I’m going to start our conversation with my response to our March book, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Please join in by commenting on this post. Feel free to take the conversation in a different direction. If you’d like to write a conversation starter of your own, please let me know (leave a comment and I’ll respond via email).
This book was a challenging read for me. Not because it was difficult to understand, but because it was difficult to stay with the discomfort it created for me.
Since August, I’ve been participating in a year-long equity program for educators, and when we read or hear stories of others’ lived experiences, one of the things we do is notice places of connection (where our experience aligns) and places of disconnection (where we have no personal experience that helps us understand the other person’s). My discomfort came from both places.
Like me, Khadra was a child in the 70s and a college student in the 80s. We both grew up in predominantly white parts of the country. As she talked about features of the dominant culture and historical events of those times, I could connect. Khadra’s remembering of a purple banana bicycle seat, playing Laura and Mary Ingalls, friendship bracelets, and K-tel 8-track tapes provided for me, initially, a sense of connection I feel with anyone who lived through childhood and adolescence at the same time I did.
But, of course, so much of Khadra’s experience was not like mine, because she is a brown, non-Christian immigrant and I am a white, native-born, Catholic-raised American. It was in her perspective on the Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostages that I first felt a sense of disconnect. As a young teen-ager living through those events, it never occurred to me that there was any possible narrative other than the one that Ted Koppel delivered every night.
In that narrative, the Muslims were bad and the US was good and it was a horrible outrage that Americans had been taken hostage, a fact that seemed to allow no no other legitimate side to the story. I had no understanding of Islam or the history or politics of the Middle East. I certainly had little knowledge of my country’s role in them. In my largely white, middle-class suburban northwest school, “world history” was primarily the history of Europe and its conquests. I remember my textbooks being much like Khadra’s:
“There was a picture in the ninth-grade social studies book of an Arab with an unkempt beard standing in a dirty caftan next to a camel, and a picture of an African bushman with no clothes and a bracelet threaded through his nose…”
Like Khadra, I never read about accomplishments or discoveries of Africans or Arabs in my textbooks. In the late 70s, the Middle East was a hazy place to me, and I didn’t understand much about the different names for nations and groups of people: Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims, Israelis–and, later, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Iranians, Iraquis. It was all complicated and confusing and I was too pre-occupied with feathering my hair and wishing I was a cheerleader and worrying about how I was going to get to college to take the time to learn things that didn’t seem very important to my life.
And yet, even though I now see and understand intellectually that, of course there was more than one side to the story (isn’t there always?), I still felt uneasy, uncomfortable, and defensive when reading about the reactions of the Dawah community’s reaction to the taking of the hostages:
“Everyone at the Center agreed that under normal circumstances, hostage taking was bad. But they could understand why the Iranian students did it….For the first time, the Iranian people called the shots. Now the tables were turned and the powerless were powerful. Fifty-two white American men, used to have the final authority over any situation, had to sit helplessly at the other end of the guns of young bearded men (and one scarf-wearing woman!).”
Of course, part of the reason I accepted the one-sided narrative was that Khomeini’s was a religiously-based government, which flew right in the face of a bedrock I believed my country’s government to be based on: separation of church and state. And I must admit, Khadra’s hardline religiosity in the middle part of the book was the hardest part of this story for me. Despite being raised as a sort-of Catholic–or maybe because of that–I have deep, negative feelings about religion, and this book brought them all to the surface. I just simply did not much like the teen-age Khadra, the one who told her friends they were going to hell and judged them for not living by her religion’s seemingly rigid rules. She felt so foreign to me, and I could not find any places of connection, despite the fact that we were both young women growing up in the same country, at the same time. I found myself disliking her her because of her religious beliefs and how they influenced her treatment of others, which made me uncomfortable. Is this what it means to be Muslim? I found myself wondering. If it is, how do I really feel about Muslims? I want to be a tolerant, accepting liberal. I found myself wondering how tolerant and accepting I really am.
Later, as Khadra comes in contact with Muslims whose practices differ from those of her childhood community and comes to a more nuanced view of her faith (or does it seem that way to me just because it appears more assimilated with Western culture?), I could see that my problem is not so much with religion as it is with religious fundamentalism. For that, I am an equal-opportunity disliker: I am wary/fearful of any kind of fundamentalist; fundamentalist Christians are just as worrisome to me as fundamentalist Muslims. (That’s why the idea of a President Pence is chilling to me.) The truth is, this image of Muslim women makes me uncomfortable, in a gut-level way:
I am not sure of where I sit with all of these thoughts/feelings. They feel at odds with where I want to be, but–because of the many things I’ve become aware of in the past year–I know that there are likely important things I don’t know and haven’t grappled with. I understand that my understanding of Islam is as shallow as my understanding of the history of the Middle East. It would be easy for me to regard it (and Christianity, for that matter) as Chrif does later in the book (“‘Oh, please. There’s no such thing as progressive Islam. That is such a crock.'”), but I’m pretty sure Khadra’s stance is the truer one:
“She didn’t expect Chrif to be arguing for the same thing as her mother, that Islam was rigid and homogenous. It’s like, they both wanted Islam to be this monolith, only for her mother it was good, for him bad. She knew it wasn’t that simple.”
When I look back over the course of my life, I am astonished at both the depth of my ignorance and the lack of compulsion I have had (until recently) to do anything about it. I often knew enough to know that there was much I didn’t know, but I didn’t rectify that in any way. I didn’t really have to, and it was easier not to. This book made me confront that, and that was a huge source of discomfort.
