Our Journey to Smile

A relational response to Obama’s Cairo speech from peacemaker in Afghanistan to Egyptian Arab Muslim friend‎

Egyptian Arab Muslim Mt Sinai

A personal letter from a Peacemaker in Afghanistan to Shereef, my Egyptian Arab Muslim friend

A relational response to American Christian President Obama’s speech to Muslims in Cairo, Egypt

Dear Shereef,

It was as I sought to understand the language of the Muslim world that I fatefully bumped into you over a mummified cat at the ancient Egyptian Museum in Cairo years ago. Personal histories past and present, cultures and most of all, hearts met as you described how you were as trapped as that preserved animal.

I’m certain that there was as much or as little ‘fear’, ‘mistrust’ or ‘suspicion’ in me as in you. But I think that you and I were both somewhat ‘conscious of God’ and the human struggles in one another and as we spoke frankly with each other, we became friends.

Now, I’m willing to put up with potential misunderstanding and labeling from others in stating that I do love and treasure you.

Not because of the circumstances of your ‘trap’ or the abysmal lack of love and truth among the major faiths of our 21st century, but because you, Shereef, Egyptian Arabic teacher, married with 2 daughters and with conservative and kind elderly parents, have become a friend, a person, a fellow human soul I can relate freely with.

You cope with your challenges, I cope with mine.

And though we dreamily wish to live as neighbors someday, I remain unmarried and ‘free’ in a village in Afghanistan and you remain married and ‘trapped’ in a village in Egypt.

We’ve talked much and I had described you to S’porean and Afghan friends as having the mind of the ‘ancient engineers’ who designed the pyramids.

I think we have to live with the ‘scourge’ of a dis-empathetic world, that while we uncover child-like truths hidden by surface pomp and rhetoric, we can merely ‘cry’ and be ‘depressed’ together.

We mustn’t forget to take comfort in the wisdom of the shepherds who tend their flocks on the vast plains and mountains, the subsistence farmer who wants just enough water for the land and food for the table and the undemanding laborer who can’t quite count his wages, all equally powerless to fulfill their ideals despite their simple human depth.

Yesterday, in your capital, Obama offered a new beginning in relations with the Muslim world and spoke about violent extremism, Israel-Palestinian/Arab tensions, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom and economic development and opportunity.

I’m glad Obama offered a hand of conciliation and emphasized the ‘golden rule’ of ‘ treating others as we would have them treat us’, because all leaders and more importantly, ordinary folk like you and I, need to concretely undo the extreme global and individual ‘distrust’ and to constantly meet the eternal need for peace and friendship in our very short lives.

1. Violent Extremism

My discomfort is that Obama spoke of it as if it were more a trait of Afghans or Afghanistan or of ‘others’ and that he may be betraying the ‘golden rule’ already.

I pray that no American or NATO soldier would come to these quiet hills I live on and in a moment of war-like frenzy and self-preservation, that he would NOT mistake some of my ‘insurgent-look-alike’ neighbors as killing targets. His single act of violence would bring out the capacity for violence found in all human beings and Shereef, none of us can then control the taking of lives.

If that ever happens and I’m caught in the cross-fire or the nicer-sounding ‘collateral damage’, I may then not have the chance or fortitude to tell you the in-humane stories that would have unfolded, again and again as it has throughout human history. A history student doesn’t necessarily learn that.

Weapons and violence recognize and differentiate no Man.

Violence CANNOT be overcome by violence.

‘Poor’ Obama. He expressed the paranoia of America about others and others about America when he said that in Afghanistan laid the ‘American goal that needed to be confident that there were no violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can’.

When will that ‘democratic’ American goal be achieved, that is, how many non-violent, ordinary Afghans ( out of 30 million ) need to be left surviving this war before America’s ‘confidence’ of safety can be satisfied? The tragedy is that some of these ‘insurgents’ aren’t even Afghans. How many of those who flew into the Empire State Buildings were Afghans? Who ARE the violent extremists?

Unfortunately, few democratic, communist, socialist or fascist citizens would ask these questions of their democratic, communist, socialist or fascist leaders. Much fewer are the answers.

Our current age has established conventions, leagues and treaties to govern and guide the way we continue conducting and perfecting our war techniques within the acceptable rules of violence, wars to be seen as just by all conflicting parties involved and rules which under extraordinary renditions, can be circumvented or re-invented.

Let me sidetrack.

I had returned once to S’pore and my university lecturer-friend had invited me to a talk by a prominent American expert on Sino-US Affairs. I forget his name but he was from a high level ‘think-thank’ advising Washington on China. The participants must have shared my urge to walk out of the slanted, shallow paranoia this American intellectual expressed when he declared that the ‘Red Army’s goal was to kill as many Americans as possible’ and that therefore America would not allow Europe to sell arms to the Chinese.

