Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Then Why Am I Still Alive? - A Response to the Vitriol Against Syrian Refugees

Some of the more vitriolic rhetoric about the danger of Syrian Refugees has got me thinking:

'Why am I alive?'

I've been thinking of this as a rhetorical question recently in light of the paranoid flurry of social media activity regarding Syrian refugees and the Paris Attacks.

(Never mind that none of the shooters appear to be refugees and seem to be Muslim citizens of Belgium and France.)

I ask this because if certain voices on the right are correct concerning the nature of Muslims, I shouldn't be alive today.

You see I was an American who spent two and half years living in a Muslim majority country. Egypt to be precise.

I did not live in a walled off compound surrounded by guards. I lived in an apartment building near downtown Cairo. My neighbors and practically everyone in the building were Muslim.

Every workday I would grab a taxi (usually driven by a Muslim) to my company where I would work with Muslims and Christians making advertisements. I would eat with Muslim colleagues and would sometimes have discussions with conservative colleagues about US involvement in the region.

After work I would often go to a coffee shop (run by Muslims) and drink coffee having a conversation with the Muslim owner.

I would then walk home past Muslim owned shops and restaurants to my apartment occasionally saying hi to a Muslim neighbor I might see in the hall.

Sometimes I would go out at night with Muslim friends. I would sometimes accompany them into mosques (or restaurants or movie theatres depending on what we wanted to do). Occasionally, I would even have a beer or to with one of them.

 I would celebrate the end of day fast with Muslim friends during Ramadan (I actually fasted the full month one year).

I went to Muslim engagement parties and weddings.

And at times my Muslim friends and I would also have lively discussions and disagreements with each other.

Now, here’s what confuses me about my time there in light of some of the rhetoric about Syrian refugees:

Why was I never threatened with conversion or death once during my two and a half years there?

Why was I never made to feel unwelcome as a Westerner?

Why is it that people treated me the same after learning I was American?

Why could I walk down the streets of Cairo with a cross around my neck and not end of decapitated?

Why is it that I was never kidnapped or held hostage as I walked through the streets after work when I was known in the area as an American?

Why is it that even after having religious disagreements with Muslim colleagues at work they still talked to me and were friendly the next morning?

Why is it that even though I lived in Egypt through the Arab Spring and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood I wasn’t immediately dragged out of my apartment and shot?

All these ‘whys?’ can be summed up with one question.

‘If all 1.6 billion Muslims are so inherently dangerous, intolerant, violent and hellbent on destroying Western civilization- Why am I still alive???’

Why is it that in the two and a half years (and in the midst of political discord and upheaval no less) my Muslim neighbors, colleagues and friends didn’t show their ‘true faces’ and murder me?

The answer is this- The friendly, hospitable, generous and tolerant faces they showed me were their true faces.

A friend and I (I have the long hair.)

It makes me sad that I have to write that.

I do not deny that Islamic Extremism is a problem in the Middle East and many Muslim communities. I don’t deny the tragedy of the victims of terror attacks in the West and in the Muslim world. And there are many different social and cultural practices in Egypt that I don't think are right.

But those who would eagerly judge four million Syrian refugees by the actions of seven men who shared their faith but not their nationality are slandering.

If all the hundreds of Muslims I knew and interacted with daily truly were the knife and Kalashnikov wielding fanatics of ISIS I wouldn’t be writing this.

If that doesn’t somehow show how blind fear is driving the hateful anti-refugee rhetoric coming out of some Western circles, I don’t know what will.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Paris Bleeds and I Write- But What is the Point?

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. I wrote about Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer who died on the streets of the French capital after confronting the terrorist attackers. I wrote about the need not to blame all Muslims for the actions of a few. I wrote about my own experiences in Muslim majority countries and the friends I care for who live there.

This wasn't the first time I've written a plea to stop rash, hostile judgements against a large group of people after a terrible terrorist attack.

Yet as I sit here in my bedroom in Kansas, I wonder if what I write here (and what I've written in all the posts advocating for people not to hurt others unjustly) really matter.

Those who believe that Islam and all Muslims are somehow culpable for terrorist attacks like this, will probably not be swayed by these words. People who have actually known Muslim people or understand that 1.5 billion should not be damned for a few who share their religious identity, will agree with me.

So why do I type these words and send them out into an indecipherable maelstrom of tri-color tweets, sympathetic status updates and Paris hashtags? Why do I bother to keep writing?

I would be lying if I said a large part of it wasn't for my own catharsis and a desire to gain attention and feedback for my own internal struggle.

However, there is also this:

When I read about a Congressman tweeting in the aftermath of the attacks that Syrian refugees desperately fleeing war shouldn't be allowed into the US- I see the people I met in that country drowning in the sea before a wall in the ocean.

