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Notes for a New Millennium

Special issue of River Oak Review

I wrote this essay immediately after 9/11 when I was putting together a special issue of River Oak Review, a magazine designed and conceived by Etta Worthington, founder of River Oak Arts. I was its editor for six years. I'm sorry to say it no longer exists, but it was a joy to publish such writers as Billy Lombardo, Adria Bernardi, Ronna Wineberg, Lynn Sloan, Jan Leary, and many, many others. In light of this country's departure from Afghanistan, it's interesting to look back at one writer's mindset when Osama bin Laden and his minions first came to our attention.

In preparation for the new millennium, the convention hall at McCormick Place had been transformed by twisted glass, a phantasmagoria of color. Light sculptures were the expensive centerpieces of each table where sixteen diners sat, women in kimonos and saris, men in dashikis and pillbox hats. A woman from Kenilworth, Illinois in a satin opera dress leaned forward to the translator from Equatorial Guinea: "So, how do you like our country?"

Raised eyebrows rippled his forehead, pushing up his cap. "How do I like America?" The translator put down his napkin and folded his hands as if in prayer.

"Yes," she persisted. "How do you like it? Don't you just love this city?"

"Love this city?" He looked around.

On stage, a city father tapped a microphone. "People, people. Listen up."

"The Sears Tower. The Hancock Building." The woman at our table waved her arm. "And have you had time to shop the Miracle Mile? Outside of New York, we have the best shopping in the country."

"What is the population of your country?" I said, hoping to change the topic.

The man clicked his thumbnails, long, pink, and filed to rounded points like guitar picks. "Approximately 485,000," he said.

"Where is it, anyway, the Caribbean? South America?" she said.

"Af-ri-ca," he said.

"Oh, Africa." She waved dismissively. "What is it, down by South Africa or Rhodesia?"

"We are an island nation off the coast of Cameroon," he said.

I told her Rhodesia had been renamed Zimbabwe. Seeing how tight the man's mouth looked and that he was pushing his couscous around rather than eating it, I said in Spanish, "She's an idiot."

"I wanted a cup of coffee this afternoon," he said, "and found it cost my weekly salary."

"What are you saying?" the woman asked, fixing him with her relentless grin. "Does he like our country?"

"I arrived yesterday," the translator said in Spanish, "and I spent today registering and waiting for my suitcase. Why does she keep asking?"

"It's automatic," I said. "We want to know if you like us. If you say yes she will leave you in peace. She doesn't want to know your real opinion. You can say no and that will keep her quiet."

He took a breath, then sliced off a piece of bread and looked across the table at the woman. "No, I do not like your country. It is cold. I have been freezing ever since I arrived. I come from a warm place, and I am accustomed to walking. Here, the distances are too great."

His answer was longer than I expected, and I watched the smile drain away from the woman's face.

After September 11th, Americans wondered "Why do they hate us so much?" But few of us know about the countries, let alone the realities, citizens of the third world inhabit. Are questions about the family considered rude? Religion or politics? There are so many countries. We cannot educate ourselves about each one; and, if we travel, we fly to Europe, the Caribbean, or Mexico--rarely a country like Afghanistan.

Every morning when I read the New York Times, I feel as ignorant as my dinner companion; the Panjshir Valley and Kandahar meant nothing to me. And yet, with our smiles and our naïveté, we expect visitors to like us and admire our country. They know us only by our consumer goods--McDonald's, jeans, and MTV.

I feel such despair at my ignorance and anger that I must now spend a good portion of every day trying to separate the real grievances--which must be addressed, though God knows what I can do about them--from the grievances bin Laden and conservative mullahs rail about. Pure demagoguery. And no, I don't believe "it's about oil" any more than I believe "it's about Israel." It's about a corrupt Saudi royal family; it's about the CIA and the USSR; it's about TV and VCRs and cheap tapes that deliver Islamist diatribes. It's about the deliberate distortion of truth and wildfire rumors--the mythical 4,000 Jews who avoided work the day of the attack. It's about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and being anti-anything that stirs up a crowd. It's about a public relations war we're losing because we don't know how to fight.

We don't know how to explain that our country is not only about money. On November 9, an American plane dropped leaflets asking Afghanistanis whether they liked the way the Taliban treated women and children. Blundering, we tried to communicate our core values. Villagers rushed into the fields to scoop up leaflets, thinking, hoping, the American planes had dropped them cash. To the destitute, America is one giant cargo plane. How can we bridge the gap between these cultures?