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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Who's Afraid of Ralph Waldo Emerson? A Back-to-School Blog Post

Who's Afraid of Ralph Waldo Emerson?

A newly-minted humanities PhD, I was receiving rejection letters that reported applicants in the hundreds. Two days before the fall semester began, I unearthed a part-time, temporary gig, teaching sophomore literature at a community college. My new boss handed me a syllabus. Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" was at its top. I grinned from ear to ear. Surely this was serendipity.

The first time I had read Emerson's thunderous exhortation to individualism was, I suspect, like some people's first experience of sex. "Self-Reliance" had been the quickening lightning bolt in my primeval soup; it was the permission I'd been waiting for all my life to value myself, and rely on myself, no apologies, no regrets. I couldn't wait to teach it.

One of my students, a prison guard and weight lifter, brought the text to class, placed it on his desk, and began pounding with his closed fist. "'Imitation is suicide'? This makes no sense," he shouted.

"It's a metaphor," I said.

Response: a blank stare.

"You have to understand metaphorical truth v. literal truth," I went on. "Otherwise, for example, you'd never understand why some Christians believe in Creationism, and others in Evolution."

This time his blank stare was downright hostile.

This student wanted to be a police officer. "This is relevant," I insisted. I described a recent expos√© on the abuse of Taser guns by police. Elderly women and other defenseless suspects had been shot repeatedly. A police investigator told PBS, "We're not spending enough time with the verbal skills, language skills…skills that don't necessarily mean me clobbering you."

I asked another student, "What do you think Emerson means?"

"Unless you tell me what he means, how should I know?" With so much indignation she could crate and export it, this student informed me that, previous to my class, she had earned a 4.0 GPA.

A student who had promised me that he was the next Tupac Shakur leaned back in his chair. "This is twenty pages long," he announced, as if he'd caught me doing something really, really bad. Others, livid, nodded heavily.

"Yes," I agreed, naively.

"Twenty pages long," he repeated. "Twenty pages."

The other students took on the look of a jury pushed past all reasonable doubt.

I displayed a recent letter in Newsweek that quoted "Self-Reliance" to comment on the 2004 presidential campaign charge of "flip flopping." "'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' Look," I argued, "'Self-Reliance' charts the DNA of American character!"

"We don't understand," the students asserted. These aggressive avowals of incomprehension flummoxed me. Didn't people usually admit that they did not understand with a certain amount of humility? Humility assumed to deflect shame and ridicule, to marshal aid in understanding? But these students were pronouncing, "I don't understand" not as a request for clarification, but as an indictment. The accused on the witness stand, before a hanging judge, were Emerson and I. 

"It's so easy for you," students claimed. "You with your PhD. You were born reading stuff like this. It's different for us."

My parents were peasant immigrants. My mother cleaned houses. My father mined coal and carried bags. I earned my PhD by working as a domestic servant. I am dyslexic. To read, I go through a ritualized series of compensations. After months of unemployment, I am broke. I walked to campus with a change of clothes in my backpack.

I had once raged at the literary canon of "Dead White Males." I wanted to read authors like Anzia Yezierska, an immigrant, a woman, a scrubber of floors, like me, like my mother. And her last name ended, not just in a vowel, but in "ska"!

Time passed. Life hit me, as it hits us all. Spring flowers. Love. The death of family, and of dreams. Lines I had resisted came back to me, supported me. Lines from Robert Frost, from Thoreau, from Emerson. I learned to be tremendously grateful for the works of the Dead White Males that I had been, kicking and screaming, force-fed.

My students could not see any of this. Someone had told them, had been telling them for some time, that my superior literary education, that my presumed ethnic privilege, that my exposing them to Emerson, to works longer than nineteen pages, to questions that they did not understand, violated them.

I sat down with the woman who hired me. She was scandalized. "Why did you assign 'Self-Reliance'?"

"It's the first work on the syllabus you gave me."

"I didn't even read that syllabus before I gave it to you; it was just something left over from a previous adjunct," she said, snatching it and tearing it up.

She paged through an anthology. She methodically selected the shortest readings, with the easiest vocabularies, and the least challenging ideas. Hemingway – his short, simple sentences notwithstanding – was deemed too hard.

I couldn't sleep or eat. Were I to contribute to certifying college sophomores who could not comprehend "Self-Reliance" as worthy students of literature, I would contribute to a lie. I resigned from the class.

I continued, though, to teach another section of the same class on the same campus. They, too, were accidentally exposed to Emerson. For reasons I cannot explain, these students decided to swim, rather than sink. They read all twenty pages. They went on to read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, and Herman Melville. One wrote so well that I phoned friends to read to them his assignments. "Isn't that terrific?"

These students will receive the same degree as the others.

I despair. And there is Emerson, intoning sonorous lines. "What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us." I am grateful that, back in the day, a teacher ordered me to read Emerson, and did not let my fear or my chips-on-shoulder ban Emerson from my life. I wish such teachers on all students.

This essay appears in the July issue of Ontologica.

"Save Send Delete" is "Riveting … Inspirational … Irresistible … A book that you will have trouble putting down and long remember."

"Save Send Delete" is a riveting work that grabs your heart and mind and refuses to let go. It is the tale of Mira, an intelligent, spiritual Catholic woman, who is barely scraping by as an adjunct professor, and her email correspondence with Rand, a well-known atheist, renowned scientist and wealthy English lord. The story consists solely of the emails that Mira has written to Rand with some additional correspondence with her friend, Amanda.

The book employs a unique device that furthers the plot and adds an extra level to the multi-layered story. Each email ends with the words, "Save Send Delete" with one of the terms bold-faced to indicate which action Mira ultimately took, allowing us further insight into her mindset. Does she boldly hit Send, or tentatively hit Save several times? Will she eventually send the email on to Rand, or simply hit Delete?

Goska weaves an irresistible tale of a blossoming friendship that becomes a love affair as well as an intriguing philosophical discourse between two exceptional intellects. As the narrative unfolds, Mira reveals her inner core to Rand and to us - her passion, her optimism, her reasons for stubbornly clinging to her belief in God despite the suffering of herself and others. The dialogue between Mira and Rand covers an awe-inspiring range of philosophy, literature, and science focusing, unsurprisingly, on religion and the nature of God. Filled with intriguing references and insights and memorable stories from Mira's life, it is a book that you will have trouble putting down and long remember.


So grateful to Lori Falco for this Amazon review found here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus" by Oliver Bullough

In the afternoon of April 15, 2013, I was listening to the radio. An announcer interrupted the broadcast to report that there had been a blast at the Boston Marathon. He was careful not to attribute the bombing to any one group – because we are all afraid of appearing to stereotype one group as terrorists. Indeed, he insisted, the Boston blast might have been caused by a ruptured gas pipe. After Chechen refugees Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were identified as the Boston Marathon bombers, one of my students said to me, "See? Everyone thought it was Muslim terrorists. But now it turns out it was Russians!"

My student should read Oliver Bullough's "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus." So should many people.

"Let Our Fame Be Great" is a heartbreaking, informative, recommended book. I was often in tears while reading it. I'm very glad I learned what Bullough had to teach. LOFBG is a travelogue through the history, literature, and current events of the Caucasus. This little-known corner of the world should be better known.

I have Circassian and Armenian friends. I've been to Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, three countries bordering the Black Sea. I remember reading about the Russian destruction of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in the New York Times. Even so, I knew virtually nothing about the material Bullough introduces in his book.

The Caucasus is a spit of land between the Black and the Caspian Seas, between Russia to the north and Turkey and Iran to the south. When Turkey was Europe's "sick man" and its power was declining, Russia moved south to fill the vacuum. Russia wanted access to the Black Sea, because its own ports freeze over in winter. Through brute force, Russia attempted to control or even eliminate the scattered Muslim ethnic groups living in the Caucasus. Russia did this as a czarist empire, as the Soviet Union, and as post-Soviet Russia.

Bullough depicts the Russians in the Caucasus behaving, more or less, as American settlers behaved toward the Native Americans. We want your land, and we will do what we have to do to you to get your land.

Another comparison: historian Anne Applebaum compared what the Russians did to the Caucasus to what the Nazis did to Poland.

Bullough divides his book up into chapters devoted to various Caucasus ethnic groups: Circassians, Mountain Turks, and Chechens. For each group, he works through literature going back hundreds of years, historical accounts, travelogues, state documents, and contemporary accounts. This is a massive amount of material, reduced to brief excerpts.

With the Circassians, for example, Bullough quotes literature written by Russian authors like Ivan Turgenev, travel accounts by British representatives toying with the idea of aiding the Circassians against the Russians, quotes from Russian military leaders attacking the Circassians, and encounters with modern-day Circassians living in diaspora in Israel.

