Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Dinner Conversation

It is not often that I get invited to an Eid party in America. But this year came my lucky day. So I found myself at a friend's sister's house in Staten Island, in a middle class neighborhood, where every other window displayed a sign "Happy Ramadan". Sounds of celebration were in the air welcoming the end of the fasting season. My hosts were from the city where I was born and grew up, Hyderabad. I am a little ashamed to say that my prime motivation to accepting the invitation was driven by my palate. The food in a Muslim house from my city is unsurpassed, and on Eid it is especially good. And the hospitality of a Muslim family is extraordinary, especially when they know you are from the same town.

So as expected my family and I were greeted with warm hearts and hot spiced "chai". We were embraced with a warm hug and the greeting, "Eid Mubarak". We were welcomed into a home which had large pictures of the Kabah hanging on the wall and framed words from the Quran adorning every door frame. Men and women were dressed in their brightest and finest traditional attire. Some women wore the Hijab and others did not. Some men wore beards and Kufi's and others did not. Some had a dark marks on their foreheads, a mark of their religious fervor. The young were in the backyard throwing hoops and being American in every way. The men sat in the living room and women were upstairs having a cheerful time. The atmosphere was festive and vibrant. Being from Hyderabad, I  blended in speaking in Urdu, which always gives me pleasure. Even though I was the only non-Muslim among fifty odd people, I perfectly felt at home. This was partly because I was familiar with the culture having grown up in a city which was half Muslim.

After some tea and biscuits, the men were shown to the basement for dinner. As the aluminum foil peeled off the serving platters, the aroma filled the room. The best Biryani on this side of the planet was on display along with other culinary delights native to my town. I had no choice but to give up my recently acquired vegetarianism for the night. As the men filled up their plates and sat around the table, the conversations began. I soon realized most of the men were in the small retail business or had other low level office jobs. I struck up a conversation with two Pakistanis who were from Karachi.

After the customary introductions, the conversation shifted to my profession. As I often experience at many Indian gatherings, people are surprised and intrigued to find a documentary filmmaker among their midst. It is not a profession of choice among many of my origin. As we spoke, the attention shifted to the film I am directing, which happens to be about an illustrious Pakistani scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1979. The two Pakistanis I was conversing with were vaguely familiar with his name, but knew very little about what Abdus Salam had done.

Abdus Salam has the unique distinction of being the first Muslim scientist to have won a Nobel Prize. Born in 1926 in a small village in Punjab, Abdus Salam was a child prodigy. His accomplishments and contributions to science, especially on the elite field of Theoretical Physics, are unsurpassed. Without his seminal work, the Higgs Boson would not have been discovered. Abdus Salam was a deeply religious man and belonged to the Ahmediyya community, a sect within Islam. Over the last sixty years or so, the Ahmedis have been persecuted in Pakistan for considering their founder to be a Prophet. The Sunni majority in Pakistan, consider them to be heretics for not accepting Mohammad as the final Prophet. For this they have been declared non-Muslims by an amendment to the constitution, and over the years Ahmedi mosques have been attacked and people, discriminated, targeted and killed. As a result many have left the country or live in fear mainly in one particular town outside Lahore.

As I began to elaborate on why I was making this film and how important it was, as Abdus Salam had been wiped out of his nation's psyche despite his patriotism and contribution to his country, just for being an Ahmedi, my audience did not seem very sympathetic. One went so far as to warn me that I was risking my life making a film about Abdus Salam, and suggested other illustrious Pakistanis to consider. Also my Indian origin was a little unsettling to them. They were quite intrigued as to why I was interested in making a film about a Pakistani. I could sense that many people did not have a problem with the status of Ahmedis in Pakistan and believed they deserved to be declared as heretics.

