Amid all the recent heart-wrenching news of shootings, bombs, and vehicular terrorism was a news event from Avon, Ohio. The story’s ending was less dramatic than the acts of violence and has likely already been forgotten by Americans, but it holds critical significance for how we as Americans see our identities, neighbors, and guests.
In late June 2016, Ahmed al-Menhali, a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, was looking for hotel accommodations in Avon, Ohio, after he had been told that the apartment he was renting would be unavailable during the Republican National Convention. As he waited in the lobby, a hotel clerk texted family members, falsely accusing Ahmed of pledging allegiance to ISIS in Arabic on his cell phone. A few minutes later police arrived with guns drawn, including an assault weapon, shouting orders to Ahmed to kneel as they handcuffed him. Ahmed, who was in the United States to receive medical treatment, complied and soon after collapsed.
The incident in Ohio occurred within days of the horrific ordeal at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, where 22 people were killed. For me, reading about Ahmed al-Menhali in light of the news in Dhaka brought to mind quite a different narrative, one of intersecting paths, vulnerability, and profound kindness.
In 1999-2000, my husband and I were living in Bangladesh. On graduate student budgets, we did not live in Gulshan, the upscale Dhaka neighborhood of the café that was attacked, but a place like Holey Artisan Bakery would have been an appealing place to gather with other foreigners and locals. It was no surprise to us, then, to read that three students from American universities, along with several other foreigners and Bangladeshis, were in that café that night. It is an image that is vivid and impossible to forget.
During my last days in Dhaka in 2000, I became very ill. Our Bangladeshi friends found me a doctor to see that evening. Coincidentally, the next day we were scheduled to return to the States, with a detour to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed al-Menhali’s home country. Our trip to Dubai was originally conceived of as a two-day vacation after months of research work, but instead I spent those days undergoing medical exams. My journey home was my personal medical nightmare, but I remember the unparalleled kindness I received from Bangladeshis and residents in UAE. I was treated like an honored guest everywhere I went.
Such treatment was typical of our stay in Bangladesh, where those with very little to offer were often the most generous. A doctor generously gave us his time and his trust as he introduced us to locals who could help me with my ethnographic research. Bangladeshis offered me their time for no gain for themselves except tea and conversation. A Muslim gentleman, whom we called “Chacha,” Bengali for uncle because of how he watched over us, took us into his household – for an entire month, never expecting anything in return: no rent, no visa to America, no favors.
One striking example of generosity occurred when my husband and I showed up unannounced at the house of a woman I wanted to interview. The house was in a remote village, and delayed by an accident we arrived after a 12-hour journey by bus, rickshaw, and foot, wading through water-drenched rice fields as the sun started to sink. The woman I sought was out of town (this was before cell phones), but two women welcomed us inside. We gave them the bags of fruit we carried, which given the circumstances felt like terribly inadequate gifts. They offered us shelter for the night and dinner. They apologized for their modest living conditions, the dampness of their mud hut during the monsoon, and the simple meal, all of which we gratefully accepted. Later we walked past their room to see them sit on the floor and discreetly drink the water left over from cooking rice. They had offered us their only dinner.
In 2000 we moved from Bangladesh to Chicago during a particularly bitter cold winter. As we struggled to adjust to a city where we knew no one, we took note that the only person who helped us unload our moving truck that cold day was a Pakistani Muslim student. Later that winter, he repeatedly emerged from the apartment to push-start our 1984 Subaru. African Americans also stopped to help us push our car. We thought a lot that winter about different ideas of community.
Bangladeshis ask seemingly endless questions. I shared stories about life in America: Americans work long hours to provide security and education for their children; most Americans do not have large houses, although most have cars; some are poor and homeless. I explained that, like Muslims, Americans give to charity and volunteer through churches and other organizations to help alleviate suffering. I wanted to say that we tend to see “our” people as family and close friends and that very few Americans eagerly open their homes to friends, much less strangers, for an entire month. But the idea that Americans value individualism more than group responsibility is incomprehensible to my Bangladeshi friends who seek to connect and build webs of a caring community.
Americans are often surprised and uncomfortable by the overflowing curiosity of Bangladeshis and other South Asians, but what do those from other cultures or backgrounds think of our lack of curiosity? Our disinterest in their personal lives, families, beliefs, struggles, and joys? Our distrust and suspicion? We avoid asking personal questions, perhaps because of embarrassment, fear, or plain disinterest.
Marlanda Dekine, co-founder of Speaking Down Barriers (Spartanburg, SC), which promotes dialogues about race, has a simple and yet revolutionary idea: We don’t have to agree with each other, but let’s get to know each other. If someone looks different, wears a head-scarf, turban, or traditional Arabic clothing, has an unrecognizable accent or a name that’s hard to pronounce, or has different skin color, be curious about that person’s life stories. What are their hopes, dreams, and disappointments? America is one of the most diverse nations in the world. Although we’re repeatedly reminded to be vigilant, we cannot afford to succumb to suspicion and fear. If we truly worry about divisiveness in our country and the increasing threat of terrorism, we need to foster friendship, not enmity.
It is this inclusive American community that the Pakistani Khan family experienced in the 1980s and which motivated them to become US citizens and later allowed Humayun Khan to serve as U.S. Army Captain in Iraq, where he was killed. In an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on July 29, Ghazala Khan described the best of an American community: “I had very good friends, all Americans, all colors…they supported me and have given me a courage and love that I think is best in this country than [what] I could’ve found anywhere else.”
At the heart of this dilemma is the question about who we are: Do we primarily belong to a social group defined by our circumstances at birth, including our geographical location and color of our skin, or do we belong to the human community? Do we see Ahmed al-Menhali as a guest in our country seeking health care and curious about life in America, or do we see him as incomprehensibly different, as not belonging, and as a potential threat? Do we hear the concerns expressed by Black Lives Matter, undocumented children, Muslim neighbors, police officers, LGBTQ communities, Hispanic and Latino Americans and many others as “our” narrative and as “our” concerns, or do we view those voices as threats to who “we” are?
It’s time we invite those we know little about to our dinner table, to share what we have, and to offer them our genuine curiosity about their lives and stories.