Things I Wish Americans Knew About the Middle East

Recently I went to a talk by an academic and journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern politics.  This journalist has spent the last decade living in the Middle East and as part of her research she interviews people from all over the spectrum in Middle Eastern politics– from activists involved in the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists.  Her talk, which really was more of a discussion that invited questions and input from the small audience, delved into a lot of various issues in the Middle East right now, and I left the talk thinking, “This is the kind of information I wish everyone in America knew.”

Some of the things she mentioned were things I already knew.  Some were things I had never heard of, or had heard of but didn’t understand on any sort of deep level.  Here is a brief list of things that I think would be surprising to most Americans– some of them are things that came up in the talk, and others are things I’ve only learned myself in the past few years and wanted to pass along.

Many of the jihadists and people recruited by ISIS aren’t “good” or overly observant Muslims.  A lot of the jidahists that have emerged in Europe, especially, are petty criminals or people who do things like drink, take drugs, or sleep around that are “haram” (forbidden) in Islam.  They tend to be more driven by a desire for violence and revenge, or a search to belong to/be accepted into a group, than religious piousness.

The #1 indicator of whether or not a young Muslim man would become radicalized is whether or not he grew up in a Francophone (French-speaking) country.  Researchers think this is because of the strict secularism laws that exist on those countries, including a ban on headscarves, that has made some Muslims feel oppressed.

Only 2 countries have enforced headscarves/covering laws (Saudi Arabia and Iran).  However, 15 Muslim countries have had or currently have laws *against* headscarves.  Turkey is one of those countries– women covering their heads was not allowed in schools, universities, or public service positions until 2013.

The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are completely arbitrary and relatively new.  They were made France and Britain after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of the Middle East at the time) lost the war.  The random splitting up of territories didn’t take into account how the locals felt about it, and ended up in a lot of the in-fighting between different ethnic groups and sects that we see now.

“Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous.  If someone is an Arab, it means they’re from one of the countries on the Arabian peninsula or Northern Africa.  There are lots of Arabs who aren’t Muslim– there are plenty of religious minorities living in those countries, including Christians.  Alternatively, there are lots of Muslim countries, and lots of Muslims, that aren’t Arab.  Fun fact: Indonesia is home to the largest percentage of Muslims in the world.

… Related, not all Muslims speak Arabic.  Turks speak Turkish.  Iranians speak Farsi.  Afghanis speaks Pashto and Dari.  Pakistanis speak Urdu.  Bangladeshis speak Bengali.  … And so on.  Also, this is not a complete list by any means; all of these countries have other languages and dialects as well.  But they definitely do NOT all speak Arabic.

There are no camels or deserts in Turkey.  When people learn that I live in Turkey, a lot of them seem to picture some sort of vaguely Arabic landscape that looks like Morocco or Saudi Arabia.  Nope.  Turkey has lots of different climates due to all the mountains in the country, but a lot of the country is very green and humid and fertile, and there is not a single desert to be seen anywhere.  Also, we don’t do our weekly grocery shopping at the Grand Bazaar.

It also snows in Turkey– this was the view out of my apartment window in Istanbul this past winter.

There has been a LOT of Western, especially American, meddling when it comes to Middle Eastern governments, leadership, and power struggles.  We had a hand in the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  We funded and armed the group that would become the Taliban (and are currently funding the weak Afghanistan government that is now fighting against the Taliban).  We are currently arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the Syrian government and the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight against ISIS.  These are just a few brief examples, but basically the US has a long history of choosing a side that supports our own interests without really thinking of the long-term consequences or how it affects the people living in those countries.

There are different “levels” of devoutness for practicing (and non-practicing!) Muslims.  I don’t mean that there are set levels and they choose one, but Islam is the same as most any other religion, especially such a big one– some believers are very strict, some aren’t, and there’s everything in-between.  Some Muslim women dress modestly, some don’t; some Muslims don’t drink alcohol and some do; some fast during Ramadan and some don’t; some pray five times a day, and some don’t.  And there are also Muslims who consider that their cultural identity but who aren’t actively practicing.


And before I end, one more thing to perhaps challenge the perceptions you have of Islam: the picture I used for the cover photo of this post was taken in Spain, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.




Frederick Douglass and Donald Trump: Why Black History Month Isn’t Enough

Every February, K-12 schools across America scurry around making preparations for Black History Month.  Elementary school kids learn about George Washington Carver and his peanuts, middle school students read MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and high schoolers spend a half hour or so on some Maya Angelou poems in English class.  There might be a Civil Rights documentary thrown in, just to mix things up.  At the end of the month, the decorations and xeroxed copies of noble-sounding black histories are stuffed into the supply closet until next year.

