The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 21, 2015

The Texan Tale of Ahmed Mohammed and Who Southerners Think is a Bad Guy

Last week, America looked at a situation in a high school that worked like an ink blot on our culture, and our divergent perceptions reveal the central problem of American culture today.

We’ve all heard the story of Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen year-old who was perhaps a bit nerdy and excited about building a clock, which he took to school.  I think none of us would have been surprised if any nerd had brought a clock to school, showed it to everyone, and then ended up getting beat up by the junior varsity football squad in the parking lot after lunch for being a massive nerd.  We would have been able to sympathize that the student in question had underestimated the social consequences of proud nerdiness among the Spartan youth that gets favored in American high schools, perhaps particularly in Texas, over the people who might have ended up working at Texas Instruments back in the 1970s. Such a story could have happened to any American nerd, and we would not have been so engaged with that narrative as a nation.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

Instead, it wasn’t the footballers that beat up Ahmed. The administration and faculty of the high school, the very people ostensibly in charge of encouraging him to pursue his nerdiness for the good of humanity despite football squad pressures to conform, who crushed his spirit.  We need people like Ahmed to become inventors.  I am rooting for today’s Ahmeds to become the future inventors of at-home liposuction kits, high heels that don’t hurt your feet, and automatic dog-walkers for snowy days.  Instead, if our President had not Tweeted as he did, we might not have seen Ahmed inventing anything after last week.  Why would he ever want to express his gifts if they get him arrested?  I have confidence that Ahmed Mohammed will explore his abilities to the fullest now, and he must rest assured that the majority of us are not inclined to discourage his success.

But here’s where I think we have a huge problem.  It’s worse than I thought it was.  Nobody who accused Ahmed feels inclined to apologize to him, and members of the Right are actually fabricating bizarre and apocryphal versions of the well-documented incidents of Mac Arthur High School’s day of infamy.

First, the Principal of the school sent out a completely offensive letter to parents congratulating himself for having taken appropriate measures to protect the school from danger.  He wrote this after he knew full well that Ahmed’s clock was not a bomb.  He then condescendingly told parents they ought to speak to their kids about bringing suspicious objects to school.  Are clocks suspicious objects?  Would they have been suspicious in the hands of a blond nerd named Tyler?

Then the mayor of Irving, Texas said she stood by the principal. She had made local news earlier this year by complaining about non-existent problems of Sharia law in her town.  Then, Sarah Palin, who hates a lot of people for a professed Christian, including the entire Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, whom she claimed when running for VP was not really American, said about Ahmed’s clock that if it was indeed a clock, she was the queen of England.  As a real Queen of England is supposed to have said, We are not amused. There is nothing amusing about calling someone guilty who is clearly, with a Texan law enforcement thumbs-up, entirely innocent of all wrong-doing.

Then, after Ms. Palin’s — let’s call them cultural contributions — a barrage of conspiracy theories hit the lunatic Right-wing Internet and were instantly believed by the already-converted, including:

  • The clock was ticking backwards like a bomb clock when the English teacher spotted it.  It wasn’t.
  • The little white packet pictured by the clock was plastic explosives. I shake my head.
  • That Ahmed didn’t invent a new clock, he just used parts he got from other devices, and this is cheating.  It’s not cheating.  There was no assignment to cheat on, and it’s really not in dispute.  Of course at age fourteen he didn’t invent his own digital interface! He participated in the time-honored tradition of American nerds of going to junk shops and Radio Shack for tools with which to create one’s first works.  There is nothing cheating in this.  And his work was mighty impressive for a fourteen year-old.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated this false arrest himself to cover up a real conspiracy to blow things up.  I ask if this idea is a product of a meth-addicted paranoia.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated with his family his false arrest so that he could sue the city of Irving.  They are suing now, and since they have received no apology for an outrageous error of judgment, I hope they walk away with the deed to City Hall, because the officials should be ashamed of themselves but aren’t.

It has gotten to the point where a certain portion of white people in this country look at an incident like this where, I repeat, there WAS NO BOMB and see a bomb, and a terrorist,  and a conspiracy.  If the facts don’t support them, it’s only because all of us — the President, the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, the MIT professors, and the supportive members of the intelligentsia are lying to the good folks of the American heartland.  We must be in favor of bombs in schools.  We must want Sharia law since we hate Christianity so much, all of us — except we don’t.  We embrace empirical evidence as a source of information about world events.  Where a boy’s clock is investigated by a bomb squad and found just to be a clock, just like he said it was over and over again, we believe the boy and the clock.  The clock is ticking forward.  It’s the increasingly ugly racist Right that wants it to tick backward to prove that their views are not backward.

