- The extraterrestrial next door Adam Hadhazy, Space.com
- Reporting reports: colonial medical institutions Jonathan Saha, Colonizing Animals
- The best way to defeat totalitarianism? Treat it as a joke Anna Aslanyan, Spectator
- Bureaucrats in the Defense Department: An ethnography Jonathan Wong, War on the Rocks
I just spent another two weeks in Mexico, in Puerto Vallarta to be specific, a town pretty much invented by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. (See the movie “Night of the Iguana.”) The more time I spend in Mexico, the more I like Mexicans. I may have to repeat myself here.
Mexican cities are clean because people sweep in front of the their doors every morning without being told. Everybody there works or is seeking hard to work. Everybody is polite and friendly. One exception: an older taxi driver showed some discrete ill humor with me. I had mistakenly given him 15 cents (American) for a tip. That’s it. Every other interaction I had was gracious or better. (It’s true that my Spanish is good and that I was accompanied most of the time by my adorable 8 year-old granddaughter modeling a broad-brim straw hat.)
Every time I am in Mexico, I notice something new. This time, I was there during the summer vacation period and Mexicans from the US were numerous and very visible. They come to Mexico to kiss old grandpa and grandma, in one case, to get married, and to a large extent, for a vacation, like everyone else. They tend to be loud and better dressed than the locals. They are brisk consumers who buy their children the best beach equipment and all the tours available, like new consumers often do. Many are garrulous and strike up a conversation with strangers easily. They know their place in the sun. I may be dreaming but I think there is something distinctively American about them.
I also bumped into a surprisingly large number of “returnees for good,” including several who got stuck on the southern side of the southern border. Many more lived in the US (legally or not, we don’t often talked about that), made their pile, and took their savings and deliberately started life anew in the old country. One bought two taxis, several built houses, another acquired a ranch where some of his less urbanized relatives live and make a living. He mentioned cows, of course, but also horses. There is a whole program of upward mobility in the simple word “horses.” Unless you have a dude ranch (unknown in Mexico, I think), horses are only for recreation. Manuel, back from short-order cooking in Los Angeles, can even afford to have his children ride. All those brief Mexican acquaintances speak well of the US; they are proud of their stay in this country but they are happy to be back in Mexico for good. In 2009, my co-author Sergey Nikiforov and I had already stated about Mexican immigrants that Mexicans, by and large, would rather live in Mexico. (“If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely.” [pdf])
Returnees play all kinds of bridge roles where their American experience is useful. The main “client relations specialist” in my hotel was a 23 year-old guy who had been brought up (illegally) in Colorado. Of course, his English is perfect. Soon, he will open his own business, I think.
I don’t want to give the impression that the returnees’ fate is merely to serve the needs of American tourists and visitors. It seems to me that, like many bilingual people who have lived in more than one country, they are naturally cosmopolitan types who are useful in many non-domestic business situations. (I have modest qualifications to pass judgment here because I taught international business at an elementary level for 25 years. I also worked as a consultant in that field for several years.)
The average literate Mexican is an avid student of Americana. With the help of returnee relatives, he may actually excel there. Everyone below 30 in Mexico is studying English. I have said it before: in a few years, we will be begging them to come back.
Surprisingly little talk about “the wall.” Mexicans have a sense of humor. Of course, I, myself, believe that Pres. Trump will succeed. He will build a solar electricity-producing wall, sell the electricity to Mexicans at low cost (thus making them pay for the wall) and they will thank him!
I was on that free diving and fishing trip through Algeria I have written about before. The French, who had seemingly deeply colonized the country, had been gone for a few years. They had left behind their language and many buildings in the big cities and in some other, fertile parts of Algeria. In remote areas though, it was almost as if they had never been there. I was in one of those areas with my then-future-ex-wife (“TFEW”) in our VW camping bus.
It was in the east, in Kabylia, in a small town squeezed between the mountains and the sea. There was a tiny harbor protected by a tiny breakwater that sheltered four or five boats. There was also a café a hundred yards away. A big rock with steep sides emerged within swimming distance of the harbor. The town was a spear fisherman’s dream as well as a vacationer’s dream. It was the kind of place that travel agencies use to arouse you on TV in the winter and never, never deliver.
When we arrived, in the middle of a hot afternoon, there was no human being in sight; even the café was empty. I was an instinctive believer in the adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission even before I heard it spoken. So, we parked at the harbor and had our cheese, bread, and figs lunch. I prepared instant coffee on the stove. I thought I was giving whatever authorities might exist in the town ample time to chase us off if they wished. Nobody came.
