Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Few Basic Facts about the word Muslim and the population carrying that label

The airline incident in Detroit this week was, of course, scary, but it also was confusing. The accused bomber is black, and from Nigeria, and doesn't look anything like the images we'd previously seen in the media of who we're supposed to suspect. Although I already knew that not all Arabs are Muslims, nor vice versa, I've never been completely certain about terminology or pronunciation, so I looked again to Phil Herbst's Dictionary of Ethnic Bias, and found the following. 
     Muslim. Arabic muslim, from aslama (to surrender to God, to seek peace)--an adherent of Islam. Islam (surrender, sub­mission) corresponds in meaning to Muslim. As The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1991) explains, the s in Mus­lim is pronounced with a hiss; to pro­nounce it as the s in nose alters the mean­ing in Arabic to "cruel," thus becoming offensive. 

     As both adjective and noun, Muslim is preferred by adherents of Islam to the Westernized Moslem. According to re­search done for Allan M. Siegal, assis­tant managing editor of the New York Times, Muslim is seen in print almost two to one to Moslem (reported in Safire 1991). In the United States, Muslim is used to refer to a diverse population of Ameri­can Muslims, including African Ameri­can Muslims and immigrants from Pa­kistan, Egypt, India, and many other countries (an Arab, however, is not nec­essarily a Muslim). 
     So that's what Phil had to say. I also wondered about population distribution, and found this, from the Economist (October 8, 2009). This should be a surprise to people who still equate the terms Muslim and Arab, as they will soon see that the largest Muslim populations live in Asia: 
     A new survey of the world’s Muslim population, by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC, . . . estimates the total number of Muslims in the world at 1.57 billion, or about 23% of a global population of 6.8 billion. Almost two-thirds of Muslims live in Asia, with Indonesia providing the biggest contingent (203m), followed by Pakistan (174m) and India (160m).
   Perhaps more surprising will be the finding that the European country with the highest Muslim population is not France or Germany, but Russia, where 16.5m adherents of Islam make up nearly 12% of the total national population. Compared with other surveys, the report gives a lowish estimate for the number of Muslims in France (3.6m), as it does for the United States (2.5m); in both those countries, secular principles make it impossible to ask religious questions on a census.

     So that's the Economist. At least we have some basic information now. And, wow, about 23% of the world population.  That's a lot of people to have so many fears and misconceptions about.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This is a photo from a just-integrated Virginia school in 1954, published in the New York Times. Oh, what I'd give to hear the thoughts of the two girls during what I assume is their first encounter. I will say that to me, the white girl looks friendly, and the black girl looks scared. And being a writer, I think I could begin to imagine a dialogue and spin out a scene. And I think I will. Just not right now.
     I looked for a photo by using the search term "integration" and was surprised that the first four or five pages of images were almost all schematic diagrams from industry having to do with systems integration. And the reason I was even looking for an integration image was that I was thinking about a conversation that was going on at an online forum called DetroitYes. This is an extremely active forum, and the people who post there have been very friendly and very supportive about my novel.
     In a recent thread, someone from Wisconsin posted about a visit to Detroit and how surprised and impressed and even enchanted he'd been by the city. This is the kind of thing that devoted Detroiters like to hear. But one person chimed in by saying that this is the typical thing one hears from suburbanites who duck in for one afternoon, hit the highlights, and then go back to the suburbs, never really seeing the pain and misery and poverty that reside in most of the city. This person assumed that the Wisconsin guy was white, and then others joined in, noting the assumption, telling the second guy not to be so negative, and soon the conversation was about race.
    One person sounded a note of great optimism about the gradual and future blurring of the racial divide, and I noted that I have had people at my readings who have said the same--especially noting that with more biracial children, the divide will continue to diminish as these children negotiate the borders of race and how they categorize themselves. Several people agreed with the optimistic view, and then someone said something along the lines of "it gives me no pleasure to say that I think the racial divide is widening," and after that no one said anything. Of course, perspective is everything. It all depends who you are and where you live. A lot of the divide is more economic than racial, I think, though the two are so deeply integrated or intertwined. Perhaps I might create a diagram to show what I mean--similar to those I ran across when I first started looking for an integration image.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Segregation and Literature

