Past Blog Posts
- May 15, 2019
The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami— book review
America is still discovering itself. The rise of Donald Trump alerted those citizens who thought they alone defined our culture and values to the existence of a significant population holding very different views-- and the will to back a candidate who might speak for them. (Thus, the most unlikely candidate entered the White House.) Political pundits, sociologists and media analysts had been wrong. Liberalism was flawed; it meant little to too many Americans.
A bewildered media rushed to embrace that awakened alien America. Hillbilly Elegy was welcomed as a sobering portrait of people viewed as marginal. Strangers in Their Own Land was next. First published in 1995, then reissued with a new forward in 2016, its author, Berkeley sociologist Artie Russell Hochschild, emerged as the new interpreter of those forgotten and angry ‘others’.
With a new right wing administration installed in Washington, liberals and college educated who’d believed that they represented the nation and that they framed the debate dispatched reporters and camera crews to the hinterland to gather further testimonies from what is now identified as Trump’s base.
Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans is very unlike Vance’s memoir or Hochschild’s ethnography of Louisiana’s bayou country. As good creative writing often does, The Other Americans offers a more revelatory slice of contemporary America. Lalami invites us into a fragile, complex web of social and political relations in rural California. Here, everyone is worthy and decent, although all harbor grievances; everyone feels slighted or mistreated at some level, yet all need fulfillment; everyone quietly bears scars yet seeks outlets for frustrations and dreams.
If there were any doubts about Lalami’s remarkable storytelling skills, this, her fourth novel, settles the matter. (The Other Americans also affirms Lalami’s grasp of a range of literary genres, coming after her stunning historical novel The Moor’s Account, an imagined memoir of a 16th Century Moroccan slave-- the first black explorer of America.)
The Other Americans is on its surface a crime investigation. But in Lalami’s hands it’s an absorbing exploration of daily social interactions underpinned by seemingly inconsequential yet persistent racial tensions.
The setting is Mojave, a desert town in California, where on a quiet summer night a man is struck and killed by a vehicle which then speeds away. The story moves through a number of short chapters, each one narrated in the first person by one of ten characters, all local residents. The protagonist is Nora, youngest and favorite daughter of Driss. She is determined to find the truth about her father’s death, believing it was no accident.
A community of characters is brought into play, while the search for the culprit moves slowly forward.
Driss, Nora’s mother Maryam and her sister Salma each play essential but small parts in the story. They help narrate the family’s move from Morocco to the U.S. thirty-five years earlier and how they’ve become an ordinary American family, their lives characterized not by hardship or fear but by modest ambitions, sibling tension and marital compromise. Maryam and Driss, an educated couple-- Arabs in this case, left behind middleclass lives and became unassuming shopkeepers in small-town USA, their dreams of success transferred to their children. (Nora aspires to be a musician and composer; Salma became a dentist.) There’s little sentiment for the missing culture of North Africa, no yearning for Moroccan dishes. Although, Arab/Muslim values seep into the story in barely perceptible allusions which only an immigrant writer like Lalami can so subtly articulate. Arab readers – perhaps any Asian or African immigrant too-- may identify those fleeting references; but Lalami doesn't allow us to dwell on them.
As for being immigrants, if Nora and her family had been objects of prejudice, they hardly recognize it. Whatever disrespect they might experience is matched by the five townspeople who fill out the plot:--the Black detective Coleman trying to earn the love of her stepson; Efrain, a reticent Hispanic (possibly undocumented) resident who witnessed the death; Jeremy, a novice policeman who after combat in Iraq returns to the town, then falls in love with Nora; Anderson and his troubled son A.J. who are protective of parking space for their bowling alley next to Driss’ restaurant. Bullying, insecurity, racial slurs and financial worries are familiar to them all.
How this manifests in each character is expertly arranged in the book’s structure, with each chapter narrated in the first person by one of these characters.
Author Lalami adroitly moves the story forward; one chapter and one voice continue in the subsequent chapter with another character. The entire story becomes a single dialog, with Lalami adopting a style of narration for each character that itself constructs their personality. Skillfully woven into this are images from the setting but also past memories. Flashbacks from each life show us everyone’s motives, pains, grievances.
The relationship Lalami most thoroughly explores is not that between Driss and the man who killed him; it’s between Nora and Jeremy, her former classmate, around his experience as a marine in Iraq. After they become lovers, she’s aware of lingering violence from his war experience:-- his love of guns, his casual attitude of what he did in combat, and the violence he unleashes towards his friend, a fellow veteran. In his narrative, Jeremy recalls some ugly, murderous encounters he was part of, the racial epithets he freely used. And although he bears physical scars and experiences sleeplessness, he does not exhibit undue melancholy or remorse. Indeed he fails to understand how being a marine troubles Nora, who in the end rejects him.