I’ll leave this till after this wild, wild west /wild, wild east scenario bursts out in the future and before this ‘intellectualism’ overwhelms us.

You and I know, together with the majority of Mankind, that every human being has a violent and paranoid streak. Because violence and paranoia are largely relational, we cannot overcome these with more violence. We need to get to know each other, build those no-agenda, humane friendships person by person till a critical public practice of peaceful relations is attained.

Our modern age has the tools to build those ties ; internet, long-distance conferencing, web-cam and e-chatting, quick transportation and numerous academic institutions everywhere ( I’m confident that there are more ordinary, moderate academic institutions that can promote non-violence than there are ‘extreme’ ones ).

I do not believe that nations, made cumulatively of human beings, are animals which function on different virtues and challenges of human relations.

2. Israel-Palestinian/Arab tensions

I’ll have to listen to your thoughts on this, Shereef. As I have come to admire your heart and mind, I must say that we need to encourage each other to look beyond history and names.

We cannot speak as if Israelis are not as wronged, hurt or displaced as Palestinians just as we cannot speak as if Israelis are not as capable of violence as Palestinians.

Violent conflict and war has become the culture of our times!

If I hurt you, I need to apologize and also to grieve with a transformational attitude, not because you are an Arab Muslim, but because universal friendship and respect matter to me.

I hope Obama does not get distracted by ‘unbreakable alliances’ or enmities, because these are ultimately less basic and broad than the human to human ties everyone can share.

I have no practical insight into this centuries-old dilemma but I remember how you reminded me about the primacy of love while we were descending Mt Sinai together.

An Arab couple, probably Egyptians, were angrily destroying the triangular stone prayer mounds which were scattered along the pebbly path down. You asked and they replied, “The Israelis come here and claim this mountain as theirs by building these stone mounds. We will not allow it and we would have them know that this mountain is NOT theirs!”

As they stormed by, you remarked, “But these are just STONES.” You could not have expected them to understand that in their fury.

A second later, you turned to me and said, “How can anyone who does not have the love of God in his heart know God?”

I pray for grace as these tensions are worked out person by person, painstakingly and patiently.

3. Nuclear Weapons

I applaud and support Obama’s wish for a ‘nuclear arms-free world’.

Any country promoting a nuclear arms-free world would need to swallow the hard and humbling fact that disarming must start on its own turf and in its own backyard. No action other that example would convince ‘allies’ or ‘foes’ otherwise.

We shouldn’t be-labor ourselves too much over this rather shameful ‘regress’ of Mankind’s knowledge and technology.
4. True democracy

This can be as interesting and convoluted as the first ‘Republic’ discussions Aristotle and Plato had.

I’m not a political science student. I grew up in what I think was a Socialist Democracy and I’m grateful for that but I’m unqualified to comment on such enormous concepts.

I can observe though that the growth of good governance seems slow and I can guess that perhaps human nature is a core issue. Forms of governance may have to evolve and devolve as we grasp the limitations of Mankind’s good but deceitful heart.

And I am a witness to the Global Great Game being played in Afghanistan.

Some shell of a ‘parliamentary democracy’ has been set up under President Karzai over the forever tribal kingdoms found in the artificial land state-area called Afghanistan.

Try playing the Afghan national game of Buzkashi and we’ll quickly know the humorous difficulty of bringing American style ‘democracy’ to this freedom-loving, proud people.

Foreigners who export themselves elsewhere truly and erroneously believe that they know what’s best for locals, be they Afghans or any other ‘dominated’ national.

Here, war lords, drug lords and normal lords will compete with muscle and foreign money, lies and more lies, for largely illiterate votes. Foreign finances will be used on an electoral system that is unlikely to bring any semblance of a ‘government of the people by the people’.

This game will be played out under the current decay of incorruptible corruption, utter dependence-manipulation and universal drugs, aggravated by the scattered political, economic and military agendas of the US with a coalition (more like a division) of 46 countries.

The dominant elements of the Great Game are clearly not a ‘government of the Afghan people by the Afghan people’.

How can ‘education in democracy’ happen without ‘local assimilation and language’?

How can ‘democracy’ be birthed through ‘un-democratic and often violent’ means?

Shereef, I often wonder about what the majority of ordinary Americans think about such an important issue as sending 68,000 of their sons and daughters to a wild country like Afghanistan and spending 96.7 billion of their tax money on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Islamic hot-spots which are part of the Muslim world that Obama wants a new beginning with)?

Perhaps, if Obama’s admin wanted to stretch true democracy back home, they should put this issue up for a US national referendum. We would then understand better what democratic Americans really want, especially the ‘Christians’. We can hope not to be disappointed by American humanity.

