This story happened a few weeks ago, and I re-told it recently to our Cub Scout den leader’s wife, when we ran into each other during a late-afternoon of sledding. I am reminded of it everytime I tune into the news to learn about the latest developments in Egypt, where masses have come out of their homes as far as the eye can see, sacrificing their lives in pursuit of change. For three decades Egyptians have been ruled by the same man, Hosni Mubarak; he claims to win by a landslide every election cycle. After Tunisia ousted its dictator, “Ben Ali,” Egyptians rose up, likewise, to achieve a pivotal shift from dictatoral rule to free and fair elections.
I think back to all the times I have voted since turning eighteen years of age. I am always ecstatic when my candidate wins, but never so much that I want that politician to hang around for three decades. You don’t have to be a political junkie to be in tune to the developments in Egypt, or a political scientist to dissect the root of the mass uprising. If you have ever triumphantly worn an oval-shaped sticker, with its two simple words, ‘I voted,’ on election day, then you are already an expert on the situation in Egypt, and you can easily relate to their struggle. The Egyptians want their children to inherit a choice; they have demonstrated that they are willing to be bludgeoned, whipped and die to pass on that right. I was touched by this message, wherein people from the world-over assure Egyptians that, “I support peace…I support freedom.” Our daily prayers go out to the families in their earnest struggle for peace and freedom; may they taste freedom’s sweetness and build on the enduring roots of its nectar.
My story goes back to one recent afternoon when my eldest son began work on an achievement towards his Cub Scout bear rank. Here is my boy, all dressed up minus his handkerchief, which we misplaced that night -oops! I took this picture on the night a local bike shop volunteered to give the den a lesson on bike safety and care.
The achievement required writing an essay on what makes America special. He sat at the writing table for a long time contorting his mouth, while making repetitions of scribbling and erasing, to the point that I imagined his paper as an embattled fortress. I felt blissfully proud of my boy for concentrating a great deal of lead and thought into a worthy subject. Finally, he announced: “The End.” I dropped what I was doing and perked up, to bestow my undivided attention.
He sensed my great expectations and cleared his throat, in preparation for a worthy performance. Perhaps, he imagined a half-hour turn on the Wii in exchange for a stellar reading. He inhaled deeply, then began reading an essay about how America is special because of its awesome parks, varied restaurants, sporting events and a few other un-memorable perks. I was horrified; too horrified, in fact, to respond verbally.
“What, Mama?” he asked genuinely confused.
My son clearly had not benefited from a solid, proselytizing southern education; otherwise he would have written an entirely different essay. By the time I reached the age of nine I had endured a good many pep-talks on God, Country, and Football.
“America is not a four-star resort, child,” I cried.
“Huh?,” he replied, which made it obvious that he was not pulling one over on me. He was sincere, which is even worse than being a prankster. I said to myself, surely, he is a smart boy that is simply fatigued. He needs a gentle nudge.
“Think hard, son, isn’t there something else you would like to write about? America is special because….”
I scanned for the flickering of the faintest spark in his eyes. Meanwhile, I was sinking further into self-loathing and I was ready to kindle a fire to burn myself at the stake. How could my collard green first born, and son of a hard-working immigrant, be so sincere in his representation of America as a vacation destination?!
As we both marinated in the silence, I mentally scanned for avenues to exculpate myself. My son has been privy to plenty of pep talks on God and Country. The mosque is made up, partly, of the African-American descendents of former slaves and civil rights activists, who give witness to their sacrifices in the pursuit of making our Constitution live and breathe, as opposed to starchly proclaim the inalienable rights of all (wo)men.
We are also witness to the struggle that innocent, modern-day Muslim-Americans have endured at the hands of political and legal manuvears that dictate guilt by association. It is also made up of Muslim immigrants who speak of discovering the enduring values and beauty of their Islamic faith in America, and proclaim time and again that those values are consistent with their American way of life. They say this is due to an open exchange of ideas and the access to worship freely; which includes, the right to deliver and receive un-censored sermons. By contrast, in too many Muslim countries, a government ministry must approve Friday sermons, known as a khutbas, before they can be delivered to the congregation. In Tunisia, before the spark of freedom ignited there, plain-clothes police turned citizens into authorities if they appeared to pray too often.
The Muslim-American community is one that has maintained its undying love for America, even if that love has not always been reciprocated. As for football, there is plenty of that playing out on the front and side lawns of every mosque we have ever had the privilege to attend. It is not a utopia, but my son has certainly been exposed to a version of the God and Country mantra that I grew up hearing in the south.
So, I asked myself again, why does my child freely articulate his love for country in relationship to its tangible offerings? Does he understand that the overriding intrinsic asset, known as freedom, cannot be assured? It is dependent on the will and sacrifice of the people who determine its course. Does he understand that it is not constant? It ebbs and flows. Even within the same society, it fluctuates, yet survives so long as the people are persistent to the extent that they love and need to freely make choices as much as they love and need to breathe. I wanted to get to the bottom of these questions in my son’s mind, if they existed at all.
“Because….umm….I dunno, Mama,” my boy replied, then adjusted into a more comfortable position in the green chair at his writing table, thereby signaling to me the white flag, and resigning himself to one of my fire and brimstone talks.
“What about the freedom to do all of those things you describe, son? You can pray where you want to pray, eat where you want to eat, work where you choose, study however you like, run for office, vote, and….”
“Mama,” my child interrupted in a low voice.
“Uh…Mama…but, I can’t do any of those things. I’m just a kid.”
“Well, one day you will be a grown-up and have freedom…so write it down! Freedom! Write it!” I gave my marching orders but was too far gone to laugh at the irony.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, clearly relieved, and began to write about freedom.
He wrote a lovely, coerced essay about freedom. I’m such a proud Collard Green Muslim mama.
Mothers and fathers in Egypt are sacrificing their lives as they rally for the right to make a choice – they have been gassed, beaten, and killed -all in the pursuit of that intangible asset which gives oxygen to every other element that develops and maintains a prosperous nation. Perhaps, twenty years from now, there will be an Egyptian mama at her wit’s end, telling her son or daughter to: “Write it down – freedom!”
Muslims are instructed by the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, when he stated: “None of you truly believe until you want for your brother what you want for yourself.” I’d like to send the people of Egypt, from all backgrounds and beliefs, a message: I want for your children, what I want for my own. I, too, support peace and freedom.
My earnest prayer is that the children of Egypt grasp and preserve that intangible asset, which none of the senses can concretely discern, yet which the self instinctively recognizes as animate and organic.