Lalami makes this uncomfortable dialog between Nora and Jeremy the core of the story and, I suspect, this is a dynamic she really wants to explore. Doubtless the author is aware over two million Americans, veterans from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, live among us today. We all have to deal with them in their new roles-- as our policemen, classmates, neighbors and as our lovers.
Rajia Hassib’s 2015 novel In the Language of Miracles is another well crafted, moving fictional account of American Muslim family’s estrangement from their neighbors after a personal tragedy.
- April 30, 2019
I first met Lamees in 1990 a student of Al Aqaida School, Baghdad. At the 2012 RAWI (Arab Writers') conference in Detroit, accidentaly but not by chance, we met once more. She wrote this soon afterwards.
The black, unkempt curls
have long vanished, now replaced
with the white short strands of a pixie cut.
But there, in her eyes
is the same expression.
That familiar thick silver bracelet
around her forearm,
a talisman of tradition
I approach, hesitant
afraid of rejection
afraid of seeming childish
I am that teenager longing
to be heard
by someone on the other side
who knows there is more
to the world than sanctions
I clear my throat,
I brace myself
It's a strange feeling.
Like finding a part of
my childhood, of
that was lost
in the folds of
sands and oceans
By finding her,
I seem to have found
another part of
Lamees Al Ethari sent May 7/19[ Posted June 2012, by Lamees Al Ethari ]
- April 22, 2019
My corner of New York’s Catskill Mountains is shortly due to explode in green. Today however, it’s brown, beige, russet and auburn:-- a wrapping of spindly trunks with naked branches cascading uphill draws my eyes to the horizon. I wait. My neighbors wait. Landscapers and gardeners wait. We wait to plant even a few pansies; we wait before replacing our glass doors with screening. Big Tim waits before detaching his truck plow, so we too keep our snow shovels handy.
Impatiently, in search of soft loam, I strike into a plot in front of the house. Not far beneath dry white grass and pallid corn stubble, the steel of the spade meets resistance—not rock but still frozen earth not far below the surface.
Other warnings of change are undeniable however. First there’s the smell of the air itself-- not fragrant yet still inviting; new sounds floating through the atmosphere invite me to ease open a window early in the morning.
The male merganser ducks arrive and stake out their territory along the riverbank. Small creatures lodged under bark or found in other moist crevices during their metamorphosing months stir. I slap at two insects as they fly past me eager to flee the stale winter air of the house. Though they’ll soon encounter predators gathered in nearby branches.
With snow and ice finally gone, we really don’t want more precipitation, even if it’s spring rain. Sun is enough, we feel. But it’s not up to us, is it? We should not forget the millions of living things evolved to this point and their descendants have survived this winter, awakening only if saturated by tomorrows’ downpours. Indeed rains are forecast to arrive on schedule. They’ll soften the dark loam and soak into it to loosen that ice underground.
In the cities, rain may be welcomed to wash off their smelly, gritty streets. Here, while it may nourish the soil, rain creates acres and miles of mud:—heavy slosh that spatters cars, ruts driveways, sticks to shoes and reaches across hallway floors.
A few days ago when I ventured northward deeper into Delaware County, I was surprised—somewhat envious too-- to survey fields of bright green grass already sprouting across treeless meadows and still unplowed garden farms. Covetousness gives way to the reassurance of winter’s end. Our valley on the south side of the watershed will soon have its turn.
On this drive through the hills my very first recognition of spring is not in green but in red; hillsides covered by naked trees are tinged in burgundy. These are not fruit trees but green-leaf trees, I remark to my companion. Then I’m reminded how those red buds are just protective sleeves; soon all will give way to tender green pushing from within.
Be patient. Nothing is definitive at this point; but it’s there, inside that burgundy mist. In days, if not hours, the green will strike out. If we miss the burgundy signal of spring we may detect it in a new morning light. I fantasize that this change of light is actually the rising energy of photosynthesis, of green creeping out of those billions of buds high on the hillside, across the meadows, lining the riverbank, through a sparse orchard, around corn stubbled fields.
It doesn't matter if we fail to notice the shift from burgundy to tender green. That green will thoroughly capture us and hold us for many months.