Toward evening, I walked to the café where four or five men were sitting and talking quietly. I said Hello in French and they replied in the same language. I could read the curiosity in their eyes but they were too polite to inquire. So, I ordered some tea and explained briefly what I was doing in Algeria. This interested them. Being a fisherman works everywhere as an introduction. Everyone knows what fishing is (unlike “touring,” for example). Every man either is a fisherman or wishes he were. Or has a brother-in-law who is a fisherman. One of the men volunteered that the café served wine. I ordered a glass for myself and offered to treat the men. Only one accepted.
My companion and I has a small dinner under the light of an oil lamp and went to sleep in the back of the bus. In the morning, I quickly located a bakery by smell. There was hot fresh bread. (Good bread is an undeniable gift of French colonialism.) After breakfast; I cinched on a light weight belt and grabbed my speargun; I put on my mask and snorkel and my flippers. I entered the clear water of the harbor and swam to the offshore rock. The sea was bountiful. There were groupers there that did not even know I was a predator and various edible fish that seemed to only have Arabic names. (If you don’t believe me, I have a picture.)
The location was so idyllic that we lingered on. In truth, we didn’t even have anyplace to go in a hurry anyway. We ate fresh fish at every meal, with fresh bread and tomatoes, plus some fruits. There were no authorities. Only the village kids came to visit. They were sweet and full of good questions. We gave them fish. I had become almost an old-timer at the café. One of the guys there told me his name was Pierre. He was the same guy who had accepted a glass of wine the first day; I should have known. I never got the story of why he had stayed behind after all the other French left. Maybe, there was a woman involved. Or, he had no relatives in France. Asking would have been pushy
One morning, early, two older children with solemn expressions came by with a message. There was going to be a wedding the next day and we were invited. We were both flattered and intrigued. The TFEW immediately went into a flurry of activity looking for a suitable present for the bride. It was no easy task because we were camping, with minimalist baggage. Eventually, she found a small silk kerchief that she thought might do because, frankly, the locals seemed so poor. She (and I too) was thinking in terms of what we knew about: American and French weddings, pretty much variations on the same basic model: The bride is the queen and she gets presents, the bride’s mother is the dictator, the groom is a little drunk, so are many of the guests, including children. There is dancing. Most unmarried women are a little or much turned on; single guys try their luck.
On the wedding day, we cleaned up as well as we could, birdbath manner. My companion even washed her hair in cold water. Fortunately, she was wearing it in a very short afro, almost a buzz cut. She put on a light cotton mumu that looked almost ironed. It was a decent, loose garment but with discreet curves in the right areas. I thought she looked more than presentable. I don’t know about myself. I had on clean jeans and my only shirt with a collar. The kids had been vague about time. Around noon, we walked up the steep street with the same children guiding us.
A whole other street, a flat one, had been blocked off and long tables, benches and chairs lined up on the sidewalks. It appeared that our being invited had not been such an extraordinary honor after all. We guessed the whole village was invited and it would have been unseemly to leave the tourists out. (But wait….) However, we saw only male human beings on the street, from boys in short pants to bent old geezers. A band played somewhere close-by but we couldn’t see it and there were no dancers in sight. The action took place behind bed sheets hung from a rope that stretched across the street. We were instructed with smiles to sit down. After a few minutes, young men came bearing enamel basins of food. They placed a piece of mutton next to us on the table oilcloth and a bowl of semolina (grits, more or less) with two spoons. Another boy set a recently rinsed glass full of limonade in front of each of us. We noticed that other guests were waiting for our seats.
We were going to hurry off the table but a tall, handsome man in a dark suit – the only suit in sight – came by. He was the groom and he had taken it to heart to greet us personally, which he did graciously, in perfect French. We were told later that he was a fighter pilot back from training in the Soviet Union who had returned to his native town just to get married. The man was elegant and he had a great deal of presence. He would not have been out of place in an upscale bar in Palo Alto, California where we lived most of the time. I told him that my wife had a small gift she would like to give to the bride in person. He said not to move, that he would send us someone quickly.
After a short time, an older man came to tell my companion to follow him. He took her a few feet away behind a low wall where I could still see her. There, he handed her over to two old crones. One of them had red dyed hair that would not have fooled a blind man ten feet away. The three women walked away through an unlit area but in the direction of a brightly lighted structure where I lost sight of them.
About ten minutes later, the TFEW came back by herself steaming. (I was a grown man; I felt the vibes; I knew the signs.) So, I asked, did you meet the bride and did you give her the present? She said she had and she had and the bride, sitting all made up and coiffed in a gilded armchair, surrounded by her handmaidens, seemed touched. But, she said, you won’t believe what happened before that. Just as we reached the bridal pavilion, one of the two old women held me by the shoulders while the other lunged for my crotch and tried for a grab.
What do you think? Would I make this up? Do I have the talent, the imagination?
Several things. First, yes, of course, this is intended to be a pop-sociological story. It’s a commentary on something. Your guess.
