This essay was written in May, 2010.
For the past few years, Susan and I have been hosting foreign visitors who tour the US sponsored by the State Department and the Northern Nevada International Center. We have hosted Chinese, Russians, Turks, various Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. We even provided accommodations to a mayor from a village in Tajikistan for ten days. He didn’t speak a word of English. But he spoke fluent Farsi, of which I speak a little from my time in Afghanistan. Plus, we have our Iranian neighbors from across the street who came over every evening to translate.
Our most recent dinner was for seven attorneys from Pakistan along with their Pakistani (State Department-sponsored) guide. We were informed in advance that they were all observant Moslems, and so any meat dishes should be “halal”, the Moslem equivalent of “kosher” for Jews, in which the animals are slaughtered under the observation of an imam or rabbi, or at least with religious certification. But since Susan has been an observant vegan for the last two years, we chose to serve a meatless dinner consisting of Indian-Pakistani-styled vegetarian dishes.
The visitors also chose to abstain from any alcohol consumption. I know that alcohol is consumed in Pakistan, just not publicly. These attorneys were from different cities in Pakistan and had not known each other before coming on this trip. I suspect that at least some of them would have happily had a glass of wine, but they had to put up a devout appearance for the rest of the group. This reminds me of a joke told by Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keiller. The joke goes like this: If you take a Baptist with you on a fishing trip, he’ll drink all your beer. How to prevent this? Invite two Baptists along…meaning…Baptists don’t want to admit to other Baptists that they enjoy a beer now and then. I think the same thing goes for Moslems.
We had frank discussions about the political situation in Pakistan. After all, Pakistan is a hotbed for potential terrorists, as noted by the recent arrest of the Pakistani-American who attempted to explode a bomb-laden vehicle in New York’s Times Square. In the discussion, we happened to say something against Moslem “fundamentalists.” One of our guests corrected us…we were referring to “extremists”, not fundamentalists. He implied that he might be considered a fundamentalist, according to his belief system, but that he was not as extremist who would use his beliefs as an excuse for committing terrorist acts. This was a point well taken. It has been said by many sources that there is no inherent justification within traditional Moslem beliefs or in the Koran for terrorist acts. If there were, then all fundamentalist Moslems would be terrorists, which is obviously not the case. The American analogue is that not all fundamentalist Christians condone or commit the murder of abortion doctors or attack believers in a woman’s free right to choose whether to give birth or not.
Several of the Pakistani attorneys had been jailed in conjunction with the long-running demonstrations against former Pakistani dictator Parvez Musharef’s attempt to remove a supreme court judge with whom he disagreed. All the attorneys were against Musharef’s manipulation of the law and the court system. Unfortunately, corruption of the legal system did not start with Musharef. The widespread disparities between rich and poor lead to a lack of justice for the powerless poor of Pakistan. (India suffers from the same unfortunate corruption syndrome, though not as bad as in Pakistan due to India’s having a strongly grounded democracy rather than a series of military dictators and corrupt civilian leaders.)
Typical state department sponsored visitors begin their US tour in Washington, DC, observing Congress, visiting with officials, etc. They usually visit another city, such as Houston, Orlando, or Oklahoma City, before coming to Reno. Reno has the National Judicial College, located within the university. The Pakistanis expressed being impressed with the professionalism of America’s judicial and law enforcement officials. They mentioned that Pakistan’s democracy is young…going through its growing pains. They complained that too many Pakistani officials were corrupt, soliciting bribes, and otherwise showing favoritism to their cronies.
I questioned them about the current hot issues within Pakistan, such as the Kashmir problem (India and Pakistan have fought three wars over this issue.), the Baluchistan problem, the Northwest Frontier problem, and the Pakistani Taliban problem. The visitors were quite candid in their responses.
On Kashmir: the Kashmiri people (who are majority Moslem) should be allowed to vote to determine for themselves to which country they should belong. However, one of the attorneys allowed that the Pakistani government might not accept a vote going against Pakistan.
On Baluchistan, they confessed that the Pakistani government had taken natural resources from the region without spending money for development, roads and electricity. They understood that this created an opportunity for India to foment civil strife. (India’s subversive interference is seen everywhere according to the Pakistani worldview.)
On the Northwest Territories, they reported what I already knew, that the Pakistani government is relatively powerless in that area. That’s where Osama Bin Laden probably is hiding. It’s like the lawless wild west of the US past. One of the attorneys lives in the province directly south of the Swat Valley, which saw conflict between government forces and the Taliban. This attorney’s province was forced to assimilate over a million refugees from Swat who were attempting to escape the violence.
The Pakistanis said that they felt misunderstood by Americans. They wanted the American people to understand that the vast majority of Pakistanis are not religious extremists. They related that over ten thousand Pakistani citizens have died in conflicts with the Taliban, more than the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. They were pleased that we were genuinely interested in hearing their stories, and that we had some knowledge of their country’s history and challenges. It felt like there was genuine open and honest discussion between Americans and Pakistanis.
There was one unpleasant detail that emerged the day after the evening together. When the guests first arrived, Susan had introduced us to them by saying, “We have two Hindu cats, Krishna and Radha, and a Moslem dog, Jamal,” and that she was Jewish, and that I was raised Christian. And thus, we were a mixed household. This introduction was made in a light-hearted manner with no hidden meaning attached.
It was brought to our attention the next day, that someone from the Department of State had called the office of the International Center to complain about this conversation being perceived as a cultural breach or insult. Apparently, it was offensive for Susan to use the words dog and Moslem together. The US State Department is very touchy about the state of US-Pakistani relations. We were appalled, because no offense was intended, and the rest of the evening, including our having played a short concert for the visitors, was very pleasant. Indeed, they raved about Susan’s vegetable curries, and several of them took leftovers to have for breakfast the next day.
According to the official discussion, the name Jamal means “beautiful” in Arabic and has nothing to do with the Islamic religion. It is a common man’s name. In our minds, we connect the name Jamal with the famous jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, with whom we had the honor of performing during the first year of our relationship, and for whom we have the greatest respect. This apparently innocent cultural misunderstanding goes to show that “citizen diplomacy” is not necessarily a simple easy affair.