In Iraq, spring, always brief, has lingered this year because of good rains. “Merciful rain” is how Iraqis greet whatever precipitation blesses their land. This, after two hard and worrisome years of drought. My friend in Kerbala reports that his garden remains in bloom today, long past what he’d expected. Iraq’s northern wheat fields are high and dense too, thanks to heavy winter rains; we’ll have a normal harvest before summer’s pitiless heat descends. Across the border, after a long and painful arid period, Syria’s northern wheat basket is once more readying to feed its parched and forlorn inhabitants. Colleagues in both nations talk with pleasure and gratitude of extended and abundant rains this winter.
It’s hard not to be mollified by the return of spring here, and by good rains across the Levant. How could these cycles possibly be so distorted by massive global shifts threatening our entire planet? Well, they can. And the sight of the changeover of seasons can impress on us just how vulnerable everything is. Trained people are systematically measuring water temperatures on which so many creatures and plants depend. How populations are decreasing and shifting and how habitations are disrupted at alarming rates are unarguable.
Better accept spring not as a familiar visitor but as a newborn in need very special care. Take nothing for granted—neither spring’s green nor political liberties. END[ Just Another Spring in Progress? ]
- January 31, 2019
Shrugging off what’s called cabin fever, I depart, slowly, to test my car and traction on the roadway. I follow the country road along the Beaverkill River to town.
A mile out, I notice something unusual—cars standing in front of each of two neighbors’ houses. I regularly pass these houses. I know that their owners aren’t here during winter months. And with several inches of snow already on the ground, I’m wondering: With a blizzard is forecast, why are they here at all?
Not suspicious; just curious.
As I drive on, this curiosity leads to fantasy. They’ve come simply to enjoy a day of softly falling snow. Having lived here year-round when the children were young, they’re recalling the enchantment of fresh snow, how they frolicked at night in the fluffy heaps, flakes still descending on them. After the children sleep, she and her husband walk together under a bright midnight sky.
The stillness of fresh snowfall is unsurpassed. Early morning is glorious… before rumbling plows arrive. Gentle whiteness obliterates flaws on the fields-- all that debris flung down by November winds. Through today’s leafless trees, they’ll see a whole new landscape; hopefully they’ll sight the great bald eagles, identify their nests.
Possibly they’ll spot a snowy owl, some winter finches, maybe a sapsucker. Juncos, snow buntings and the tit mouse will be plentiful. Cardinals too, their redness even more pronounced in winter. The best treat would be a pileated woodpecker. Gold finches and grosbeaks too.
(So maybe she’s come simply to refill bird feeders.)
If they don’t see those wild winter turkeys, they’ll certainly hear them. What a noisy lot, sometimes a herd of 60 or more, clacking in the woods. They’re such fun to watch, but skittish. Even months after hunting season ends, those creatures don’t like people.
These neighbors’ visits are brief and practical. After loading the feeders, they’ll check the water. Frozen pipes are a threat; trees too. But what can be done about ice-laden trees falling on wires? With a forecast for freezing temperatures, shut the water main and pour antifreeze through the pipes.
Before leaving they’ll check with Big Tim to have him plow the drive and leave a sack of dirt or rock salt on the porch. Never know, you may really need it, he warns. (Although residents near the river shouldn’t apply salt to the roads.)
Driving slowly at 20 mph feels comfortable. Remember: there are patches of ice under this snow.
The scanty tracks I follow signal that not many villagers have been out. The few vehicles coming from the other direction are pickup trucks, plows fixed in front. Despite hazards, their drivers welcome these snow days—the time when they become heroes. They’ll stop and help anyone, delighted to clear a driveway, often without charge. Need some dirt on that ice outside your door? “Sure. Me and my brother will get a load tonight.”
And what if these fellows vote for Trump or local Republicans? What if they like hunting too? (We assume pickup truck owners here will be Trump supporters.) Should I check their politics before I ask them to plow?
Remember gearshift cars? Now I recall that feeling of control in snow with a gearshift car. Whatever mechanics and dealers say, gears in snowy weather are unbeatable. Anyway, never brake on ice. Seeing an oncoming truck, I’m tempted. Those snow packed shoulders narrow the roadway. Don't, I warn myself.
It’s not a trip where you want to let your mind wander. Forgot to pick up some munchies? The Mail? Never mind.
Don't go out unless absolutely necessary, newscasters advise. Well, I’ve decided I must as least drive out this cabin fever. I bundled up, cleared the passage to the car, placed the shovel in the trunk, etc. and made my way into town. That’s when I’d spotted those cars out of season; maybe their owners were just chucking their urban apartment fever.
- January 21, 2019
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in active combat in Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been killed, including some 10,000 American troops. The political establishment — from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American service members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line.
Many of King’s strongest allies urged him to remain silent about the war or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They knew that if he told the whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he would be falsely labeled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash, alienate supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights movement.
