Wednesday, August 11, 2010

An Arab Man Knitting On The Train

...God, if there is a god,
gave us sausage and tomatoes

and Fool and radishes and mint,

and asses and tits and Facebook

and bicycles and we still find

the time to kill each other.

Good morning, everybody.

A new school year is getting underway and so this blog will shift gears once more, with perhaps fewer and shorter updates. Besides school, there is some talk of a Shakespeare workshop in Deming, and it is also time to schedule another retreat day for the Zen group.

For the most part, this entry is to share a brief excerpt from a talk by writer and engineer Zein El-Amine, in which he describes the power of creativity to open up some space in oppressive circumstances. Kite-flying in Gaza. Hip-hop in the war zone. And why people in the middle east tell the best jokes. The transcript of his whole talk is here, and it is worth your time. It is also on video here although when I tried, the video would not play. I enjoyed reading.

Here is a story of how he used knitting needles to confront racial profiling.

I wanted to talk about a couple of pivotal moments in my life that taught me how to shift these parameters. Why is being whimsy, for people who are oppressed, why being whimsy in our actions – meaning, creating that wiggling room when we are in a headlock, to sing our song - is so important?

A few years ago, around the bombings of the trains in Spain; do people remember that? It was a huge global incident, right? I was working at the University of Maryland, and at the time, I was taking knitting classes. So one evening, I get on the platform at College Park, and I have two bags - one is my school bag and one is my knitting bag - and it was winter. I had all sorts of clothes [on]. I had a cap on and I had grown this beard, purely out of neglect. I am sitting there on the platform, and the metro attendant decides to improvise her usual message: “If you see any person that is suspicious please report them to metro.” She decides to improvise that. She started by saying, “If you don’t want what happened in Spain to happen here, then report, blah blah blah,” which scared the hell out of the people on the platform. And of course, what do they settle on is the bearded Arab with the two bags, right? And so I’m getting all these stares, and I do get stares usually, but this was ridiculous.

Finally, the train comes and I get on the train, and I always sit in the seat that faces all the other seats, and I realized that that wasn’t the thing to do on that day. So I am almost on stage, there’s nothing in front of me, it’s one of those seats, and I have these two bags in front of me. And one older lady is looking at me and she is totally sympathetic. She’s the only one in the car that knows there is something wrong with the scrutiny. She is smiling and she is trying to show her disgust with the other passengers. I am getting angrier and angrier.

My instinct is to stand up and say, “You’re a bunch of racists and I know why you’re looking at me!” And that’s the drive, that’s the overwhelming force. But then I thought about it. Fortunately, I take yoga. I took a couple of breaths and I decided to do the last thing this audience would expect, I pulled out my knitting needles and I started knitting. And I knit for like a minute and I wasn’t even following the pattern, just like knit and purl and knit and purl and knit and purl. And then I looked up and everybody was turning around. And the only person that was looking at me was the older lady and she was laughing her heart out. I had just shifted the framework. I didn’t confront them on their grounds. They’re in a completely different territory. They don’t know what to do with this, an Arab man knitting on a train. They’re lost. They have to reestablish the logic [that has] been pressed upon them by media and such.

He also quotes a line from Rumi referring to a field beyond good and evil. Friends, where is this field?


Debby said...

I love this. People don't know what to do when their own biases (?) are challenged. And everytime I witness a case of this, it makes me happy.

Debby said...

I've been thinking about your last question for a couple days now. I think the field lies beyond good and evil. I think we pass through the place where we villify or stereotype, or call each other names, where we consider ourselves 'good' as we simultaneously label other folks as 'bad' without really trying to understand them. That field lies in us, Algernon, and we will get to it only if we struggle through the rest of it first. The sad thing is that there are people in this world who have no interest in getting to that field. Indeed, they haven't a clue that something else exists beyond good and evil. That's what I've been thinking anyway.