The rest of us, when we look at Ahmed Mohammed, see a smart nerd and a science project. It’s like we can barely discuss events in front of us because one smaller group sees a world of dangerous, swarthy hordes with Paladins defending a narrow front line, and the rest of us see a relatively harmonious multicultural coexistence disturbed by a few fascists.  When we see videos of white cops hurting people of color, we don’t assume we have just missed a segment where the ghost of Nat Turner swooped in and killed a cop after the African-American police brutality victims summoned him.  We don’t blame the victims of government violence and institutional racism.  We don’t understand how those RIght-Wingers don’t see what we see.

How do we get past this? I want America to value American values again, including diversity, tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and for Ahmed’s sake — I want us to embrace invention instead of treating it like a threat.  We used to do that very well.  How do we get the clock to move forward on that once more?

August 16, 2015

From Homecoming Court Member to ISIS Member — How One Young Woman Responded to Mississippi

How does a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi, not raised Muslim, a woman, decide to join ISIS? Jaelyn Deshaun Young recently graduated from Warren County High School on the edge of Vicksburg.  She was in the homecoming court, meaning that she was no loner; people at school liked her and thought she was pretty, which she is. She got good grades, went to Mississippi State with an eye toward becoming a doctor.  Her father was  police officer in the Vicksburg police department; he had served in Afghanistan prior to that, where he fought Al Qaeda.  He took his family to church on Sundays.  How does a young woman raised in that atmosphere decide her destiny is to join a terrorist, Christian-persecuting, woman-raping organization that beheads other Muslims and destroys precious works of ancient art?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

It would be easy to blame her young husband, Muhammad Dakhlalla.  His father was a leader at a local mosque in Starkville, Mississippi, near the university campus.  He must have radicalized her. Except this is not what the FBI says happened. They say that it was Jaelyn who led the charge toward ISIS, according to their investigation.  Muhammad, known to most as “Mo,” was not a radical. His father’s Islam manifested itself publicly in feeding the poor.  He ran a restaurant in Starkville until he had to close it down; he was giving away more food than he was selling. This kind of religious practice is not likely to lead to beheadings. Jaelyn certainly converted to Islam while she was getting to know Mo, but he wasn’t pushing the couple into a life of terrorism.  Mo told the FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters that he was willing to fight and die for the Islamic state, but their most impassioned correspondent, itching to get to Syria to fight, was Jaelyn.

So how does a pretty, smart, charismatic girl who grew up in Mississippi in a Christian home decide not just to convert to an Islam guided by acts of charity but to an Islam guided by acts of terror?

She must have first grown disenchanted.  Teenagers are champions of disenchantment. I know I was. When I was in high school, I wrote an angry chapbook of poetry, which I dedicated to “high school students and other inmates of society.”  I had spiky, red hair for a time.  I sneaked out to parties with lots of people wearing brightly-striped Mohawks in places like abandoned warehouses, parties with punk bands that got shut down by the cops, parties where I had to run out the back door because of a raid. I thought high school was a cruel farce. Instead of going to senior prom, I sneaked out to meet a neon abstract sculptor whom I was dating (after meeting him in a cutting-edge art gallery where he was exhibiting his work) for a night of transgression. I refused to attend graduation. Jaelyn must have felt something like this – only there are no Mohawk-punk-band-warehouse-parties in Vicksburg. She would have had to channel her feelings of discontent elsewhere.

I imagine her father, a police officer and a veteran, must be a fairly conservative, pro-establishment kind of a man. He must have told his daughter that education was the path to success.  She certainly did well in school. She surely made more friends than I did at my high school; new wave art girls do not tend to get elected to homecoming court. The social establishment was not, it seemed, particularly rejecting of her. Her revolt could not have been because of a prom scene like the one out of Carrie.

