Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, said a voice in me, loudly.
I was snuggled up next to the fireplace at my latest favorite work hang, The Lynhall, Anne Spaeth’s warm and inviting café/coffee shop/bar/community hub/shelter from the bleepstorm in Lowry Hill East. The place was packed with good people and good energy.
Seriously? You’re really going to do this? Here’s a better idea: JUST … DON’T, the voice hollered.
But I was feeling good! I’d been writing and giving thanks for secret shovelers and connectivity and community. I’d just lingered a good long while over the James Joyce letters to Nora Barnacle that hang over the beautiful antique Corona typewriters near the kitchen, so I was feeling a certain “We are the World” oneness when six young Somali women walked in and sat down at a table near me.
That’s when the voice started yelling at me.
You know better than this. You work with and have interactions with Somali-Americans and Muslims every day, so why now? DON’T DO IT.
At the time, “Confronting Islamophobia” and anti-Semitism workshops and think pieces were trending. At the time, a Somali-American congresswoman friend of mine and a Jewish-American songwriter friend of mine were on very heated opposite sides of a political divide created by thousands of years of the dogma and religion of their respective tribes, and I’d spent the week standing on the sidelines, reading, listening and learning — about history, hatespeak, tolerance, politics, loudmouths and the new World War we’re all living through.
I got up from my chair and approached the young women. I wanted to make contact. I wanted to talk to these women who turned the heads of some of the multi-culti customers when they walked in. I wanted to acknowledge them, and our common ground. I suppose I could’ve said, “I’ve lived near this neighborhood most of my life, and I’m guessing that you haven’t, and well, this is clumsy, but given what’s going on in the world and given some of the racist attitudes towards Muslims that I read in the daily newspaper and hear on the local TV and radio, I just hope you feel welcome and part of everything.”
Good grief. Instead, I stood at the head of their table and timidly said, “Excuse me?”
The room got still. I could feel eyes from the other tables on me. The six women looked up at me, all wearing elegant hijabs on their heads and the same expression of WTF? on their faces.
“I don’t want to be presumptuous,” I squeaked, “but are you coming from the RISE conference out at Best Buy headquarters?”
I had read about RISE (Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment) and had recently interviewed its founder, Nausheena Hussain, and I was interested in the conference. I’d wanted to cover the conference, but when I contacted the group, my admission was rejected because “there will be no other people attending who identify as male.”
In fact, this is the first time I’ve been told I identify as male, and I accepted my lot in life and rejection with a sigh. Still, I was genuinely curious, and always looking for stories.
“Nooo,” they all said in unison; a couple murmured that they’d heard of the conference.
“OK, thanks and yes, I guess I was being presumptuous,” I said, to nods and titters. I apologized for interrupting, and split. A few days later, I recounted the story to my friend and fellow Southwest Journal columnist Steve Brandt, who cracked, “Hey. You’re a white guy. You going to the Final Four?”
As I write this, funerals are being planned for the shooting victims of the Al Noor Mosque in New Zealand, and the world again feels very dark. That darkness is part of the reason I wanted to talk with my neighbors (next time I’ll do better and do what Minnesotans do best — talk about the weather), and part of the reason why I will continue to ask stupid questions was reinforced by something ISAIAH, a coalition of Minnesota Muslims, got to in a tweet over the weekend:
“In Islam we are taught to think of all of us as connected people — created by the same Creator. The dehumanization of people has become normal and what you fear is easy to eliminate. Curiosity not suspicion, conversation instead of dislike, can move us from hate to love.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.