I know it’s not this way at every school, but it is at a lot of them.

There are many things that baffle me about Donald Trump, but one of the main ones is that he consistently gets away with saying things that make absolutely no sense, or have absolutely no basis in truth.  Examples of this abound and it would be impossible to list them all here (although I’m sure someone has, or at least hope someone has), but to name two, I about spit my drink out when I read his comments about Frederick Douglass at a Black History event earlier this month, and I got incredibly angry when he had the audacity to be disrespectful towards John Lewis in January, before Trump even took office.

At the Black History event, he talked about Douglass in a vague yet thoroughly bizarre way where, among other things, he seemed to think Douglass is still alive.  (For the record, Douglass died in 1895.)  For the second, he attacked Lewis on twitter, calling Lewis “all talk, no action.”  It is galling to think that he would even dare to say such a thing to someone who has a long history of activism and civil service (action and activism have the same root, in case Trump isn’t aware), including marching beside MLK Jr., being physically assaulted, literally risking his life and watching as others were murdered for the same cause, and repeatedly arrested.  It’s even more galling to think of Trump,  who was handed his wealth from the time he was born, to accuse Lewis, whose parents were sharecroppers, of not taking action.

Each time, I wondered to myself: How does he get away with this?  And then I realized… he gets away with it because a lot of people really have no idea who Frederick Douglass and John Lewis are, any more than Trump does.

The way we teach black history, black contributions, black lives to our children is extremely limited and extremely whitewashed.  We don’t do it much to begin with, and we tend to present the rose-colored glasses version anyway; we exhort MLK for his peaceful methods but don’t talk about how hated he was by white people at the time, how he was spied on by the FBI, and how his peaceful methods got him killed.  We celebrate Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” poem but don’t talk about how ownership, figuratively and literally, of black women’s bodies is a dark and ongoing part of our social and political narrative.

And we tend to teach race from a white perspective.  When I was teaching 11th grade English and AP literature in North Carolina, I got pushback from parents on teaching Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison; in both cases, the parents suggested I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead– in one instance, it was literally phrased to me in an email, “If you have to teach a race book, why don’t you teach Huck Finn?”  I explained that I *do* teach Huck Finn in 11th grade, in tandem with Frederick Douglass, but that it’s also important to teach books that are, you know, written by black people, not just about them. (And let’s not even touch the problematic usage of the term “race book” in the email.  The parent ended up removing their son from my class.)

The argument was that the Douglass memoir was too violent– because it is okay to portray slaves as bumbling but good-hearted fools in Huck Finn, but not to show the actual, horrible reality of slavery written by a slave himself.

The argument against Song of Solomon was that the language was too rough– because it’s okay to read the n-word 219 times in Huck Finn but 18-year-olds can’t handle reading the f-bomb a handful of times.

What I’m saying is, we have to do better.  We can’t just trot out the Harriet Tubman picture books once a year in February and read them to squirming groups of third graders during story time; we can’t just use the same texts like the “I Have A Dream” speech and Huck Finn over and over and over, until the students are so freaking bored that they want to bash their brains out, all while learning a very narrow slice of black history.  We can’t have Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Twain (!!!) represent all black experience; we can’t just mention that the Founding Fathers owned slaves in a sidebar of a history textbook and ignore it the rest of the time while telling our own history.  America was literally built on the back of unpaid black labor; you can’t tell me that’s not important.

We need to teach black history alongside white history throughout the year, not just in 28 days.  We need to assign books, essays, and poems by black writers who talk about their own experience, not white writers who talk about the black experience for them.  We need to look at more modern black history in context and realize that MLK is not the only prominent black person from the last 100 years.

We need to educate citizens who know who Frederick Douglass is– and Phyllis Wheatley and Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer and Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and thousands of other names worth knowing–  and can call bullshit when a president attacks a preeminent civil rights leader on twitter.

Black History Month is a starting point but it’s not enough.  It’s never been enough, and each one of us needs to do our duty as educators to work a wider view of black history into our curricula throughout the year.  As tempting as it is to say that it’s more important than ever, the truth is that it’s always been important, but now is the time to buckle down and make it happen.


European Jews and America’s Inadvertent Moral Amnesia

When I was younger– I can’t remember how young, but I would guess I was about 10 or 11 years old– I read the fantastic young adult book Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green.  The book is about a Jewish-American girl who hides an escaped German POW in her small Arkansas town; her family’s maid, who is black, discovers their secret and helps them.  At the end of the book (spoiler alert!), they’re caught and she and the maid are put on trial for treason.

