Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Big Bad Wolf

Warm greeting from a stranger in Islamabad
It's been more than a decade and a half since 9/11, and terrorism hasn't gone away.  It's not going to.  We can and should work to contain and control and reduce it, but when we talk about "eradicating" it, we're kidding ourselves.  Terrorism is like mosquitoes--annoying, and persistent, but mostly an irritation more than a crisis.  If that sounds callus, think about how many people die every year from guns, or car accidents, or infectious diseases--or counter-terrorism.  Being "honest" about terrorism is not claiming that you know how to defeat it, but admitting that we have to live with some of it.  Maybe it's time we started thinking about a sense of balance: how far are we willing to go to fight this unconquerable enemy?  How many innocent people will we condemn to living in danger or desperation just for the chance of catching one or two monsters?  How many resources will we divert from schools and hospitals and parks?

Lately we seem increasingly willing to dismiss entire nations, cultures, and religions, forgetting, at our peril, that no country is ever more nor less than the sum of its people.  Heroes and despots come and go; economies rise and fall; political ideologies blossom and fester; natural resources are exploited and exhausted; but the citizenry endures.  And in my experience, in over 50 countries, the overwhelming majority of people are not only innocent, but kind, warm, generous, curious, and profoundly hospitable.  Maybe we should return the favor.

In light of recent moves to make the USA significantly less of a welcome mat to the world, I want to share a few stories and photos of people in "bad" places who've surprised me with their goodness.  I'd like to see folks visit a country before they bomb it or ban it--or at least heed those who have.

Custom-made suit for less than $100
In St. Louis, Senegal, I had a suit made.  At the end of complicated negotiations due to my limited French, the tailor, a bent-backed old black man in long blue robes, a white fez, and thick glasses, took my money, shook my hand, and promised to mail me the suit in a week or two.  As I was organizing my luggage later at the hotel, the receptionist told me I had a visitor.  It was the tailor, who pressed a wad of bills into my hand.  "C'est beaucoup," he said, closing my hand around the bills when I tried to give them back.  "C'est beaucoup."  I was sure I'd paid only as much as we'd agreed, yet he'd gone to the trouble of finding my hotel and trudging over in the afternoon heat to deliver this "refund" I didn't think I deserved.  So often I hear Americans worry about getting "ripped off" whenever they leave the homeland, yet here a person who could easily have taken advantage of me went out of his way not to.

Streetside tailoring
In Hunza, Pakistan, my backpack needed some TLC.  This fellow happily made repairs for me, and then refused to let me pay him.  I don't know where to get such work done at home for any price.

Free Ramadan dinner in Istanbul
Outside the central mosque in Istanbul, people were handing out flyers inviting tourists to a free dinner and discussion of Islam.  When we came back that evening, we were given VIP treatment: comfortable seats in an air-conditioned room (rare in Istanbul), a thoughtful slide show and question-and-answer session, and an excellent boxed dinner.  In a way it's sad that Muslims feel so assaulted as to need to explain their faith, the second-largest and one of the oldest religions in the world.  But the hospitality was astounding.

Schoolboys in Ayun, Pakistan

Proud soccer fan in Gilgit, Pakistan
In Ayun, Pakistan, our group was invited to visit a madrasa--gents to the boys' side, ladies to the girls' side.  Although madrasa has been made synonymous with "religious indoctrination" in Western media, most are simply village schools; if they favor the Koran, it's partly because no other books are available.  They blend religious and secular education very much like the one-room schoolhouses common in the US a century ago.  When I entered the older boys' classroom, all the students immediately stopped what they were doing, stood up, and said, "Good morning, sir!"  "Thank you," I said.  "It's great to be here.  You remind me of my own students--only more polite."
I saw this boy and itched to have his picture, but couldn't stop.  When I wandered back to find him, he was inside a shop watching soccer with his father, so I asked his father if I could take the boy's picture.  He got up, ushered the boy out into the street, and, wearing a face of immense pride, offered that most elegant of all human gestures, placing a hand over his heart, as if to say, "Please, it would be my honor."

