Readers here know that I prefer concrete cases and actual experience to grand theories. More than big rhetoric, I like the microcosm that gives us a much-needed window on reality. So, wanting to say something today about America, I reprint this piece from a few years ago:
It’s fig season again, and despite my early fears that the utter absence of rain in May might diminish this year’s crop, our huge fig tree is putting out massive quantities of fruit. We have probably given away 700 or so already to various fig-loving friends and neighbors. It’s a nice time of year.
And whenever I’m out there picking figs, I think of The Curious Case of the Fig-Eating Arab, first explored in these pages a couple summers ago and reprinted here for those who would like to examine a microcosm of contemporary America.
I went out one July morning and found a Middle Eastern woman in full burka or whatever it is, entire body covered, only her face showing, placidly munching figs. (At least you could see her face. At a Target store the other day, I stood in line with a woman–I think it was a woman–who had just a tiny mesh viewing-slit to keep her from walking out in front of a truck.) I had seen the Fig-Eater around the neighborhood, always walking a few steps behind a white-haired old man.
I looked at her, she at me. Nobody spoke. She munched. I walked around to the other side of the house and did a couple of things, feeling oddly bothered. Neighbors pick from that tree all the time, we’re not huge fig fans, and the birds eat half of them anyway, so who cares? I was galled but I decided to say nothing. She ate for a while and left.
This incident led to a number of thoughts about the true religion of American today, Diversity, which is always and in all its manifestations Good, and is only questioned by those who are Evil.
I thought about doing a newspaper op-ed or a radio commentary on this encounter at the time but 1) I feared being seen as some kind of Typical American War-Loving Bush-Supporting Imperialistic Christian Crusader Provincial …what’s the word????…. and 2) I really couldn’t fully explain my irritation to myself.
I believe that we can’t think clearly if we don’t admit our own imperfections, blind spots and biases, so yes, I’m prepared to admit that some of my reaction was just …what IS the damned word…YES! xenophobia. But that didn’t seem to be the whole thing. so… the thoughts have been marinating and I’ve only recently gotten clear on it.
Here’s how I decipher the mix of emotions and thoughts I experienced during this encounter and afterwards:
A. One part simple, non-xenophobic irritation at presumptous fig-leeches who take without asking or thanking. After all, I got pretty hacked one time when I came out and found a white guy–on a ladder, no less–filling a basket with figs. And no fig-leech has ever come back to help scrape the sticky, wasp-attracting husks off the sidewalk, either. And when a massive limb broke after a rainstorm and spilled out blocking the sidewalk and part of the street, I sweated and sawed for two hours by myself to clear the mess, with nary a fig-lover in sight. End of petulant complaint.)
B. One part dislike of Her Kind. Without believing for a moment that the Fig Eater is somehow inferior to me (for all I know, she’s a former physics prof at a university in Dubai), the whole burka-wearing syndrome bothers me. I don’t like the weirdness of hiding your body that way. I don’t like her shuffling along behind the Dominant Man. This is not our way, Citizen, I want to say.
And as I’ve often thought, I don’t like the way These People pick and choose from the cultural smorgasbord.
They come here to enjoy freedoms beyond anything offered in the Middle East, but they stay in their little insular bubbles of dress and language. I see them all over Richardson and Plano, driving brand new minivans, chatting on cell phones, partaking of modernity but still wearing these absurd Allah-pleasing burkas that are supposed to ward off lecherous eyes. (As if.)
They want the absolute best of the 21st and the 14th Centuries. What does Donald Trump say? What does the mullah say? Let’s take what we like from both! They strike me as major-league Takers. She’s probably here to watch over her grandkids while her son or daughter gets a degree at nearby UTD, which he/she will then use to open a software company in Cairo.
C. Some of this sounds pretty sour, I know. If there’s a more positive takeaway, maybe it’s this: This woman, personifying foreignness, feels perfectly comfortable walking through the neighborhood and onto my property and eating my figs. Nobody bothers her and she knows nobody will bother her, and if someone did bother her you’d have big coverage in the media and a local Committee of Concern formed to dig out the roots of hatred in our community.
In Richardson, a City of Shame Asks What Went Wrong
“I was merely enjoying a fig, which is a delicacy in my native land,” explained Bhutora El-Wahadi. Then, tragedy struck. . . .
Now let’ s flip this scene over. Let’s imagine an American woman, perhaps doing relief work or teaching English at a school in Saudi Arabia or another Middle Eastern country. One morning she gets up and puts on a typical American outfit– Nikes, tight shorts, optional sports bra, and a skimpy blouse showing several inches of flesh including her pierced belly button–you know, something she might wear to the mall back home.
And off she goes walking or jogging through this Middle Eastern suburban neighborhood to munch some free apples from a tree she spotted.
Right. How far do you think this brazen American harlot would make it before some very unpleasant things happened? Two blocks max, I say, before various defenders of the faith decided to play Attack the Infidel.
D. So I believe the incident of the fig-munching Arab reveals a typical 21st Century American scene:
An immigrant comes from far away. She proceeds to chow down at the banquet table of freedom, which is of course her right as we define rights today.
Some “real” American is a bit offended by her presence and her presumption, but the Real American feels conflicted about it, says nothing, and even feels a bit guilty about being conflicted. (How You Know That PC Rules: You not only don’t write or broadcast such thoughts, you feel the slightest taint of racism in even thinking them. The perfect PC Man, if he exists, would have an Auto-Alert Brain Filter that shunted such rebel thoughts into a synaptic gulag before they caused trouble.)
In some weird way, though, the Robed One’s actions and my non-reactions may say hopeful things about our system. We have a terrible history of racism and slavery which we can never fully erase, but today tolerance is one of our ruling values, as witness the Curious Case of the Fig-Munching Arab.
My heart was not pure on this, and I bit my lip in irritation, but on balance I’m glad I said nothing unfriendly to her that day. When it comes right down to it I just can’t see stalking over there, grabbing the pulpy figs from her hands, splattering them on the sidewalk and, neck veins bulging, ordering her to get back on her camel and get the hell out of my country.
And that’s how the vast majority of Americans feel about this stuff–a little baffled, a little angry, a little cowed, a little guilty, and even, weirdly, a little proud, as in “You won’t find me moving to your country, sweetheart.” By the way, this connects with the whole immigration crisis. We think the lifeboat’s getting awfully crowded, and we don’t really “get” some of the newcomers’ customs, but in the end we shove over and make room in the boat.
That’s not perfect love in the Peaceable Kingdom, but it’s not nothing, either, and it sure beats the alternatives practiced in so many other places.