Thursday, November 27, 2003

Thanksgiving 2003

The guns fell silent along the entire western front with Pakistan today for the first time since the conflict in Siachen broke out about two decades ago. Indian and Pakistani soldiers celebrated the festival of Id by exchanging sweets at some border outposts instead of targeting each other with shells as they have been accustomed to do... in Jammu and Kashmir."

The Hindu, November 27, 2003

(This piece was the headline article for the Ashtabula Star Beacon on Thanksgiving 2003)

Thanksgiving, Eid and Terrorism

Two months ago, on the anniversary of September 11, I was invited to visit Peshawar, Pakistan. I was going as a volunteer, through Rotary International, along with Pakistanis from Peshawar and Americans from San Francisco. Together a program is being developed to train women from Afghanistan who were denied education under the Taliban.

Terrorism fills our news each day. Fear of attacks are present in our lives. Again, this Thanksgiving we hold our loved ones close in gratitude.

All over the world people are fearful of violence and the insecurity it brings. This week marks not only the American Thanksgiving, but a festival of humble gratitude for Muslims as well.

There is a truly American essence in giving thanks. It's rooted in our history. The Pilgrims from Europe feasted together with the Wampanoag Indian People to celebrate with gratitude to God for the bountiful harvest in the New World. Annually, we continue to celebrate Thanksgiving for the bounty we have had over all these years.

This year, in places as far away as Europe, Iraq, India, and Israel the world will be celebrating a festival of joy and gratitude. The one day feast, called Id-al-Fitr, closes the holy month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar. It is the time of celebration of the bountiful gifts God gives throughout the month, year and all time. This year, along with the US Thanksgiving, Eid falls in the week of November 23rd.

When planning the trip to Peshawar, Pakistan from my university in Delhi, India, friends concerned for my safety recommended that I say I'm from Canada instead of the United States. Though I appreciate their concern, I cannot rightfully disown my US identity. To hide my nationality – or worse, to lie – would only serve to promote misunderstanding and distrust of one another. To share that I am an American reflects the concern we, Americans, have for the well being of those in far off lands. By not knowing one another, we've permitted the extremists of our cultures to represent us abroad. Peshawar is known in the United States for being a possible hiding place of Osama Bin Laden and location of extremist schools in the area. The US is misunderstood in Pakistan partly because Hollywood has misrepresented us as power hungry people without ethics.

Prepared for an abrasive reception in Pakistan, I was instead warmly welcomed. When Pakistanis or Afghans learned I was from the United States, their eyes showed both surprise and bright excitement at the opportunity of sharing cultures and perspectives. Most conversations were basic, about our dress, our education and our families. Depending on their level of English (I do not speak Urdu), and the trust we could build, the discussion went on to Pakistani politics, US divorce rates and our religions. In the course of my week in Peshawar, I was invited to tea and dinner more often than I was able to attend.

In one Afghan refugee camp, an exquisite carpet covers the dirt floor of the dried mud home where the women sit while strangers visit outside. We were unaware of their quiet presence as we learned of the art of carpet weaving and examined the frame. Some Muslim women, as in this home, are only to be seen by men who are related. As the only woman of the four visiting volunteers, I was pulled aside and asked if I would like to meet these Afghan women whom our project hopes to aid. Lead to a dark wood door, I pushed it open. Inside the unlit room were about eight women with covered heads and alert eyes. Pulling my own scarf closer over my head and shoulders I smiled in gratitude for the friendship I was being offered. I joined the women seated on the carpet. Eyes caught mine and held the moment with a smile. We nodded to one another. The younger women shifted a bit with curiosity, their glass bangles lightly clinking in the darkness. I did the same, shifting while trying to keep the scarf from falling off my head. We attempted conversation with their few English words: “Sister”, “mother”, “aunt”, and “friend”. They pointed to one another until I understood their relationships. Closed in a room with women whom the world has just begun to know, I smiled with them and waited for the men to leave, for change to come, for a better life.