Bullough has a gift for selecting particularly heart-rending quotes, and he uses many of these quotes as chapter titles: "The Caucasus Mountains are sacred to me," "Extermination along would keep them quiet," "The Circassians do not appear on this list," "Liquidate the bandit group," "It was all for nothing," and "I have become no one."

One anecdote Bullough recounts tells of one Caucasus woman, Khozemat Khabilayeva, who, as a child, was part of a Soviet-ordered mass deportation of her homeland. Her dog, Khola, tried to save her family, and he met with a sad fate that Khabilayeva, an old woman now, wept over, decades after his death. There are many such stories in this book, the individual droplets that add up to an ocean wave of history.

Because I was so unfamiliar with this history, I did question if Bullough was too sympathetic to the Caucasus peoples, and too hard on the Russians. Bullough, though, includes actual quotes by Russian leaders voicing genocidal intent toward Caucasus people. He cites one Russian leader who decorated his home with the decapitated heads of Circassians.

Too, Bullough does report on unappealing aspects of Caucasus culture. Circassians, for example, had the custom of selling their own children into slavery. So many Circassian daughters were sold into sex slavery that the reputation of the beautiful Circassian spread all the way to PT Barnum's sideshow. Bullough describes the 2004 Belsan hostage crisis as a complete horror.

I compared what I know of Russian behavior to my own ethnic group, Poles. In Poland, czarist Russia and Soviet Russia deported massive numbers of people, redrew maps, criminalized the identity of oppressed people, executed large numbers of people in order to terrorize populations. Russia, it seems, did to the Caucasus what it did to the Poles. Bullough's account is all too believable.

Russia plans to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, one site of its genocide against the Circassians. A Caucasus terrorist leader, Doku Umarov, issued a threat against these games. Terrorism is wrong. The Sochi games should be protested, in peaceful, educational, and solidarity-building ways.

Bullough includes photos of the bones of Circassian refugees found lying in the dirt in Akchakale, Turkey. Circassian activists should take these bones from Turkey, by boat across the Black Sea, retracing the route their ancestors took, and bury them in Sochi, with the stated goal of building a genocide monument in Sochi. They should film the entire trip. No doubt the Russians would attempt to stop them. Their peaceful protest would educate the world about their history.

I wonder, after reading LOFBG, why no one seems to care about Russia's human rights abuses against Caucasus Muslims. Bullough writes of Khasan Bibulatov, a Chechen man who was horribly tortured by Russians. Zarema Muzhakhoyeva is one of the most pathetic human beings I've ever read about – her life story is right out of an over-the-top Dickens orphanage. She gave up her suicide bomb mission, cooperated with the Russian police, and was still jailed for twenty years. I wonder if so little attention is paid to victims of Russian oppression in the Caucasus because Russia committed many of these crimes as a communist government, and leftists don't want to remind the world that communists were the last century's most prolific murderers.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

To Rabbi Potasnik, About Ritual Slaughter and Poland

Rabbi Potasnik:

On your WABC "Religion on the Line" program this morning, you said a few words in rapid succession: "Poland," "ritual slaughter ban," "the Holocaust." Unless I missed it, you did not allow a Polish person, or a PETA representative, on your show to offer a differing point of view.

There are ample and sound humanitarian reasons for being concerned about ritual slaughter. A quick glance at youtube videos posted by PETA reveals ritual slaughter – at least the slaughters exposed in these PETA videos – to involve unnecessary suffering for animals. It is important to note that Philip and Hannah Schein, PETA activists against ritual slaughter, are Jews who have worked at campus Hillel centers. There are Jews who feel that opposition to ritual slaughter need not compromise Jewish observance or identity.

More importantly, the Holocaust was a product of Nazi Germany, not Poland. There are all too many voices that attempt to turn the Holocaust into a Polish-Catholic project. It was not, and this profound historical distortion disserves us all.

If, as PETA alleges, ritual slaughter necessitates unnecessary suffering for animals, then it should be looked at. There are devout Jews who have done so, and who argue on both sides of the issue. This conversation does not harm Jews; it will help non-Jews to understand Jewish culture better. To equate anyone who questions ritual slaughter with Nazi Germany is an alarmist and unhelpful approach.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Boston Bombing, the Syrian Civil War, the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the Circassian Genocide.

Circassian girl. Jean-Leon Gerome. Source
Inspecting New Arrivals. Giulio Rosati. Souce: Wikipedia. 
The Caucasus, circled. Source
The Boston Bombing, the Syrian Civil War, the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the Circassian Genocide.

The Circassian Genocide?

Most people have never heard of the Circassian genocide. Most people have never heard of Circassians.

Circassians are one of many mostly Muslim ethnic groups that live, or have lived, in the Caucasus, a mountainous strip of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, between Turkey, the former Ottoman Empire, and Russia.

In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was the "sick man of Europe." Its power was receding, and its borders became porous. Russia moved in to fill the void. Russia wanted warm-water ports in the Black Sea. Russia made war on the Caucasus, in very brutal ways. Russia did this under the czars, under the Communist, Stalin, who deported entire populations, and in the post-Soviet era, for example, during the Second Chechen War.

A previous blog post, here, includes Russian quotes on their conduct of the Caucasus wars of the nineteenth century. These quotes are remarkable for their complete brutality. It is good for us to remember that a Christian nation, Russia, carried out a ruthless genocide against a Muslim people, the Circassians, in the relatively recent past.

Circassians are internationally noted for their beauty. There is a sad side to this fame. Circassians had the habit of selling their daughters into sex slavery, and their sons into military service. During the Russian war on the Circassian people, during desperate economic times, the price of a Circassian slave girl dropped dramatically. A Circassian slave girl who had been priced at a hundred pounds was suddenly available for five pounds.

How is all this related to current events?

Muslim terrorists in the Caucasus have threatened the Russian 2014 Sochi Olympics with terrorism. Sochi is a site of the Circassian genocide. You can read more about that threat here.

The Boston Bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were Chechens, one of the Caucasus peoples.

Tangentially, one reason Russia is supporting Syria in its current civil war: Russia uses the Syrian port of Tartus.

The Russians holding the Olympics at Sochi is disgusting. Nothing, though, excuses terrorism. Caucasus terrorists would benefit from watching Wafa Sultan's devastating attack on terrorism. Sultan points out that Jews were the victims of a German genocide, and yet they responded, not by blowing up innocent civilians, but by building up their own community. Wafa Sultan's denunciation of terrorism can be found here.

Circassians should do the same. They should introduce their tragic history into genocide curricula and advance scholarship of their history.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Current Events Quiz: Who Said This to Whom, When, Why, and What Impact Does This Have Today? Do You Know? If Not, Why Not?

The general of what army placed heads on stakes to terrorize his victims? 
Villages Burning at Night. Egbert van der Poel. Source
Who said the following to whom, when?

Do these quotes have anything to do with current events?

Please do take a guess, and please do post your guess. I will post the answers after a few guesses.

These are actual quotes. The only changes I made was to remove identifying proper nouns.

The leader of an invading army said this to the people his nation was about to destroy in a genocidal war:

"Are you not aware that if the heavens should fall, we could prop them up with our bayonets? Other nations may be good mechanics and artisans, but power dwells only with us. No country ever waged successful war against us. If you refuse to listen to us, your country shall be taken from you, and you yourselves shall be treated with the utmost rigor. Be obedient, therefore, to my instructions. You must believe what has been told you, and you will be treated with lenity; otherwise, it will not be our fault if your valleys are destroyed with fire and sword, and your mountains trampled to dust! Yield, and you may retain your property; if not, all you possess, even your arms, shall be taken from you, and you yourselves made slaves."

A general from this army said, "I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains of fortresses, that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death."

Another general of this army said, "We want to conquer this territory at whatever cost. How would we take these people, except with fear and terror? They are not fit for philanthropy, and we achieve our goals by hanging people without mercy, by plundering and burning villages."

This general "erected an artificial mound outside his house and impaled the heads of his enemies on spikes set into it. A doctor's wife complained, so the general decided to store the heads in a box under his bed. He got out the box and showed off the heads to his appalled visitors. He wanted to send the heads to friends as souvenirs."

What army's leaders said and did these things as part of a genocide? What are the repercussions today?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

President Obama's "Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me" Speech. A Scandalous Misuse of Presidential Speech

Dear President Obama,

Your speech yesterday about the Zimmerman/Martin trial was one of the most destructive uses of presidential speech in American history. You monger hatred, betray your office, undermine the foundations of civil society, and endanger your own citizens.

