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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

New York City’s MTA just approved an ad opposing the building of Cordoba House, a mosque/Muslim community center, at ground zero. The ad will go on the side of city busses, and it features a picture of an airplane about to strike a flaming World Trade Center on one side, a picture of the proposed Cordoba House on the other, and the words “Why There?” in the center. It’s a completely tasteless ad and it makes me angry every time a picture of it pops up on NY1.

There’s been a lot of controversy over “the ground zero mosque.” Why? Because tons of people are prejudiced against Muslims. I’m not usually one to throw insults around or to come down categorically on one side of an issue, but this is one that really gets me.

I’ve been reading articles about the controversy on line, and this seems to be a good summary of the opposition stance:

“September 11th was a horrible tragedy, and it is inappropriate/disrespectful to build a mosque so near Ground Zero.”

I don’t think any sane person would disagree with the first clause in that sentence. However, no one seems to be asking opponents WHY it is inappropriate/disrespectful to build a mosque near the site. I’ve tried to think about all the possible reasons why someone might feel that way, and I would love for someone to explain to me a reasonable reason for opposition so that I can give up my conclusion that a huge percentage of New York State residents are irrationally prejudiced against practitioners of Islam.

The only reason I can think of for opposing Cordoba House is that you hold all Muslims or Islam itself responsible for 9-11. According to this Siena Research Institute report, the majority of New Yorkers hold this view.

Myra Adams of The Daily Caller holds this view:

Can you imagine back in 1950 if there had been an effort by Japanese-Americans to build a Shinto center honoring Emperor Hirohito just two blocks from Pearl Harbor? Furthermore, imagine that the building was planned to open on December 7, 1951 just in time to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of this cataclysmic attack. Faster than you can say “Tora Tora Tora,” one can hardly contemplate the absurdity of such a plan.

That is the introduction to her article entitled “Building the 9-11 Mosque Will Not Breed Tolerance.”

Her argument might make some degree of sense if Cordoba House were a monument to Osama Bin Laden. Underlying her argument and the argument of every like-minded person whose opinion I’ve read so far is the assumption that Bin Laden, 9-11, and terrorism are the same thing as Islam. In fact, Ms. Adams seems to be saying that Bin Laden is the head and primary representative of Islam.

This is NOT true.

Should I say that again? It’s NOT true.

Direct quote from an Egyptian Muslim teenager that I tutored: “If Bin Laden came to Egypt, he would be dead in five minutes.”

Most of the Egyptians that I talked to while I lived there were not what you might describe as liberal or freethinking, especially by New York standards, but I’m 1000% sure that all of them shared the opinion of that boy.

Newsflash: Islam isn’t going away any time soon.

Additional newsflash: Moderate Muslims are about as likely to commit any kind of jihad-y nonsense as my mother is. (My point being that neither they nor my mother are jihad-y, not that my mother is jihad-y.)

Conclusion: Moderate Islam is the world’s best hope for decreasing the number of crazy extremists who claim to act in the name of Islam.

And that is what Cordoba House is all about. It’s about giving Muslims who are committed to their faith a progressive way of looking at the world, and it’s about giving non-Muslims a way to understand that this religion that they apparently see as huge threat is really just the newest branch in the Abrahamic religion tree.

In my opinion, “the 9-11 mosque” is not only an appropriate way to use Ground Zero property, it’s the best possible way.

Three shirtless men of various ages and ethnicities were having a very loud argument in the middle of a very crowded Washington Square Park about how one of them kept mooching pot off the others. It was about 2pm, tons of young families, elderly people, college kids, and random singles like myself were all over the place. A couple of people nearby asked them to keep it down or take it somewhere else and were roundly cursed for butting in. That’s why I love Manhattan: because it’s so, so classy. 😛

My horoscope is an Air sign, but I don’t really like flying. I like some things about it, like staring at clouds or looking at the lights on the ground at night, but the up and down parts make my ears hurt, and I’ve flown enough that in the past year or so, every time my plane takes off I can’t help but think that my odds of being in a plane crash have just gone up a little bit.

For a long time, I thought that I hated busses. I still don’t like them much because they make me motion sick and I so often find myself on 8-14 hour rides, usually overnight. Something I like about busses over planes, though, is that when traveling by land I can retain a sense of continuity of geography. Being in London, sitting inside a small room for a few hours, then magically being in Chicago makes me feel disoriented on an almost existential level.

I really like trains. They don’t change altitude or go over speed bumps, and the seats are usually big and comfortable enough to keep me happy for as long as the trip lasts. Unfortunately, they don’t go over oceans or through very many non-east-coast areas in the US, so I’m usually stuck with planes or busses.

In a few hours I’m going to get on a plane and go to New York City (via Atlanta, which often as not turns out to be a pretty epic detour), probably for the next two years. This is pretty exciting and terrifying, because NYC and change are both exciting and terrifying. I find myself thinking about something I read last year, when I was moving from Brooklyn to Cairo. I wrote about it on a previous blog post, but to summarize briefly, it was about the unknowable nature of goals. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes that our goals are always hidden from us because a goal, by its nature, is something we haven’t reached yet (my paraphrase).

