On Wednesday, September 24, I'll be giving an informal talk at the famous brownbag series sponsored by SIPA's Southern Asia Institute! Stop by and chat about migration (regional and global), the importance of literature and narrative in development policy debates, and my book, Muslims of Metropolis, out now through Rutgers University Press.
Indexing is not what you think it is. It's not Ctrl+F and keyword searches. It is a labyrinth of your own making, a maze of ideas and terminology and cross-referential straight-jacketry. I can't help but think that if I 1. knew what I was doing, 2. had been given time or guidance on how to do it, 3. had been paid to do it, I would not be so frustrated as I am now. Sound familiar? It should. It's pretty much been my same complaint for about 5 years, and yes, the refrain is beginning to sound shrill to me too.
I have always known that I had my own bizarre way of defining things, my own little jargon for the pseudoacademia I inhabit. I actually have very little official academic grounding in philosophy, critical theory, sociology, cultural anthropology, policy analysis...but my work falls into all of these disciplines (or just short of them). So what's the compromise I've struck? I made up my own jargon. Which suited me just fine, lo those many years when I was writing. I found myself both clever and precise. But now I'm looking at my terminology on a page, lined up in neat, alphabetical columns, and I really am wondering if there isn't a better way of naming and defining things.
Of course, this just sets me off into another theoretical downward spiral, about the legitimacy of the concepts in this book, the philosophical problem of defining, the act of writing as a futile exercise in naming ideas...
so what else is there to do but work as hard as I can, right? Well, actually, I spent the better part of my day freaking out. I know that the world cares about more important information, like for example, the fact that the late great James Brown's "wife" has a funny last name, but who really cares about the clash of civilizations anymore? I mean, it's turned into this sicko self-fulfilling prophesy, it's not a gross misrepresentation of a much more complex and subtle reality anymore, so why bother examining it anymore?
But still and still, the more I think and write and simmer in my own solitude, the more it irritates me that the clash of civilizations has become a reality, that we are so susceptible to alienating ourselves from each other, and that whether or not I put this book out there, the tide of generalization and hostility will not turn.
It doesn't seem like enough to have spent all this time and energy only to end up with...a book. I want to start up a conversation. Is this corny? I want for all of us to talk about why we have such bizarre prejudices and fears, why group identities are exclusive, and why personal choices like religion become political categories.
Right, so here it is. There is NO policy solution to integration. What else will make way for emotional and psychological integration but a society-wide dialogue, no cheap tricks, no fake rhetoric, just honest....ok, I'll say it...healing.
But still, there are people who will tell you that this is less important that war and global warming. So I guess pick your passion.
Honestly, I just couldn't bring myself to finish that thought. I have been informed that I need to leave my apartment, because I'm starting to sound like a nut.
To summarize: having struggled with the vagaries of the working world, flirted with that sexy beast otherwise known as "a steady income", having compromised every ethical impulse I had to work on a contractual basis in what is known as "reputational risk management" for a major corporate entity, I have thrown it all away and returned to the computer. Yes, to finish this book.
Two weeks, my friends, and I will hand in a complete draft to my publisher. I still have no title!!!
Anyway, just wanted to welcome myself back to my beloved, abandoned blog. See you soon.
I don't know what to say! I cannot believe I haven't written anything here for so many months. Months that slipped down my throat like overripe canteloupe. Never satisfying, never miserable, just had to be eaten somehow. I guess things have changed since May, but mostly not.
For a handful of years, I was able to mark the time with drastic external changes. But the last three years have just been about this book. No job I did was for itself, no place I lived was just because - everything only to facilitate this book. And still, because of how much effort it took just getting set up for the book - finding the right place, gathering the right materials, making enough money - I never had enough time to just write. Irony is so nauseous. You should never listen to me when I say that things are going fine - they're not. I'm terrified most of the time, wretched with the feeling that I am wholly unequal to this task. But still, it's going along fine. I'm writing, anyway.