George Zimmerman was found innocent by a jury of his peers. Nevertheless, he lives in hiding, with death threats.

You are uniquely positioned to give George Zimmerman his life back, and to defuse the lynch mob braying for Zimmerman's head.

You could have done that, President Obama. You could have restored faith in the jury system and law and order.

Not only did you pass up the chance to restore daily life to an innocent man, you added fuel to the fires of hate. You endangered your sacred charge, the United States of America. You made George Zimmerman less safe, and you made millions of others less safe. You condoned hate attacks.

"This is for Trayvon." Do you know, President Obama, how many of your citizens have been attacked while hearing those words? On July 15, in Baltimore, a crowd of African Americans, one wielding a gun, attacked an Hispanic male while shouting "This is for Trayvon." On July 14, a group of African American teens beat a Wisconsin man, shouting "This is for Trayvon." They broke the man's hand. There have been other attacks, including one on a 78 year old man.

You could have stopped these attacks, President Obama. You could have removed their justification. You could have saved future innocents from broken hands, crushed ribs, gunshots.

Instead, you justified these attacks. You provoked future attacks. You are a disgrace to your office.

Once the president of the United States writes off law and order and the jury system as unworthy, mob rule and lynching become justifiable.

You insisted that white supremacy was the guiding force of the event. In fact, George Zimmerman is himself of Native American and African ancestry. The percentage of his ancestry that is Caucasian is the same as yours, President Obama.

George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer. He was working in concert with the police to prevent break-ins in private homes. He represented law and order and domestic peace.

The jury decided that Trayvon Martin attacked and was beating George Zimmerman, with the potential for that beating to be fatal. Rachel Jeantel reported that Martin attacked Zimmerman because Martin believed Zimmerman to be a "cracker" and a gay man. This was a bias attack. The bias was Martin's. You, President Obama, ignored all that, and insisted that white supremacy is the problem.

Detroit declared bankruptcy. Syria is in flames. Your administration is beleaguered by scandal: Benghazi, IRS, Associated Press. Edward Snowden reveals you to be a liar and an invader of American citizens' privacy. You are a violator of the fourth amendment against unlawful search and seizure.

Do you address any of these crises? No, in your naked narcissism you insist that YOU are Trayvon Martin, or could have been, when you were attending Punahou High School, one of the most elite high schools in the world. You, Trayvon Martin? Not likely, except in your narcissist fantasies.

The United States of America is a great country. One can only pray that at some point in your presidency you realize that there is something bigger at stake here than your puny self, and that you live up to the job you have been handed on a silver platter.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Year Ago Today

A year ago today, Tuesday, July 17, 2012, I got up early, as I usually do, turned on my computer, as I usually do, and I saw an email message from an MD. And I knew. "Call me." Of course her office would not open for a couple of hours so I had to live with the snakes in my stomach – not butterflies, snakes – writhing and twisting and snapping their tails.

I had been in very bad pain for a ridiculously long time. So I knew. But still.

Phoned at nine. Heard the three words no one wants to hear.

Three different tests looked like I'd be dead soon.

What's it like for others when they are told they have cancer? And, by others, I mean people who have played their cards right, and who have health insurance?

I have a PhD, I publish and get great reviews from students and peers, but I have published politically incorrect things, and I am a politically incorrect ethnicity. I talk about this in "Save Send Delete." I am an adjunct professor. It is just about impossible that I'll ever be a full time professor. So I have very little income, and no health insurance.

So here's what my life was immediately after getting the news.

I spent the next, what, the next two weeks, I think, going from door to door, begging to be treated.

And being told, "No, no surgery for you. No treatment for you. Go away."

The people who told me that all worked at a Catholic hospital, overseen by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth.

"No. No surgery for you. No treatment for you. Go away."

Robin accompanied me on this quest. She was aghast.

She drove me far afield. We visited another hospital, and, as it happens, we were seen by Adriana, a woman whose grandmother had the same diagnosis as I.

Accepted. At this not-Catholic hospital.

Prayed hard. All three tests that said I'd be dead soon were reversed. Who knows.

Robin was great and let me stay at her house after surgery, as I have no family to speak of. A man visited me in the hospital, every day. Again, not my family. Just a kind person.

I stumbled across a Facebook page devoted to Anita Moorjani's book "Dying to Be Me."

The complete strangers who responded to my posts on that Facebook page meant more to me in terms of my emotional survival than almost anything else. They listened. They were generous and kind in the responses they posted. Many of the people writing had themselves been to the cancer rodeo.


Now it's 2013.

July 17, 2013. I was always conscious of this date. I saw it creeping up on the calendar.

Last year at this time, I had to assume I would not see this date. After all the tests were reversed, a nurse told me, "This isn't going to kill you. You are going to be okay."

I am alive. I'm not so okay. I'm still unemployable. I'm still alone. I do wonder what God is thinking.

But I made it through this year.

Thank you to Robin, who went with me to have doors slammed in our faces, till we opened that final door, behind which sat Adriana. Thank you to Adriana. Thank you to the beautiful souls at the "Dying to be Me" Facebook page. Thank you to the man who visited me in the hospital every day. Thank you to anyone who said a prayer for me.

George Zimmerman. Torture Fantasies. Everyday Niceness. Yugoslavia. And the Real News in an African American Neighborhood

Who Decides What Makes Headlines? 
Sunday morning, after the George Zimmerman acquittal was announced, my neighbor and Facebook friend posted a graphic description of his fantasy of torturing George Zimmerman to death. The torture method my neighbor fantasized about was particularly disturbing, especially since it is a torture method that was actually used in a real crime, the Hi-Fi murders. I will not describe the torture method here. If you want to know what my neighbor was fantasizing about doing to George Zimmerman, read about the Hi-Fi murders.

I live in a majority minority area. After the verdict was released, I was on alert as I walked to work. I am white. Most of my neighbors are not.

I rubbed shoulders, as I always do, with African Americans on the street. And – nothing. No one insulted me, threatened me, or reacted in any strong way to my pale presence.

A black man in a car paused to make sure I made it past him as I crossed his path. I waved, smiled, and mouthed "Thank you." He smiled at me. I am warmed by this small victory of everyday niceness over cultivated hatred.

My experience of no experience was a reminder that most people just want to live their lives. Most people don't want trouble. Most people are basically nice. If most people weren't basically nice, humanity wouldn't have made it this far. Yes, haters get headlines, but most of us aren't haters.

I thought about the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. I've had a fair number of students from Yugoslavia, and they tell me hair-raising tales.

Back in the early 1990s, when the war was still being fought, in all its fury, with the Serbs singled out as arch villains by the American mainstream press, I asked a student why the war was so ugly. "During World War II," he said, without hesitation, "The Croatian Ustashe used to gouge out Serbs' eyes, and force them to hold their eyeballs in their hands, and squeeze, till their own eyes ran through their fingers like eggs."

A sentence I will never forget.

My Bosniak student Azur described the night his Serbian neighbors turned automatic weapons on his father.

The thing is, Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks lived in relative peace for decades. Azur had Serbian relatives.

Hate-mongers exacerbated tensions and rifts. Hate-mongers taught Serbs, Croatians, and Bosniaks to put hate first. Hate-mongers taught them to cultivate a sense of victimization and torture-revenge fantasies, as did my neighbor who wants to torture George Zimmerman.

Here I am, much whiter than George Zimmerman, walking through streets thronging with African Americans, who are polite to me. I cherish the conventional grace of everyday courtesy, the heroism of everyday nice people of every distribution of melanin, and I hope we continue to triumph, in our no-headline way, over hate mongers and their cultivated hatreds. 


I was walking to work yesterday and I saw COP CARS! FIRE TRUCKS! YELLOW TAPE! ROAD BLOCKED OFF!!!!

It's been really hot here lately. A heat wave gets really boring. I thought, okay, some excitement, finally. My neighbors have finally decided to RIOT OVER THE ZIMMERMAN VERDICT! Watching the riot would be so much more interesting than going to work, and I'd have a good excuse. "Couldn't get to work! Riot! Sorry!"

I saw a crumbled building. Red bricks lay strewn across the street. Whoopee! Someone blew up a building! This is getting more exciting!

I asked a bored looking cop.

The building, an old factory, had collapsed on its own. They were waiting for the wrecking crew to sweep up the bricks and dump them.

The building was an abandoned factory. A factory. Paterson used to be silk city. People used to WORK in Paterson. Now we collect welfare checks and deal drugs.