As the comfort level grew more amiable, the conversation shifted to other areas. Many unanimously agreed that 9/11 was an inside job. America had orchestrated an attack on itself to find an excuse to invade the middle east. This is a very commonly held belief in many parts of the Muslim world. A poll conducted in Egypt not long ago revealed that 80% of Egyptians believed in this conspiracy theory. Another point of consensus was that America the "evil empire" was responsible for the chaos ensuing in the middle east and visa-vie the Muslim world. Israel, America's evil cousin was never to be trusted and the Mossad trained the American police and that is why so many African Americans were being killed. The American media was only interested in showing the ugly underbelly of places like Pakistan. They did not care to show the progress other nations were making as it did not serve their agenda. All in all an anti-American sentiment was in the air, which was a little unsettling. I was also aware, that many were being unfiltered in their opinions as they considered me a member of their tribe. But what astonished me most, was that there were a couple of Donald Trump supporters in their midst as well.

There is no question America has a checkered history in the way it has dealt with nations around the world that did not serve its self interest. The list is long and recorded for all to see and parse and volumes have been written and continue to be compiled, as the nation goes through one war after another. The recent illegal invasion of Iraq exposed America's dark side, with horrific revelations of torture from Abu Ghraib prison, CIA rendition sites and Guantanamo Bay. America's ill-conceived adventure not only resulted in the deaths of many Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere, but also gave rise to a cancer called ISIS, which is mostly killing other Muslims, in a battle for survival. As politicians like Donald Trump and his ilk ratchet up the suspicion of all Muslims by their hateful rhetoric, the suspicion of American policies only grow stronger and deeper, spawning recruits for the unending "war of terror".

As the conversation around delicious food moved along, I was trying to process what was being said, in a setting that was foreign to me, but not so alien, that I could not fathom the source of their train of thought. Many of the participants had arrived in the United States seeking a better life and I had to remind them, that no other nation in the world would assimilate them like this one. I also had to make a point, that yes America not always plays its cards right, but one must also acknowledge the good it does with it's generosity towards many humanitarian causes, both from the private and public sector. Recently the Ebola epidemic in a far off land was contained by mostly brave American doctors and forces. In many instances America is on the front line providing rescue and relief when both political and natural disasters strike and other nations fail to step forward. Yes America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, bombed Pakistan, Libya and Syria in a way that has been detrimental in myriad ways. But billions of dollars have been poured into these nations to rebuild and provide basic infrastructure which was absent before. So I had to make a point, that one has to put everything in perspective and historical context and most of all acknowledge that it is only this nation that provides the protection of the constitution, to freely speak your mind without hesitation, as they did.

As the meal ended and the table had to be vacated for the women to gather, I wondered what a young mind sitting at this table would have gathered from the opinions expressed. In a time when we routinely see young people radicalized and brainwashed via the internet by powerful ideologues, a simple dinner conversation can serve as an impetus, if you are naive and trying to navigate world. If no historical context is provided to a conversation, and the complete picture is not sliced and diced, and only a myopic view is presented, it is not hard to imagine someone being lead down a rabbit hole of no return with little provocation.

In the powerful 1989 movie American History X, the Neo-Nazi protagonist played by Edward Norton is menacing and racist to his core. He has a change of heart when he goes to prison and interacts with a black inmate on a human level. A scene that left an impression on me, was when the protagonist as a child is vehemently bombarded by racist rants from his violent father around the family dinner table. And so he grows up with a warped view of the world, eventually becoming a skinhead. The dinner conversation I had on this day reminded me of this scene from the movie, as I pondered on all dinner conversations around the world. I wondered how easy it was to skew a young mind, by only providing a unilateral view of the world with a strong belief in conspiracies.

In today's world, the impulsive conversations on the internet, seem to have taken the place of the family dinner table. As mores of socializing become infused by technology, I wonder if conversations occur in many homes as they used to, at all.Yes there is an evil that is to be fought in the world when it morphs into a diabolical ideology, but if we are to create a better world, the real battle to win is at the dinner table, be it real or virtual. It is what it is.