Terrorism has affected Pakistanis, Afghans, Latin Americans, North Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners and many others. Confusing the extremists of another country, religion or culture with the majority of peace loving people promotes fear and vengeance. As humans we all share concern for our mothers, brothers and children. We are grateful for their health and safety. Let’s recognize that this Thanksgiving week - like the Pilgrims and the Indians - we will celebrate with those from vastly different cultures.

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Letter from India - Nov. 9, 2003

November 9, 2003

Dear Family and Friends,

India's 15 rupee postage stamp, which will send a letter all over this world, appears to be the same stamp issued when India gained its independence from Britain in 1947. Like a cheap t-shirt, it has only two colors: brown and orange. In the upper left hand corner is the word, "India", written in both Hindi and Roman script. Also in both scripts is "Butterfly", identifying the text book-like image on the stamp. The stamp designer must have gone out of his way to choose the most boring of India’s butterflies. And here it is, that singular uninteresting insect flying to every corner of this world, representing India.

This morning from the window of the hostel mess, over my breakfast of chickpeas, chapati and warm milk, I watched a peacock attempt to seduce a peahen. This is India! He stood, all pomp and arrogance, revealing his every feather spread in a daunting array before her. She stared - timidly, if you ask me - until some decision was made. She distinctly and delicately turned, ducked her head, as if to prepare him for what was to come, and flew, rather awkwardly, off the ledge. His feathers drooped.

Why aren't they on India's postage?

The moths that flit towards the light my hostel room gives off have trouble, like the peahen, with mid-air flights. Coming through the window their tiny bodies seem to stop in disorientation while their wings keep moving giving them balance in the air. Then they drop, to the wall or floor, bouncing along the surface as if to verify its absolute, solid, immobility. Once confident, they bounce along in short low flights towards the florescent light above my bed.

The moths gathered around my light are considerably more attractive than the butterfly on India's 15 rupee stamp. The detailed lace-like stone carvings of the Taj Mahal must have been inspired by the wings of these moths. Some are dark, dark brown with a white trail drawn ornately across a wing and mirrored exactly on the other. Many are green and leave glittering dust where they touch down too suddenly. Still others have wings with circles that, when folded, appear to be accusing eyes glaring back at the outer world.

Can you tell that I've been confined to the hostel for some time? I was sick with a pesky viral infection for nearly two weeks. Nothing serious. In fact, there was only one day of fever; the rest of the time I felt as if I were making a slow recovery. It was pretty frustrating actually. For the first few days I slept. Soon my mind had recovered, but my body still needed time. My room is cement walls, cement floor and a cement closet - all totaling a space a little bigger than a king size bed. I found myself wanting to move about, go to class and see more of India. Instead I had to lie on my bed watching the insects collecting around my florescent light.

As I grew impatient with my recovery, I could hear the voice saying... "A Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar and what is she doing the last weeks of October? Watching moths!"

The scholarship is through the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International which holds a vision of world understanding and peace through education and cultural exchange. Simply put, the more we know about each other, the more likely we are to get along. As an Ambassadorial Scholar, my responsibility is to listen, make friends and be an ambassador of goodwill from the people of the USA to those from other countries. It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.

But seriously, we need this. When we consider that the radio (later verified by internet news) is saying that a European Commission's survey finds Europeans judge the United States as a leading country contributing to global instability (beating Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea - only Israel outdid us), we realize something is wrong with our global image. Across nationalities I find a pretty strong distaste for the United States. Be it the Canadian's determination not to be confused with us. Or the Columbian who just responds "well duh" when asked if people in the USA have a global awareness. Or the Korean who has protested in front of the US Military Base in Seoul against the US State in Korea. Then there's the huge poster that hangs outside JNU's School of Social Science building depicting a school of small fish fleeing the open mouth of a large fish painted red, white and blue. Below is a second scene, similar, only the small fish have united making a huge mouth from which the red, white and blue fish flees. The signs reads "Our World, Our Future" We, Americans, aren't coming off as generous, freedom loving people.