In preparation for this move, I’ve been re-reading Alice in Wonderland. This quote especially made me laugh:

“Alice had become so used to out-of-the-way things that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on as usual.”

Much more lighthearted than the one about hidden goals. The two quotes are pretty much unconnected, unless you’re one of those people for whom the pursuit of “out-of-the-way things” is always a goal. I suppose that, according to Kundera’s sentiment in ULB, unusual things are one of the best goals because in pursuing them you already know that you don’t know what you’re getting into. That doesn’t always make you feel better once you get into it, but if you don’t get into it, then life goes on as usual. Quite dull.

I do actually have more concrete goals than that, but it’s good, especially in times of transition, to remember that goals and plans are not set in stone and that the one thing you can be sure of is a white rabbit when you least expect him.

And that’s science.

I’ve come to the opinion that Texas is not such a wonderful place to live in, but it is an excellent place to drive through.

The visual wonders of Texas are well-documented in country music and O. Henry stories, so it’s hard to describe them in a way that isn’t cliched, but I will try.

For starters, there’s a lot of sky. I know that, technically, everywhere I go has the same amount of sky, but for some reason there seems to be an awful lot more of it when I’m driving down Texas Highway 31. I-20 is a bit more boring, maybe because I have to keep such a close eye on all the big-rigs that are hurtling along beside me and don’t have much thought to spare for the view. But when I’m on open road, something about the unobstructed panorama of blue-blue and the towering white clouds makes me feel pleasantly small.

Driving through small towns isn’t quite as much fun, though. The speed limit drops suddenly from 75mph to 40 or 35, and when you’re really doing 85, that’s a big drop. I’ve never come across such a thing, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about small-town traffic officers who don’t have much else to do besides sit around waiting for people to blaze past a sudden-drop speed limit sign and hand out speeding tickets (which you have to return to that town to pay). The possibility adds anxiety, even when the road is actually clear and you have all the time you need to slow down. The towns themselves are a bit creepy, too. Something about the fact that a 21st century town would have a broken-down Baptist church, something that probably used to be a gas station, a “XXX ADULT GIFTS” store with boarded-up windows, and a pile of tires along its main thoroughfare gives me the heeby-jeebies.

There are a lot of great views between the towns, though. Sweeping pastureland bordered by immense oak and pine trees, picturesque farm houses, Bonanza-esque herds of cows. It’s all quite lovely.

And that’s why I drove down SH 31 West for half an hour out of Tyler when I was supposed to be going east. I didn’t make a wrong turn, I just really like driving in Texas.

image from blueskycountry.com

Growing up in a predominantly white part of the world, I was always aware of racism. White bias against blacks and hispanics (coloquially referred to as Mexicans, since obviously everyone who speaks Spanish is Mexican) was the most common sort, since my small, Texas hometown had very few Asian people and virtually no Semitic types (Jewish or Arab). I always assumed that racial bias was a two-way street: white people against non-white people, and the non-white people retaliating (or just feeling that white people were a) too powerful and b) mostly assholes).

Of course, this is not the case. Racial bias is less of a two-way street and more of an intersection like the one in downtown Brooklyn where Flatbush Avenue meets Atlantic, Pacific, 4th, and god knows how many others right before these streets all split off into three or four different streets each. There are no right angles in this intersection, and if you wait for the lights it takes about half an hour to walk across it.

My point is that there are about as many types of racism as there are shades of skintone, and this has been brought acutely to my awareness on several occasions.

The first was probably when I studied in Costa Rica and most of the people I met there took a very dim view of Mexicans (in this case I use the word to describe people who are actually citizens of Mexico). Who thought brown people would have bias against other brown people?! Craziness!

Another memorable example happened quite recently with the two Egyptian boys (brothers, 13 and 14) that I tutor. I was teaching them Spanish, and they were putting their new communication skills to the best use they could think of–insulting each other. We were talking about nationalities to practice subject pronouns and conjugations of ser (I am American, you are Egyptian, she is Canadian, etc.) and both of them got no end of amusement from referring to each other as “she.” Of course. I’m sure everyone who has ever attempted to learn another language has had fun with grammatical gender. But then, as I threw in other nationalities to keep things interesting, they suddenly dropped the innapropriate use of ella and found much more hilarity in calling each other Somolis. It seemed that calling a boy a girl is actually much less offensive than calling an Egyptian Somoli, Ethiopian, or Sudanese.

As a tutor, I always try to take any opportunity to point my students towards open-minded and fact-based views of the world. I’ve had what I think were rather productive conversations about witchcraft, religion, gender, animal cruelty, drug use, and racism. This situation stumped me, though. The first problem was how to get two boys who were literally falling out of their chairs laughing to take anything I said seriously. The second was how to make even a slight impact on two young people whose culture has taught them to despise these nationalities so thoroughly that, without thinking, they use them as casual insults.