When I read comments on news pieces about the tragedy in Paris calling for attacks on mosques and deporting those who had nothing to do with these atrocities- I see my Muslim American coworker, a mother of three, leaving the only country she's ever known out of the fear of others.

When I see hashtags saying Killallmuslims - I wonder have we shown the Syrian flag enough in our profile pictures over the past four years as hundreds of thousands died sandwiched between a horrid government and an extremist rebellion?

This is ultimately why I have to write. I can't unsee what I have seen. I can't forget my genuine joyful experiences with Muslims in a Muslim country. I can't stand by while a few disturbed and broken individuals shatter lives and try to erase from my mind all of the friendships and relationships I built in the region.

If I do not write, again and again, when attacks occur then perhaps a person I know will only ever hear about the Muslims who kill.

If I don't remind others and myself that I lived in a Muslim majority country for two and a half years and was treated with nothing but warm hospitality and friendship, then extremism wins.

Terror is not a force whose main goal is to conquer land or cities. It is meant to conquer our hearts. It's meant to scare us into becoming the monsters that groups like ISIS need us to be so that they can sustain themselves. They win, not when they kill unarmed civilians in a theater but when that action prompts us to put signs on our shops that say 'No Muslims'.

They triumph when we play their game and arrest a boy named Mohamed in Texas because he brought a clock to school. We lose when our fear leads us to discriminate as they discriminate, marginalize as they marginalize, detain and torture as they detain and torture, judge and destroy others based only on surface appearance and guilt by association.

To sum it up, we lose they win when we let them turn us into them.

Being silent, knowing what I know, seeing what I've seen, is not an option.

Perhaps my voice will never be heard outside of a few but it will be there and that it is there is what truly matters.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A TCK's Struggle With Small Town America

A small world is not a wrong world. 


As a TCK who grew up in Thailand and spent a huge junk of my life in other countries, that's been a hard lesson to learn at times. 


I'm still learning it and there are days where I can't accept it. 


Objectively speaking though, it's the truth. 


For those who don't know, TCK stands for Third Culture Kid and refers to people who grew up or spent their formative years in another country or countries that weren't their country of citizenship. 


TCKs include Military Brats, Embassy Kids, Missionary Children, people of mixed national backgrounds and many others. 


Because we spend so much time moving from place to place and interacting with people from different backgrounds we are very adaptable, insightful people. TCKs pride ourselves as lovers of diversity and being very tolerant of others. 


Yet from personal experience that's not entirely true. There's a certain demographic many TCKs have a very difficult time accepting. It's a portion of the world's people we sometimes poke fun at and complain about when we're surrounded by those like us. 


No matter which passport(s) a TCK holds, it seems like we have a hard time understanding and accepting the people from our countries of origin who have never lived or traveled anywhere outside of their small town or community.


As a citizen of the US, those people for me are small town Americans. 


I've lived through civil unrest and political upheaval in Egypt. I experienced a military coup in Thailand (not very eventful) and I was within earshot of a clash between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. 


Yet honestly the most angst inducing moments of my life have been those times where I knew I would have to spend an extended period of time living in a town in rural Ohio or Kansas where almost everyone I met would have never traveled more than a few hundred miles outside their small town. 




Well, I think like many TCKs, it can be hard to relate to other people in general. Even if someone I meet from my country of origin has traveled before there's usually a huge disconnect between our life experiences. 


This gap can be hard to bridge. When we return to our countries or origin, where we often look like everyone else, we are expected to blend in to the surrounding culture as if we've never left. 


This is an impossible task and inevitably we face the prospect of being labeled strange and different by our peers for our worldviews and experiences. 


If you move to a town where almost everyone is the same race and religion and has gone to the same restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, shooting ranges, sports teams and experiences as everyone else, it's even harder to find common ground.

Not only is it hard to find common ground, often the views of the wider world we encounter from small town people are narrow. Sometimes they're worldviews are downright intolerant or prejudiced. 


In small town America, I've encountered views about Muslims, Latino Immigrants and other demographics that I've found very hard to listen to. 


Yet even though in many situations I believe my worldview is broader and a lot more accurate when it comes to world cultures, I've also coming to realize that always calling someone out for their narrow views isn't always productive or fair. 


I first had this revelation a few years ago when I began thinking about how my reactions to narrow views had been different when I encountered them in other countries. I knew plenty of Egyptians who had very negative and racist views of Africans, Israelis, Jews and even Americans. Yet I was able to still accept them as people and I got a long with them generally well despite disagreeing with them. 


So, I asked myself, why couldn't I do the same with fellow Americans?  