Issues of US global image and foreign policy seem to be swimming in my sub-consciousness, like when deciding whether to sit on the floor rather than take the last seat for a lecture. However, it is not what most humbles and challenges me. Soon after my arrival in India, I was perceived as "very formal" in my interactions with people I wanted to consider new friends. The reason I was perceived as formal was that I was thanking people for the help they were giving me. In my perception, I was letting them know I was aware that they were going out of their way to help me. My intention was to show that I was not taking them for granted. Instead, my words were communicating a distance between myself and others. It was explained to me that of course they would help me. This is just what friends do. By thanking them I make it sound like some exceptional action.

Since that time, I've learned a particular Indian head gesture in which my chin is the axis of a movement that begins with my neck but actually only moves the top of my head. I move my entire head from side to side while my chin holds still. I tend to do this movement slowly, hoping to express sincerity. But like any language in which a tiniest detail can have a completely different meaning, I may or may not be communicating the sincere but casual thanks I intend.

So it is as an ambassador. Lets hope I do a better job than India's 15 rupee stamp.

I still have a long way to go to understand this world. I'd be disappointed if I were close. My faith holds to the knowledge that we are indeed one world; one Body.

In Delhi, when a child is a beggar, she must learn the proper touch. It starts out with the fingertips of her cupped hand brushing ones forearm. It's just a slight gentle graze when she reaches into the auto-rickshaw in which you ride or follows as you shop in the market. Her fingernails are bitten as far back as they can be. Looking her straight in the eye and shaking ones head doesn't help. She flattens her palm against your arm, locking her eyes with yours so you have to make the choice to look away. Her hand begins to pulsate against your upper arm, slightly kneading into your sub-consciousness, consciousness and conscience.

Why isn't she on India's postage?

She should be in school. She should learn something besides the perfect touch to get the most sympathy. Whose problem is she, as she stands with marigolds strung around an empty tin can to hold the coins she hopes to receive? By not giving her a rupee, am I saying I don't care? That she's one child and there are thousands? One child who is not my own is too much to ask? Is that what I'm saying by brushing her hand away before the rickshaw moves on? But what am I saying if I give her a rupee... just a rupee... just over 2 US cents? Is my conscience taken care of then? Two cents to a child so poor that her pierced nose holds no ring? Now my wealth is shared with her, and I can go on with my day of leisure education and any food the city offers. Is that what I say, that poverty is so big and I am so small, that I do my part by giving her two cents?

Lord, when did I see you hungry?

And so I'm living in Delhi. The challenge is everyday, uninsulated possibilities. I wouldn't trade it. It's Our World, Our Future.

peace and love,


Thursday, September 25, 2003

Pakistan - September 2003

Sept. 25, 2003

Dear Family and Friends,

It's humbling to find that other English speakers cannot understand me. At first I make arrogant allowances that they are unaccustomed to proper English. That assumption works well until I find that they are thinking exactly the same of me! Just yesterday, a student was asking for directions on campus. I started to give them, noticed the look on his face and asked, apologetically, if he could understand my English. He said he could then asked "You are Iranian?" I laughed and told him I'm from the US. He laughed, embarrassed. I'm sure the "Axis of Evil" politics came to mind. It's nice to be confused for Middle Eastern; more commonly people have guessed me Israeli. Here, in India, I can realize how easily our humanity has no political boundaries.

At one point, when walking past a professor's apartment on campus - the profs mostly live on campus - a little girl, maybe 5 years old, came running out her short driveway seeing someone she knew walking along the street. She was wearing a pink dress with lots of lace (the kind that makes a girly girl, like I was, feel like a princess) and her face beamed with excitement. Suddenly her bright expression changed as she stopped and looked down at her feet, took a quick step backward, then emitted her bright smile back to the person again. Clearly her parents have shown her a very particular limit up to where she can play and where beyond is too far from home. Crossing that imaginary line was a grave error which she had to remedy before whatever was beyond that boundary swept her up.

Later that night her memory came to me as I journaled. I was a rule following child. I would have stopped and looked at my feet too. I wonder if I shouldn't stop and check my feet right now. What am I doing in a place that my pointing up is the opposite direction from your pointing up? And how will I know if I've ventured too far?

