“You must understand about hummus” is one of the stranger things people (and I do mean more than one) have said to me upon learning that I am Iranian-American. It’s rarer than the searching looks that go with the response, “but you don’t look Iranian?!” with a tone of betrayal. But still, there it is.
About a year ago I received this very glossy brochure in the mail. It was a personalized invitation to join the National Guard. (My last name is emblazoned on the fatigues on the cover, even!) The goody bag, should I decide to RSVP in the affirmative would include: expedited U.S. citizenship, family medical and insurance benefits, and a $15,000 enlistment bonus. All to be a “Language and Cultural Specialist” for the good old U.S.A. And if that wasn’t enough, they might also be able to help with a home loan, tuition assistance and a retirement plan.
Someone finally found a use for the millions of Iranians living in the U.S.! Thank goodness, because I was starting to feel left out. For years I counted on the fact that no one who asked the origin of my name would be able to find Iran on a map. Now that the jig is seriously up, it’s about time we got what’s coming to us: a chance to help the U.S. do serious damage to our homeland. But in our own language, with some respect for the culture. Smooth.
The following month, I went with a group from church to be part of rebuilding efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. There, we witnessed first hand how little had been done in 18 months to help rebuild, and the utter absence of the federal government. Except in the form of “formaldehyde-rich” trailers. We stayed at a camp that was built expressly for Katrina relief workers by volunteers. It was run entirely by volunteers, and was being bankrolled by Saudi Arabian philanthropists who reportedly were dismayed at how long the rebuilding was taking and wanted to do something to help. So they asked the folks at Camp Coastal Outpost what it cost to provide the materials for a new home. The answer: $15,000. The Saudis replied that they would like to see 150 houses built, and would pay for all the materials if the volunteers could coordinate labor.
Our whole time in Mississippi we heard story after story of debacles with FEMA trailers, threats of having them taken away, and the hell people went through to get medications and decent water and everything you’ve probably read about a million times over by now. I couldn’t help but wonder that with this going on right here at home, it was amazing that suddenly the National Guard had taken an interest in me and what I could do to help abroad.
I never encountered hummus while I was in Iran, but there are some things I think I do understand. Perhaps I should enlist and send my $15K to Camp Coastal. Perhaps we should take all the $15K bonuses, let good people of Middle Eastern heritage stay home in the U.S. and ask every one of us to go be part of building or rebuilding homes in every place where they are needed.
Blessed creator, thread that weaves us into common joy and common suffering, tug us tightly into awareness of our connection. Help us transform our anger into clear thinking and right relationship. Give us rest from the cynicism that is a well-hewn shield from the pain of daily assaults on the cultures of our birth. Surround us with your grace instead: a warm blanket of understanding that can transform ignorance and hatred.
Give us patience with the dots that don’t connect and courage to speak the truths that do. Illumine the paths that are before us and well within our power to effect: a trip to the voting booth tomorrow; a decision to confront our fears with information; the practice of offering compassion first and judgment later. And let us know your presence by rewarding our faith in people of good will by letting us see the good that can come of working in common cause. And give us strength to walk the road ahead.
Whisper to us constant words of wisdom. Let it be.