I have to empathize with ‘poor’ Obama again. I wish to encourage him as a fellow human being by asking him to listen as he says he would, not as the 52.9%-elected President of USA but as a human person, first to his own heart and then also to the ordinary voices of the Afghans he is ‘fighting against ’ (physically very different from ‘forging peace with’ ).

How can ‘independent sovereignty and democracy’ be gained from within ‘domination’? I sense that you struggle with this in your own country. Gordon Brown is having some domestic parliamentary problems now. Would he like some Afghans or ex-colonized Indians to go over to restore some order, however benevolent or well-meaning they may be?

5. Religious Freedom

In this regard, I’ll say, ‘Avoid the religious cages.’

Shereef, I’m glad your ‘imagination’ is too ‘alive’ to adhere to religious codes and dogmas, which themselves require supervisory codes and dogmas, leading to greater un-enlightenment and darkness.

Which state law can alter the way we ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’? Civilization must begin to pursue the relational essence of religion and freedom and not harp or pressurize others over cages of religious terms and symbols.

Does religion or God or love disappear under the most restrictive rules or in prisons?

I wish to say this next thing in the best way I can, because I don’t want to be judgmental or accusatory. If religious freedom is the freedom which gave the presidents of USA and Iran the liberty to label others ‘evil’ and ‘give orders to kill’ without accountability and with impunity, I’d rather not have those forms of religious freedom, thank you!

In this too, I take comfort in your friendship, because even if and when you see the ‘darker side of me’, I trust you would not call me ‘evil’, far less kill me.

6. Economic development and opportunity

Sorry, I was getting a little ‘clinical and cold’, so let me say that these musings cannot replace or compare with our friendship.

I was reminded of this human connection recently by my Afghan friend Ali Mohd. I had been busy and had not contacted him for a month or so.

Ali Mohd and I enjoy each other’s company and exchange of ideas. But to him, our time listening to each other’s stories is far more important than my analysis, advice regarding his family’s ‘economic development’ or my help.

I finally caught up with him 3 days ago. He confessed politely that he had been disappointed when I had missed picking up his phone call a few weeks back. An Afghan friend had fuelled his doubts by advising, “Never give place in your heart to a foreigner. In the end, they will not be your loyal friends. You’ll be hurt.” Ali Mohd was really alluding to the centrality of relationships and community in the Central Asian Muslim world.

As he divulged his heartfelt unease, he said plainly, “Hakim, you must understand, that we Afghans, having lived through years of war, don’t want to admit that we are in dire need of genuine, sincere love. You should have picked up my phone call.”

I also remember 13 year old Shamsullah, who just died and got buried in a name-less grave in my village. He died of a cancer which his family did not have money to seek treatment for.

I will not forget your frequent mention of the lack of opportunities, economic and personal. And how I would feel sad and trapped along with you.

Shereef, I too want to imagine the utopian world where wealth is more equitably shared. I am pained that you cannot get better re-numeration for your noble job of teaching ( I’m confident that you are a good teacher ) just as I am pained that 96.7 billion American dollars will be spent for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while 2.8 billion will be spent developing the Afghan economy and services. The disparity is incongruent and unconscionable.

But we have to do what we can.

I’ve begun a small potato chips producing shop with my Afghan farmer pal Mohd Hussein, whatever the irrelevant G20 decisions were.

I’m sorry I had to ask you to use your writer’s creativity to ‘think away’ your lack of opportunities. But we ARE dealing with more than we can handle in economic systems that will always thrive on the individual SELF over the many others.

Please continue in the truth that your profession and honest livelihood, however meager it may seem, has an earthly and other-worldly dignity and happiness that no dollar can add to or take away.

Please remember that your life as an individual and father and son of a beautiful family in modern day Egypt and as a Muslim seeking to be dutiful to God and Man, is more valuable than the temporary gold and false status which any soul-less state, system or religion can buy you. At least to me, your friend, by now your brother in the Afghan proverbial world.

And if all else fails in our effort to live normal, ordinary lives, just as with Shamsullah, when ‘greater economic opportunities’ J come my way, I should at least meet you again, to have ‘filafils’ and tea with you, to laugh over our chats and follies, to be closer friends for a while and therefore hopefully for good.

As Obama rightly identified, people just don’t trust people anymore.

So perhaps, above letters and speeches, we should find hope in our friendship and the dream of similar friendships multiplying in a wide-scale everywhere. I hope you can trust my heart; that’ll be one less distrustful relationship in a crazy, hurting world.

May the peace of the Koran, Talmud and Bible, whose meaning and practice has been abused by words, inaction and antagonistic action for so long, be given a struggling chance.

As always, love you!



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