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,