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


  1. Great post, Gordon. I hope a lot of folks who never travel abroad get to read this as it might be the proverbial eye-opener for them.

  2. Ditto. One of your very best. Without sentimentally dismissing the ugliness in human (or governmental) nature, you convince us that it's far outweighed by its beauty and brotherhood.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks!

  4. Gordon, I am in complete sympathy with the views that you express here, both explicitly and implicitly. Moreover, your very touching stories, so nicely rendered, do serve topoint out the fault lines in many of the horrid generalizations one hears these days (not that that's new), and such reminders remain incredibly important--so thank you. (Wittgenstein: assembling reminders for a particular purpose."

    However, as you may well know, my view is that generalization itself is one of the chief problems in discourse; I'll take as my stalking horse your own assertion in this piece: "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." One hopes this is true, but really, what would it take to support such an assertion? How can one say such things regarding the overwhelming majority of people in fifty countries?

    The only venue in which generalization is epistemically safe is science, which in turn requires very carefully wrought categorizations. So perhaps a sociologist or anthropologist or some such person could design a study that could ascertain the truth or falsity (or any of the many other infelicities that undermine truth claims), but simple visitation and interactions of five or ten or fifty citizens can't vouchsafe much, unless one can make the case that the sample is representative in the required ways...and in ordinary life, who does that?

    Suzie returns from her two-day visit to Yale, saying that it's not for her. Why? Because Yale kids are stuffy. Really?? I had a wonderful student return from her first semester at Johns Hopkins. Her roommate was unhappy, because she was lesbian. My friend said, "...the problem is, there are no lesbians at Hopkins!"

    I think the better way to understand your musings regarding your enviable travels, besides sharing lots of worthy impressions, is to poke holes (via counterexamples) in the faulty (and often idiotic) generalizations that swirl about us, corroding our rather pathetic public discourse.

    Nonetheless, I thank you for an excellent posting, my friend.