In preparation for my participation in the Bedtime Stories ~ Night Flight benefit reading on October 1st, at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, the talented Chris Thompson interviewed me a few weeks ago. Instead of the 20 minute time frame Chris mentioned, we talked for over an hour. It was a great conversation -- more than an interview. Both Chris and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Niger - but he came back five years ago and for me, it's twenty-five. You can read the interview here, but it is this section I want to emphasize.
Both Niger and Bosnia have large Muslim populations, what is your opinion of the anti-Muslim sentiment that seems to be growing in America since 9/11?
I feel stunned. I’ve been trying to follow the Ground Zero story. Usually I can follow an argument. I may not agree with it but at least I understand it. In this case, I can’t get to what that argument is. I don’t understand this kind of uproar over Muslim culture—I don’t understand why people can’t separate extremists from the mainstream. It’s the fear of the other.
During the 1990s, I also worked in Gaza and the West Bank. My dad wasn’t thrilled with me going—we were a Jewish family from Brookline, Massachusetts. But I went, and the day I left for Palestine, a young Christian man went into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline and killed everyone in the waiting room. He then went across town and did the same thing in another clinic. It would be absurd to say Christianity is promoting the killing of doctors and women over abortion, and for me, that’s the parallel.
I have this poem called “Mohamud at the Mosque.” Mohamud [a former student from Somalia] had just graduated from Highline and transferred to UW, and he had no family here. After September 11 happened, I became “teacher stalker” and started calling him each night, asking casually, “So how was your day” because I wanted him to know somebody was watching out for him, that somebody cared.
He told me of going to the mosque the Friday after September 11 and parking his beat-up Toyota and this woman coming out to the curb and saying go back to where you came from. While he’s standing there he sees all these people have started standing around and talking, including a cop. The cop asked what was going on and then said, “Go and pray and I’ll watch your car.”
I know Palestinians. I know Bosnians. I know Nigeriens, and we have a lot more in common than anything else. When I think Muslim, I think of Mohamud, my former student, who has become like my younger brother; I think of my students in Niger, I think of my friends in Sarajevo.
Muslims are the last people that America is allowed to hate. People like us, people who have lived in Islamic countries, should be finding venues to speak out and say, “I’ve lived in a Muslim country for two years, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”