Not only was I (am I) a girly girl, I was also scared of everything. My parents didn't have to worry that I might go out into the street because I was clearly frightened that I might be hit by a car in the driveway. Snakes, balloons, showers, storms, bees, slivers and worms all kept me from anything remotely adventurous. Just ask my siblings.

At some point I began to wonder what I was missing and whether the fear of something bad was keeping me from experiencing something good. I guess once I started challenging it, I couldn't stop. When does the bad outweigh the good? And then, as a student of theology, the moral issue: How not to allow evil to have such control that it keeps us from embracing the good. And as a theist: a choice to be an active part of the Whole which I recognize to be good. As a Christian: to believe there is resurrection is to recognize that death is not the most powerful. Each of us (with an all-inclusive definition of "us") is valued by the Creator who has shown that life is greater than death. However, it is up to us to make a choice of Life.

It all sounds good until I remember that Daniel Pearl's (journalist kidnapped, tortured and killed in Pakistan last year) book is entitled At Home in the World.

I was in Peshawar, the border city on the Pakistan side of the Khyber Pass leading into Afghanistan, on the 11th of September this year.

The Rotary Club in Pacifica, outside of San Francisco, meets for breakfast on Tuesday mornings. The men and women who met in Pacifica on Tuesday, 11 Sept. 2001 were bonded in their common feelings of grief and helplessness. In an effort we all felt, to bring something good out of something so very bad, they began to look for ways to help victims of terrorism. Their aid interest went international, to needs of the displaced people of Afghanistan. There are over three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran. Many of them have been living there since the late 70’s when the Soviets began the violence in their homeland. With over a quarter century of instability and refugee life, many Afghans have lost (or never had) a vision of a peaceful home. One practical need is trade learning. The Pacifica Club has set up a project to train women in basic trades like carpet weaving, sewing, embroidering and speaking English. The coordinator, Chris Verrill, a member of the Pacifica Club, has been living in Delhi for the past two months. He invited me, as a Rotary Scholar, to join him on his next trip to Peshawar.

Pakistanis drive Toyota Corollas just like us. Many also fly kites. On approaching a small city or village the horizon contains brown walls the color of the earth from which they were formed. The single story buildings are at peace with their well squared walls, as if the human's ability for precision is as artistically a part of nature as an ant hill. Perhaps due to lack of electricity, but I hope for the simple joy it, the sky is dotted with darting kites. Each dodges one wind current then catches the next, held to the earth by a string and the hand of a boy or man with his eye on the world of wind currents above him. Like his kite, he darts, not looking where his foot lands on earth but to where he hopes his kite will give the most resistance and sail as high as it can go.

Until now I associated kites with Highlights Magazines and Mary Poppins. Now I can add Pakistan to the list. Kites... Highlights... Mary Poppins... and Pakistan. It sounds like a joke to put these colorful things in the same sentence as Pakistan. But that fact alone reflects my earlier ignorance. As if a whole country's worth of grandparents, parents and children would be living without color. As if I could claim to understand a country based on the black and white media text from which I read my news.

The farther west and more rural one travels in Pakistan the more tribal the culture. By the time one arrives in Peshawar most of the women wear burkas (like wearing a tent with a net at eye level to look out through). Unattractive is one way to describe the burka. Just plain ugly is most accurate. Without reason, or conscious thought, I'd concluded that beneath the burka could only be an ugly old woman who would want to hide herself. Then, on Thursday, while in search of a post office, I was on a side street. Two women were huddled at a step where they were caring for a sick baby. Both had lifted the front of their burkas and rested them on their foreheads while they bent to the child. Still I could only see their backs. Try as I did, even when they pulled the burkas back down, they shielded their faces so I could not see them. But I did see one's hand. It was a young hand. I realized this was the baby's mother, and a young mother at that. The young woman hoisted her child - a girl - in her arms. The baby peered at me over her mother's shoulder as the two tents walked away. On the step they left a quarter piece of newspaper that the little girl had been lying on. It was the torn page of international news: "US Defense Spending Could Reach $480 Billion". As an Ambassadorial Scholar, I hope I can represent my country better than the black and white text news.