Okay. So how about this. How about after the Zimmerman verdict, rather than cultivating torture/revenge fantasies, we say, "Look. This is an American city full of African Americans who can't find work. Let's develop a new fantasy. A fantasy of jobs, literacy, and employment skills. Rather than the Obama Administration sending Eric Holder out to cast aspersions on the jury, we send our people to inner cities to get people to work."

A girl can dream. 

Mark Harris, a Dead Man You Won't Hear About

This photo is of Mark Harris. The day my neighbor posted his torture fantasy about George Zimmerman, Mark Harris was shot to death in our city.

Young black men are shot to death in our city regularly.

I honestly don't know anyone (besides the loved ones) who cares.

Several of my Paterson neighbors are on Facebook. I've never seen any of them post about the young black men regularly shot to death in our city. About the Zimmerman verdict, yes. About our neighbor victims, no.

This is how it looks to me: the attention to the Zimmerman verdict is not about love for Trayvon Martin, it's about hate for putative "white" man George Zimmerman. (Zimmerman's ancestry is significantly Native American, as his facial features show. His mother Gladys is from Peru. She is proud of her family's Afro-Peruvian roots.)

If the brouhaha over this case were about love for black murder victims, and not about hating whitie, you would know about, and you would care about, the young black men murdered in my city, and you don't.

Mark Harris, Paterson's latest murder victim, was not a model citizen. He sold crack to a pregnant woman. One of my students told me he did that, as well – he also sold crack to a pregnant, black woman. I loved my student. I saw what kind of life would drive a young man to such acts. I don't think the world is a better place because Mark Harris was shot to death.

You know what might change this? Jobs. Work as a lifestyle. President Obama, please stop supporting hate and victimization fantasies. Please bring us some jobs and a focus on work as a lifestyle.

From the story about Mark Harris' murder:

"The victim in Sunday morning's 4th Ward homicide had spent most of the past four years in prison on drug charges, a stretch of jail time that started a year after he was arrested for selling crack to a pregnant woman in 2008 just three blocks away from where he was eventually killed, according to city police and state corrections records. Police say 30-year Mark Harris of Fulton Place was gunned down near the drug-infested corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and 12 Avenue at about 3 a.m., making him Paterson's fifth homicide in the past 23 days and eighth of the year."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf" Book Review

Mohja Kahf's 2006 "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf" was celebrated in the New York Times and on National Public Radio – the novel introduced, they said, the voice of Arab, Muslim women to the American literary canon. "Scarf" is taught in university literature classes, though its veneer as a novel is thin. It is, rather, a rigged, bristly rant against Americans, Christians, Israel, and Jews, and a plea for affection – affection more than respect – for Muslims. It is also a fatwa against examination of Islam. Those interested in rigorous education, clarity in public discourse, ethical and firm responses to terrorism, Christian apologetics, and the fate of the novel as an art form would do well by reading and responding to this book.

My parents were Catholic, peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe. I have lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and in Europe. I wanted to write against stereotyping of Polish Catholics and of peasants like those I lived among overseas. I spent some of the most gut-churning moments of my life as a writer confronting the Kielce pogrom. In 1946, Polish Catholics stoned to death forty Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps. To write about Polish Catholics for people who were not Polish, not Catholic and not peasant – for audiences including Holocaust survivors – I had to first immerse myself in, understand, own up to, reject and forfend horrors like the Kielce pogrom. I needed to state that Polish anti-Semitism is real and intolerable. I had to make that journey into the Polish heart of darkness before my words about Poles would be worth reading. A Jewish scholar, Antony Polonsky, served as editor of my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype: Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture," and an organization significantly made up of Polish Catholics, the Polish American Historical Association, awarded "Bieganski" their Halecki prize.

I was not inventing the wheel; others had paved my route. Inspired by Nobel-Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, essayist Jan Blonski broke ground by addressing Polish failures vis-à-vis Jews. Jews, too, acknowledged that they had to reassess their own behavior. Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "How can anyone move into someone else's home, live there in total isolation, and expect not to suffer by it? When you despise your host's god as a tin image, shun his wine as forbidden, condemn his daughter as unclean, aren't you asking to be treated as an unwelcome outsider?"

Literature did not make the same demands on Mohja Kahf that it made on me. I see no evidence that anyone – any editor, professor, or friend had the courage or standards necessary to say to Kahf, "Confront the weakest parts of yourself. Literature demands believable characters. To make them believable, you have to be willing to see the other's point of view." Sun Tzu and Clausewitz may dominate the syllabi of warriors. Warriors would benefit from a visit to the multicultural literature class. Society rewards and punishes thought and speech. Those rewards and punishments are negotiated in literature classes. Those literature classes nurture the atmosphere that dictates not only what we can and cannot say, but what we can and cannot do.

"Scarf" tells the story of Khadra, a Syrian Muslim girl who grows up in Indiana in the 1970s. The book takes Khadra from childhood into her thirties. The sentences read like the scrawl on the back of a postcard from a hurried correspondent who doesn't particularly care whether or not the recipient understands the many dropped personal names, foreign terms and time shifts. Kahf uses many non-sentences, for example, "A right principle wrongly applied or something." The book reads like a memoir; when it switches to scenes the main character could not have witnessed, the reader becomes confused. There is no attempt at plot or pacing, no attempt to evoke place. I got my PhD at IU Bloomington. One cannot mention its campus without mentioning the luxuriant trees, the rambling student union, the "Triscuit" library. All Kahf tells us of Indiana is that it smells like flatulence and its citizens are brutish Meth dealers, KKK killers who sexually molest their own children, and "football-player-rapist boys."

Given taboos against speaking frankly about Islam, many know almost nothing about it. In this vacuum, students might be tempted, or coerced, to "learn" the following from "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf."

Non-Muslims are "kuffar." Kuffar (plural) is a derogatory Arabic term for infidels. The Koran identifies kuffar as people to be mocked, terrorized, slain, destroyed, crucified, and cursed. The Koran also identifies kuffar as ritually impure; therefore, they are often referred to as "dirty kuffar." The theme of the clean Muslim and the contaminating kuffar American is repeated throughout "Scarf." America is a "kuffar land." American kuffar are dirty because they fail to adequately clean themselves after defecation. Even elite Americans "go around with a smear of shit in their crack all day…the common people are even filthier." American imperialism that causes innocent Muslims to suffer is even "more outrageous in light of the fact that its perpetrators did not even know how to properly clean their bottoms." Americans allow dog testicles to make contact with their furniture. Americans treat their unclean dogs better than they treat their children. Americans "live in filth" and Muslims must run Laundromat washing machines twice. "Be careful of impurities!" a mother warns her daughter before the daughter visits an American home. "Always ask if there is pig in something before you eat anything from kuffar hands." If an unsuspecting Muslim does eat pig from kuffar hands, she is "tainted forever." American taint haunts Muslims even in death. "Where do they lie in a non-Muslim land? Next to kuffar graves whose graven images may deter visiting angels?"

Americans in general are lazy, money-hungry, and not spiritual. American parents exhibit "depraved indifference." They "leave their children wandering in the streets." The majority of Americans are "ignorant." Americans swear, smoke, drink, and use drugs. They fornicate and commit adultery. They have broken families. They "had no self-restraint." They are not "generous" or "hospitable." Americans lead "shallow, wasteful, materialistic lives." "The typical American lifestyle" is one of "self-indulgence, waste, and global oppression." Americans are ugly; "the men's loose jowls have the cast of a toad's underbelly." Men have "blotchy pink type faces" that "loosen and get jowly." This looks like "the underneath parts of a man's body that should be covered." American men should "grow beards like decent folk."

"American women had to be sluts. That much was clear from the way they dressed." An American girl dresses like "a young streetwalker." "You really have to pity them more than condemn." They dress as they do "to please men." "Some profound perversion of the soul" causes American fathers to "pimp" their daughters. A Muslim girl visiting an American home risks being fondled by a drunk American. "American girls don't care if they are open down there." Girls who don't wear hijab are going to hell.

Christianity is inherently oppressive, conflated with slavery and imperialism. Christians are "terrorists." Islam is scientific; "Christianity killed the scientists." Christianity promotes the "worst possible sin," one a Muslim can't even listen to – that Jesus was the son of God. An American Christian, in stating that Jesus is the son of God, violates Muslims.

Israel was founded by "Yahudi terror squads" and "coward Jew terrorists." "Israel was illegally made by terrorists," and "Palestinians got killed by the terrorism that Israel was founded on." "Why is it when Jewish people claim a religious reason for their politics, I'm supposed to roll over, but if Muslims do it, it's called fundamentalism?" "You don't have a monopoly on suffering!" is a response to the Holocaust. A suicide bomber who kills Israelis is justifiable, and "is not a terrorist."