Honestly, my memory is fuzzy on a lot of the details, since I read this about twenty years ago, but one thing completely confused me at the end of the book and shocked me so much that I never forgot it: one of the characters, either a police officer or lawyer or someone else with authority, said something along the lines of, “I’ve never seen a case with the three most hated groups in America,” to mean Jews, African-Americans, and Nazis.

To my young, rural-South-raised mind, I understood why he would say that about African-Americans and Nazis– we were taught about the Holocaust and Civil Rights movement in school, after all– but I didn’t understand why he said that about Jews.  At that point in my life I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone say anything bad about Jews.  There also weren’t many Jews at all in the small Virginia county where I was raised, and the ones that were there, I don’t think I knew that they were Jewish.  As far as I understood at that time, I only knew about Jews as the victims of the Holocaust and had no idea that anyone other than Nazis has any problem with them.

I think this has a lot to do with the way WWII and the Holocaust are taught in schools in the US, or at least the way they were taught in my schools.  Our history books and teachers always portrayed the Holocaust as one bad man who somehow inexplicably rose to power and did some very bad things with the help of some very bad henchmen.  The truth is, of course, much more complicated than that, because the history of Jews in Europe goes way farther back than then 1930s.  I knew about Old Testament-era Jewish history and I knew about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know anything that happened in-between.

One of the perks of living in Turkey is that it’s very easy, quick, and cheap to get to Europe from here (no transatlantic flight needed!); I’ve had the privilege of traveling to several countries over the past couple of years, including many with long, complicated, and shameful histories when it comes to how they’ve treated Jews.  Spending time in places like Berlin and Vienna and Prague has given me an entirely new knowledge of just how the Holocaust was allowed to happen.

Did you know that the word ghetto is Italian and one of the first Jewish ghettos (forced segregation) was in Venice in 1516?  Or that Jews were expelled from England in 1290?  Or that Jews were blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century?  I took a walking history tour of Prague, which included a stop in the Jewish Quarter.  The Jewish Quarter in Prague dates back to the 13th century, where the city’s Jews were forced to vacate their homes and settle in a neighborhood that was in a bend of the Vltava River– the first place to flood in heavy rains, which caused a long history of sickness and disease there.  The Jewish Quarter includes Europe’s oldest synagogue (established 1270) and also the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is a walled, raised cemetery– our tour guide told us that bodies there are 12 layers deep, piled on top of each other, because the Jews living in the quarter weren’t allowed to bury their dead anywhere else in the city.

Old Jewish Quarter in Prague

Discrimination against Jews existed long before Hitler came along.  You can read a fuller (but still abbreviated) history of Jewish discrimination in an interview with Tara Zahra, who writes about European migration.  It’s easy to convince a population that an entire group of people aren’t human when most people have already been thinking that, either explicitly or in the back of their minds, for centuries.

But more than their history, it’s interesting to see how those cities deal with their past in the present.  Berlin is very open about confronting their history, with many monuments and museums; Vienna has stolperstein, literal stumbling blocks placed around the city with the names and dates of those persecuted by the Nazis, to remind themselves of what happened; in Budapest, there are bronzed shoes on the bank of the Danube River where Hungarian Jews were executed.  Many of the synagogues in the Jewish neighborhoods of these cities are still heavily guarded.

Entrance to the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, the world’s second-largest synagogue

In addition to the moral aftermath of WWII, Europe is still dealing with the practical aftermath, like how to locate and return art stolen by Nazis to their original owners.  (Or, in some cases, how to convince cities to give the art back to its original owners.)

What I’m saying is, in Europe, WWII is still a living history in a lot of ways.  We do not get that same feeling in America.  We like to think of our involvement as purely heroic and a very long time ago.  I’m not saying anything against the American soldiers who fought in WWII– my own grandfather earned a Purple Heart on the beaches of Normandy and recently received a French Legion of Honor medal because of it–and America did take in many Jewish refugees (although we turned many away too, including Anne Frank and her family).  But I’ve never met an American who feels any sort of personal guilt or personal moral reflection about the Holocaust.  We like to think of ourselves as the good guys who of course would never sit back and let anything happen like that again.

And I’m not claiming that we should necessarily feel any sort of moral responsibility for the past, but I do think that it harms our ability to see warning signs of history repeating itself.  I think those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s in America have a false sense of security that nothing that catastrophic could ever happen again– after all, WWII, segregation/the Civil Rights movement, and most of the Cold War happened before we were born.  We grew up with a relatively stable world order.  We assume that world leaders and the people voting for them are mostly rational adults, and rational adults do not let other people kill people en masse.  But the Holocaust happened recently enough that many of the people involved in it– concentration camp prisoners, refugees, and soldiers alike– are still alive, although it won’t be that way for much longer.