Depending on the variation and extent of Islam a family follows, some woman are not permitted to be seen by a man they are not related to. With few exceptions, all women kept their heads covered in public. Those women who don't wear burkas still dressed in a manner which deliberately concealed any feminine curves. The result was that I was out in public in clothing I would normally only wear to bed. Though this may have been bothersome to me, the reality was that by respecting the culture, I was given the opportunity to visit both men and woman.

At one of the refugee camps, in particular, we visited a home which, like all the other homes, had high walls of dried mud surrounding it. It was explained to us in Pashto (I think, though it may have been Urdu) by men with long white beards and pakols on their heads, that the walls were built to keep the flooding river from taking their mud block homes. We - three male Rotarians and I - met with the men, discussing supplies needed for the classes, the number of students expected, who would teach and where classes would be held. Then, as we went to look at the carpet frame, I, and only I, was invited to meet the women. Until this time we'd been meeting outside. Now a door was opened to the home. I stepped into the small dark room to find at least eight women and a couple girls inside. They welcomed me with excited smiles. They showed me that I should sit. There were no chairs, only an incredible carpet - the kind of carpet people pay hundreds or thousands (I checked e-bay) of dollars for in the USA. We all sat, no translator among us. We spent our time admiring their bangles and my head covering. They were all related, an elderly mother with her two daughters and their daughters.

I was sad to leave when it was time to go. Again I've been blessed to witness life from what seems like the other side of it. There is truth, at an absolute level, to be found here - even if pointing up from here is in the opposite direction than from Ohio.

There still feels like so much more to say. But this has been long enough.

We are such a small earth. We are such good people. Faith can move mountains ... then peace is not beyond us either.

I'll write again soon.

peace and love, molly


Friday, September 5, 2003

A Letter from India - Sept. 5, 2003

Sept. 5, 2003

Dear Family and Friends,

September is here. It's cooler than it was a week ago. I wake to find I haven't kicked the sheet off myself in my sleep. The ceiling fan in my hostel room (a room about the size of a king size bed) still spins at the frantic rate I'd set it the night before. A moving ceiling fan means the electric is still on, which means most likely we'll have water for showers this morning. We fill buckets of water in the evening in preparation for there not being water in the morning. Each week, it seems, a new breed of insect hatches in the hostel's open air halls and then finds themselves drowned in our buckets of water.

With lack of electricity a regular phenomenom, I was surprised at the interest in the day long power outage in the USA. I think there was more shock, interest and willingness to converse (at least in my pocket of Delhi) about the power outage in the States than the bombs that terrorized Mumbai. Over 900 miles separate Delhi from Mumbai (Bombay), so we were fairly unaffected.

I've enrolled at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Classes are going well. The professors are excellent, educated at Cambridge or Harvard, and have traveled a great deal. They care about their students, offering their home and cell numbers to the class. Interestingly, professors and their families live on campus.

More importantly, there is another kind of education that I could not learn at home. Nepali friends tell me about civil uprisings in their home country. Dinner with a Thai and chai (a beverage) with Iranians give me that opportunity to glimpse a bit of their perspective on the world (and, boy, do Iranians have a different perspective!). My neighbor plays the sitar in her small hotel room. I go to movies in Hindi and bowl with a Sikh.

I also learn the limits: how one lives with such poverty all around. The university and this internet cafe are within walking distance on a not so hot day. Between is a village of poverty set on a small hilltop. Earlier today my auto-rickshaw driver drove past a man alone in the street having a seizure. We just passed. I wondered, in the hype US Christian phrase, what would Jesus do? He wouldn't have passed. A child in the market begs for food. I learned quickly that if I give one child an apple, a dozen more want the same. I cannot say they should be in school or find a job because those opportunities - those privileges - are not afforded them.

I know I'm blessed to have each of you supporting me. Thank you for all the thoughts and prayers you're sending my way. Also thanks for the e-mails you've been sending. You continue to be in my prayers.