Terrorism is something Americans and Jews, not Muslims, do. The Iranian hostages were "fifty two white American men" who got "a taste of their own medicine…they make everyone else in the world suffer while they live like lords. They create terror in other people's countries while they live in safety and luxury. Let them see how it is to worry…acting the innocent victims now." Americans are blind to the humanity of others. They feel that "only they were human, had faces, had mothers." America is hypocritical; it says it is democratic while propping up dictators.

Americans are irrationally hateful of Muslims and Islam, and are not qualified to critique either. Americans export drugs to sterilize Muslims and experiment on "poor Third World women." Americans "carpet bombed" Baghdad after Iraq invaded Kuwait and sniffed at victims as "collateral damage." In America, "every Middle East crisis dredges up more American hate…the government doesn't even have to tell you the case against you." "The mainstream media always picks the most sensational thing and highlights the negative." Americans exhibit "clueless white insensitivity." American media stereotype Muslims as oil sheikhs leading cartels. Such cartels are justified; oil is the Arabs' "national treasure."

There is a minority of Americans who don't torment Muslims. They are pitiable, laughable hippies of indeterminate gender, one elderly Quaker woman who speaks Arabic, and a Mormon family who go out of their way to find vegan Jell-O containing no pork products. But these Islam-friendly liberals are no better than other kuffar; they always focus on Sufis. "Westerners like to focus on the heretics and deviants in Islam," the Sufis, "because Westerners cannot stomach the activist Islam that seeks to redress injustices committed against Muslim lands." When Americans try to make Middle Eastern food, "it tastes like spew."

The only American critique of Muslims or Islam offered in the book is the brief appearance of thugs who write this graffito: "FUCK YOU RAGHEADS DIE KKK 100% USA." There is one group of acceptable Americans: "leftist college professors." "They gave her [Khadra] a language to critique America that fit with her parents' stance."

Muslims are innocuous victims of Islamophobic kuffar genocides. "Everywhere, Muslims were being persecuted." Muslims suffer in "concentration camps." Allegedly peaceful Buddhists massacre Muslims in Burma. "You can never be true friends with the unbelievers." Muslims lived completely peacefully in the Balkans and one day, for no reason, their kuffar neighbors began to murder them. "Hundreds of years they've lived with the kuffar of their land, taking them for friends and even marrying them, and still the kuffar, in the end, turn on them and murder them…Muslims must become strong again…and get nuclear arms…Only they can save themselves from destruction."

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was justifiable. "I'm sick of Western publishers getting away with anything they want to put out about Muslims…I'm kind of glad someone is standing up to them." Syria's murderous dictator Hafez al-Assad is admirable because he is like "The Palestinians who say 'fuck you' to America and Israel even though they were getting stomped on…somebody needed to not cave in to the One Great Superpower … saying hunh, we don't care how you do things over there, we do things our own way."

In any case, everything is relative. "Radical Islam was her [Khadra's] James Dean." Sharia is just like the US Constitution. Muslims are comparable to Pilgrims and to the Amish. Islamic treatment of women is nothing unusual; "Every religion in the world has rules about sex." Cutting off a thief's hand is "almost less cruel" than "years of prison in limbo with your life on hold."

Muslim parents declare "We are not Americans!" to their children. "Americans were the white people who surrounded them, a crashing sea of unbelief" in which Muslims bob, "a brave boat." Becoming an American citizen, purely out of expediency, is so dreadful for Muslims that they "mourn," "laugh," "guffaw," "seethe," and then "cry." A Muslim taking a citizenship oath is comparable to the ancient Israelites of Psalm 137, captive in Babylon, being forced to sing for their tormentors. The best a Muslim can do is roll her eyes and fake it, "like she was ever going to help the US and its buddy Israel kill more Palestinians." "I'm not American," Khadra vows, after taking the oath. Later she "cried into her pillow at the defeat the day the U.S. citizenship papers came." Even the blue and gold Indiana dawn "is not mine. None of it is for me."

There is unrelenting emphasis on rigorous orthodoxy. Khadra's mother is touched by an American man; she must perform ablutions to purify herself. The five daily prayers are repeatedly referred to, by their Arabic names. Instructions are given on what body parts go where: "palm, palm, knee, knee, foot, foot, forehead." There is a debate about whether or not one may continue chewing "past time" during Ramadan. Yes – if you began the bite before the deadline. "What's already in your mouth can be swallowed." Abortion is permissible up to one hundred and twenty days after conception, when the soul enters the body. Khadra's hijab is detailed – its place of purchase, its color and fabric, its arrangement on her head, its occasional flutter and slip. Her hijab was a unique crown and a beloved barricade to a world perceived as inferior, unclean and threatening. Other than obsessive ritual, I don't know what Islam means to Khadra's, or Kahf's, spirit. I sensed no God behind all this bean counting, nothing transcendent of material reality, spiteful competition and political grudges. With one exception, the book is a spiritual desert.

There was one passage that evoked the purely spiritual. In the presence of a Syrian poet, Khadra's scarf slips. Her hands are stained with cherries, and, fearing staining the scarf, she does not reach up to replace it. She remembers her last swim, as a girl too young to wear hijab, in a public pool. She feels the sun caress her, and she surrenders to enjoyment of it. "The sunlight on her head was a gift from God," she writes. "Fresh film. Herself, developing." Veiling and unveiling are both necessary, she writes, "moments in the development of the soul in its darkroom." This is a lovely, spiritual passage, but it is just one page.

Kahf telegraphs the threat American Christians pose to Muslims by inventing the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in small town Indiana. The crime is never solved; no one cares. The killer is representational of his community; he is a member of "APES: American Protectors of the Environs of Simmonsville." Americans arrest an innocent Muslim scapegoat for the killing; he is deported. Americans "malign" the dead Muslim girl, suggesting she brought the rape on herself. The Indianapolis Star cooks up a fake story about "the oppression of women in Islam," dubbing the rape and murder an "honor killing." Kahf has her main character, Khadra, weep dramatically over this death; Khadra is rescued from her weeping by an adorable Muslim boy named "Jihad." In the face of all this senseless oppression, the Muslims are passive and noble. The community "labored on with its godly task … just like the early Muslims … when one fell, another picked up the banner and struggled on."

In response to my query, the Indiana University library reference desk was unable to discover a comparable murder of a Muslim girl in Indiana. In 1968, Carole Marie Jenkins, a young African American woman, was killed – but not raped – in Martinsville. This was not a "nobody cares" murder. When I arrived in Indiana in 1994 for my PhD, I was immediately told about Jenkins' murder by just about everyone. Everyone spoke of it as a tragedy, and a stigma Indiana was working to overcome. "Let's not lose sight that this young lady was murdered 33 years ago, and her family has experienced a lot of pain in not knowing what happened to her," Indiana State Police Superintendent Melvin Carraway said in 2002, according to the Indystar website. Jenkins' murderer was "a career criminal with a history of bizarre behavior and affiliation with groups such as the Ku Klux Klan." He was ratted out by his own daughter, the crime's only witness. Not exactly a representative of community values.

I am unaware of any murder of a Muslim woman by a white supremacist that the press attempted to smear as an "honor killing." Rather, in 2012, in California, an Iraqi-American woman, Shaima Alawadi, was found dead. Her family insisted that the killing was the work of American Islamophobes. Leading Muslims, the mainstream press, and activists supported this, and blamed Islam scholar Robert Spencer for the murder. Facebook hosted "One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi." The page invited non-Muslim women to wear hijabs in support of a victim of Islamophobia. Today Kassim Alhimidi, the victim's husband, is charged with her murder. It is alleged that he staged a hate crime in order to deflect attention from his own guilt.

There you have it – the things readers learn from "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf." Not so, you might argue. After all, "it's only literature," not a textbook. Perhaps Kahf is not saying, "This is what one should conclude about" the topics she writes about; perhaps she is merely reporting what average Muslims think and feel. Perhaps she is doing us the favor of putting it on the table in order to open up debate.

There are several problems with what might seem like these reasonable objections. First, the "lessons" above are all spoken by stick figures who appear only to voice a given point Kahf is straining to make. "Scarf"'s pages teem with character names. The names appear, the stick figure is minimally described – one is "black as coal" another has a widow's peak, another is "Jewish" – they occupy three or four pages, and then they disappear. When Kahf wants to make the point that she is an open-minded person but that Israel has no right to exist, Kahf tosses in a Jew for Khadra to befriend and then tell off.

