Thursday, January 8, 2015

From Lebanon to France via Wisconsin

We were jubilant here, yesterday morning, when we discovered, rather late in the game, that school was canceled as a result of deadly cold.  Having already seen to the needs of my horses, dogs, and cats, I grabbed my tablet and iPhone and sat on the couch for two hours,with a dog on each side of me, my son quietly playing X Box, and cats everywhere.

Warm and cozy, I practically forgot what I'd heard on the radio earlier over coffee--that terrorists had shot and killed twelve political satirists--artists and journalists--at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, (sort of like The Onion, but more irreverent and provocative), in Paris, France.   

When I first heard it, I thought, Oh, crap.  More of the same old deeply troubling, hateful, tragic misery that we're getting used to hearing about on a regular basis.    

And then I thought of Baptiste, our French exchange student, and I realized that this was going to mean something more to him, more than just another horrific headline.  For Baptiste, it was personal, much like the bombing of the Boston Marathon, at the finish line, was personal for me.  Because I grew up in that area.  And because I used to work on Boylston Street in Boston.

When I worked on Boylston Street, no one got work done on the day of the Marathon.  We all stood around the windows or on terraces, watching the runners.  We had a view of the finish line.  First, there were the wheel chair racers.  They were the fastest.  I always cried for the wheel chair racers. Then, there was the first man.  Not a particularly weepy moment for me.  He was followed by groups of Kenyans. ( The winning man was, I believe, also a Kenyan on more than one occasion.)  They were very tall, very dark, very slender.   How did they not starve while running?   Where did they get the energy?

My favorite part of the marathon, as a spectator, was the last couple of hours.  That's where we saw the real drama--people being sick on the street, staggering toward the finish line, falling, being lifted up...A son or daughter emerging from the crowd to run the last 25-yards with Mom or Dad.  I've seen runners stop within sight of the finish line to aid a stranger who couldn't get to the end without someone sharing their last reserves of strength, an arm around a neck to help carry the weight.  
And there was something else that made the Boston Marathon bombing personal.  I had friends in the crowd.  I had friends in the crowd who were traumatized by the bombing, who knew the victims, who may have even been standing near where it happened.

Moreover, Phil and I used to live in Watertown, where the two terrorists, (also brothers, like two of the terrorists in Paris), fled. The entire town of Watertown was on lock-down, (like the village north of Paris where the two terrorists fled).  Police swarmed the streets.  I could imagine this, because I had lived there.

But there's another perspective to all of this for me, which is that in my extended family I include several people whom I love very much and who are Moslem.  They are not extremists.  They are spiritual.  They are brilliant.   My father married a Moslem woman, and had the deepest respect and affection for her until the end of his days.  Her children were in my father's will.  Should I have expired in an untimely fashion, they would have been his beneficiaries--in a will written many years after their divorce.  

From the age of eleven, I grew up among a Moslem family.  I spent five weeks in Kashmir, India, when I was fifteen.  There, I was surrounded by a tightly-knit extended family that could think of few things more tragic than to be, as I was, an only child of divorced parents.  I was temporarily adopted by this family.  I spent every moment of every day with them, even if I was reading a book.  I learned how to say salaam alaikum in greeting to the people that I met, as a show of respect.

In the family with whom I lived in Kashmir, the women did not cover their faces or their hair.  We picnicked at the foothills of the Himalaya by a cold rushing river, stepping nimbly from rock to rock, laughing, soaking the hem of our fabulously comfortable salwar kameez or churidaar.  On that day, I wore a flowing skirt, made in India, and a sleeveless white blouse.  There is a photograph of me from that day, I'll try to find it and attach it here.  I am only 15, but I look somehow much more wise and  serene than my age.  There was something about this devoted family, the gorgeous day, the phenomenally beautiful mountains and the river that transformed me from an angst-ridden, love-crazed adolescent into a happy, self-possessed young woman.  