Will write again soon!

love and peace, molly

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Sunday with Mohammed - August 6, 2003

My parents kept this quote from an email I sent August 6, 2003. Mom had emailed asking if I made it to Mass on Sunday...

I did get to Mass yesterday at 6:30pm. I was walking, intending to get a rickshaw to take me, when an Iranian I had met stopped to talk. He truly dislikes the US foreign policy. His first line, upon learning I'm from the US, was "my country's worst enemy". Anyway, his name is Mohammed. He was on a motorcycle and offered me a ride off campus to pick up the rickshaw. When I told him I was on the way to Mass he was surprised. Then he offered to give me a ride all the way to the church.

As we approached, out of politeness, I asked if he would like to join me. He took me up on it! So Mohammed and I went to Mass yesterday. He saw the crucifix and asked about the letters above Jesus' head. He then made a remark about Jesus' mother witnessing the crucifixion. He said some of his friends in Iran were executed for their political views. He said when their bodies were returned to their mothers, the mothers were angry.

I was amazed at the true perspective from the Middle East and that people were still dying for their beliefs... and the role women play as victims of violence. It wakes up the reality of Christ's execution.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

A Letter from India - July 30, 2003

July 30, 2003

Dear Friends and Family,

As the passenger on the motorcycle I had to close my eyes to the raindrops falling in them. After only a week of monsoon experience (and the end of the monsoon at that) I've come to identify the season not with rain but with intense humidity. The kind of humidity that enters the lungs with every breath persuading the breather that the next inhale may not need to be so deep.

The horn in Dehli is a traffic courtesy, used more than turn signals and certainly more than eye contact between drivers. Verma drove the motorcycle, I clung as the passenger, as we swerved among Delhi's notoriously chaotic traffic. Verma has heard my constant request to use the internet. I've had almost no time on-line since arriving in India. Each of you who have so wonderfully written me with thoughts, prayers and well wishes, thank you so much. I look forward to being able to reply one by one. Soon I hope to get internet access with the laptop I brought from the States. (Thanks, Devin).

Suzette Paterson, a former Rotary Scholar, hooked me up wonderfully well. From her home in San Francisco, she was able to connect me with her friend Rajeev. Rajeev met me at the airport at 11pm on the 22nd. He escorted me to the hotel (not before being stopped by police and accused of kidnapping me!) where I spent my first night. The next day (which happened to be my 27th birthday) Rajeev met me again and brought me to the JNU campus. I saw the gate with the sign above reading "Jawaharlal Nehru University" I felt like the world had just fallen into place. Here was that place I had found on the internet. Here was the other end of the garbled, incoherent, 2am phone calls.

Rajeev introduced me to his friend Verma who had the right connections to get me in an air conditioned room at a guest house on campus. Verma has also personally escorted me all over campus (speaking Hindi all the way) to track down my application and status. I learned that I was not accepted because they understood my 3.7 GPA from Xavier to be on a 9 point scale! One person told me she's never heard of a person getting below a 4.

Later Rajeev invited me to his home for dinner. There I met his mother and sister. We had a wonderful vegetarian Indian meal; and, to my surprise, they brought out a small cake with "Happy Birthday, Molly" written on it. When Rajeev's mother wished me "many happy returns" the reality that I was truly in India overwhelmed me. It's been overwhelming ever since.

As for India... the raindrops are smaller than anywhere I've experienced. But they fall from the sky in such immense quantity that the size of the individual is lost. I close my eyes to each as Verma and I weave through the streets of Delhi.

There are people who live as stone crushers. They sleep in beds or on the ground at the top of the holes they are paid to excavate. Children grow up there, marry there and have their own children at the mouth of the hole they dig. On a day when I was not closing my eyes to the small raindrops and looked from the road through the dirt, I could see to the metal bed in the construction zone with two children in it. I wondered about the lot in life I live. I think of my faith that these children are as valuable as any I have loved. How can it be that one human person can choose to travel to the other side of the world at her wish, and another will dig for her entire life?

I am well. Delhi is overwhelming.

Thank you for all of your thoughts and prayers.

love and peace, molly