The dialogue is as clunky as Soviet propaganda poster captions; it is interwoven with rudimentary asides about feminine life that are meant to transubstantiate agitprop into literature. "Comrade! I see that you support Israel! Let me present this PowerPoint proving that Israel has no right to exist, while I pour you a cup of coffee as we commiserate about your boyfriend and exchange diet tips that prove how downhome and lovable Muslim American women are!"

Kahf's heavy-handedness is not limited to characterization. When Khadra has a moment of revelation, she tells a driver that she is seeking "The road to Damascus." A Muslim boy named "Jihad" starts a band called the "Clash of Civilizations." He falls in love with a Mormon girl. Because she lives in a distant town their mixed marriage will "break up the Clash of Civilizations."

The second problem with the "it's only literature" argument: much of the kuffar talk comes from Khadra's mother and father, the two most attractive characters in the book. They are humble, selfless, dedicated parents just trying to love their children and convey important life lessons. Khadra's mother is so benign she is mistaken for Mary, Jesus' mother, by a crazed American, whose life she saves merely by appearing in public in a white headscarf and a blue overcoat.

The third problem with the "it's only literature" argument is this. Not just the statements themselves, but how those in power treat the statements, affects readers, and by extension, national discourse. Wafa Sultan is an American psychiatrist. Like Kahf and her character Khadra, Wafa Sultan is an Arab, born in Syria and raised Muslim. Wafa Sultan wrote a book, "A God Who Hates," that makes many of the same points that Kahf makes, but from a different point of view. Like Kahf, Sultan writes of Muslims faking their American citizenship oath, vowing to protect America while secretly repudiating their own words. Like Kahf, Sultan writes of Muslims despising non-Muslims as filthy, barely human kuffar. The difference is this: Kahf creates a world where Muslims mocking American citizenship, supporting terrorism and despising filthy kuffar is the right and proper thing to do. In Sultan's world, America is a valuable place and Muslims taint themselves with their false oaths and hidden hostility. Sultan dares to invite Muslims to examine themselves. Kahf was rewarded for her book with a professorship at an American university. Sultan receives daily death threats.

Real literature does open up debate; Kahf and her supporters shut debate down. In "Scarf," and on too many campuses and in too many elite venues, any critique of Islam is the purview, exclusively, of white supremacists. On the book's back cover, Afro-American studies Professor A. Yemisis Jimoh blurbs that Kahf "compels her readers to see this country though new eyes." That's what professors will punish students for if they criticize "Scarf." "You failed to see your whiteness, your Christianity, your American imperialism, your kuffar status, through new eyes." Is it possible – is it still permissible – that students might very well see perfectly through Kahf's eyes and conclude that Kahf is wrong?

Let's leave the contested history and theology aside for just one minute. Let's just talk about the book's Islamic contempt for dogs and their human owners. Kahf reports that contact with dogs renders Americans "filthy." In fact, dogs herd sheep, guide hunters and the blind, locate persons lost under collapsed buildings, detect cancer, track criminals, discover drugs, and reach unreachable autistic children and traumatized adults. Close contact with dogs in youth inoculates against autoimmune diseases. Contact with dogs in maturity improves the chances of surviving a heart attack.

No one wants to force Muslims to have pet dogs. Rather, I am asking. Is it even possible, any more, to disregard cultural relativism, to attempt to break through it to something called objective truth? I am allowed to say, on a college campus, that the ideas about women promulgated by a Dominican priest through his notorious witch craze manual, the "Malleus Maleficarum" are objectively false. Am I permitted, under Politically Correct speech codes, to state that Islamic ideas about the spiritual and physical taint of dogs are also objectively false? If cultural relativism forbids us from saying something that simple and verifiable, how can we address the political, military, and theological issues?

If we can't speak the truth about dogs, how can we address the lies about Jews? Do Jews have a monopoly on suffering? Let's see. Within living memory, an ideology, Nazism, arose that demanded, and almost achieved, through industrialized murder, the elimination of all Jews. Jews do have something of a monopoly on suffering, a monopoly I'm sure they'd surrender if they could get back the six million. There is no comparable genocide of Muslims, no matter how Kahf feels, no matter what "literature" claims, no matter how hard we look through her eyes.

What would happen if a student were to say any of this in literature class? "If you don't get it that Americans are intolerant and that Islam is a religion of peace, you fail literature class. Literature demands that we expand our worldviews, and this is how your worldview is to expand." This is a prostitution of literature. It is cheating. It is bullying. It is indoctrination. In a military history class, one could pick apart how colonialism and Japanese occupation affected Muslim-Buddhist relations in Burma. You can't have that conversation in literature class. You can only "expand your worldview" or get an F.

The book's title and cover photo thrust hijab front and center. So let's talk about women's clothing. No woman dresses alone. Every woman's clothing is a comment on every other woman's clothing. When women travel outside their natal culture, they confront an entirely new text. In Africa, Peace Corps ordered female volunteers not to wear African clothes. "If you dress like an African woman, you will be treated like one. You may find it distasteful, but to improve the lives of African women, you must dress like an American woman." We obeyed. In Nepal, Peace Corps ordered women to wear Nepali clothes. "There are very strict standards of modesty here, different from American. Here you can show your waist, you can even show your breasts if breast feeding, but not your legs, not even in outline form, in pants." We obeyed. Saris are impossible for non-natives to wear, and we wore saris. It was we, after all, who had entered African space, Nepali space. These cultures were my hosts, and I respected them. I wanted, above all, to do good work, and I knew that what I wore would have an impact on my work.

Hijab is not passive; it is not silent. It is a commentary on all women who do not wear hijab. It is standard operating procedure for Islamic clerics and for Muslim men to declare that women who do not wear hijab are asking to be sexually violated. After Lebanese men assaulted Australian women, Australia's senior Muslim cleric stated that women without hijab are "uncovered meat" and to blame for their own attacks. Online discussion boards devoted to the sexual harassment of women on Egyptian streets include posts by Muslim men blaming women. If you wore proper hijab, sister, the men say, you would not be attacked.

When "kuffar" women look at hijab, this is what some of us hear from Muslim women, "I am true to my own sense of my superiority over you kuffar, I am true to Islam's negative views of women, and I reject any sense of solidarity with you kuffar women and your struggle for freedom and respect." Kahf complains of boys in school snatching off Khadra's scarf. Non-Muslims' removal of Muslims women's scarves must be condemned. These acts must also be understood in the context of hijab as objection to the freedom we "kuffars" enjoy, and as an allegation against our morals. It is disingenuous to pretend that these incidents are merely about "Islamophobia," and that they can be cured with more multicultural, shame-the-Westerner workshops.

What I suspect is missing from classroom discussion of "Scarf" is what is absent from the book itself – serious self-criticism. American literature has served as America's confessional: "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Scarlet Letter," "Catch 22," "The Ugly American." Writers in immigrant and minority communities have been no less self-critical. Anzia Yezierska's "The Bread Givers" exposed traditional Jewish domestic patterns that stifled intellectual women. Philip Roth never shrinks from full depictions of even unattractive features of Jewish American life. Muslim American literature will not reach maturity till a Muslim American writer can be every bit as self-critical as the best American authors, hyphenated or not.

Years ago, I was walking home from work, and "Laila," a woman in hijab, pulled over to offer me a ride. She was charismatic and funny. Had I been a young man, I would have fallen in love with her during that short car ride. She invited me to a women-only family wedding party, a hypnotically beautiful, shockingly erotic event. We developed a running gag about how our peasant ancestors – hers Arab, mine Polish, but both of the land – inordinately loved goat milk. I tempted her to eat kiszka, a sausage made of pig's snouts and blood. She resisted. (Truth to tell, I have been wildly unsuccessful in my attempts to entice non-Poles to eat kiszka.) She treated me to our area's best shawarma. She shared her writing, messy and passionate, about being a Muslim woman in America. I introduced her to "Jane Eyre," whom she adored. She griped about her family's constant demands that she provide elaborate hospitality to crowds of male relatives rather than devoting time to her studies, to her writing, and to figuring out who she was, what she wanted and whether or not she could get it. I confessed secrets to her, and she to me, secrets that will go with me to my grave.

On Facebook, I posted about the immolation of my fellow Christians in Nigeria by the Muslim terrorists of Boko Haram. Laila lashed out. She posted denigrating falsehoods about Christianity. Laila knew little about Islam and even less about Christianity. She had been taught in American schools that Islam was a religion of peace and the Christians were the violent ones – the Crusades. I didn't want to be the one to introduce to her to the harsh realities of her own faith, and I didn't want to proselytize to her about mine – to me, that's a lecture, not a friendship. We parted ways. I feel her absence as a wound. I hate the gaps in American discourse, gaps created by Political Correctness, that doomed my friendship with Laila.