I think I'd like to change the format of this page a little bit. Instead of using it as a forum to tease out ideas related to the book (these are all going into the book itself at this point) - I thought I could use it to escape a little. A short story here, a narrative there. Maybe even (gasp, and it's been such a long time) a poem or two. funforkavi.com.
So here we are, me and the book, going along. It's this living thing, my real friend, the only constant. My co-dependent lover. I think I'd enjoy just writing something else every now and then.
Last October, I met with two of my good Turkish friends at a Cuban cafe in Berlin. She works as coordinator for immigrant programs at Berlin's Workers' Welfare organization, and he is an acclaimed international photojournalist. The couple has been engaged in immigrants' rights issues in Berlin for many many years, even decades.
We met in that strange pocket between evening and night, in the hush between when working people go home and playing people go out. The air was moist and dark, and we were all a little drowsy. We ordered frothy coffee drinks, something to fill us and wake us a little, and got into the business of catching up. The photojournalist, who has a big, round voice, and can seem energetic even when he's not, opened the conversation.
"We were just at a cultural sensitivity training session for health professionals. How exhausting! After all these years of raising the same points and having the same conversations, we still run up against such obdurate ignorance. It's just so tiring." At one point during the day-long training program, a German woman had apparently stood up to say that she was starting to realize that seniors from other cultures might have unique needs. "In 2004!" My friend was outraged. The two of them shook their heads. Joined in our common frustration over the long and weary road to integration, we felt a sense of cameraderie.
Then he asked me how things were coming along with my book.
He did not know that, since our last meeting, my project had changed. More specifically, he did not know that I was now writing about the Kurdish community in Berlin, not the Turkish one. I see the two conflicting parties as locked in a symbiotic identity-formation process, in which the ethnic character and integrity of each is intricately linked to the actions and claims of the other. To clarify, I don't think you can write about one community without writing about the other. But to people with strong national allegiance to either side, the mere mention of the other side can be an insult, even a threat.
So when I told these friends of mine that I was actually writing about the Kurdish community in Berlin, I felt a sudden coolness from them both. Suddenly, I was on "the other side," and the cameraderie was gone. The photographer, who had moments before complained about Germany's failure to guarantee its minorities equal rights and opportunities, began to defend the Turkish state's actions against Kurdish insurgents. He said that most Kurds in Germany had probably never been to Turkey, had probably constructed some myth about Turkish oppression based on exaggeration and heresay, and had constructed their "Kurdish national identity" very late, if not completely in the diaspora.
Universal truths like "minority rights" often stand on such shifting sands.
Like many large, diverse countries before it, Turkey won't allow one of its "regions" to pull itself away from the larger body politic. Like many large, diverse countries, it has waged a bloody and brutal war against the guerillas who fought for at least civil and economic equality with the rest of the country, at most independence from the rest of the country. Its right to suppress the national ambitions of any of its minorities are far more concretely protected under international law than the feebly voiced "principle" of self-determination for minorities.
Since the hard-won Covenant of 1919, Turkey's national character has been tied closely to its territorial integrity. Its majority population, who remained largely unaffected by the war that consumed its southeast for the last two decades of the 20th century, hold Kurdish guerillas responsible for destabilizing the country and causing the deaths of nearly 30,000 Turkish citizens. Few know about long underdeveloped health care, education systems, and physical infrastructure throughout the southeast, leave alone the active criminalization of Kurdish linguistic and cultural expression.
I can imagine any government winning majority support in a campaign against a separatist minority, and I can imagine that support surviving even after brutal and even inhumane repressive campaign tactics have been widely exposed. Thus, civic-minded people who support the "idea" of equal rights and national liberation may support the reality of civil inequality and repression.
The question is, how do we narrow the gap between the theory and practice of freedom?
Been on the road again these last few days, which is why I haven't posted in a while. I'll be in London for a few more days, chasing after the perfect narrative line, then on to Berlin to perfect another one.