Second, it should be obvious that I liked everyone I met during that stay and in that episode, every single person. That’s more than I can say for the people with whom I cross paths daily in California, for example. And, don’t get me started on the French! (Many of whom are holes in the ice as my decorous granddaughter would say.) Now, I know why I liked them but it’s hard to tell why they were so likable. Everyone in the small town was courteous and generous if he had a chance to be, even if only by offering a glass of hot tea after my long stay underwater. Again, I can’t tell why they were so gracious. Perhaps small towns are like that. Perhaps people used to be generally like that when they live in places small enough to be real communities. I can’t really believe this though because I have read too many stories (beginning with Maupassant’s), seen too many movies, where small town people behave in a completely beastly manner.
In the absence of perfect sampling, I tend to put some faith in cultural redundancy: If blondes keep treating me shabbily, I begin suspecting that there is something wrong with blondes (or about blondes and me). So, I have been treated courteously by Muslims and by people who appeared to be Muslims whenever I spend time in Muslim surroundings, even thousands of miles apart. So, until proven otherwise, I think it’s their culture that makes them friendly. Yet, naturally, I find the crotch grabbing incident and what I take to be its many implications repulsive. I don’t think it would have happened anywhere in the formerly Christian West.
The gesture and its sexual implications have a historical association with Islam, I believe. (See how carefully I chose my words.) Yet, there is almost certainly nowhere in the Islamic Scripture that mandates, commands, or even condones such behavior. Contrary to many Muslim apologists I hear on TV and on radio, that’s not the end of the story, as far as I am concerned, however. You are responsible for the baggage your religion carries. So, there is absolutely nothing in the Christian Scriptures ordering that theological deviants be burned alive. And yet, it happened in Christian lands, over and over again. Historically, it’s a sort of Christian specialty although Christ would not have applauded the practice, I am pretty sure. If you are a Christian, it’s disingenuous to say that burning people alive has nothing to do with you. It’s as much part of your heritage as are the glorious Gothic cathedrals.
And, yes, you are right; I loaded the dice by entitling this story “A Muslim Wedding.” I could have called it equally well: “An Algerian Wedding,” or “A Kabyle Wedding” (for the area), or “An Amazigh Wedding” (after the local people’s ethnicity), even “A Village Wedding.” Was I wrong? You decide.
Here is another short story. (I don’t have the talent to compose characters so, most of my stories are autobiographical by default.)
I am on the same free-diving and spear fishing expedition I mentioned in another story. We are driving and living in a VW bus I equipped myself for the purpose. This time, my then future ex-wife (“TFEW”) and I are stopped in a small town in coastal western Algeria. We just arrived and it’s a sunny quiet morning. We are enjoying a rare cup of real coffee at the also rare terrace of a small café. I will never forget that insignificant non-event, because, suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby camel came ambling down the street. The charming animal walked straight up to me and began browsing my hair. (Go ahead, don’t believe me; I have a picture!)
So, we are just lingering when a handsome teenage boy stops by to make conversation (in French, of course): Where are you from? What are you doing here? What kind of fishing, again? How do you like Algeria?
We invite him to sit down and have coffee with us but he insists he is in a hurry. He wishes us a good vacation and walks away. Then, suddenly, he wheels around to tell us he would like to invite us to his house for couscous. He is too young to be married and to have his own house. I ask him how his mother would respond to sudden unannounced guests. He replies that she would love it, that she misses her old French bosses; that she likes to speak French with real French people. I am beginning to feel peckish. Against my better judgment, we follow him around the corner.
We drive through a metal gate he closes behind us. The young man stops at the door to the house and calls out with several sentences in Arabic. A woman’s voice responds and the door opens immediately. A woman in her early forties stands smiling at us. Her dark shiny hair is partially covered. She has beautiful apricot skin and dancing black eyes. Under other circumstances, in spite of a fifteen-year age difference, I might have fallen in love with her on the spot. I must have been fairly obvious because the TFEW secretly yanked hard on the back of my shirt.
We sit down on cushions in the living room. There is an opening into the kitchen so we can communicate with the mother while she works. Actually, I am pretty much the only one doing the communicating because the TFEW is not a native French speaker and she is a little hesitant on that account. The thought crosses my mind that the mother is flirting with me verbally a little from the kitchen where I cannot see her face. The charming son soon serves us tea and two quiet teenage girls dart in and out on what I think is a mission to keep us company although they do not say anything. I am not sure whether they were shy or if they did not know French. There is no man in sight and no mention of any adult male.
After quite a long time bantering back and forth without the help of an adult beverage precisely, the steaming couscous garni appears on the rug in front of our knees. (Tech note: “couscous” is the grits-like grain; it’s “garni” when it is accompanied by a vegetable stew including chickpeas, and meat, usually boiled mutton, sometimes chicken.) Everyone is starving by that time and the family sits around and next to us each holding a bowl into which the mother dishes out couscous topped with veggies and mutton. One of the girls has thoughtfully placed a spoon in front of us, the visitors, which we make a point of honor to ignore, of course because we want to appear cool.