Methuselah?  Santa Claus?  Chitral, Pakistan
I love this picture because this old man has such a sweet expression.  I also love it because when I asked if I could take his picture, he gave the slightest and yet most eager of nods.  Generally young folks are more willing to be photographed, and the elderly can be guarded, but this fellow had clearly been waiting and hoping, as I wandered around the mosque and snapped shots of the younger folks, that I'd include him too.  

Young fellows eager for a photo in Gilgit, Pakistan
I should write a whole other post about mosques, but the dozen or more I visited in Pakistan were anything but breeding grounds for terrorism.  Men came to chat, to nap, to escape the heat, to drink or wash in clean water, to have picnics or family reunions, to play games, to meet friends.  They were community centers of the sort all too many American communities have lost.  And they brought back acute memories of my childhood, when the best part of going to church was neither Sunday school nor the service, but the social time afterward, when the kids got to run semi-wild while the grownups chatted over coffee and cakes.  

Foreigners drawing attention in Skardu, Pakistan
In many parts of the world, crossing the border is a bigger deal for the guards than the visitors.  This is not because there aren't dangers--most frontier towns are hotbeds of smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking, abductions, and other crimes.  Yet the immigrations and customs officers are often itching with curiosity to observe and converse with foreigners.  Once when I crossed into Bolivia the officer spent what felt like forever leafing through my passport--not because he suspected me of anything, but because he'd never seen such visa stamps, or maybe any American passport.  In Uganda they opened the border post just for my overland group, and when the electricity failed, they checked us through by candlelight.  

People keep saying that they're not against refugees, they're just for security.  I hope so.  And I hope they'll join me in doing something to help people in troubled areas of the world.  One excellent way is by making a Kiva loan, and targeting it to "conflict zones" or "refugees/displaced persons."  Poverty doesn't discriminate, and neither does Kiva; their intrepid Fellows do good work even in "bad" countries.

We've been hearing a lot about the "bad guys" lately.  Maybe it's time we start focusing on the good people.
Happiness is a cool hat: Skardu, Pakistan

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Divided we rise

Italian wisdom
Several times a day, for several months now, the news has been reminding us how divided we are as a nation.  I'm not convinced.  This relentless pessimism, which is really a kind of nostalgia, reminds me of how teachers constantly bemoan the supposed decline in students: those of yesteryear were always somehow smarter, better read, more tastefully dressed, more polite, more mature, probably even better-looking.  Yet there's no hard evidence of this.  I strongly suspect that if today's students really are lacking in some areas, they more than make up for it in others.  I remember the blank faces of my very well-read parents as I enthused during October break from college about a class on Asian religions, and realizing that they no longer knew more than me so much as they knew different things.  Even with the help of spelling and grammar checkers, my students are unable to create prose as error-free as what I used to generate in cursive, yet they can cut and paste photos into an online presentation, or film and edit a short movie, to make my head spin.  And those are just the obvious intellectual advances: there are also countless forms of social and moral progress, like the fact that homophobia, which was assumed throughout my childhood, is now all but extinct.

I can only shake my head at reports of liberal children turned away from the conservative family Thanksgiving table, or Democrats who've suspended their morning constitutional lest they be forced to converse with Republican neighbors.  Are we really so boring that all we can talk about is donkeys and elephants?  Was Thoreau right to complain that common fellowship is merely a dose of  "that old musty cheese that we are"?

Keep the "passion" in the juice, and out of polite conversation
Three things happened recently to remind me that plenty of common ground remains despite all the political posturing.

Days after the election, a former student sent me a long, distraught email saying that as an immigrant, an Indian, and a woman, she didn't feel safe; her parents were leaving Michigan, and she could no longer consider living in a "red" state.  I talked her down as best I could by email, and we agreed to have lunch while she was in town for winter break.  Thanks to my counsel, or the passage of time, she was back to her old buoyant self by then.  In fact, she reported, she was dating someone who'd voted for Trump, whose kindness and sensitivity--including staying up late to comfort her throughout election night, and making her breakfast the morning after--had reminded her how artificial the political divide can be.

