Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lamb Pullao

I made a new friend today. He started his first day as a software engineer today at the office where I work. He sits next to my cubicle. We were chatting it up after he gave me a spoonful of his wife's pullao, a dish of spicy lamb and rice. Delicious!

He's from Pakistan. He's very warm and friendly. After I shared my enthusiasm for the epicurean delights from the subcontinent, he opened up and told me a bit about his background in Lahore.

I asked him if he was Muslim. "Yes," he said, "but really it doesn't mean much. I eat pork and drink beer. I never go to the mosque." He seemed anxious to let me know that he was just a normal guy.

"In the city, most the people I know are like me. We live good lives and try to stay away from politics. It's totally different out in the country. People are backwards and conservative. They're crazy."

He told me how it was embarrassing to him that most of the immigrants in high tech were Indians, not Pakistanis.

"The Indians have great technical institutes. They value education and dominate the industry. Most Pakistanis have businesses that sell food, or they drive taxis. It's disgraceful."

It was only took a few minutes of banter about food when he asked me over to meet his family and have a lamb barbecue.

I've only just met this fellow, but he impressed me for being so much like me. It's too easy to group all Muslims into a distrustful category. Yet he defies such a simplistic categorization. A poll recently taken in the UK shows the distrust rising:

Most people in the UK feel threatened by Islam, a poll has revealed, after the Government launched a bid to tackle inter-faith tensions. The YouGov survey for the Daily Telegraph found 53% were concerned about the impact of the religion -- not just fundamentalist elements -- up 21% from 2001. There had also been a near doubling of the number agreeing that "a large proportion of British Muslims feel no sense of loyalty to this country and are prepared to condone or even carry out acts of terrorism".

I suspect my new work mate also feels threatened by Islam, in his own way. We don't hear enough from people like him -- people who are just like most of us, for the most part, who want peaceful lives, who aren't fanatics. People who call themselves Muslims who are only guilty of shrugging their shoulders at the fanatics around them. They just want to get away from the backwoods simpletons and get ahead in life. That's the picture he painted.

We should hear a lot more about these hard working people caught in the middle of a maelstrom. I worry for him. If this war gets hot enough, he might find his H1B visa revoked, bundled on a plane headed back to Lahore.

I would rather have him sitting next to my cubicle, working towards the good life, and sharing his wife's spicy lamb pullao with me. I think his presence in my country makes us safer, and richer.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


It has become common to think of 'The West', as depicted by Cox and Forkum, as clueless -- groping at any hope for peace with its enemies. Cox and Forkum's 'The West' character looks like a middle-aged geek with thick glasses, tie and soft belly, comfortable on his knees; he's an apparachik of the easy life, submissive before any appeasement that guarantees another meal.

Of course, this is a cartoon. A cartoon makes caricatures of people and things in simple, pointed exaggerations. But it is still instructive in terms of how we see ourselves.

It's been a while since I had a television, but I remember a phase of advertising that I called 'Dumb Guy.' It's probably still somewhat prevalent. Dumb Guy is the fortyish-year old upper-middle class American male, depicted as an amiable, soft-headed, impressionable dunce. His beautiful wife and kids are always smarter than he is. And yet, there he stands in his palatial suburban house with twin SUVs, unable to solve a simple domestic challenge. He's easily coerced and happily led to a simple answer from the sponsor.

I found the Dumb Guy ads to be particularly condescending. Impossibly, Dumb Guy is able to amass great wealth in spite of his idiocy. Apparently, an army of milquetoasts wound at the top of the global food chain -- not innovative, proud, courageous, manipulative or shrewd individualists. What does Dumb Guy do for a living? Sell balloons to puppies? How could this simpleton get this far in life and represent our culture? Is this how we see ourselves -- as a bunch of soft-hearted simpletons who inexplicably became the spineless backbone of our culture?

I worry that Dumb Guy is our self image -- being that of the West, or America. But our self image as American-consumerist-Bible-thumping Dumb Guys, or European-socialist-teat-nursing-appeaser Dumb Guys doesn't really matter. Either way, we're just dumb. Isn't Cox and Forkum's 'West' hopelessly condescending, and inaccurate?

'Dumb Guy West' also has a huge nuclear arsenal in his back pocket. He is complex, and not merely a caricature of a Pavlovian idiot who is led towards carrots, away from sticks. 'The West' is fearsome -- for its sheer power to create and destroy at huge levels of magnitude. The West is still fearsome.

Boiling 'The West' down to a single caricature is telling. When has the West ever been one? Michael Totten says that it never was on the same page. Why should we all be on the same page now? Is a common threat really a uniter? I doubt it. Common threats more often expose rifts that are normally glossed over. That seems to be the case now.

The Iranian nuclear crisis challenges the idea that 'The West' can act together as one. Political realities are what they are -- Europeans and Americans wound up where they are for different reasons. Expecting a concerted effort against Iran is a fantasy. Presuming that we should act as one in this crisis is a fantasy too. It sounds nice -- I just don't think it's ultimately workable.

Cox and Forkum's cartoon would be more accurate if 'The West' was a pack of animals that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was trying to ride atop of, all at once -- not just one Dumb Guy. Some of the animals might be bears, others sheep, monkeys and birds, running in all directions. It's silly to boil the West down into a single meek caricature while portraying Ahmadinejad as the master manipulator. In spite of Western divisions on the challenges Ahmadinejad poses, I hardly see him as being in control, riding the West like a Persian cowboy. He's on very thin ice.

These are dangerous times, for a lot of reasons. Boiling the present historical fulcrum down to caricatures is a job best left to cartoonists. Hopefully, we're not the dumb guys that just buy into it.