M. Jerry Weiss, Editor
Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey
Different Is Just DifferentSuzanne Fisher Staples
In Lake County, Florida, where I live, the school board passed a resolution last winter that allows teaching multicultural studies provided they are taught from the perspective that "American culture" is superior. America's growing preference for challenging First Amendment rights over exercising tolerance is alarming. The good news in Florida is that the resolution has sparked discussion where people didn't know much about multicultural studies before. The mother of a student said to me recently: "I've never been clear on what multicultural means. I thought my kids would be reading about African-American and Hispanic people. I never realized it could make a difference in how America acts as a member of the world community."
There's more to it than that, but she was on the right track.
I'm often asked why I was moved to write my first two books, Shabanu and Haveli, both set in Pakistan, both with Islamic characters. Many people wonder why they should know or care at all about the Islamic world.
The idea of writing fiction first struck me when I was a news reporter for United Press International in Asia. The most important story I covered during that time was the war in Afghanistan. It was, like all wars, tragic and terrible, perhaps more so than others because so many children were involved. After news reporters were denied visas to Afghanistan, we had to cover events from the border area. Often I visited the field hospitals that treated refugees and the Islamic rebels who fought the Soviet invaders. In one clinic in a remote area south of rebel headquarters, I met six boys who were around the age of thirteen. They were all that was left of a ragtag group of 100 unarmed boys who had fought and killed twenty-odd Soviet soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
During the Afghanistan War, I began to be troubled by Americans' lack of understanding of people who are very different from us. Every day at news desks all over the country, editors lobbied for space for national, local, and state news in their newspapers. Most days the Afghanistan story was relegated to a paragraph in "News in Brief" columns. It was not because the editors didn't understand the strategic importance of Afghanistan. They knew the Soviet Union had invaded because they needed a warm-water port, and more important, access to the Persian Gulf and the shipping lanes that carry Middle Eastern oil to the West.
What these editors did not understand about Afghanistan, an Islamic nation, was its culture, the ways of its people. It was as if the war were happening somewhere unimaginable, in outer space perhaps. The editors didn't have the sense that these were people just like you and me, whose mothers, grandfathers, husbands, wives, and children were being killed, people who get cold in winter when there's no heat, and are terrified when they hear gunfire outside their houses -- just as you and I would be.
The news, important as it is, is not the best way to promote cultural understanding. News is based on facts about politics and economics. But fiction invites us into the lives of people who may seem very different from us, but nevertheless share our emotions and hopes and dreams -- the stuff of the hearts of every one of us.
I had the opportunity to return to Pakistan in 1985 to do a study of women and poverty for the U.S. Agency for International Development. While the major thrust of USAID's projects was to build or improve roads, tunnels, bridges, and irrigation canals, the agency sought ways to improve the lives of the poorest people of Pakistan, those who live in rural areas. The idea was to improve health, nutrition, and housing for families by concentrating on women. The first step, we decided, should be to teach the women to read. If you teach people the meaning of words on paper, they more readily understand ideas -- for example, that things they can't see in their drinking water will make their babies sick or that certain foods will make them grow strong. Teaching people to read makes hope a reality, for many for the first time in their lives.
It was exciting to study the mysteries of poverty and how to break into its cycles. It was also exquisitely frustrating because the solutions were so complex. It's very difficult to motivate women to learn unless you provide a concrete reason, like showing how it will help them earn money. Otherwise they see little sense in sparing their valuable time and finding other people to care for their children and animals. And it's virtually impossible to teach them to read or make money if they're always sick because their drinking water is too close to their toilets or because they don't have enough to eat.
USAID ultimately decided that this approach to improving people's lives was too complicated and didn't spend enough money fast enough to be politically acceptable, either in Washington or Islamabad. In the end a small step was taken. USAID contributed to a literacy center where women from the countryside would take instruction and return to their villages to teach other women to read. In the face of the crushing problems in their lives, funding the literacy center seemed a small token step.