This thought exercise came to light again recently when I watched a very interesting TED Talk delivered by Sally Kohn, an openly Lesbian talking head at Fox News. In it she talks about the importance of being emotionally correct rather than focusing just on being politically correct. In her own words: 


'...we've been focused on political correctness, but what matters more is emotional correctness. Let me give you a small example. I don't care if you call me a dyke. I really don't. I care about two things. One, I care that you spell it right...

'...And second, I don't care about the word, I care about how you use it. Are you being friendly? Are you just being naive? Or do you really want to hurt me personally? Emotional correctness is the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect and compassion we show one another. And what I've realized is that political persuasion doesn't begin with ideas or facts or data. Political persuasion begins with being emotionally correct.' 


As a TCK, this spoke volumes to me. I was confronted again by the uncomfortable fact that at times I had not been very compassionate to people I knew were more ignorant than I was. I had been very judgmental of some who I knew had worldviews that they really couldn't help but have given the circumstances of their lives.

I thought back to some of the times I encountered narrow views in America. I realized  hadn't tried to put myself in the shoes of the person expressing them. I had focused on how wrong their views were but had forgotten to think of them as people.

How could I expect people who had never left their towns to have the same views of Muslims and Arabs that someone who lived in a Muslim country for two and a half years did? How could I expect older people who's entire life had been built around people of the same skin tone and religion to be as understanding of the differences in the culture of foreigners?

My views on the world were forged by my life circumstances. If I had been born and raised in the same Ohio town I lived in as a child I would probably have similar views to many other people. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a very multicultural environment. Most people in this world just don't get that opportunity and that's not something I can really fault them for.

That doesn't make what they believe right. It doesn't make racist or narrow views any less racist or narrow. However, human beings are human beings in any scenario, and as a TCK that's something that I should always strive to remember. 


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Badass Women of History- Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley

The Pirate Queen



Ireland’s pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, is a folk hero of the Emerald Isle.

The story of her life is often more legend than hard history.

Contemporary accounts are scarce and there’s little doubt much of her exploits have been embellished.

Nevertheless, she had a grand and fearless life. One that definitely makes her a badass woman of history. 

Born in 1530 in what is now County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, Grace (Gráinne in Irish) was a member the region’s powerful O’Malley clan. 


The Ireland of Grace’s time was a land of conflict. The island was not united and was broken up among many different clans who often fought each other over territory. 


For three hundred years the O’Malleys had dominated the cost of Mayo from their stronghold at Clew Bay. 


Clew Bay- Grace's ancestral homeland and her base of operations


Grace’s father, Eoghan ‘Black Oak’ O’Malley was the clan’s chieftain. A famous warrior, Black Oak had continued the O’Malleys’ long tradition of raiding ships that passed near their shores. 


As a child Grace begged her father to go out to sea and join his raids. Grace’s mother refused, using the excuse that her daughter’s long hair would get in her way when breezes came. 


Grace swiftly responded by shaving herself bald with a dagger. She then sneaked onboard an O'Malley ship disguised as a boy. She was discovered but Black Oak was impressed by her determination. 


He agreed to let her sail and at an early age Grace became a pirate, a fighter and a leader of warriors far more seasoned than herself. 


By the time she reached 16, she commanded several ships and dozens of men.


Despite her courage and ferocity, Grace was still bound by the customs of the time.


In 1546 her family married her off to Donal O’Flahtery. The marriage cemented an alliance between their two families and Donal later became chieftain of the O’Flahterys. 


Grace bore two sons and a daughter through the marriage and took an active role in managing some of the O’Flahterys’ affairs. Grace was able to maintain control over the men and ships she had commanded while a girl. She also continued to hone her skills as a leader and a raider. By some accounts she took over the majority of the O’Flahterys naval operations.

However, Grace’s husband was hotheaded and held grudges. For much of their marriage he was engaged in a blood feud with the Joyce clan. Eventually, he was wounded in a skirmish with his rivals and died of his injuries. 


Ever a dutiful wife, Grace avenged her husband by leading a retaliatory raid on the Joyce controlled, Cock’s Castle. She sacked the fortress which was subsequently renamed Hen’s Castle in her memory.

Hen's Castle

With her vengeance satiated, Grace abandoned rule of the O’Flahterys to her two sons and returned to her father’s clan. Taking her men and ships with her, she assumed leadership of the O’Malleys and embarked on a career of piracy. 

Controlling a fleet of around twenty ships and a force of several hundred men, Grace raided the ships of rival Irish clans, along with English merchant vessels. Her ships also taxed vessels that were willing to pay her protection fees for safe passage and attacked coastal settlements not under their control. Grace’s men maintained a network of small castles along the shore which they used as bases to launch their expeditions. 


