The other day I was talking with Qassim about what it's like to be Muslim in New York City right now. He said people in his community are scared, depressed, lying low, feeling alone. We talked about the man on Southwest Airlines who was pulled off the plane because a woman heard him say Inshallah and thought it was a terrorist plot. How when a white Christian commits mass murder, it's about his terrible childhood, his disturbed adolescence, bad influences, and when it a Muslim it's because Muslims are just that way. I let him know that I am clear that US wars and CIA maneuvers create young people filled with desperation and rage and weapons.
I told him I am a Puerto Rican Jew , a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and that we're working to get his back and the backs of his people, fighting Islamophobia. We talked about Syrian refugees, about the ill informed bigotry that can''t distinguish between terrorists and their victims. He said he knows the suspicion in people's eyes is rooted in ignorance and sounded sad. I asked him about conditions in Pakistan, and he told me how they flip back and forth between military dictators and democratic elections, how unstable it is. I asked him about the 1947 partition--had it made things better or worse between Muslims and Hindus. Worse, he thinks. He's going back for a visit soon. It takes 20 hours to get there, so he stays for a couple of months when he goes. We were getting close to my destination, so I reminded him that some of us are actively defending Muslims. When it feels like you're alone, I said, remember that you're not.
When I met José we talked about colonialism , direct and neo, in the Caribbean, about the armed robbery of so called Third World Debt, how the crisis in Puerto Rico is like having your wallet taken at gunpoint and then the robber lends your money back to you at high interest, and when you said you have to eat, says no, you can't eat, you owe me money. We talked about government corruption, about the Puerto Rican police being the most corrupt and violent under US jurisdiction, about the US invasion of the Dominican Republic, that the planes flew over my house, about privatization, and Latin America under siege, and how, as Caribbean people, we have a hard time with winter and northern individualism.
Hemraj is from Guyana. His name means king of gold. He says there are lists of names depending on the day you are born. I tell him the radio in rural Puerto Rico used to read off lists of saints' names for babies born on that day. He tells me about the recent elections which shifted power from the Indo-Guyanese like himself to a coalition led by Afro-Guyanese. To him it's all turmoil and disruption and he doesn't want to go home til things settle down. It makes me curious enough to look it up when I get home. João is critical of Dilma's government although he liked Lula, but says communists are destroying Brazil. Musa is a direct descendant of Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali in the 1300s. He tells me his last name comes from one specific place in Mali and everyone in Mali knows this.
Farrukh is from Tajikistan and I ask about the boundaries between Muslim controlled and Christian controlled regions where Asia and Europe meet, test my knowledge of geography, learn about his home in Dushanbe. A few days later, when I meet a Bokharan Jew, a people rooted for two thousand years in what is now Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, I know where it is, can visualize what he tells me, that at the same time my Ukrainian Ashkenazi people were being evacuated eastward, away from the Nazi invasion of the USSR, his were being sent to the front with the Red Army and junk weapons. I still smile about my conversation with a Black South African Jew, how we were each trying to tell the other about Jews of Color and surprised each other into laughter, how we talked about Palestine and his hometown of Soweto, how I told him I had been part of the anti-Apartheid movement here and we thanked each other, and when our time was up, he embraced me, and called me his sister.
My particular combination of disabilities and chronic illnesses brings me into contact with a lot of immigrant workers, especially Uber and Lyft drivers, the people who push wheelchairs in airports, and nurses' aides. The aides, who are mostly women, have the least time to chat, although a janitor from Djibouti told me all about the geography of his country while mopping my hospital room floor, and I'm getting to know the nationalities of the wheelchair pushers in different airports. Boston has a lot of Moroccans and Albanians. San Francisco has Filipinas, Minneapolis Somalis. With the wheelchair pushers, who are all ages and genders, you get about ten minutes, so we usually don't get past basic solidarity. I ask their names, their countries, how long they've been here, and if I know anything at all about where they are from I share it, chipping away at their invisibility.
It's the mostly male drivers in the informal economy of transportation, the ones with flexible hours and no benefits, who have time to teach me about the world, with whom I exchange stories, sometimes for over an hour, if traffic is bad. A lot of the Boston drivers are Haitian, so I begin by claiming them as cousins and neighbors, then work Cuba into the conversation just to get things rolling. I don't ask about the earthquake unless they bring it up, but we often get around to the hateful Dominican laws that are stripping even third generation Haitian Dominicans of their citizenship.
I've had to take a lot of Ubers in several cities the last month. I've met people from Tibet and Mexico, Niger and Uzbekistan, talked with Dominicans, Haitians and Brazilians, Pakistanis and Iranians, Ugandans, Moroccans and Hondurans. When I asked Qassim what he liked least about driving, he said it was the passengers who don't talk, who are too busy and anxious and tethered to their cell phones and tablets to notice that they're spending time with another human being. I think we were put here to meet each other and listen to stories, and I've learned that you can get an amazing education in world politic, culture and geography for the asking.
"What's your name?" I ask as soon as seat belt is fastened. " Where are you from? What's it like there? How many languages, religions, ethnic groups do you have? How do you think things are going? What do you eat? Who do you miss? What does it smell like? Can you teach me how to say thank you in your language? When we pull over, each of our worlds is bigger, more connected, and we say goodbye warmly, with good wishes. "Mèsi," I say. "Mèsi anpil."
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