Things are going well. I'm actually enjoying London this time, for the first time. This time, I know what I'm looking for. I've been going to different sites from my London character's formative years, putting together the pictures I'll need for my most distant scenes. Last night, I spent the evening at his mother's house, watching old family videos. Also a first - this time I didn't feel like an intruder on someone else's intimacy. I wonder what has changed, why I don't feel so tentative asking to be let in further? Is it because I am more confident that I am capable of writing this story? Because I know exactly what scenes I'm putting in the book?
Suddenly, I am no longer overwhelmed by the bigness of this book. I know what my themes and motifs are, I know my characters and the defining moments of their lives, I know so much more policy and history than I did two years ago. What a sensation. What a relief. I can't wait to finish this book.
I sit in front of this computer, miles and weeks away from the people who are to populate this book. I can feel some details slipping from my mind, others I hadn't thought much about appearing again. I can't recall the location of the restaurant where Mune and Hikmat had their first marital fight, at the beginning of their honeymoon - but I can see every stitch of threadwork on Mune's dress whose transparency was responsible for the fight. More than anything, I remember how her voice sounded when she told me about the dress, the fight, her honeymoon. I can remember every timbre - its fullness, its joyful sorrow, its warmth, its loss. Mune, 11 years a widow, misses her fights with Hikmat as much as their tranquil evening walks. Her voice as she recalls this fight tells me this.
So here I am, trying to recreate the impact this voice had on me for my future readers, who will have only words on paper painting and scoring this scene for them.
Each interview is a play, a piece of finely orchestrated theater. The theater of interview follows the patterns of classical drama. The long hours spent building trust are a kind of rising action, which lead to a climax where the interview subject reveals some emotional truth. At that moment when the interview subject is lost in the story, I can see his/her past thoughts and actions, and that moment of revelation is seductive. In the catharsis following a revelation, intimacy is born. And intimacy is the stuff of good stories.
Part of what I'd like my future readers to experience is the thrill I feel when these characters reveal something to me - a detail, a thought, a story they've never told before. The incredible intimacy of that moment is a priviledge to witness, and a greater priviledge to write down.
I will be leaving the US for Germany on Sept. 8, and will return here on Nov. 20. My exact itinerary remains unresolved, for two reasons: 1) I don't want to limit myself with a rigid schedule and miss out on spontaneous opportunities to get inside peoples' lives and 2) I don't trust information and contacts established from overseas. I can tell you this: over the next 2 1/2 months, I will be in Berlin, Hannover, various Kurdish regions, the Palestinian territories (and perhaps Egypt), and London.
I have big plans - in these next months, I hope to cook up the main course of my book. I have begun to learn photography, begun using a digital voice recorder, and finalized at least 2 of my 3 main characters. Technically, I've finalized all three, but I worry about one - that she may have changed her mind, that she may be too busy, that her life has altered too drastically since she agreed to be in the book over a year ago. What a difference a year makes....
Of course, how can I fault a person for wanting to protect her own privacy? This is the constant struggle - appreciating how invasive this process is, how indirect the benefits to the interviewed are. Understanding also, how few people may eventually read this book, and how difficult it really is for so many of us to lay down our prejudices and simply identify with a character in a book. Most of us, especially in the USA, are fiercely protective of our individual autonomy in choosing the people who matter to us, with whom we identify. Maybe a reader might feel forced to sympathize with a character in a book. Maybe the reader will rebel against that perceived coercion.
But maybe books really can clarify and convey the complexity of the human condition, argue for a more critical understanding of peoples' lives. One of my characters believes so strongly in the power of communicating her story. She uses media interviews as a form of therapy. She cries for justice, but really is just looking for a reason to stay where she is, persevere, and keep hoping that things will be better than now, than before. Her husband is deported and she is unemployed, and yet she is looking for a reason to stay. As we become better friends, I better understand the value she sees in letting me put her life into print.