An acquaintance who's been forwarding virulently pro-Trump and anti-Obama emails by the bucketload sent a personal email of appreciation for a blog on my sister site (Rocinante's Apple) which I'd conceived as a way of poking fun at a conservative view of foreign policy.  Rarely does anyone, left or right, take the time to express thanks for a blog post.  It seems we can at least still laugh with each other, or even at each other, and the old courtesies are not gone from this world.

Peppers + fire = magic
The day before Thanksgiving, in pursuit of what's become an annual tradition of making ajvar, a Serbian salsa of roasted red peppers blended with olive oil and garlic, I was outside with my bon aimée roasting peppers, sipping scotch, and smoking a cigar.  I got some funny looks from passing cars and pedestrians, as I always do, and everything seemed normal until the mailman walked up.  He looked at me, smiled, and said, "You like cigars?"

     "Yeah," I said.
     "I'll bring you some," he said.
     "Sure.  I'm half Cuban, I get 'em all the time.  You gonna be here Friday?"
     "Yeah, I'll be here."
     "I'll bring some by Friday afternoon."
     "That'd be wonderful.  Thanks.''
     "No problem.  See you Friday."

We missed each other Friday, and Saturday I left my mother's house for Michigan.  But when I visited again for Christmas, a plastic bag filled with two tinfoil cylinders awaited me.  Gingerly unwrapping them, I found two Cohibas, Havana's finest smoke--not an easy thing to come by, given the embargo.  You can fly to the Caribbean and smuggle some back, you can drive to Canada and sneak some across, or you can befriend your mailman.
Stocking stuffer for grownups

It was almost New Year's by the time I found a chance to smoke them, standing around  in the apron of my mom's garage with my very "blue" sister and our staunchly "red" old friend.  We found plenty to talk about, savoring the peaty scotch and sweet, spicy smoke, remembering all the previous times each of us had enjoyed a real habano, and chuckling over the serendipity of having a mailman for a "supplier."

By then I'd run into the mailman a couple more times, and he'd promised to bring me more cigars.  Busy with the aftermath of Christmas and preparations for New Year's, I didn't see him again until Saturday morning, New Year's Eve, as I was heading out to a friend's house in Massachusetts.  Making a pit stop at my mom's house after getting gas, we spotted the mail truck on an adjacent block.  By the time we left the house a final time, we had to circle around the neighborhood to find him, but eventually we were able to wave him down.

     "I'm so glad I saw you," he said.  "I forgot to bring these yesterday.  Enjoy." He handed me another plastic bag.
     "Wait, I have something for you," I said, dashing back to the car.
     "Do you drink?" I said, presenting him with a bottle of whiskey--a brand-new product from my "red" friend's distillery, as it happened.  I felt stupid asking, but people have so many prohibitions these days.
     "Sure," he said.  "Thanks."
We shook hands, smiling, he off to deliver mail and cigars like a kind of Cuban-American Santa Claus, and me off to keep adolescents out of trouble and into knowledge, like Ichabod Crane in a compact car.
The real deal

When we talk about being "divided," the media benefit, and perhaps the politicians benefit, but reality suffers.  Even if we are more divided in a strictly political sense, who cares?  We have so many more opportunities to be united, or to come together despite our supposed divisions.  It's up to us, as real people, to be better than the pundits, pollsters, and politicos.  Being unwilling to see the thousand shades of "purple" behind the "red" and "blue" is a failure of imagination, a selective blindness.  All last fall, on my Kiva Fellowship, I had deep, far-ranging conversations with coffee farmers and shopkeeps and horse breeders in a different language, an alien culture, and a level of poverty so deep they might as well have been from another planet.  Yet people claim that Americans, who share everything except a political party, can't talk to one another?!

Pass the cigar.