(I still remember studying abroad in Orvieto, Italy, when I was 19, and our professor pointed out the metal “M”s welded above several of the town’s gates, for “Mussolini,” and having the uncomfortable realization that many of the charming old people I saw walking the streets during passeggiata each evening might have been Mussolini supporters back in the day.)

I think resting in that assumption that we can count on the people in power to not lead us down another path of death and destruction– always aimed at groups that are already oppressed and vulnerable– is a mistake.  It is up to us to look for the warning signs and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

As so many people have said before, it wasn’t just Nazis who were responsible for the death of eleven million people: it was also the average citizens who sat back and quietly did nothing.

A Taste of Home, Displaced

Last Saturday I went to see Dalia Mortada, a Syrian-American journalist, talk about the work she’s been doing with Syrian refugees over the last couple of years.  Mortada came to Turkey in 2011 with plans to move to her family’s native Damascus and was thrown off course when the civil war started; she’s been in Istanbul ever since.  In her words, Mortada is unable to write about the war in Syria itself, so instead she has focused on telling the stories of the people displaced by the war through the lens of food.  Her project Savoring Syria was born, and she has traveled to several different countries to spend time with refugees, share meals together, and keep traditional Syrian recipes alive.

It was a great talk, with a great discussion afterward.  There are anywhere from 500,000-1.5 million Syrian refugees living just in Istanbul, but integration hasn’t been a priority and the refugee community mostly exists separate from the rest of us who live here.  It’s an odd feeling to be in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and yet still know so little about it on a personal level.

While I was listening to Mortada speak, two things really stuck out to me.  The first was when she talked about how the Syrian refugees living in camps in countries like Turkey and Greece not only missed the ability to cook, but had difficulty adjusting to not having the foods and ingredients they’re used to even when they can cook.  How the vegetables and spices are different, how they don’t have access to the things they usually use when cooking.  Even Mortada mentioned that she mourned the fact that she couldn’t find good pita bread in Istanbul, something that was a mainstay in her Syrian-American home growing up.

Anyone who hasn’t lived outside of their own culture cannot understand just how true this is.  When I moved to Turkey, re-learning how to cook was the biggest challenge I faced– not culture shock, not the language barrier, not the social interactions.  Just feeding myself.  I was a vegetarian for years before coming to Turkey and everything I was used to eating– portabello mushrooms, spaghetti squash, tofu, black beans, seitan– wasn’t available here.  There were no Mexican or Thai or Indian spices, no crock pots or microwaves.  I literally could not cook anything that I really knew how to cook, and even navigating the grocery store was an immense challenge until I understood the language better.

It’s something that seems so small, but in reality is a huge part of daily life– we feed ourselves three times a day, after all–and having to completely change how we do it is daunting and frustrating.  On top of that, we inevitably miss the things we can’t have.  I miss chunky peanut butter every single day, and real Mexican food.  When I go to the US to visit family, I spend as much time planning what I’m going to eat while I’m there as I do planning which friends I will see.  Don’t get me wrong, Turkey has great food, and most of the time I’m happy to eat it.  It’s just not home, not the things I grew up eating and taught myself how to cook.

And if I feel this way– the initial deep frustration at not having access to “my” food, the deep longing for tastes and textures I love– when I freely chose to move halfway across the world, what must people who have been displaced by war, who had no choice in leaving, feel?

The other thing that stuck with me was when Mortada described how the refugees she’s been in contact with are opening up restaurants all over the world– in Germany, in the United States, in Canada.  And I thought to myself, Yes, this is how it goes.  One of the things I absolutely love most about the US is the immense diversity of food available, and most of that is thanks to the large number of immigrants.  In a mid-sized American city, you can easily go out for Vietnamese, Greek, Ethiopian, and Cuban food in one weekend and think nothing of it.

People seem to forget that virtually every big wave of immigrants or refugees has been feared and discriminated against at first.  America is such a melting pot and now there are so many nationalities that we inherently consider “American-American,” like Germans or Irish or Italians, that each faced their own difficulties when the communities first came here.  But eventually, it becomes normal and everything blends together, and no one even notices it anymore.

With the tragedy of the current humanitarian crisis, I’d like to have hope that one day, it will normalize and blend together; the cornerstones are being laid now as Syrians fan out into the world and take their food and their culture with them; one day, hopefully not too long from now, maybe we will all say, “Oh, let’s go to that Syrian place downtown” the same way we do with Italian or Mexican.  History repeats itself, for better or for worse, but sharing food culture is one of the “for betters.”