Hey God, Look At Me!
The bi-annual trek of foreign students to the Book Corner for their copies of Flowers for Algernon and other semi-classics has begun again in earnest this week.
Indiana University, like many such institutions of higher educ., attracts scads of students from around the world. Most international students learned English in their elementary or equivalent schools. Think for a moment about how adept you are at whatever second language you learned in seventh grade and you’ll realize many of these students may need some brushing up before they can attend regular classes here. So IU makes foreign students take a proficiency test and those who come up lacking are assigned to the Intensive English Program, a sort of boot camp to get them up to speed in this holy land’s native tongue.
The IEP instructors assign books to the students and then direct them to come to our town’s downtown to buy their copies. The trip, it is hoped, forces the students to navigate unfamiliar territory and speak the language. One of the mainstay IEP reading assignments is the aforementioned 1958 scifi novel by Daniel Keyes. The book is relatively short and is written in a straightforward style, the better to immerse new-ish speakers in the language.
I always get a kick out of taking care of the IEP students. They generally step tentatively into the store and immediately whip out their smartphones to pull up an image of the book’s cover. Usually I spot them well before they can stumble their way through asking for the book. I preempt them by saying, “You’re here for Flowers for Algernon, right?” Occasionally, though, they’ll catch me unaware and start making halting requests, the words of which I recognize might be anything from floors to Algeria mixed in with so much unintelligible verbiage from their homelands.
Most speak English surprisingly well, though. We usually end up chatting about where they come from and what they hope to study here. I’ve met students from Colombia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Yemen, Portugal, and all points in between. I don’t know how I’d feel if I were, say, 20 years old and in a foreign country with a somewhat passable grasp of the language, but the students I talk with seem eager to burst out into grins when I engage them. It’s as though they’re thankful I’m not going to call the authorities on them for having the thick accents of terrorists.
Monday a Middle East couple walked in. The young man led the way, his partner trailing behind. She wore a niqab, part of the fundamentalist Muslim uniform code that demands women be dressed “modestly.” As in Dress like you’re not there.
I’m no fan of demonstrative religious displays. People who plaster Jesus bumper stickers all over the rear ends of the cars give me the shivers. I saw a lot of Hasidic Jews up on the Far North Side of Chicago when I lived there — you know, those fellows who dress like Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer eating Easter dinner at his shikse girlfriend’s family’s house in Annie Hall? I never could understand why people feel compelled to scream to the world how much they love, love, love their god. Maybe their god is hard of hearing.
Click Image For Full Scene
Anyway, the Middle Eastern couple. The book, it turns out, would be for her. He did the talking. Which I found extremely uncomfortable.
I figured, as long as the book would be for her, I should be talking to her. Yet the man stood nearer to me and the woman seemed to want to step back. I wanted to make eye contact with her but I thought, Isn’t it against the rules to look a woman in the eye? I dunno.
See, there’s tons of restrictions and proscriptions on interactions between the sexes in the Middle East Muslim world. Which ones, I wondered, are real and which are ignorant stereotypes I’ve bought into?
If I do insist on addressing the woman, will the man get mad? And whom will he be mad at? Will she pay some price when the two get home? Later, will he tell all his Muslim friends not to go to that Book Corner store because the stupid American there insulted his masculinity?
All these thoughts ran through my mind. Still, that troublemaking part of me insisted I speak with her. I did and — you know what? — she looked me right back in the eye and was engaging and charming.
Like the Jews and the Christians, the Muslims have different little sects that rank 1-10, say, in hard-assed-ness. Like the Hasidic Jew and the Reformed Jew or the holy roller Southern Baptist and the United Methodist.
When far too many Americans think Muslim, they think wild-eyed rock-throwing, suicide-bombing, woman-stoning, bearded lunatic. Near Eastern Studies scholar and Israeli Martin Kramer wrote in Middle East Quarterly some years ago, “To all intents and purposes, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism have become synonyms in contemporary American usage.” I’ve never wanted to be one of those Americans.
And yet here I was, always busting my fellow homelanders for their willful ignorance, but as ignorant about Muslims as anyone.
Here’s a fascinating site for you to peruse: Islam’s Women: Jewels of Islam seems at times as progressive as any American feminist organization. In fact, an article entitled “Women’s Rights in Islam” opens, “The issue of women in Islam is topic of great misunderstanding and distortion due partly to a lack of understanding, but also partly due to misbehavior of some Muslims which has been taken to represent the teachings of Islam.” Later, the article explains, “According to the Quran, men and women have the same spirit, there is no superiority in the spiritual sense between men and women. [Noble Quran 4:1, 7:189, 42:11]“
Hmm. The site adds, “In the area of economic rights, we have to remember that in Europe until the 19th century, women did not have the right to own their own property. When they were married, either it would transfer to the husband or she would not be able to dispense of it without permission of her husband. In Britain, perhaps the first country to give women some property rights, laws were passed in the 1860’s known as ‘Married Women Property Act.’ More than 1300 years earlier, that right was clearly established in Islamic law.”
Then again, in a section explaining women’s appearance, the site states:
“Why do Muslim women have to cover their heads?” This question is one which is asked by Muslim and non-Muslim alike. For many women it is the truest test of being a Muslim.
The answer to the question is very simple — Muslim women observe HIJAB (covering the head and the body) because Allah has told them to do so.
Which brings us back to the seed of this sermon: The belief in god and the all-too-common compulsion to let the world know about it. The Amish wear their uniforms. The Muslims insist that faithful women cover themselves either from head to toe or in some slightly less demonstrative way. Christians dangle crucifixes around their necks. Jews nail mezuzah cases onto their door jambs.
All of them want you — and me — to know something about them: I dig god and he digs me.
Yet, there’s always a little bit more to the message: My god is not your god (unless you’re part of my club.)
It is, when all is said and done, an ID card. Considering the fact that, acc’d’g to adherents.com, a survey of the planet’s religious populations, there may be up to 4200 different religions right now in this crazy, mixed-up world, it begins to get a tad difficult keeping up with everybody’s mores, folkways, and taboos.
But by wearing what amounts to a religious ID card, the world’s faithful not only want the rest of us to know who they are but also to respect their faith’s traditions. Of course, such sensitivity can become onerous. For instance, the French have thrown up their hands and decided they don’t want to have to deal with the ID card that is the hijab. Covering the face and body in this way is now against the law in that nation, earning a faithful Muslim woman who wears a burqa in public — with or without the niqab — a stiff €150 fine.
(From Left) The Hijab, The Niqab, The Burqa
Being faceless, in other words, is too in your face in France.
Back to the Middle East couple at the Book Corner. We ended up having a pleasant conversation. They were Saudi Arabians who grew up in the same small town of fewer than a thousand people. They’re both studying business of one form or another. Their English, by the way, was superb even though they both apologized profusely for not speaking it well. I wished them great luck. As I do with all IEP students, I welcomed them to this country. They left happy, I hope, with me as I was with them.
All’s well that ends well, natch, but I’m left with a certain feeling of discomfort. Why, I wonder, did I have to put myself through all those mental gymnastics when I first laid eyes on the couple?
All they wanted to do was buy a book.