I hope everyone has had a lovely holiday, for those who celebrate one, and a bright start to the new year.  For me it’s been up and down as I’ve come to expect lately.  I had a terrible blow before the holidays when the dream of the crafts co-op for Arab-American women in Brooklyn that I’d dedicated 10 months of my life to advocating and building dissipated with a change in management at the social service agency I’d been working with.  I’m devastated over the collapse of my vision and frustrated at all the hard work lost, but telling myself to be resilient and find another way.  That’s led to thoughts of going back to school–to learn Arabic, get my MBA (bleh!), my MSW or a Master’s in Middle Eastern studies or somesuch which would be the most interesting but maybe the least practical.

This is a delicate subject but I can also foresee that I am stepping into a path where ethnic and religious origin may always be an issue–with my peers, that is, not my clients!  I’m a white woman without the kind of ingrained understanding of Arab culture that comes from being born and raised on the inside.  A do-gooder.

Let me break that down for you.  First of all, Arab culture?  It’s not a monolith.  That should come as no surprise to anyone but it is the number-one lesson I’ve taken from my work with Arab-American immigrants over the past 14 months.  I’m constantly awed by the sheer variety in outlook, dress, personalities, and backgrounds of the students I’ve worked with in ESL classes.  They’ve come from just about every country in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.  Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  And I wouldn’t lump any of them into easy categories–they’re all individuals to me now, some bold, some timid, some who are homesick and some who say good riddance to their home countries (or both).  Sure, people from Yemen tend to be among the most conservative, and it’s the Palestinian (who are said to be the “craziest” ;)) and Lebanese women who will dance in mixed company at a class party.  But even within a country there are multitudes of distinctions.  My Algerian friend who is a Berber said that her marriage to an Arab guy from home would have been shocking in years past and is still a bit of a surprise to people.  I’ve heard another Algerian student (who I think was an Arab; Berbers are not Arab) say that Berber/Arab racism was intolerable and the worst thing about her home country.

Then look at Lebanon, an example of religious and cultural variety if there ever was one.  In one country you’ve got Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and the Druze–and those are just the major ones.  And within each religious group of course there’s ideological differences, which has resulted in internal fighting up to this day.  Hezbollah, for instance, is made up mainly of Shi’a Muslims, but do all Shi’ites support Hezbollah?  No way!  (But many do because the party subsidizes essential services for poor families that the government struggles or fails to provide–hospital care for sick children, loans and rebuilding assistance, training, etc.)  And among the Sunni friends I made when I was in Saida visiting the family of a student, some were devout and others like my student’s brother-in-law would say: “They pray too much,” and “Religion is the cause of all our problems.”

A seemingly fair assessment, I’d say privately, but at the same time I respect his wife’s choice to believe, and to worship in the way she sees fit, as much as I respect his decision not to.  As an American raised by socially conscious parents, the First Amendment is fired into the bones of my body and the air that I breathe.  I’ll defend until I’m blue in the face someone’s right to worship as they like, provided it does not break a law (and assuming that law is not being taken out of context to target a particular group, which has been declared unconstitutional by Supreme Court decisions) the same way I’ll defend their right to free speech even if I vehemently disagree with the content.

That means burqas and niqabs in France and Belgium, minarets in Switzerland.  It’s not that I can’t understand the reasons for secularizing the public space–I can.  Certainly my skeptical Lebanese Sunni friend can.  He thought it would be wonderful if wearing religious garb in public were outlawed.  He’s seen a lot of senseless deaths and tragedy.  I respect his experience and his opinion.  But I can’t agree.  You can’t force someone to stop worshiping the way they see fit.  You can’t force someone to assimilate before they’re ready (if they ever will be), even if you think it’s for their own good.  That’s not freedom.  It will just blow up in your face.

The best thing you can do instead, I think, is to gently expose immigrants to the new possibilities that can open up for them in their adopted homelands.  Help them find the right doors to knock at, how to transfer their degrees or their skills, master a new language, be welcoming, respectful of their beliefs and appreciative of the vibrant richness they bring to your community.  I’ve found that I need to act less as a role model to my Arab-American students–they already have a wealth of role models within their own community–and more of a role model to my fellow native-born citizens who don’t always treat newcomers, especially Muslim ones, with decency and respect.

I’ve gotten a bit off track from my original story about the co-op–I’ll return to that in another post soon.  Also, I’m thinking I’ll start posting some of my recipes, though I’m not quite ready to take on the responsibility of artfully photographing my dishes before I nom them.  I know, what’s a food blog without pictures?  But we’ll start somewhere.  Right now I’ve just enjoyed a Tom Kha Gai (spicy Thai chicken soup with coconut milk) that I threw together from stuff I had in the house, and I feel like a total genius.  Tonight will be some version of an Algerian lentil shorba (soup) with roasted red peppers, a reprise of the unbelievably delicious fish cakes I made last week, roasted cauliflower, and arugula salad.