Writers lay down the path forward that is built of words. Writers like Eliza Orzeszkowa and Janusz Korczak made it possible for me to speak truths about Polish-Jewish relations. When I encounter a new Jewish acquaintance, I can place myself with this person immediately by saying, "I do not admire Roman Dmowski. I do admire Wladyslaw Bartoszewski." The hard conversations in Polish-Jewish relations have already gone on all night, and the vocabulary is already there.

People like Mohja Kahf and her supporters abort conversation; they sabotage the path. They demonize the speech that is needed around Islam. Muslims need writers who can do what both Mohja Kahf and Wafa Sultan try to do. They need a writer who wants to show America good Muslims. But they also need someone like Sultan who can acknowledge that Muslims need to engage in self-examination and public confession. A Muslim needs to say, "Yes, I want your love, America. Yes, Americans have wronged me. And we have wronged you, as well. We will take the steps necessary to correct the wrongs we have done to you. We will request that you take the steps necessary to correct wrongs you have done to us. We will hammer out a way to co-exist." As long as writers like Kahf, who promote a delusional fiction of innocent Muslim victims and utterly repulsive Americans dominate college literature classrooms, that day will never come, and we will remain miles apart.

Boobee boobee de boo; A Little Internet Moment that Amazed and Delighted Me

I love music passionately but I'm a words person.

I know music intimately but in the way that a blind man knows the face of his beloved.

I don't know what words like "sharp" or "flat" mean.

It's weird. Hard to describe. To love something so much and yet be totally ignorant of the mechanics of it.

I am grateful for my ignorance of music. Words are constantly zinging around my head. I even dream verbally. When I am immersed in music, my love combined with my total ignorance allows my brain to escape from words.

I occasionally hear a piece of music on the radio that I like very much. I've never heard an announcer say the name of this piece of music. I was curious. What is its name?

How could I find out?

I went to an internet site that allows people to ask questions about pop culture. At three pm I asked,

"I'm seeking the title of an instrumental piece of music I hear on the radio now and then. There is no singing. The genre is popular jazz. I'm guessing it comes from the 1960s. It begins with a guitar solo, very upbeat, driving. The guitar strings sound loose. Then there is a brief drum flourish that stops. Then, as the guitar continues, a very smooth, driving, organ picks up the same tune the guitar was playing. To me it sounds like guitar – boobee de boo boobee boobee de boo organ -- ah ah ah. Guitar: boobee de boo boobee boobee de boo."

At four pm, based on my description, above, someone posted a link to the very song on youtube. It's called "Time is Tight" and it's by Booker T and the MGs.

This kind of boggles my mind. The internet is a miracle!

"Aimee and Jaguar": Film Review

"Aimee and Jaguar" depicts a Lesbian Jew living in WW II Germany who falls in love with an ostensibly straight Nazi. What an exciting premise! I was so let down. There was all this capital S !Stuff! up on the screen that I was supposed to have been moved by. I was less moved while watching this histrionic opera than while watching many a low-key documentary.

An example: the scene where Lilly, the German Nazi, and Felice, the Jewish Lesbian, first make love. Lilly kept shaking. She's very pale (Aryan, doncha know). And watching her shake and shake and shake and shake in a way meant to be erotic, and watching her pale, waxy skin, all I kept thinking was, "Geez, she looks like someone in the final phase of malaria."

There were naked and shadowed unmentionable gynecological bits in that scene, and lots of highly charged social/erotic elements, and it carried zero erotic charge, for me.

The movie was too long. It added a pre-plot intro and a post-plot coda that offered nothing. Scenes went on too long. I found myself counting the breaths between lines, the number of times people repeated the same sentence over and over.

The movie works to make Lilly a slob and a hoyden. Lilly meets one of her lovers while wearing stockings and wool socks and a sloppy slip – but the movie makes the point that even homeless Jewish Lesbians can look soignee in wartime Berlin. Lilly yells at her kids; she sleeps around. She isn't very bright. She isn't especially pretty, either. Okay, so ... why did Felice risk her life to connect with this Nazi? Just for her blonde, Aryan locks? For the cheap thrill? No, the movie wants this to be a BIG love story, a Scarlett and Rhett of Nazism. Um, nope.

The movie works really hard not to let the viewer know exactly what's going on. I didn't find this thrilling. I didn't feel, "Gee, I'd better figure this out fast," I found it boring and alienating. I didn't feel that underneath the movie's surface confusion and incomprehensibility – "Why is she pushing her away? Who is this character? Why doesn't he suspect Felice's true identity?" – that there was a comprehensible and full world I just needed to get to know. Rather, I felt that the movie's incomprehensibility was a sloppy, amateurish effort to be casual, while not really creating a coherent world. I just found it to be a very amateurish, utterly cold, badly put together movie. and that is such a shame. This could have been big.

I can't help but think of – go ahead, hate me – Steven Spielberg. Spielberg knows how to use a camera to communicate humanity, while handling similarly huge, titillating themes against big historical backdrops. The brief scene in which Robert Shaw in "Jaws" talks about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, or Tom Hanks talking about being a teacher in "Saving Private Ryan" convey more humanity than Lilly does during the entire movie.

"Aimee and Jaguar" is full of scenes of Aktors Akting as if they are Brave or full of Joi de Vivre or Deeply In Love but I didn't see a single human being brave or expressing joi de vivre or loving.

There was one scene of "Aimee and Jaguar" that worked wonderfully for me. A Jewish Lesbian has been homeless and hungry. She goes to a Nazi club and begins to wash her undies out in the sink of the Ladies' Room, while complaining about sleeping in public buildings. A Nazi matron comes in and, contemptuously, sells ration coupons to the Jewish woman. The Nazi matron only saw the Jew to the extent that she could profit by selling a coupla ration coupons. Nazi Germany does have its parallels to contemporary life.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What I Learned from Talking about Islam on Facebook

Moo-slime, muzzie, sand-n****r, raghead, ass-lifters, camel jockey, towelhead, goat-f***ers, koranimals, pisslam, i-slime. 

I'm seeing words like this in more and more internet discussions. The words slip by without protest.

Also sentences like this: "Get rid of them all," "Wipe them off the face of the earth."


In a recent facbook discussion, someone mentioned Muslim terrorist Doku Umarov's threat against the upcoming 2014 Russian Winter Olympics in Sochi.

I said, "Of course terrorism is wrong, but the Russians should not be holding Olympics in Sochi. Sochi is a site of the Russian genocide of the Circassian people."

The other Facebook poster didn't care about the Circassian genocide. "Muslim troublemakers," was all he said.

I was stunned.

The Circassian genocide is very real. Please learn more about it here.

This genocide is as deserving of our compassion and concern as any other. The perpetrators were Russian Christians. The victims were Muslims.


The other day a Facebook friend posted a link to a youtube video, "Dead Dog Jihad" by a man calling himself "Wild Bill for America." "Guess what's coming to America," Wild Bill said. "Jihad against pet dogs…In every nation where Muslims become more than six percent of the populace, they begin to force their rules on everybody."

It's true that Islam includes significant hostility to dogs. It's true that dogs have been poisoned in Muslim neighborhoods in European countries.

That doesn't prove that Muslims in the US will begin to poison dogs.


Words like "Moo-slime" and "Muzzie" are disgusting. These words don't say anything about Muslims. They say something, rather, about the person using the word. They say that the person allows their lizard brain to speak in public. They allow themselves to be swept away by primitive hatred. They may publicly identify as Christian, but their words place Jesus Christ right back up there on the cross and crucify him all over again. See Matthew 25:40.

Words like "Moo-slime" and "Muzzie" are every bit as disgusting as "Kike" or "Polak" or "N****r" or "Fag" or "C***."

They should arouse the same kind and degree of condemnation.

Comments like "They should be wiped off the face of the earth" are genocidal. Yes, that's right. When you declare that you think all followers of one religion should be murdered, you share strategy with Adolph Hitler.

Believing, without question, someone named "Wild Bill for America" about "Dead Dog Jihad" is not the best path. A better choice: read books by scholars. 

In internet discussions of Islam, I have tried to make one simple point over and over. 

Muslims are human beings.

Islam is an ideology.

Muslims do not equal Islam.

I give this example.

I have never loved anyone more than I loved my Uncle John. A great man. A great human being.

My Uncle John was an atheist and a Soviet Communist. I reject atheism and have no respect for it, and I loathed the Soviet Empire. I was on the streets in Poland in 1989, actively protesting against the Soviet system, contributing to bringing it down.

