Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Clubs and "the Other"

Adams Morgan (still waiting to leave) – It was the first book club that I’ve visited, a group of six women with thoughtful questions. Before that evening, I’d only appeared on radio shows and at bookstores where people were interested in Live from Jordan’s substance but they wanted a taste of the milk -- i.e. some anecdotes and analyses -- before buying the cow.

Some people aren’t milk buyers, though. They sip in the supermarket (Borders) aisles and stop off at their neighbor’s or friend’s for a glug glug. Well-meaning people have told me that they thought my experience sounded “so interesting,” and that they were going to “borrow” Live from Jordan from the library or a friend. Don’t get me wrong, I have a message, and I’d like to spread it like cream cheese on a Sunday morning garlic bagel. But come on -- I’m 31, this is my first book, and I need to sell some copies. If you like the arts, support the artists. And yes, I’m using the term “artist” loosely.

I’m fascinated by the concept of book clubs, though. They are women’s answer to poker night. Groups of women choose a book to read, actually read the book, and then discuss it in detail over drinks and finger foods. I suspected something else might be going on (secret NASCAR watching, perhaps) but at both of the book clubs I’ve visited, there was thought provoking conversation and no mention of Jeff Gordon.

The best thing about the book club conversations is that everyone has read the book and there are challenging questions about the Middle East and my experience. You can really get in depth on some of the nuances.

At this book club visit, Jeanette, an African-American lawyer, asked me whether my experience living as “the other” in Jordan had given me insight into the experience of blacks in America. I’ve thought about this subject a lot, but had yet to speak about it in public.

When I was living in the Arab World in 2002 and 2003, I hid my Jewish identity for both security and for professional reasons. In Jordan especially, because of the absence of Jewish history (compared to Egypt or Syria), there is little distinction made between Jews as members of a faith and the Israeli army, a reviled institution. On the professional front, I went to Jordan to learn about daily life and people’s viewpoints on political issues, not to be the center of a traveling Talmudic road show, debating details of doctrine – that isn’t my bag. So, out there on my own without official protection, I had to choose how to identify myself to the people I didn’t know and trust. The assassination of Laurence Foley deeply disturbed me; before he was killed, and certainly after, I lied.

When you’re hiding something, as I was, you avoid certain situations. When coffee shop discussions came around to the tenets of Christianity, I redirected questions back to the questioner and Islam. I had many of the same conversations and became adept at the two-step. With the arrival of holidays, I traveled or stayed home, sick.

If you’re black, you can’t hide your skin color, however. So while I thought about being the “other” a lot and transposed it to different contexts, I told Jeanette that I didn’t understand racial discrimination much better. Instead, I think I gained more of an insight into what it is like to be secretly gay in America.

I haven’t read any literature on life in the closet, so this is a complete (and hopefully respectful) stab. I think there are similarities, however, of avoiding certain conversation topics (like relationships), feeling alone when you aren’t participating in events that are the norm for the community, and resenting “forced” participation in these events in order to fit in and not raise suspicions (the prom, college date parties, work events).

There are more difficult situations, too. What happens when people you’ve become friends with say hateful things about gays or Jews? These are your friends, you know that they are generous or kind, but it turns out that they are also ignorant and perhaps hateful.

Worse, what happens when you become good friends with someone and haven’t been honest about who you are? Is there a full disclosure obligation? Such a forced clarification is insulting to everyone. It’s like, “I know we’re friends, but you’re entitled to know that I’m really _____ and you now have the opportunity to excuse yourself from this friendship because being _____ is so terrible that I’m obligated to explain it to everyone I meet and make sure that they have full information before continuing our friendship.” That’s awful, for the friend, too. You’re projecting on to them a desire for a prejudicial escape hatch.

So, I think I gained some insight into living a secret world, but I’m not sure. What are others’ thoughts about the “secret Jew in Jordan” vs. “gay in an American closet” comparison? Also interesting, how does being “the other” openly compare to being “the other” in secret?

Comments welcome, thanks-

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ben, I think what matters most is that you actually experienced the Jordanian society without reference to your religious background. In fact it frees you in a way, and you can immerse yourself in your travel. Religion would have been an obstacle in Jordan.

A country that doesn't have the historical presence of a religious minority like the Jews is not as culturally diverse and tolerance is less prevalent, it is a different ground altogether. The lack of such historical experience fosters mistrust, so why bother identifying yourself as a Jew? In your case, it has to be understood from that point of view. The value of your journey is to go and appreciate the culture for what it is, even though there is tension and a certain level resentment towards Israel.

The biggest accomplishment is acknowledging that we can be OK somewhere were perhaps we might not be welcomed. That experience is in itself commendable because it has defeated initial apprehension and insecurities about being from the other side. It is like dancing with the enemy.
It takes guts.