On a street in America

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“It makes me so sad. It just makes me so sad.”

He had heard the shopkeeper speaking Arabic with me, and had asked him, “Excuse me, but may I ask you where you are from? The friendly young man behind the counter was reticent to utter a controversial place name like Palestine, and thus replied, “I am from Jerusalem.”

The questioner came alive. Even his blond hair glowed a shade lighter. “I grew up in Saudi Arabia! I moved there when I was five. When we would go into a shop, even if we didn’t buy anything – when we would go in, they would always give us a cup of tea!”

His face lit up even more at this remembrance. In his mind’s eye he was there, just as I have been there. In another country than he. In different shops. But there, in that Arab embrace. And here, meeting in the same country, in the same city, close to both our present homes, we were in the same shop with a friendly Arab shopkeeper.

The Saudi-raised American continued his reminiscence: “They made us feel…”

As he spoke the words, I could feel it too. I could feel the calm, along with the liveliness of just being alive, of possessing personal value for merely being a human in the company of another human. He had created the atmosphere for me, the one I have tried so many times to create in pleading the case for my maligned Arab friends, for my maligned host society, to even out the imbalance that is so unfair. I could hear his words before he said them, just as I have always ended that sentence: “They make you feel so welcome.”

Now he was uttering the end of the sentence and I heard, instead, that “they make you feel…like family.”

That’s it. He came nearer to the mark than I have. There is something closer than a welcome, than words of greeting or a cup of tea. There is the feeling of being at home, loved, protected and accepted. The best sense of family, not the arguments and dysfunction and feuds that can occur, but the wholeness, the soft landing no matter what your circumstance, the sure refuge, the natural return. Family.

“I love listening to Arabic. It’s like listening to my mother speaking.” I smiled at this. This young American student was even talking like an Arab, with that unabashed and uncomplaining devotion to his mother. Mother, the epitome of home. I concur: just the sounds of the language give me the feeling that all is well, even if I can’t hear the conversation, or especially so at times. In the doughnut shop I don’t really want to know what the taxi drivers are discussing, but it makes me feel right to hear sounds of the preferred language emanating from their direction. In my new friend’s case, he doesn’t know much of the language, of its meaning anyway. But he knows that it evokes the landscape of the culture: what I call “welcome;” what he calls “family.”

“It makes me so sad,” he reiterated again.

Yes, more than one reiteration. The sentence is so short and it only speaks to someone who knows. It is a small wedge in the unexpressable. It is the little drop of water on a saucer that reflects an entire ballroom in explicit detail on its tiny curved surface. It is the constancy of guilty verdicts for the beloved family member whom you know is innocent, and who has been proven innocent of the crime, only to be remanded to the death chamber by a deaf and imperious judge, and hauled away by the stern-faced, steel-muscled bailiff. Such a contrast to the tender hand that has proffered so many cups of tea. And not just tea. A smile. And not just a smile, but an unspoken atmosphere, like the fragrance that emanates from peeling a tangerine. What do you call it when you can feel the fragrance approaching and intensifying and then becoming your very atmosphere? Redolence. That redolen! ce of welcome. That redolence of family.

“It makes me so sad.”

Nothing you say can save your friend, your beloved society and culture, from this repeating judgment and brute action to wipe out the redolence, to suffocate the glow, to slam a silencer on the warm rhythms of the language. “Like hearing my mother speak.” The guilty verdict slapping a gag on your mother.

“It makes me so sad. It just makes me so sad.”

We talk a little, so glad to meet one another, relieved more than happy. We share a secret that is jealously guarded in the way you don’t want it to be. You want to spread abroad the good news of the beauty of this culture, these people whom you know first hand. And you cannot speak this, because the stern-faced judges and steel-muscled bailiffs and respected writers and smiling neighbors keep this a secret. They find ways to muzzle you, to keep your voice out of the living room, out of the classroom, out of the letters to the editor, out of the range of radio airwaves. You might think that their very existence is threatened by a true representation of a culture they refuse to know. They know only to ignore, to criticize, to condemn, and thus to protect our society from any positive and realistic evidence about this other culture.

“It makes me so sad.”

Our upright thinkers keep the true picture a secret. They won’t let us speak. We find solace in one another, meeting by chance in a shop, in a restaurant, at a public lecture, or on the street. This is the secret that we are bursting to share with our fellow citizens and friends we love, friends who are so caring in other situations, friends who do community service and help minorities to be appreciated and to have opportunities, friends who attend church regularly and thank their God sincerely, friends who believe the arts can save us from tyranny, friends who silence us when we begin to say anything affirmative about Arabs. They know what we do not. They know what the real character of Arabs is. They know what the real character of Muslims is because, unlike us, they have not been tainted by actual acquaintance with people of these categories. They can keep an objective distance, surround themselves with an easy myth complete with loaded compilations of labyrinthine statistics. They have the higher wisdom to safeguard our culture by seeing-no, and hearing-no, and speaking-no good about these others. We see our Arab and Muslim friends and the millions of their fellows misrepresented, misunderstood, maligned and – yes:

It makes us so sad.

Saddest of all because we want our fair-haired friends here to share in the richness we have experienced. We want to say “welcome” to them, as we have been welcomed. We know how it feels, and it is the kind of feeling you are compelled to share, not to hoard. So you open your mouth with one little sentence which you hope will open a portal of reception to this perception, and…and then what? And then our living flesh and blood friends and neighbors become cold, unrelenting, deaf statues when we invite them to a true picture. That is what is so sad, to see your loving friends lose their human edge, on cue, just when you bring up the subject of Arab culture, or even more, Arab individuals.

“It makes me so sad.”

When I told my new blond friend of volunteering in Palestine and sojourning among refugees in camps, he honored me and thanked me for doing this, and then posed one last question: “But aren’t you afraid…?”

I expected to hear the usual question, about danger to my bodily safety. People there live the danger every day. They can. We can. But that was not his concern, so the twist in his final question surprised me, just as his first remark about family had.

“But aren’t you afraid of what this will do to you, seeing all this tragedy?”

His concern was the danger to my psyche.

I said the positive part of living in the midst of constant tragedy, is to be with people who maintain an amazing strength of character, and continue to strive toward a constructive future. They are able to bear this suffering and still keep strong family ties. I said the difficult part is having intelligent people in my own country turn deaf ears to this deserving sector of humanity. Deserving sector –” what do these Arabs and Muslims deserve? They deserve to be considered fully human.

Aren’t we afraid of what this will do to us, ignoring all this humanity?

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