I loved my Uncle John. A human being.

I loathed the system he was a part of. Soviet Communism.

A human being.

An ideology.

Two different things.


I feel pain, fear, and hurt for my Muslim friends when I read words like "Muzzie" and "Moo-slime." I recoil when I read sentences like, "They should be wiped off the face of the earth."

I want to introduce the people who write these obscenities to my Muslim friends.


Because Muslims are human beings. Just like those who hate them.

The same. Not different. The exact same: human beings.

Just like all other human beings, some Muslims are handsome, some are ugly, some are kind, some are greedy, some are smart …

Oh, this is all so basic. Why is it so hard to communicate in any way that gets heard.


I used to teach English to foreigners. My female Japanese students were perfect in their written work, and were painstakingly polite. They couldn't converse in English.

My Arab students bathed in language. They kicked up suds, splashed and played with idioms. Their written work was lush, but flawed – I got the sense that there is no tense in Arabic, no concept of time, except the time of the heart and the palate. So different from the English language's careful notation of time: I eat; I am eating; I will have eaten; I had been eating... But my Arab students were such ardent lovers of language that they bent English to their desires and their essays were among the best student essays I've read. We conversed for hours, on every topic.

My car got a flat tire. A Malaysian Muslim student not only changed the tire, he inspected the rest of the vehicle. Wouldn't let me tip him.

I remember one day at work my Arab co-workers bringing in a small mountain of rice, a platter of stuffed grape leaves, pools of hummus and plates of pita bread. It was their holiday, which they shared with all.

During Hurricane Sandy's closed roads and halted bus travel, one of my former students, a young man I had not seen in years, made sure to pick me up and drive me anywhere I wanted to go. He did this several times, once with his mother at the wheel. He had nothing to gain from this; I was no longer his teacher. But still he called me, "My teacher." A Palestinian Muslim.

Years ago, when I was very stupid, I traveled through rain forest in the center of Africa, alone, at night. I was picked up by Sudanese smugglers, a caravan of Muslim men on trucks. I was alone. They could have done anything. They could not have been nicer. They asked for nothing in return for transporting me the hundreds of miles to my destination.

I could go on. I grew up with Arabs in Passaic County, which has one of the US' largest Muslim populations. I've traveled in Turkey, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, in areas with heavy Muslim populations. I have met people who have been kind to me, who have fed me, who have befriended me, who have done me favors that could never be repaid.

You call these people "Moo-slimes?" "Koranimals?" Have you ever actually met a Muslim? Do you not realize that your using these filthy words says everything about you and nothing about Muslims?

Two features of Islam must be named and critiqued: Jihad and gender apartheid.

The rest of Islam is none of my business. If people want to abstain from pork, fast during Ramadan, make hajj to Mecca, pray five times a day, wear a hijab that does not obscure the face or bodily silhouette (which must be visible for reasons of civil society and security), that is none of my business.

If people want to kill me because I am not a Muslim, that becomes my business. If people do damage to women and girls, that becomes a universal human rights issue, thus, my business.

So, yes, I name and shame jihad and gender apartheid.

Not Muslims qua Muslims. Not all Muslims.


"But!" some insist. "All Muslims deserve to be condemned as if they themselves were terrorists or those who commit acid attacks on women or perpetrators of 'dead dog jihad.'"

No, all Muslims do not deserve to be criticized as if they were terrorists or child rapists or dead dog jihadists.

I'm Catholic. Am I personally responsible for the sex abuse crisis?

I'm American. Am I personally responsible for the Trail of Tears?

Could I have done anything to prevent either?


We demand that Muslims look at themselves. How about we Americans do the same?

Our greed for petroleum funds terrorism. What did we do after the 1979 oil crisis? We bought SUVs! Gas guzzlers! We lambasted President Jimmy Carter for telling us to put on a sweater, rather than turn up the heat, when we were cold! We could strive for energy independence; we don't.

We tinker with foreign countries. We overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran's democratically elected prime minister. We supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and then entered into quagmire wars with both.


Let's look at another source of trouble in our own backyards. There are forces in the West eager to stir up trouble between Muslims and non-Muslims.

We need a name for this powerful force: Westerners who believe that the West is hopelessly flawed and should be turned to scorched earth so that a Brave, New World can come about.

These are Americans or Brits or Germans or French people who think that Western Civilization is nothing but imperialism, that white skin is nothing but a stigma of unearned privilege and oppression, that Christianity is nothing but witch-burning and that Judaism is a form of Nazism. They think that any belief system far from the West is inherently better than anything Western.

Some of these folks are atheists, some are Marxists, some call themselves "anti-fascist." These folks hate their own societies and they embrace Muslims not as real, flesh and blood human beings, but as tools, as levers they will use to overthrow the West. Islamists, of course, see these "liberal" Westerners as useful idiots.


In short, yes, we Westerners have a problem, and we Westerners, not just Muslims but we ourselves, are not addressing it as we might. How can we blame all Muslims when we haven't done all we could?

Let's stop blaming and start working on solutions. 

Some say, "It's impossible to reform Islam!"

True, reform of Islam presents challenges. Conversion from Islam, criticism of Mohammed, Islam's founder, and identifying the Koran as a human creation, rather than as divine, are all punishable by death. It's hard to reform a system that erects such formidable barriers against change.

We know, though, that there are uncounted millions of Muslims who have no interest in killing anyone for their faith, who are good neighbors, law abiders, loving family members and loyal friends. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by respecting and acknowledging these good people, and joining our dream of a better world to theirs.


Some say, "But Muslims are all to blame because they all support jihad and gender apartheid!"

When I hear things like this, I think of my friend "Leila."

It was late at night and we were coming back from a family party. Leila and I were in her SUV in a parking lot while her sister was buying a bottled juice in a supermarket. Her sister was taking a long time and Leila and I got to talking.

Leila was an exquisitely beautiful young woman. It wasn't her features that made her beautiful; it was her warmth, eccentricity, and her enthusiastic embrace of life. Leila was a Palestinian Arab and she wore hijab.

Leila lived in New Jersey and in the Middle East. She spoke fluent Arabic and English. She loved American TV shows and movie stars and she was a devout Muslim.

In that supermarket parking lot, waiting for her sister, we got to talking. I asked Leila, "Have you ever questioned the existence of God?"

She said yes, she had. And at those times, she said, she stopped doing her five daily prayers. When she did that, she said, she realized she had lost touch with her spiritual foundation, and was drifting toward something dark and negative. Belief in Allah and observant prayer kept her spiritually alive and in touch with all goodness, she said.

From other conversations, I knew that Leila didn't know much about the Koran.

What Leila knew of Islam was this: it was the religion of her beloved family. It was her source of spirituality. Mohammed was the best man who ever lived, the wisest and kindest. That's what she'd been taught.

She understood the world outside Islam as one of sexual promiscuity and drug taking and disrespect to parents and a lack of honor.

Leila didn't associate Islam with 9-11 or acid attacks or child marriage. All of those were foreign to her.

When those who want to be part of a counter-jihad use words like "muzzie" and say all Muslims are to blame, I think of Leila, a beautiful human being. I think of how she would hear those words. She would hear it as so much ugly, hateful, threatening noise. As the violation of all that was good, spiritual, safe and pure.

If you want to be part of a counter-jihad, learn how to communicate to a good human being like Leila. What would you say to her?


Sadly, the hate is on all sides, now.

When I observe internet conversations about Islam, poet William Butler Yeats' terrifying verses recite themselves inside my head:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

"Liberals" are as full of hate as those who use words like "Muzzie."

I received several impassioned emails recently from internet correspondents. All were sent by white-collar British women. They all condemned me for speaking out against jihad and gender apartheid.

To these "liberals," if you speak out against clitoredectomy, acid attacks, and child marriage, you are a "racist" and a "fascist."

One very long, very well-meaning message urged me to stop criticizing Islam, and to realize that Israel was the troublemaker.

In other words, it's okay to hate. As long as you don't hate jihad. Hate Jews! The liberal solution!

Just for the heck of it, I asked my trusty reference librarian for some facts. Here they are: The territory of the state of Israel constitutes 0.139 % of the world's land mass. For emphasis: that's point one three nine. Less than one percent. The population of the state of Israel constitutes .11%. of the world's population. That's point eleven. Less than one percent.

So a woman who finds it obscene to criticize jihad or gender apartheid struggles to point out that Israel is to blame for all the trouble. Less than one percent of the world's population and land mass.

Yes, there is as much crazy hating on the pro-jihad side as on the anti-jihad side.