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.