When I was last in Berlin (with Fulbright in 2000-2001), I had nearly a year at my disposal. Simply because I hadn't finalized my methodology, my efforts were scattershot and distracted. I wasn't sure whether to concentrate on immersion reporting, expert interviews, personal biography interviews, secondary source research, media tracking, legal research, or data collection. In the end, I did a little bit of all of these things. I also participated in an ethnology research project, moderated a discussion panel, and wandered around a lot. In the course of things, I learned a great deal about Turkish Berlin's society and culture, formed both wonderful and destructive personal relationships, learned how to work a coal oven, tried out some new recipes, and picked up some new arts preferences.
Now, I realize I will have to do all of those things in order to complete this book. The stories will only work if I have immersion detail, expert opinions, understanding of legal and public opinion changes, statistical and historical data, as well as an in-depth understanding of each of the main characters. Sometimes, between computer problems (in the last three months, I have removed 3 worms, 2 viruses, 18 spyware, and 167 adware from my hard drive), personal obligations, small and troublesome sicknesses, and just plain living, I don't know how I will achieve all that needs to be achieved within the next 6 months.
But progress is being made. Soon, I will post my chronology and bibliography here.
If anyone is doing any research or work on the relationship between refugees and larger immigrant communities, I would love to see it.
I started saying I was going to write a book about 4 years ago, but didn't start the actual work of it until 1 1/2 years ago. And now, I feel like I've been carrying around this unborn child for years, waiting for it to sprout fingers and toes. I'm ready to get to it. But the process is overwhelming - what to focus on? Right now, I'm trying to do it all - media tracking, interviews, immersion reporting, research, travel planning. Mostly, I'm trying to enter my world into databases.
This takes an inordinate amount of time. But I'm hoping that, once I have names dates books contacts keywords etc in tangible sortable form, I'll have a better idea how everything relates together. It took me nearly a year to be able to tell people what the book was about without putting them into a trance. Now, I feel like I'm working with one map instead of hundreds of scribbled-down directions on post-its. The book looks at political consciousness in three Muslim communities in three Western cities across two generations - the Palestinian (Arab) community in London, the Pakistani community in New York, and the Kurdish community in Berlin.
In it, I want to show how the size and content of civilizations change in the major cities of the West. I explore how geopolitical events, national immigration policy (driven by national security, economic concerns, or generalized ideologies), and municipal policies shape immigrants' identities, political involvement, and ability to integrate into the social fabric of the communities in which they live. Every immigrant's identity is shaped both by what he is leaving behind and what encounters when he arrives. On some level, he makes a social contract with his new home, the terms of which are often dictated to him. Depending on how comfortable he feels in his new home, he will react with fear, anger, or apathy when the terms of that social contract change.
The book is to be powered by the lives of three main characters, one in each of three Muslim communities in three major "Global Cities". I'm borrowing the term from Saskia Sassen, who, more than anyone I've read, really has been able to link the international economic changes with the evolution of cities and the impact of these cities' evolutions to drastic changes in immigration patterns. Of course, immigration policy is linked to foreign policy, national security policy, and federal economic policy. But immigrants' lives are more directly impacted by municipal policies behind urban planning, education, transportation, housing, employment, and local representation. Although many immigrant communities are changing the shape of suburban areas in Western countries, the majority of permanent and temporary undocumented migrants still live in cities.
But there will be more time for discussing themes and ideas later. What I want from this blog - I will be posting links to websites, research centers, articles, books, people who deal with these topics - Muslims in the West. I will be writing about my travels and processes. If you have any comments, responses, must-read articles/books, personal/professional contacts you think would be important for me, I would be delighted for you to write them to me.
Welcome. I look forward to many enriching conversations with all of you.
NAVEND, Center for Kurdish Studies Bonn-based research and dialogue center providing interface between academics, politicians, community-based groups working on integration issues, journalists, the public, and Kurdish immigrants. Strongly non-partisan.