As it happened, I read the last parts of the book while on a trip to Washington, DC, where my mother and I spent most of our time in various museums. As I read Khadra’s story at night and visited artifacts and accounts of my country’s history during the day, it was impossible not to see how one-sided my view of the United States was when I was growing up. I remember, as a child in the 70s, learning about how the poor children of the Soviet Union were indoctrinated in a false history of their country. Those unfortunate kids weren’t growing up in a free country like ours, where they could learn the truth about who they are. I remember feeling so lucky to be an American.
Now what I see is that I grew up with half-truths and lies masked by language. As I toured our nation’s capitol, with its monuments to freedoms and wars and statesmen, truths that were invisible to me as a child growing up in the 70s are so obvious I have a hard time understanding how I never saw them–that “our” history is not necessarily one of “explorers” and “settlers” and “builders,” but is, instead, one of “invaders” and “conquerers” and “exploiters”–depending upon your point of view. In all of the museums and government buildings I visited, there was a presumption that “our” story is that of the white Europeans who came to this land and claimed it and established a nation that superseded the claims and authority of those who were here before them. I saw no suggestion that our government is, perhaps, one as illegitimate as others we have condemned because of the means through which they came to exist. It’s a thought I never had until viewing our history through the lens of Khadra’s experiences, an American who “never thinks of herself as American, not really. When she says, ‘Americans,’ ‘Americans do this or think that,’ she means someone else.”
At the National Holocaust Museum right now, there is an exhibit called Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust. It raises important questions about complicity. Many Germans in Hitler’s Germany were, I think, not so different from the person I’ve been for most of my life–so caught up in the business of my own affairs that I had little understanding that how it is for me is not the way it is for a lot of other people. I am seeing how much privilege is about being able to live without being aware of what life is like for those who do not have power, and I am wondering now about how much complicity is simply about being unaware and choosing to remain unaware.
Before reading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (and the many other stories I’ve been fortunate to encounter in the past year), I knew that there were many different kinds of Americans and American experiences, but I didn’t truly know that some were fundamentally different from others. Lately I have been feeling not unlike the way Khadra does when she meets the Damascene rabbi:
“Of course, of course; she knew there were Arab Jews….It’s just that–all this time, she’d thought of them as Them, these people over There, not all the same of course, she knew that, but still not part of Us. Never. And even when she grew out of that primitive notion of ‘There’s-us-and-then-there’s-them,’ she grew by accepting, albeit reluctantly, the claims of some of her professors that certain things crosscut religion….It had made sense. In her head. But not any deeper. She’d kept it there in her head as a plausible idea but did not know it with her heart or in her gut.”
Except, for me, the belief and revelation goes the opposite direction: I have believed that we are all fundamentally the same, that being American has meant fundamentally the same thing to every other American as it has meant to me. Like Khadra, I’ve known in my head for some time that this isn’t necessarily true or the whole truth, but I swallowed the Kool-Aid I was raised on and believed the ideas that have, until recently, permeated every facet of our common culture: That this is a land of equal opportunity. That our country is exceptional. That anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough. That we are all created equal. That the color of our skin or our religion or our social class or our gender or sexual orientation doesn’t exclude any of us from the possibility of the American Dream.
Reading this book and viewing accounts of our history with a different eye, in the context of what our government has become in the last year, I now know, in a different way, in my heart and my gut, that there exists in this country I once saw as a unified whole groups of Us and Them. I have seen that while I am included in some powerful groups of Us, I am allowed entry only so far because of my membership in some other categories of Them.
It occurs to me now that a fundamentalist mindset is, perhaps, not something that can be found only in religion. Perhaps nationalism or patriotism operates the same way and comes from the same place? I feel I am only just now, in my 50s, experiencing the kind of awakening and redefining of self that Khadra goes through in the last part of the book. I feel as shaky in my understanding of things I once accepted as unquestioningly as she did. Only, my awakening is not about my spiritual self, but my political one.
I think I feel the same way about our flag–and all our short-hand symbols and rituals for being “American”–as Khadra does when she begins to experiment with wearing and not wearing the hijab–I want to both cling to it and to abandon it. It feels like a source of safety and comfort, but it is also restricting. These words of Khadra’s about hijab and its relationship to being Muslim resonate with how I am feeling about the flag and being American:
“Going without hijab meant she would have to manifest the quality of modesty in her behavior, she realized one day, with a jolt. It’s in how I act, how I move, what I choose every minute. She had to do it on her own, now, without the jump-start that a jilbab offered. This was a rigorous challenge. Some days she just wanted her old friend hijab standing sentry by her side.”
Just as Khadra struggles to figure out how to be a Muslim after realizing that there is more than one way to be one, I am having the same struggle with what it means to be a white American. I am both proud of our ideals and ashamed of how they’ve been realized (and not realized). I understand that “our” history is something I have never really known–I’ve known only parts of it. I want to cling to my faith in our institutions and values, but I’m struggling to do so. Like Khadra, I’m coming to understand that I have to abandon simplistic ideas of what it means to be American. My sense of what it means to be a true American–one that believes in and practices our ideas of freedom and equality I am no more ready to abandon than Khadra is of those of her religion–is going to need to come from a different place than it previously has, and it will require different kinds of actions. What I appreciate most about this book is all the ways in which it shows that none of this is simple or easy.
A note about the photo at the top of the post: It comes from this article.