The mother tells us gaily how she had worked for fifteen years for a French family, as a servant with broad responsibilities, including the care of small children and the kitchen. She says she loved the lady of the house and the lady of the house loved her “like a niece.” I guess that’s how she has learned her grammatically perfect and lively French. After the French left, suddenly, feeling threatened (and probably with good reason) there was no work for a woman with her skills. Nothing is said, again in this story, about a husband. There is no explanation about how the family sustains itself.
It’s often difficult to say how poor people are following a revolution. Those don’t look poor. They are all well though simply dressed. The house in which they live is consequential and Western-style. (I mean that I would have moved into it in a minute.) As far as I know, it is her beloved lady boss’s house they are all occupying. Perhaps, the lady boss has slipped her the title before fleeing. I am told there was a lot of that that went on. I am also told the new Algerian government, its hands full of pressing matters, was happy to let sleeping dogs lie on this issue. I can’t judge what the family’s everyday food is like but none of them look skinny and the couscous was well garnished and ample. (But then again, the latter is not a good indicator of anything in North Africa where a feast is a feast however meagre the fare on ordinary days.)
If you eat enough food and it’s tasty enough, at the end of the meal, you will feel a little like drunk. Those who talk after dinner, including the Mom, talk louder. The pleasant son tells me of his wish to go work in France and of his modest ambitions in general. Even the young girls smile more broadly. Perhaps seeing their mother happy makes them feel happy. I am asked to explain for the tenth time in Algeria what I am doing there. I explain my quest for big fish and spiny lobster (and also for slipper lobster, a grotesque looking but delicious creature). I describe how I go under water holding my breath to shoot them in the face with a rubber spear gun. The family seems a little incredulous but they are visibly charmed by the concept. They have already made themselves believe that the TFEW and I really sleep in the VW bus as we travel from place to place. (The bus was parked out of view in their courtyard while we ate.)
Then, out of nowhere, the mother says something astounding: I envy you – she says to spend so much time looking at the sea. I love the sea and I haven’t seen it for so long. Say this again, I request. Isn’t this house, your house, about four or five blocks from the sea cliff? It is, she said but I can’t go there (“Je ne peux pas y aller.”) French does not not distinguish between physical impossibility and moral interdiction. So, I am a little confused but not for long. I guess quickly what’s on her mind.
I have an idea, I say. I tell you what: Tomorrow morning at five when the sun is up but everyone is still asleep, you will put on your hijab and wear a shawl around your shoulders that you can raise to hide your face if necessary. Your son will open the gate to let my bus out and then, he will sit next to me in front where everyone can see him. You will be in the back next to my wife with the curtains drawn. Your son will direct me to a suitable point on the cliff where I will park. There, you will raise the curtain as much as you want to and look at the sea as long as you wish. She agrees and her face is filled with anticipation.
Early the next morning, the son wake us up with cups of hot coffee. There is a defeated look on his face. He tells us that his mother has changed her mind and that she will not take up my proposal after all; that she says thank you and good-bye. He adds she is too embarrassed to get up and wish us a good trip face-to-face. We shake hands and leave with much sadness in our hearts.
Is this a story about religion? All Algerians were Muslims, if nothing else, by default; so was our pleasant hostess, no doubt Yet Muslim intellectuals will point out that there is no part of the Islamic sacred scriptures that enjoins women to hide at home. There is certainly nothing in the same scriptures that says they can’t enjoy contemplating the sea, one of God’s first creations, in Islamic as well as in Jewish and Christian tradition.
Personally, I disagree. I think this is a story about religion although indirectly. If the woman had been a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, or a Mormon, she would have had her fill of the sea before I met her. I can even imagine a Hindu woman being somewhat self-cloistered but not one fluent in a foreign language, not one with a long history of happy interaction with Westerners.
Two main points. First, every follower of a religion is not a scriptural expert. What people think is their religion often differs a great deal from what theologians say is true religion. I addressed this issue in an article in Liberty Unbound. (“Religious Bric-a-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad.”) Second, religions are vehicles for all kinds of cultural practices that are not religious or only in a distorted manner. Thus, Catholicism, besides its rich history of burning people alive for their opinions, is largely responsible for the consumption of fish among inland Catholics. It probably even had a lot to do with the establishment of the long lasting Newfoundland cod fishery. (Ask me.) It’s fair to judge religions for the cultural baggage they carry and that they could put down if they really wanted to. Passive assent is a form of complicity.
That’s the title of this short piece by yours truly. Please take a look and leave me some feedback. I am turning it into a longer essay that I hope to shop around once it’s complete.