That said, Jaelyn is a woman of color, and Vicksburg is a town where there are racists.  I know because I lived there.   They talked to me about people of color in disparaging ways sometimes. Though her father is a police officer, it would be hard to watch the national pattern of police brutality against people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the tanks and tear gas thrown at peaceful protesters in Ferguson, and not get disgusted, to feel as if America were terrorizing black folks.  It is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Black lives matter, and it does not seem that police forces across the country acknowledge this. How could this problem NOT strike home for a young woman of color whose father was on the police force?

But rage and disenchantment are not enough to explain the embracing of a radical form of Islam that rapes, beheads, and destroys. How could a smart young woman conclude that these were her allies? She, like so many who choose to join ISIS, must have been ignorant of what real Islamic Caliphates looked like a thousand years ago.  There, women had more freedom than they did in the Christian nations.  Medicine, science, and the arts flourished.  Religions of every stripe were tolerated. While it was dangerous to cross a caliph, the caliphs were not known for kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing people under their power.  Nothing about ISIS suggests they are trying to build such a caliphate.  They destroy art.  They oppress and enslave women.  They kill Christians, crucifying them, killing their babies before their eyes, even desecrating ancient Christian cemeteries.  They used mustard gas on a town last week – a chemical weapon so brutal and horrid that it was banned after World War I by the Geneva Convention, that thought it ought not be used against enemy soldiers.  ISIS used it on children a few days ago.  This is not an Islamic caliphate of old.  This is a demonic holocaust.  How does a daughter of a man who fought Al Qaeda decide to join such a group?

I look into the face of this pretty girl, taken from her high school yearbook, and like her parents, I don’t understand.  The FBI agents claim that when that Islamic gunman shot a bunch of Marines recently at a recruiting office, she rejoiced that the numbers of people who agreed with her were growing. I see the pretty, demure smile on the face of this young lady, and I am baffled.  I want to ask her what could have ever made her so angry at the sleepy town of Vicksburg that she would want not just Islam instead of Christianity but this brutal form of it.  I want to ask her who hurt her so badly she thinks she needs to join a group of monsters for protection from them. I would take her to the NAACP Jackson headquarter to sign up to register voters, something I did when I lived in Vicksburg.  I want to take her to a party of free thinkers, rare as they may be in a place like Vicksburg.

I want to give her a book of Rumi’s peaceful poetry. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is perhaps the greatest poet from Islam who ever lived.  He lived in an Islamic caliphate that encouraged his work.

He wrote:

“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jaelyn, I would meet you there.  Let me urge you, with an Islamic mystical poet, not to throw away your life to become cannon fodder for a pack of fascists, or now, where you are in America, a jail bird.  There are so many other ways to reject Mississippi culture, if you feel you need to.  Meet me there, and you, Rumi, and I will talk.

December 1, 2010

Searching for Kosher Chicken in Porkchop Country

One of my old neighbors in Brooklyn. Where would he shop around here?

Hospitality is a Southern tradition, but apparently only one that anticipates fellow Christian guests.  When Lylah, my fabulous feminist Muslim friend, came down to Mississippi to be my maid of honor last winter, I went looking for things to cook for her.

You see, Lylah practices Halal, the muslim dietary laws, outlawing pork but also outlawing certain forms of cruelty to animals in butchery.  Observers of Halal are free to eat not only things produced by Muslim butchers but also kosher ones, as the same butchering practices are observed in both Islamic and Jewish traditions.

Near my home in Vicksburg, there is a large Kroger supermarket.  It is stocked with numerous international foods.  I can get cornichons and wasabi there.  However, we went all over the store, to the fresh and frozen meat sections, and the only thing that Lylah could eat that was a dead land animal was found in a Hebrew National hot dog package.  I asked the manager of the store where he kept the Kosher products, certainly thinking that Halal was out of the question in the middle of the deep South but that Kosher products must certainly be available.  He asked me to repeat the question.  I did, and then he told me he had never heard of Kosher meat — what was it?

As a New Yorker, I had never once imagined that Kashrut would not be practiced by somebody in my community.  Here is a picture of a man from my old neighborhood, the Seagate section of Coney Island, standing near a plastic palm tree on the beach.  Brooklyn is a thriving and diverse place, but Jews are particularly numerous in the population.

When I visited Israel, I ended up touring the various sites with a British photographer.  People would stop us and ask us where we were from.  When he said he was from the UK, they nodded politely, but when I said I was from Brooklyn, over and over again, the response was, “Brooklyn!  Maybe you know my cousin!”  Truthfully, maybe I did.  Maybe, even if I didn’t know the individual’s Jewish cousin, I had ridden the same trains, eaten in the same restaurants, bought meat at the same counters. Kosher meat is clean meat.  I often bought Kosher chickens because they are less bloody.