The things that seemed to matter so much before I left for Kashmir that summer didn't matter at all when I returned.  I returned better, with a greater sense of who I was and of the strength that I had. That feeling didn't last past the fall.  I could speculate as to why a 15-year-old young woman's self-esteem might be eroded in my native culture...But that seems rather obvious.... 

And so, I found myself imagining, in the wake of the Boston Marathon, what if my Moslem family lived in Watertown, and what if one or both of the terrorists, by some fantastic coincidence, appeared at their door...?   At one point, I wanted to write a play about this: The dialogue that might have occurred between my Moslem family and the young terrorist--about what it means to be Moslem; about what it means to be human.  It would be a heartbreaking play, of course.  My former step-mother, so wise, so loving--as a doctor, she could use the placebo effect to heal the way Yoda employed The Force to raise airships out of swamps.  She is a light.  And if I could have written that play well, (I did not write it at all), it would have been sublime.  (I guess I felt unworthy.)

But that is the conversation that does need to occur, it seems to me. 

Flash forward to yesterday, Wisconsin.  By the time Baptiste emerged from his room where he had been tracking the news in Paris, I had been sitting on the couch taking pictures of cats for two hours. Seeing the look on his face, I felt ashamed that my attention had drifted so quickly and so far from the tragedy unfolding in his country.  

While I was still noodling around on Facebook yesterday morning, Baptiste received communication from Lebanon.  Baptiste was in touch with a young man from Lebanon who himself had been an exchange student here in Wisconsin last year.  Baptiste and this young man have never met in person, but they have corresponded a bit via whatever app young hip guys are using these days to communicate.  

So this message comes to Baptiste from this fellow in Lebanon, offering sincere condolences about the tragedy in Paris.  The Lebanese fellow, (I hesitate to call them kids or boys, since they're 18 and clearly functioning at a higher moral level than I), comes from a Moslem family, but he is not religious.  He no longer considers himself a Moslem.  (I suspect that his parents are completely freaking out about that.)  But he cannot get the word "Moslem" expunged from his identification papers, and therefore he cannot travel outside of the Middle East.  Like it or not, he's a Moslem on paper.

In effect, here is a once-was-Moslem young man who is so appalled by the acts of Moslem extremists that he wants nothing to do with his native religion--much in the same way that many atheists in the U.S. reject religion altogether, believing that religion creates more problems than it solves.  

On my father's side, there were Jews who became disaffected (with God, with religion...) in the wake of the Holocaust; and by the broad discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes in the U.S, and abroad.  

So here is this kid, stuck in Lebanon being a Moslem on paper.  But he's not feeling it.  He would like to get out of Lebanon.  He would like to distance himself from the extremism, maybe even strive to make the world a better place.  But he can't.  No one will let him.  He's stuck.

We don't hear those stories very often--about the disaffected Moslems who can't get far enough away from Moslem extremism.  For whom the religion that is so deeply woven into the fabric of their lives and family feels tattered, yet heavy and malodorous as a wet horse blanket.  For them, as for so many Western agnostics and atheists, the price of religion is too high.   

All we hear about are the kids who are running off to Syria to become militants.  So I wanted to share this story with you, because it reflects a more enlightened, humanist, passionate, all youthful concern for all people.   There are plenty of Moslem people who share our dismay at the horrifying chasm opening up between peoples.  

I was  humbled, having posted so many cat pictures on FB that morning, by the young man from Lebanon expressing his deep regret and concern to the French student in Wisconsin.   And one of the first concerns that Baptiste expressed about what was happening in Paris was that there would certainly be widespread violence against random, innocent, reasonable Moslems people.  Already this morning, as reported to me by Baptiste, following events closely, three mosques have been attacked in France.

In the midst of a tremendous rift opening up, threatening to swallow so many people, here are two young enlightened souls expressing concern for one another across the breach. 

Bravo.  There may be hope for us yet. 

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