This is the cover of the latest Publishers Weekly--a magazine about books and publishing. In case the print is too small for you to read it, the words under Afro Picks say "new books and trends in African-American publishing." Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly (who edited the feature and, with the creative director, chose the cover image and tagline [and he's also black]) explained that the "image is from the book 'Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present' by Deborah Willis (Norton). The image is called Pickin’ by photographer Lauren Kelly. Ms. Willis is chair of the photo dept. at NYU, a MacArthur Fellow & a scholar of black photography and representation."  A lot of people did not like this cover
     Some comments: the image is "aesthetically offensive," portrays black literature as "tribalistic," portrays the "black Medusa," is outdated and anachronistic, is simply ugly, is cheap and tasteless. Some thought it was a bad pun. Some didn't like boiling down all African-American lit to this one image. Still, some people did like it, thought it was funny or clever, and told others to "lighten up." Calvin Reid apologized to those who didn't like it.
     Part of the issue, I think, is the way publishers categorize literature (some would say "segregate") by author or subject--in some sense making African-American literature a genre. Thus, when you go into a bookstore, you might see an area or shelf labeled African American where books by African-American authors reside. Some black authors have been able to "cross over" from the labeled shelves to the general shelves--Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Colson Whitehead, and others--but many haven't. And then, the question is, how many non-African Americans cross over and go to those labeled shelves? I don't think I ever have.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Not your Jewish Christmas

 There are so many things in the world that I do not know--especially about the customs and traditions of groups I do not belong to. When I have attended church services--for example, a wedding, funeral, christening, or so on of someone I know--I have felt some discomfort at my ignorance: not knowing the words to the songs, not knowing how to participate in various traditions, not wanting to do something wrong and/or offend. Let's face it. With religion, and with differences, there are so many ways to go wrong. So my general approach has been to keep a very low profile and fade into the woodwork.

     Because being Jewish is so familiar to me, I am often surprised to discover what other people don't know about it. Once, years ago, at a gathering at my daughter's preschool, approaching the winter holidays, the children were singing the Christmas songs and then the few requisite Chanukah songs. When they got to the dreidel song and the chorus ("Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay"), a woman leaned over to me and asked, "Are they saying, 'bagel, bagel, bagel'?" I guess bagel was the Jewish word she was most familiar with. Of course, her ignorance was not her fault, and I don't mean to make fun of her. She took a risk to ask, and I am sure that I have shown comparable ignorance in comparable situations (e.g., those church visits). By taking the risk, however, she at least had the chance to learn something.
   When I was thinking of this post, I had it in mind to tell a different story about Chanukah, but I think I will save that for next week. And here I will raise my glass to that woman who had the courage to ask the question.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book groups, wonderful book groups

I have so many things I could say about book groups--having been a member of one (actually, of a series of them) for 20+ years. First, there was the Ann Arbor Society of the Written Word (A2sW2), which I launched with Paul Reingold so many years ago. Then, when I moved to Chicago, my husband and I were invited to join a Proust reading group. With that group, we spent three years--about 100 pages a month, a volume a year--reading and discussing Remembrance of Things Past. The group started with a huge living room full of people (maybe 30-40) but over the years dwindled to a core group of about 10 who were there at the finish line. Now my husband and I are in a group that began almost 30 years ago (close to the time Paul and I were starting ours in A2). We have belonged to this "latest" group for maybe 15 years??? The membership has changed dramatically and is really great right now. Before me, my parents belonged to reading groups, as did my sister.
     My latest experience with book groups has involved attending meetings where my novel--Grand River and Joy--is being discussed. And I did this last night--via speaker phone--with a group of women in Michigan, which is what has prompted me to write this post. It was a wonderful, gratifying experience. I learn something every time I talk with a reader. But the real point of this post is to talk about hope because lately I have not been feeling a lot of it, and I have to do some serious work to keep myself from despair. But I found hope last night in that discussion--in a group of humans who cares enough about books and literature and community to take the time (on a week night!) to come together to converse and explore ideas. I salute you and thank you for inviting me in and giving me hope.