The problems turned out to be insurmountable. I was not able to strike a blow for equality and social justice; in fact, we didn’t even finish the Spanish lesson. I hope I’ll have other opportunities later, but it’s hard to combat deep-set prejudices in two hours a week when you’re also trying to teach Spanish, linear equations, and poetry forms. At an earlier date I did manage convince the older boy that global warming is not caused by solar flares, and I may have to console myself with that.

Today, the other KG teachers, assistants, and cleaning staff talked to me as if I were five.  On the other hand, one of my favorite students gave me a sticker.  Why doesn’t that make me feel better?  Oh right, because I’m NOT five…

Being talked down to is a not uncommon problem for me, and, when it happens, I get a very short fuse very quickly. My current supervisor, bless her soul from top to bottom, does not do this, and that is one of the few things that keeps me going in a job that I am neither naturally equipped nor trained for.

I understand that very few people in Egypt extend very much of what I consider respect to anyone. Hissing and snapping fingers at people is completely normal. Personal space is non-existant. Women on the metro tug my shirt tails down or bodily move me so they can talk to their friends across the aisle. However, taking that into account doesn’t make me feel any better when my two fellow KG teachers, who are much older than I am and have been on this same field trip many times, proceed to not tell me anything about what’s going on, then talk to me as if I’m one of the students when I *gasp* don’t know what’s going on.

Here’s the thing about working with little kids: after awhile, you start thinking about other adults as children and it’s difficult not to use your “mommy” tone when you’re upset at someone. The “mommy” tone is quite effective with small children and the opposite of effective with anyone older than that. Trying to use your voice or body language to elevate yourself to the position of sole, authoritative adult when that is not already the case will only further annoy or anger the person you are talking to. Unless you have some kind of real leverage on this person, the whole situation will likely blow up in your face.

Also, a slightly weird factor in the lack of respect I get from older women in particular (in lots of instances, not just from the previously mentioned co-workers) is that I so often sense that it’s partly or mostly based in a resentment of me just for being younger than them. This is deeply annoying to me for two reasons. The first is that it’s always annoying when someone dislikes you based on nothing you’ve actually done, and the second is that all I really have going for me as a younger woman is my nubility. I don’t think any older woman who sits around resenting me can possibly understand how fast I would trade that asset in for that one little thing they’re determined to punish me by denying: respect.

The following is a distillation of all the things I thought about while walking around Petra by myself for seven-ish hours. It is all rated R for Random.

I’ve decided that I really love Jordan. It’s so chill. No one has harassed me or invited me to do lewd things on the street, my one bargaining experience was short and ended decidedly in my favor, and no one has even attempted to grab any part of my body. Even the cats are friendlier than in Cairo. I had a small, furry, orange creature purring in my lap for ten minutes or so this afternoon, and I didn’t even feed him.

I also love the verticality of Jordan. I’m going to get claustrophobia when I go back to a place where I can’t make a quick climb and see five miles in every direction. Any horizontal distance also involves a significant up- or down-factor, so that going five blocks to the pharmacy is like spending 20 minutes in the gym. Aside from being great for your thighs, it also changes the way you think about space. “Looking around” means looking not only around but up and down. Every few meters you walk, you have a completely different view of your surroundings. You think you’ve gotten the best possible shot of the looming cliffs in the distance, but then you top a rise and everything changes. You scan the sweeping vista around you and conclude that you are alone, and then a fairly large tour group magically pops out of a crevice in the earth that you thought was flat.

The desert country that spreads out after the end of the canyon that contains most of the Petra sight-seeing sights is simply amazing. It’s not exactly off the beaten track, but there wasn’t anyone else out there when I was, except a couple of Bedouins who forced me to drink free tea with them.

(Caveat: I’m not sure what’s in Bedouin tea, but I’m pretty sure it’s not FDA approved.)
(Caveat II: One similarity between Middle Eastern culture and Southern US culture that I particularly enjoy is that both believe “hospitality” means “forcing guests to eat more food than they can possibly digest and drink tea.”)

Other than that, it was just scrubby, rocky hills and cliffs separated by dry, stone-littered stream beds. Walking along the dusty trial, I felt kind of like I was in the Bible. Or Bonanza. (Funny how the great stories of Western civilization all take place in deserts.)

Eventually I returned to the beaten path in search of a toilet. I found it, then had to fend off hoards of people offering me “free” horseback/donkey/camel rides. That trend continued all the way back to the entrance/exit area. I understand that they need to make their backsheesh quotas, but really, if I’m only 50 meters from my destination and I’m still on foot, it’s safe to assume that I do not want to ride your horse the rest of the way. One thing I did enjoy about all those offers, though, is that they all referred to me as “lady” or “madame” even though I was sweaty, dusty, and dressed in t-shirt/pants/sneakers. In this case flattery did not get them everywhere, but it made me happy.

And that is all of the wandering thoughts that I can remember/share with the general public. Thanks for watching.