A few years ago I lived in a Muslim country for a year. I went into this experience really excited because I was sure that through living, reading, exploring, studying, and spending huge amounts of time with people–youth and professors on a university campus– I was going to be able to find some kernels of truth about how Americans could be better at finding common ground with Muslims.  I did not meet any people that I didn’t like, but there were those people I never had the opportunity to meet like the women on the 4th floor of our cinder block campus apartment building who were told by their husbands “do not talk to that young woman under any circumstances.” I never saw these women because they never ever left the house- the husbands did everything including all the shopping (and women pray mostly at home as they are not allowed in the mosque except in special rooms, on special days).  I was, to them, considered polluted and dangerous (without anyone ever having a conversation with me).  

On the flip side, one of my good friends became a young Pakistani man around 20 who was a “guest worker” (aka indentured servant) at the local gas station. He was so sweet and kind and respectful. He seemed so shocked by me being polite and respectful even to the gas pump guy, and a man who was a citizen of a nation that was under great scrutiny by my government in the post 9-11 landscape. We shared tea with my husband and children on numerous occasions, and conversations about family, marriage, and how to become successful and safe filled our shared time. One issue that we returned to on numerous occasions was the notion of chosen marriage verses arranged marriage. His wife had been picked for him at 12, and he had no say. And he simply could not understand the notion that we would pick our mate by ourselves.  

When I told him that it is important to most people that our parents like and endorse our choices of our mates, he was surprised by this small truth- because he said he had never heard it before. He said that when marriage and the west were discussed in Pakistan it was always discussed as a “sign that the west does not respect its elders and family history.” This small change in perception changed entirely how he viewed the “evils” of chosen marriage. (Research Note to self- Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Love, and Pray. Remember the great research and comments about marriage made in her new book on the topic; it can be a good text to borrow from here.)

The last two paragraphs, when compared, express 1) the truth that I have been the victim of rage and “assumptions” about my character for years, without even saying a word, and 2) I have also found friendship in this same context. It is these quiet moments in humanity when enemy and friend fall apart that fuel my utopian novel. I really do want to spend time thinking about what are the human moments that enable cultural and human shifts to occur.

It makes perfect sense that by speaking about my thoughts in public I am enraging people who see things in a different way. I am willing to accept that, and I am willing to accept the character assassination that my antagonist is waging as a bi-product of democracy. But here is the amazing part- these emails from the Scott character make so many assumptions about me that I wonder if I have not in fact, in the confines of a small town like Frelinghuysen (not a place where national or international references apply according to this same character/antagonist), ironically, found the place to find my common ground with the Muslim world. Ideology, religion, values and vision are not really the point; the point is “live and let live” and participate with everyone as an equal.

Could not one say that if something applies in a tiny jersey town of 2000 people, and in a country on the other side of the world, then it is true? Humans share a fear of the “other” no matter who the other is; and they disable dialogue with this mythic “other” regardless of the potential. It is how one perceives and constructs the “other” that matters- not who the other is! One of my research questions for this week is “how is it that my antagonist decided that I was the “other?” And why can he not see the fuzzy lines between condemning race as a site of inequality, but accepting story-telling as a place that it is ok to condemn a fellow citizen. There are elected officials in this mythic town who have always listened to me, and inquired with me directly, and with them I believe I have some kind of foundation of “understanding” (but certainly not similarity) and then there are those elected officials who have not been capable of that generous humanness, and they see me as the enemy. See a correlation? It is easier, but less effective, to make someone an enemy than it is to make them your friend.

When in South East Asia, I tried so hard to not be so upset by Bumiputra Laws- laws that are intended to serve as “civil rights” for indigenous Malays. What appears on Wiki is only half the story of Bumiputra laws: in the interpretation of “rights for Malays” became an odd set of economic policies that state: Muslims pay one price for a house or car (or many other things), and everyone who is not Muslim pays a higher price; a fiscal benefit for sharing the same ideology as the government.  Ultimately, since I have been the target of “if you don’t like it leave” mentality for almost 2 years now, I have found my common ground between Americans and Muslims; if you don’t like the way we do it, you will pay a different price for your thinking, and your only out is to leave. Can you imagine if MLK had taken that advice? And the Chinese who are fighting this Bumiputra Law in Copenhagen in the world court- do you think they ought to migrate? Or is within their purview to suggest an alternative?