Now, eight years later, the literacy rate among women in rural Pakistan remains at about five percent. Children still go hungry and many die in infancy. USAID no longer funds the literacy center, nor roads nor tunnels.
I can think of little that does more damage to bodies, minds and spirits than poverty. Change is particularly difficult in economically backward Islamic countries, and many American development experts regard progress there as almost impossible. On the other hand, my moderate Moslem friends regarded our effort in behalf of literacy as a great victory. They're used to small steps, while Americans are of a mind to have it all.
When I came back from Pakistan, people asked: "How could you stand the poverty and ignorance?" It made me want to say: "Look around you! It's not so different here."
Poverty does not define the lives of poor people. Their lives have as much value as ours do. There is more to Islam than repression. All of us have in common the entire range of emotion and experience: love -- passionate love of men and women and tender love of parents and children, girl children included; humor -- they love to see a bully brought down, an unkind deed backfire.
During my time in Pakistan, I learned something with my heart that my head already knew: "different" does not mean "better" or "worse" -- it just means different
It's important for people to understand that Islam is more than terrorism and fundamentalism and suppression of women -- that it's a religion of compassion and justice and poetry not at all dissimilar from Christianity and Judaism in its prescriptions for how we should behave toward each other.
Like it or not, we're politically and economically linked to the Middle East by way of our dependence on oil. Islam is the world's largest and fastest-growing religion. And now we find ourselves yet again in the forefront of making and keeping peace in the Middle East.
A great struggle is being waged for the very soul of Islam. While we know of attacks such as the one on the World Trade Center, we don't know the significance of terrorist activities that don't actually affect us. In Pakistan, fundamentalists have arrested Akhtar Hameed Khan, a poet and philanthropist who once wrote that he admired Buddha. In Turkey, they gunned down the secular journalist Ugur Mumcu. These events were barely mentioned in the American press, yet our not knowing about them is a big help to fundamentalists.
In a New York Times editorial in July, 1993, Salman Rushdie wrote that acts of persecution against moderates in the Islamic world are common: "[These acts are] part of a deliberate, lethal program, whose purpose is to criminalize, denigrate and even to assassinate the Muslim world's best, most honorable voices: its voices of dissent. And remember that those dissidents need your support. More than anything, they need your attention."
I went to the Cholistan Desert to gather information for the USAID study. As an outward show of respect, I wore Pakistani clothes. I had reservations about wearing the chadr, or veil, which to me symbolized the repression of women. I was mistaken about the veil, as I was in most of my other preconceived ideas about Islam. The chadr, when tied between the branches of a tree, makes a fine cradle. It is a backpack for carrying fodder and kindling, a screen to dress and bathe behind, a sheet, protection from the sun, a bandage, a towel. Life in the desert is inconceivable without it.
I slept on the ground with the women and worked beside them learning to make chapatis and hauling water. I studied Urdu, the language of Pakistan, so I could listen to their stories and tell them my own. We laughed and cried together and became friends. Their stories became the framework for Shabanu and Haveli.
The Pakistani are people of extreme courage. Living as they do on the very edge of survival, they depend on each other too much for triviality to creep into their relationships. They see joy and humor everywhere it hides, and they train themselves to find the best in every situation.
As difficult as it had been to adjust to living there, it was easier than coming home. By comparison Americans seemed petty in their dealings with each other. I was appalled at how much energy we spend on unimportant concerns, such as whether our shoes are in style, or our teacups are chipped when company is coming. (I've been back five years now, and I must report that I now worry over what to serve guests at dinner, what to wear to parties, the state of my teacups.)
But living among the people of the wind forced me constantly to stretch to understand and to make myself understood. It made me grow in ways I never knew were possible. My hope for Shabanu and Haveli and all good books about people who are different from us is that they will inspire us to grow beyond our limits to learn understanding. And that this understanding will foster peace in the world by teaching us not to fear differences but to become more compassionate people.
Suzanne Fisher Staples is the author of the award-winning novel, Shabanu.