Granuaile's Tower- One of many small castles Grace controlled along the shores of Mayo


They also abducted important members of other clans and held them for ransom. Grace is said to have kidnapped the heir of the Earl of Howth, who had snubbed her when she and her men came to visit him at his castle. In addition to a large sum of money, Grace demanded that the Earl set an extra meal at his table for her every night. The Earl paid the ransom and for the rest of his life put out a plate at dinner for the Pirate Queen.

Grace led her fighters into battle many times. In 1565 she rescued a shipwrecked sailor named Hugh De Lacey. The two became lovers but their romance was cut short when De Lacey was killed by one of Grace’s enemies, the Macmahons. Grace was so devastated by his death that she waged all-out war with the Macmahons for years.

The Pirate Queen of Ireland

Following De Lacey’s death, Grace arranged her second marriage in 1566. Her new husband was Richard ‘Iron Dick’ Bourke, a powerful clan leader who had crossed swords with Grace on prior occasions. Though they remained together until Bourke’s death, Grace ran both their clans’ affairs becoming the power behind Bourke’s throne. 


They did have one son, Tibbot, who was born on the open sea. According to one story, a day after giving birth to her youngest son Grace’s ship was attacked by a group of Corsairs.


Her crew tried to fend off the attack without their leader who was recovering from childbirth. However, they were outmatched and were soon close to being overwhelmed. 


Hearing the battle outside her cabin, Grace rose and took command of her crew. She rallied them and turned the tide. She drove the Corsairs off and captured their ship. 


Along with her Irish rivals, Grace also became an enemy of the English. 


Under the rule of Elizabeth I the English had been expanding their influence in Ireland. Each year brought more and more clans under the Virgin Queen’s domain.

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Though she submitted publicly to English rule in 1577 Grace’s problems with London became worse. This was mainly because she continued her pirating ways and attacked Irish rivals who had also submitted to the English. Eventually she was captured by an English ally and handed over to them. Her husband rallied to her side and the English, fearing a rebellion, released her. 


There was no respite however. From that point on, Grace and Bourke resisted English encroachment, often violently.


In 1579 Grace successfully defeated an English army that laid siege to her castle at Rockfleet. 


Bourke died in 1582 leaving Grace to resist the English and their Irish allies alone. 


The tide turned against her and the O’Malleys in 1584, when Sir Richard Bingham became the English governor of Mayo. 


Grace's most challenging enemy Sir Richard Bingham

Bingham, a ruthless agent of the English Crown, had a vocal hatred of Irish traditions. He had been handpicked by Queen Elizabeth to bring Grace and other troublesome Irish chieftains to heel. 


Bingham launched a relentless campaign against Grace and her clan, capturing large numbers of their livestock, seizing her castles and imprisoning her eldest son Owen. 


Grace refused to yield and her defiance prompted Bingham to execute Owen.

To make matters worse, Bingham succeeded in convincing one of Grace’s other sons, Murrough, to join him in hunting his mother. Despite Bingham’s ruthlessness, Grace evaded capture and harassed the English armies from the bush and the sea. 


Still, by 1593 she was backed into a corner. She had lost most of her ships and was running out of safe havens. That same year her only loyal son, Tibbot, was captured by Bingham. Her brother was taken as well. 


Desperate for a way out, Grace turned to Queen Elizabeth herself. In a passionate letter, Grace told the Queen her side of the story and pleaded for an audience to negotiate her son and brother’s release. 


Despite Bingham’s strong objections, Elizabeth agreed to see Grace at her court in London. 


The two women met face to face within a year. Nothing is known of what they said to each other behind closed doors. What is known is that Grace, perhaps playing on the fact that they were both strong women thriving in a male dominated world, was able to convince Elizabeth that she would be a helpful agent of the English in their struggle to control Ireland. 


Grace (L) and Elizabeth (R) meet face to face

When the meeting was done Elizabeth had agreed to grant Grace and her people amnesty. Her captured son and brother would be released and Grace would have the English crown’s prerogative to fight its enemies wherever they emerged. Essentially, this gave Grace permission to continue pirating as long as she fought only rivals of the English. 


In a complete reversal of his fortunes, Bingham was recalled to England in 1594 after being forced to release Tibbot and Grace's brother. Accounts are that he never overcame the bitterness he felt at having been outmaneuvered by the O'Malley chieftain. 


Grace continued her career of piracy uninhibited until her death in 1603 at the age of sixty seven. She remains a folk-hero and a legendary figure with songs and statues dedicated to her memory. 


Grace O'Malley statue in Westport, Ireland