Jews are part of the fabric of New York to the point where the mainstream culture gets a lot of its slang from Yiddish — plotz, schmuck, schlep, kibbutz, shmear, and schmooze are all words used by people from every ethnicity in town.  When I use those words here, I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood.  Antisemitism, while it exists to some small degree in New York City, is a form of anti-New York self-loathing.  If a New Yorker happens to say he hates Jews, whether he is Jewish or not, he is really saying he hates himself and his whole community, because the town includes most distinctly all that is wonderful about Jewish culture and tradition — a profound commitment to commonweal and social justice for the poor, a raucous sense of humor that defies every hardship, a respect for learning as something sacred and inviolate, a complex system of negotiating shared space between diverse peoples who get along for the most part without any violence, a profound sense of busy and vivacious commerce that is supple and willing to negotiate to fit the needs of the customer — all these New York things are also first and foremost Jewish things, and anybody who doesn’t think so has simply not done his homework.  Likewise, New York foods are often Kosher foods — I spent months when I first arrived here salivating at the memory of a chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli, of their Kasha Varnishkes, of their soul-affirming chicken soup.

When Lylah first arrived here, I honestly thought it would be no problem to find her some meat, especially since I knew that Vicksburg had a history of having a certain number of Jewish residents.  One of the grandest buildings in town where one can host a wedding used to belong to the local B’nai B’rith.  One day, when we were driving through a town that is absolutely lovely and not far from where we live, I saw a synagogue of messianic Jews.  I heard that there was another one in town as well.  I have only recently discovered that these are supersessionist Zionist Christians, most of them people of African-American descent who have converted to a false Judaism layered with an odd, legalistic Christianity.

The Jews have mostly left Vicksburg.  They were there largely before the Civil War, back when Mississippi had more millionaires in it than New York did, and while there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Vicksburg numbered among those richest people of the nation, they were often engaged in an international commerce of cotton, one where Vicksburg was a hub.  However, today there are few Jews in town.  Most have moved elsewhere.  To the best of my ability to see it, I find no particular incidents of antisemitic discrimination drove them away, only the same forces of commerce that compelled lots of people to leave the South in the early part of the twentieth century.

That said, the Jews are missing.  Lylah is coming to spend Christmas with us.  I need a Kosher butcher.  According to Superpages.com, there is not one Kosher butcher listed within hundreds of miles from my town.  The Jews are missing.

This makes me sad.  It explains the total lack of Kafkaesque irony in humor around here.  It explains the total lack of haggling.  It explains the work ethic, which is, let us say, moderated by a sense that if one moves too fast one might bust a button of one’s work shirt.  No one would ever say, as one hears fairly frequently in New York in business, “You pay me enough, I’ll finish the job yesterday.”  This is a New York sentiment, one entirely compatible with Jewish business practices.  The Jews are missing, and commerce runs, to borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara, “as slow as molasses in January.”  The Jews are missing, which means that any notion of commonweal is subsumed under what Republicans tout as Christian  family values — one that forgets the Bible’s admonition to care for the stranger in the land, something, according to my reading of the Bible, a nation does at its own peril, for God judges the nations, per my reading of all the prophets, according to the way it treats widows, orphans, strangers, and whoever else is vulnerable.  I am very sorry the Jews left Vicksburg, whatever it was that took them away.

When Lylah comes, I’ll have Kosher meat flown in from Long Island — Kosher.com has a site that will FedEx me some good chicken, lamb sausages, and beef good for stewing.  Then, she’ll go back, and ham will again be on my table.  When I want a certain kind of ironic humor, I’ll watch The Daily Show.  When I want things done more quickly, I’ll have to take a breath and remember that a New York minute is something I left above the Mason-Dixon Line.  When I want justice redolent with mercy, I’ll pray.  I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, just as the Bible instructs us to do — all of us, Jew and gentile alike.  I pray for peace.  Lots of families around here have young people in the military sent overseas to Afghanistan.  I pray for peace.  As for any complex negotiation with other peoples of shared space — not a problem in a black-or-white-divided community where people stick to themselves.  No space needs sharing — we all have room.  My husband and I integrate an otherwise black church.  I pray for peace.  I miss the Jews.

