Last week, at a playground on the banks of the Marmara Sea, I stood with a stranger and watched his daughter and my grandson chase one another up and down the slide. They were laughing, enjoying the game. We were encouraged by their easy palship to attempt a conversation.
“Where you are from?” the man asked me. I faltered a moment, embarrassed.
“From the U.S., “ I finally replied.
“Ah. I am from Syria. I came here five years ago.”
Unsure what to say next, I stammered, “You are kind to speak English with me.”
“Oh,” he laughed. “I am a teacher of English. I love to have the opportunity to speak!”
“Ah.” I could have been quiet. A socially adept person might have stood there simply enjoying the mirth of our children and the sparkle of the sea. Instead, I pressed on.
“It must be difficult to be from Syria. What’s happening in your homeland must be painful for you.”
He nodded solemnly for a moment then looked me in the eye. “Well,” he ventured, with a new twinkle of mirth emerging from his own, “No more painful than being from America, I’ll bet.”
In 1970, when I first ventured to Europe, a sweet Italian boy asked me if I were an Ugly American. I spent the next 9 weeks of my trek across the continent proving in every way could that I was not. My encounter with the Syrian English teacher was not the first time I realized I was experiencing a resurgence of what I felt about my country in my profligate youth.
“Speak to me in German,” I begged an Iranian neighbor in the courtyard of the apartment complex where I was staying one morning. I couldn’t bear to hear American English coming from my mouth as I spoke to her.
Being an American, especially being an American abroad, is indeed excruciating. Every day of the two months I stayed in Turkey I faced news from my beloved country that made me shudder. Child abuse by US officials. Refugee incarcerations. Racist slurs against respected politicians. Rallies inciting brainwashed multitudes to chant hateful slogans. Ostensible newscasters spewing toxic lies to widen the chasms that divide citizens. Threats of war both civil and foreign.
Early in the morning three days before my flight home to the States, I received an email from my airline instructing me that because of heightened security in the US, all passengers leaving high-risk areas must undergo extreme scrutiny by security personnel. I was therefore instructed to be at Istanbul Airport at least three hours prior to flight time.
I closed the email, shuddering at the thought of having to leave the apartment at 2 AM for a 6 AM flight. Shivering with resentment that my prosthetic hip would set off the metal sensors and force me to endure inevitable pat-down humiliation.
Before I could shut down my email server and go brew a cup of coffee, my news feed blasted pictures from El Paso. Twenty people killed less than a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival massacre. I sat and wept. Before my tears abated, news of Dayton. I remain inconsolable.
I am hyper-aware of irony. It underscores the absurdity of life around me and ordinarily gives me a healthy perspective on what I observe in the world. While irony often makes me laugh, it is equally capable of reducing my soul to painful shards that impair my vision, alter my hearing, infuse me with the bitter taste of helplessness.
By the time I read those three notices, my toddler grandson and I had spent 60 days frolicking in various playgrounds in our Istanbul suburb, interacting with people from all over the Middle East. I didn’t like everyone, and I am sure there were those who disliked me. Human interaction is like that. I’m not historically ignorant, and I know there have been times when I would have had a very different experience in Turkey. But this time, now, there was no threat inherent in not being friends with everyone. I never felt unsafe. No one ever threatened me with a gun. No one shouted at me that I must conform to any single notion of right/wrong. Not one person posed any kind of a threat to me or my family.
So sad. My misinformed, misguided, brain-washed fellow Americans believe that the people outside our country threaten us with terrorism. When I said I was traveling to a country that is 97% Muslim, I was overwhelmingly warned, even by my more enlightened acquaintances, to “Be careful.” It should have been I issuing the warnings. The real threat to all of us comes from our fellow Americans.
Mass shootings continue to increase. Congress continues to allow the money-wielding gun lobby to control them. The so-called president continues to sow seeds of fear and resentment that foster bigotry and violence. Politicians and our so-called liberal leadership continue to insist on radical stances instead of seeking ways to re-group and ameliorate. The mainstream press continues to whitewash the awful truth about the evil in our midst.
And we continue to allow ourselves to be bamboozled.
You are right, my Syrian acquaintance. What’s happening in America is painful.