Strangeness in the Stacks, And On Seeing (And Refusing to Hate)

This afternoon I made a quick run from my office to the library to retrieve a couple books on early Islamic historiography. Normally this sort of book retrival is as uneventful as one would probably imagine it to be. Not this afternoon. I come to the correct section- the DS38s- an area I’ve been in and out of this semester, and remove a volume. I notice that a piece of paper is stuck in it, which I remove (one time I found five dollars in a library book and often hope I will find some more, though so far no more luck, though I did find 200 dirhams on a dirt road outside of Fes in March…). I open the folded paper, and am greeted with the words (I promise you none of this is made up): ‘Attention Muslim Visitors to America! Here are rules for getting along in America.’

The paper then proceeds to list, um, rules for Muslims in America, which include such enlightening things as: ‘You do not have the right to enslave anyone at any time for any reason [shoot!]. This is going on in Mauritania, in Darfur, in Sudan [somewhere between Darfur and Mauritania, right?] and elsewhere in the Moslem world. Muslims must approve, since they don’t even protest against it.’

‘You do not have the right to riot or pillage…’

‘You come here to expecting to practice your religion, yet your home country persecutes other religions. You should be grateful to this country instead of hostile. Until your country [the Moslem one, I guess- that really big one you know] cleans its own house, it has no business criticizing America for anything. Respect other people’s rights in every way or leave.’

Etc. After recovering from the shock that we’re apparently not allowed to riot and pillage, and therefore having to immediately adjust my evening plans, I looked around in the DS38s, and found more of these fliers stuck in books. In one book (a translations of the early Islamic historian al-Tabari’s work on the ‘Abbasids) there were two copies (everyone knows terrorists are really into those crazy cat ‘Abbasid caliphs). However, there were no fliers in books outside of the DS38s, which was perhaps the most bizarre part of it. I didn’t think at the time to look in the section of the stacks with the books on Islamic theology, jurisprudence, etc., so I’ve no idea if these fliers were more widely distributed. Why the DS38s- did our zealous defender of America suppose those horrid foreign Muslims mainly read historiographical work? One can only speculate. At any rate, it was an all around strange experience, not least for the reminder that my particular field of study- medieval Islam and Eastern Christianity- has all sorts of very immediate inroads in everyday life, even here in East Tennessee. It was also a reminder- not that one is needed- that for many people in this country, their only image of Muslims is the violent fundamentalist, the crazy bearded man in a cave, the zealot gunman in Mumbai, or some vague (heavily bearded and turbaned) figure flitting about a madrasa. This is the image they project on all Muslims, everywhere, including those who live and work and worship here.

I don’t know what it’s like for Muslim immigrants here in East Tennessee; a few weeks ago I talked with a young man from Bulgaria who had been working in Pigeon Forge on a temporary visa. While not Muslim, he had an accent and looked ‘Eastern’; he said that occasionally people would come in and speak in their most affected local accent and in general try to yank his chain, knowing that English was his second language. I had a roommate earlier in the year who was working at a JiffyLube out in North Knoxville; he is from Maine and sounds like it. His co-workers constantly harrased him over his origins, until he finally left the place. Feelings towards Latinos here seem to be strained at the least, which is strange since there are so few Latinos around. So I wonder- with just the evidence of my library propogandist to go on- if the same sentiments flow towards people from the Islamic world. Probably, if I had to guess. And let’s be clear- the sentiments that lay behind my anonymous writer are at the least racist: all Muslims are, secretly if not openly, party to the worst of crimes, are part of the Problem. You may be tolerated here, but only barely, and we don’t really trust you, or want you here. Maybe it’s too much to call the web of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings (some of which lie just under the surface and only show up in public from time to time, maybe over a secretly Muslim Presidential candidate…) hatred, but I’m pretty sure parsing it that way is all too often accurate.

Hatred of the brown-skinned peoples of the dar al-islam has been both facilitated by and fostered by our wars in the Middle East. Being able to reduce all Muslims and Arabs to that image of barbarian bloodthirsty (or secretly restrained for purposes of infiltration) savages lets one think about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else without associating the deaths incurred with real humans; those people are not my neighbor, are not even really human. Muslim people are people who are either shooting and blowing up things or getting blown up and shot; that is what they are there for and nothing can change it (‘they’ve always been like that’). Of course this is nonsense, and many of us know that it’s nonsense. But it’s powerful nonsense, and it infiltrates our minds and hearts, even when we recognize it for what it is. Way back in the spring while in Morocco I had been reading the news out of Iraq online, and I recall reading some particularly troubling stuff. I took a walk down towards the old city, and as I walked I looked at the people- men, women, kids- I was passing, and thought: people who look like this are the ones dying every —- day in Iraq, with my tax money, my unspoken acceptance. People like this, like the family I’m living with [see the photos below], like the people I am seeing now, living alongside. Real human beings. Of course I’ve long known all that- but for some reason it just clicked, and I nearly broke down with emotion, there on the sidewalk between the Hotel Zalagh and the McDonalds… These ‘bloodthirsty savages’ that we are conditioned to throw all together in one horrible image and hate- they have lives, dreams, children, flesh, blood, souls, voices, faces.

So. That leaves me a long ways from a bizarre occurrence in the library stacks.

Lord have mercy.

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Said Muhammad, Saida Fatima, and their two kids, Maryam and Yusef.

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This man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, makes excellent fried bread. He also helped me practice my fusha Arabic (though one of his friends suggested I ought to drop the classical stuff and just do ‘street Arabic’!)

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A zellij craftsman over in the Andalusian quarter.

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