suns” by Khaled Husseini

July 8, 2010

(The metaphorical Riyadh has room for book reviews.)

Anyone familiar with Islam and/or the Middle East will recognize at once that this author knows whereof he writes. He should; he was born and raised in Afghanistan, but has lived in the United States long enough to digest the differences, complexities and contradictions of both worlds.

I wouldn’t have read this book, because I am sick of reading about the poor, downtrodden Middle-Eastern woman. My colleagues, however, are all reading the book, and they practically thrust it upon me. I felt duty-bound to read it and correct whatever misinformation might be pouring forth from the book into their naive minds.

In fact, I was the one who was impressed with the story’s apparent authenticity. Though I’ve never lived in Afghanistan, I know this book could have been a memoir as easily as it is a novel. I won’t go into the plot or the resolution, but I will say that the characters are drawn in all the complexity and irony that marks the human condition beyond its containment within the straightjackets of cultural indoctrination.

I can offer nothing but praise for the book.

The only other thing I added for the benefit of my colleagues was that I’d like to read books about women who are living happily in the Middle East, whose lives are not circumscribed by repressive forces. I know that happy women exist there. I was one of them, and so were my friends. I still have friends who wouldn’t dream of returning to the US to live; they’ve got it too good in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, I do underscore the need to tell the stories of Mariam, Laila, and others like them. Even Rasheed,  ogre that he was, could not have behaved but as he’d been taught to behave from growing up around men who taught him, by example, how to behave.

Tariq, however, as well as Abu Laila, grew up under a different set of values which offer a counterpoint and point of departure for the embodiment of the universal values set forth by all religions.

Novels such as this one are nothing if not an important contribution to the edification of readers who would not otherwise be afforded opportunities to enter into the lives of people like Mariam, Laila, Rasheed and Tariq. This is the kind of novel that can swing the tide of entire populations, and therefore position people for the change that must come before this world can thrive in peace, not only peace between men and women, but between cultures and countries.

Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930’s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Christ-Stopped-at-Eboli/Carlo-Levi/e/9780374503161

and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Stopped-Eboli-Story-Year/dp/0374503168

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

Conversation with Robert

Conversation with Robert

My daughter Mai did not consider Robert a suitor– he was an acquaintance– so we were surprised when he made the effort to come for a visit while on leave from active duty in Iraq. Perhaps he was fascinated with her Arab-American heritage, and her firm opposition to the war. The war had started six months previously, and the sentiment of the American people hadn’t yet turned against it. 

I took the young people to brunch at a neighborhood pancake house, and we talked about the war. Robert told us he had “many stories to tell.” Mai and I sat in silent expectation, sensing his conflict in opening up to us.

“God, I hate the enemy,” he began, and fell silent.

“Who is the enemy?” I finally asked.

“Iraqis!” Robert answered, as if he were telling me something I should have known.

We sat at a table surrounded by other tables with children and overweight adults, retired couples and laborers. Loud voices praised ball games and the unseasonably good weather. Soft voices discussed the church agenda, and the declining health of the grandparents. The aromas of pancakes, omelets and coffee settled over the table, and the awkward moment dissipated when I offered Robert the milk and sugar.

“But isn’t it possible that the Iraqi soldier is just like you?” I asked. “He has parents, siblings, or a spouse and children? He is loved, just like you?”

“There’s no room for that kind of thinking in combat.”

“I know, ” I said.

“Tell us one of your stories!” Mai broke in. The corners of his mouth drooped a little, and his eyes widened. He sight seemed to reverse, looking into the mind that was now infected with war visions like viruses inserted into  his soul.

“I’ll never forget looking down the barrel of my weapon and seeing an eye looking back at me. Everything around me was dark; it was night, and time stood still. It was just me and him. You’d be amazed at what goes through your mind.”

“What goes through your mind?” Mai and I asked together.

“Lots of stuff.”

“Like what?”

“A few seconds seem like an hour.”

“What did you do?”

“I squeezed the trigger, and on that particular weapon the mechanism moves slow and smooth, to keep the barrel steady and not miss the target.”

“And what was your reaction when you realized you were still alive?”

“Run.” That’s all he said. We waited, but he seemed to be finished with that story.

“Did you ever think about writing down some of your experiences?” I asked, when I saw the tears about to spill from his eyes, but he wasn’t finished talking about combat.

“I’ve shot at lots of….things,” he said, hesitating at the word, avoiding it as he had avoided the word “gun”. He had to do what he had to do, whether he wanted to or not, and he adjusted his attitude to accept what he had to do. Would I would have done the same? How can you kill someone’s son, brother, husband, father? How can you determine whether your target is thinking the same way, or whether you are but a “thing” to him as he squeezes the trigger on his own weapon? The instinct to self-preservation crashes against the generic moral imperative that even an enemy learns in childhood: Love your neighbor as yourself.

A week after our pancake brunch, Robert returned to Iraq. Eight months after that, I asked my daughter, “Have you heard from Robert lately ? Is he still in Iraq?”

“Oh, no, Mom. He wrote me a few weeks ago from St. Louis. He didn’t re-enlist. He’s joining the priesthood! Can you imagine that!”

I could imagine that.

Several more years passed, and my daughter married an Iraqi whose family left Iraq as the soldiers entered it. Now we listen to his stories.

 

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"Average Folks"

Average Folks”

A Commentary on the Candidacy of Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin and her supporters think she represents “average folks.”  She tries hard to behave like “average folks”, as if being average were a desirable quality for a vice presidential candidate.  Supporters think she understands “average folks” and has their best interests at heart. Sarah Palin is fooling them.

She  is not average, and never has been average. Throughout her life, she has demonstrated an intensely competitive spirit  (look at her devotion to winning at sports), coupled with notable personal charm (when did a VP candidate get away with winking into the camera?), and traditional female beauty (evidenced in her successful participation in pageants). She has been blessed– or afflicted– with tremendous self-confidence, energy, and an ability to look beyond what many people would consider limitations.

She has a house-husband who manages the home and takes care of a Down Syndrome baby. How “average” is that?

Sarah Palin’s vocabulary, perpetual smile, and breathy voice (when expounding upon her patriotism and plans for the country), are transparent attempts to portray herself as “average.”  Her greetings from the podium to school kids  are not greetings; they are carefully crafted verbal techniques. Her mispronunciation of “nuclear” is nothing more than a not-so-subtle reassurance that she walks to the right of G.W. Bush.

The concept of “average” implies “majority”, and that is the sense in which Palin wants us to believe she represents Americans. Things aren’t so simple here in America, where “average” has no real meaning, and “majority” applies not to most Americans  in the country (as well as out of it!)  but to the people within any one person’s immediate circle.

Let us abandon the notion that Sarah Palin somehow represents the “average” and therefore the “majority” of the American citizenry. Let us recognize that her efforts to use casual language and to display the tiresome American tendency towards extreme friendliness will not be well received on the international front. Let us acknowledge that style does not always indicate substance, and cannot substitute for it, especially when the direction of entire countries need nothing if not substance.

Let us strike the word “average” from our description of Sarah Palin. Who, then, do we have in her?