King rejected all the well-meaning advice and said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” and added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.
I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel's political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.
Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.
Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers.
Reading King’s speech at Riverside more than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that his teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
And so, if we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their homes and restrictions on their movements, and the severely limited access to decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many of them face.
We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as prescribed by United Nations resolutions, and we ought to question the U.S. government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel.
And finally, we must, with as much courage and conviction as we can muster, speak out against the system of legal discrimination that exists inside Israel, a system complete with, according to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians — such as the new nation-state law that says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of the population.
Of course, there will be those who say that we can’t know for sure what King would do or think regarding Israel-Palestine today. That is true. The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel is complicated and contradictory.
Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee denounced Israel’s actions against Palestinians, King found himself conflicted. Like many black leaders of the time, he recognized European Jewry as a persecuted, oppressed and homeless people striving to build a nation of their own, and he wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish community, which had been a critically important ally in the civil rights movement.
Ultimately, King canceled a pilgrimage to Israel in 1967 after Israel captured the West Bank. During a phone call about the visit with his advisers, he said, “I just think that if I go, the Arab world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would interpret this as endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do have questions of doubt.”
He continued to support Israel’s right to exist but also said on national television that it would be necessary for Israel to return parts of its conquered territory to achieve true peace and security and to avoid exacerbating the conflict. There was no way King could publicly reconcile his commitment to nonviolence and justice for all people, everywhere, with what had transpired after the 1967 war.
Today, we can only speculate about where King would stand. Yet I find myself in agreement with the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who concluded that, if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in the same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”
Indeed, King’s views may have evolved alongside many other spiritually grounded thinkers, like Rabbi Brian Walt, who has spoken publicly about the reasons that he abandoned his faith in what he viewed as political Zionism. To him, he recently explained to me, liberal Zionism meant that he believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would be a desperately needed safe haven and cultural center for Jewish people around the world, "a state that would reflect as well as honor the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.” He said he grew up in South Africa in a family that shared those views and identified as a liberal Zionist, until his experiences in the occupied territories forever changed him.
During more than 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza, he saw horrific human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes being bulldozed while people cried — children's toys strewn over one demolished site — and saw Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal settlements subsidized by the Israeli government. He was forced to reckon with the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of violent dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and enabled by the Israeli military. For him, the turning point was witnessing legalized discrimination against Palestinians — including streets for Jews only — which, he said, was worse in some ways than what he had witnessed as a boy in South Africa.
Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear this perspective. That is no longer the case.
Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, aims to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment and that continues to this day.” Growing numbers of people of all faiths and backgrounds have spoken out with more boldness and courage. American organizations such as If Not Now support young American Jews as they struggle to break the deadly silence that still exists among too many people regarding the occupation, and hundreds of secular and faith-based groups have joined the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In view of these developments, it seems the days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.
This is not to say that anti-Semitism is not real. Neo-Nazism is resurging in Germany within a growing anti-immigrant movement. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.
Fortunately, people like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II are leading by example, pledging allegiance to the fight against anti-Semitism while also demonstrating unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling to survive under Israeli occupation.
He declared in a riveting speech last year that we cannot talk about justice without addressing the displacement of native peoples, the systemic racism of colonialism and the injustice of government repression. In the same breath he said: “I want to say, as clearly as I know how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person or people cannot in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of another person or another people. To hold fast to the image of God in every person is to insist that the Palestinian child is as precious as the Jewish child.”
Guided by this kind of moral clarity, faith groups are taking action. In 2016, the pension board of the United Methodist Church excluded from its multibillion-dollar pension fund Israeli banks whose loans for settlement construction violate international law. Similarly, the United Church of Christ the year before passed a resolution calling for divestments and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Even in Congress, change is on the horizon. For the first time, two sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, publicly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure that no U.S. military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military detention system. Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children detainees in the occupied territories in military court.
None of this is to say that the tide has turned entirely or that retaliation has ceased against those who express strong support for Palestinian rights. To the contrary, just as King received fierce, overwhelming criticism for his speech condemning the Vietnam War — 168 major newspapers, including The Times, denounced the address the following day — those who speak publicly in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people still risk condemnation and backlash.
Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. Canary Mission continues to pose a serious threat to student activists.
And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honor it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S.
But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours, academics and activists had mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council, expressed outrage at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed a resolution in Davis’ honor, and an alternative event is being organized to celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.
I cannot say for certain that King would applaud Birmingham for its zealous defense of Angela Davis’s solidarity with Palestinian people. But I do. In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.
Michelle Alexander, New York Times columnist, civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar is author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
Alice Walker, novelist/activist
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