When people meet this strange white man with aviator sunglasses and hydrofoil sideburns, it is clear that I am… from out of town, so one of the first questions I am always asked is “Where are you from?”
“America”, I say, “in a village near the city of New York”
“Oh, New York! I know of that place!” they reply, and then scan their memory to remember how exactly they know of it. Then they ask me in a jovial, getting-to-know-you tone, “Was anyone in your family killed on September 11th?”
Thankfully, no. But at this point the conversation always comes to a somber lull. In America and especially in New York, anyone other than Rudy Giuliani has a hard time making small talk out of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. But with the hyperliteralism of the Bambara tongue, subtlety does not quite exist in Mali. As much as I would prefer for them to ask me about the Yankees, Broadway or the Museum of Modern Art, the only one of New York’s landmarks they could possibly know is the former World Trade Center.
One time I was hiding from the noon-day sun brewing tea with a group of men and I had to suffer this horrendous dialogue once again. I have had this simultaneous conversation starter/ender more times than I can count, but this time it really touched a nerve. Directly beforehand, the person with whom I was speaking had asked me about my religious affiliation.
“Tell me this – who told your family not to go to work on September 11th?”
My blood curled. The cruder instincts in me wanted to strangle this particular individual brewing tea before me, shove his face into the glowing embers, and then pour that teapot of boiling water down his throat so he could never utter such obscenity again. But then my superego chimed in and reminded me that I am in the Peace Corps – we are strongly discouraged from committing in acts of violence, no matter how deserved they may be. Peace, Zac, think of peaceful methods of conflict resolution such as the art of Reason and Negotiation. It took me a while though, because at that moment the impulsive option seemed rather appealing.
I simply informed the casual anti-Semite sitting in front of me that no such warning was ever issued to the Jewish community of the greater New York metropolitan area, and that many Jews, in fact, were killed on 9/11. I explained to him that the assertion is absurd on its face, for Osama bin Laden is quite open about his intent on killing Jewish civilians throughout the world.
“But Sidi told me that…” Sidi is an illiterate peanut farmer who lives down the street.
I framed the problem like this: I am from New York – Sidi has never strayed more than a donkey cart’s ride away from his village; I have read the 9/11 Commission Report from cover to cover – Sidi cannot read; I am a New York Jew – Sidi would not know what a Jew was if he clocked him across the face with a bottle of maneshevitz.
In the end I think I won. Though throughout the conversation, I could not help but eyeball that boiling teapot.
There really isn’t much more to this story, in truth it’s not much of a story at all other than a cautionary reminder that even in perhaps the most moderate, pro-Western of countries in the Islamic world, the vilest of anti-Semitic slander is disseminated with the greatest of ease. I can’t really blame the people who fall for it, because they have no source of information other than gossip and hearsay garbled a hundred times down the telephone line.
I feel that I can rightly blame those few demented, self-fashioned journalists and educators who use their power over the minds of men to give credence to such malicious lies. But the sad truth is that sick minds like these have existed since the days of Pharaoh, they always will, and there’s nothing anyone can do to make them go away. But there is plenty that can be done by Israel, the United States, and especially the American Jewish community to dilute their message and undermine their credibility.
From Senegal to Syria to Pakistan to Indonesia, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims grow up in stifling poverty with little to no access to public education. In many countries the only opportunity that many Muslim youth will ever have at receiving a free education or a secondary education of any form is the madrassa system funded by wealthy Arabs from the oil-rich Gulf States. Despite the awful press they have received in past years, there is nothing inherently wrong about the madrassas – they are in essence no different than Catholic boarding schools. But if there is a madrassa in a given city teaching its garabouts to believe in a global Zionist conspiracy, then that is probably the only semblance of an education they can ever hope to get.
I must admit that when it comes to the most politicized madrassas which propagate such hateful screeds, it might be the only time that I will ever agree with Paul Wolfowitz: the United States and the rest of the industrial powers must embark on massive campaign to finance public education in the Islamic world. This money need not be slanted towards the ideological indoctrination in free market democracy but the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, for that alone is enough to allow students to develop opinions of their own and bust the madrassas’ near monopoly on public opinion.
Furthermore, the State of Israel has a great role to improve this current state of affairs. At the present, there is no sign of an Israeli presence in Mali – which is a shame, seeing that all things being equal Mali remains one of the most tolerant of Muslim countries, the Malian people are unanimously supportive of international development efforts, and the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré is avidly embracing any and every foreign government which offers such aid. Israel more than capable of financing a modest assistance program and I can’t think of one good reason why it has not done so already.
I hate to say it, but Jerusalem should emulate the example being set by Muammar el-Qaddafi. They should open up an Israeli Embassy in Bamako and make a good first impression by embarking on a spending spree to finance the construction of new schoolhouses. If the Livni cabinet could allocate a minute fraction what is spent on subsidies for the building of new settlements in the West Bank to send Israel’s famed water engineers to Mali, they could do for Islamic communities bordering the Sahara what investments in irrigation have done for horticulture in the Negev Desert. Were the Israeli Foreign Ministry to become as visibly involved in West African development programs as say, Luxembourg, one cannot help but think that the soft power influence would deprive local anti-Semitism of oxygen and maybe even establish a few more moderate Islamic allies to prod Palestinian cooperation in a future peace process. If only…
I should quit while I’m ahead. Next time someone asks, I’ll say I’m from Chicago.
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