September 19, 2010

Don’t MAKE me come up there, New York City!

So here I am, New York, one of your expatriates,  now living in Mississippi, forever assuming that  I had left the place of ultimate tolerance for a place still wrestling with civil rights issues.  While I’m off minding my business down here, I find out from Farah Akbar of The Gotham Gazette and others — the sweet elderly couple down the street at CNN, those crazy neighbors of ours at Fox News, and basically everybody else — that you’ve gone and pulled a switcheroo on me, New York City.  Down here, I’ve yet to witness a hate crime or hear about one recently committed in my environs, but up there, you’ve gone all Klannish on me!

Farah Akbar wrote the following:

“A 37-year-old Queens resident, who does not want his name used, thinks that he may have been the victim of a hate crime. On a warm August evening, he was taking the routine four-block walk home from the Jamaica Muslim Center after completing his prayers. He was wearing a traditional outfit from his native Bangladesh, which consists of a long overflowing shirt that reaches the knees and baggy pants. Two blocks shy of his home, five men surrounded him began punching him.

‘I kept saying, ‘Don’t hit me. Take what you want, but don’t hit me,’ he said. The men did not ask for money or for his watch. In fact, they did not say a word to him throughout the entire ordeal. The victim, an information technology professional, had to take two days off from work to recover from his injuries.

Officials from the Jamaica Muslim Center believe that this was a hate crime. ‘He was wearing Muslim garb, he was not robbed and he was only two blocks away from the mosque,” said Junnun Choudhury, general secretary of the center.'” — The Gotham Gazette, September 2010

And then there’s the guy who drunkenly took a whizz on prayer rugs in a mosque in a different part of Queens, a part of Queens where I organized a pro-diversity literary reading within a year of 9/11 that was well attended!

Why are the people of Astoria, Queens, in what must be the most diverse portion of the most diverse county in the whole world, seemingly more angry at Islam today than  they were in January, 2002?

Is this what you do, New York, when I leave you alone in the house like a grown-up?  If I had discovered you had thrown a wild party with a lot of friends over who broke stuff, that would have just been business as usual for you, and we wouldn’t be having this talk right now.  This is a sad surprise, to say the least.

And then, let’s take a look at this winner, who celebrated September 11th by protesting the Islamic center they want to build at Park 51:

Wait -- I'm in Mississippi and THIS GUY is in New York?

When I was contemplating my move down here, New York City, didn’t you warn me that if I went to Mississippi, I would run into a pack of half-wit racist scumbags with horrible taste in men’s hats?

Is this your idea of a joke, New York?

New York, it’s not just the ninth anniversary of September 11th when this guy was walking around like this — it was during FASHION WEEK that he was looking like this, too. Have you no shame?

New York, my Irish great-great-great-grandmother would have said the following to you:

  1. You’ve gone “beyond the beyonds” — which means pack your bags, no Carmelite nun’s prayer can save you — this is the kind of behavior that lands you straight in Hell.
  2. She would remind you of the controversy that existed during her lifetime about the building of  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, as one wouldn’t want to encourage all that anti-American papist hooliganism supposedly inherent in the worship practices of that upstart immigrant group, the Irish Catholics.  I refer you to Martin Scorcese’s film, The Gangs of New York, for a reenactment of another jingoist protest against an immigrant group’s house of worship being built.
  3. You have abandoned your wonderful principles.
  4. Osama Bin Laden wins if we become hateful or even distrust our own ideal of a diverse society.
  5. Given that this man has “Guinness” written on his tacky cap, there’s a pretty good chance the guy in the photo is Irish-American.  What would  his Irish great-great-great grandmother have to say to him?  Irish eyes would not be smiling.

New York, what’s going on  up there?  Are you just acting out because you miss me so much?  Have I really  moved to a place of greater tolerance for difference and individual choice than your overcrowded streets?

Don’t make me come up there, New York City!  If I come up there, and I don’t see things back the way they were when I left — a reasonable attitude between all groups of people, a total rejection of the attitudes that inspire hate crimes, and — don’t forget — the best-dressed men in North America, you will have to answer to me.  I remind you of the many demonstrations I organized when I lived there.  I remind you of the several makeovers I performed.  You don’t want to get me started again, do you?  Don’t make me come up there.

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