Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Contemplating the Muslim experience in America

When I was about two-thirds of the way through writing my book, the war in Iraq started, and every evening during dinner we were bombarded with harsh images of war. The images would have been disturbing enough on their own, as scenes in a movie, but the fact that they had been preceded by months of protests against going to war intensified their emotional impact. There was no first A.D. to yell "Cut!" The American soldiers weren't stuntmen. The ordinary Iraqis caught in the middle weren't extras. It was the flashing, sparkling madness of real war. The war we could not stop. Waged during the reign we could not end.

Because the war weighed so heavily on my mind, it was natural, inevitable, that I would consider including Muslim characters in the next segment of the book. But the idea was intimidating because I knew it would require a good deal of research for the writing to be worth anything. If I created characters who were no more fleshed out than the fleeting images of Iraqi men I saw on the news broadcasts, there wouldn't be any point to writing about those characters. But what did I know about Muslims? My knowledge extended no further than the news coverage. (Except, of course, for that one time the previous year when I walked by the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City on my way to tour the old MGM Studios lot [now Sony] and noticed quite a few men outside the mosque as I walked by. But I wasn't in research mode at the time, and so I mostly focused on the architecture while thinking something like Oh wow, that's a real mosque.)

The first place to go, then, is a search engine, and I came up with numerous Muslim sites. Because I wanted my portrayal of the characters to be credible, I decided to have them be American-born so I could avoid falling into "foreigner" cliches. I thought it might be useful to use Margaret Cho as a reference point. Even though she spent her early years in Korea, she is so uber-American that no one would guess she's Asian from just hearing her talk on the radio, I am like so sherrr. "You look like you were attacked by a Bedazzler." I also wanted the characters to be gay and found a few gay Muslim sites.

One of the characters I had already created was a female impersonator who patterned herself after Rita Hayworth, the movie goddess of the 40s and 50s. I had learned in my research that Hayworth had been married briefly to a Persian prince, and it occurred to me to give the Muslim character who becomes romantically involved with her a Persian background to reflect that bit of Hollywood history. My Web searches led me to the website of the L.A. chapter of Homan, the Iranian LGBT organization. I learned a lot from that site and from the links I followed, and I even exchanged a few emails with people.

It eventually came to my attention that I shouldn't be lumping Persians and Arabs together in the same ethnic category. I wrote in an email to one fellow that I wasn't a falafel queen. In his reply, he calmly mentioned that falafel is associated with Arabs and his family was from Iran. He was nice about it. 'Course I felt stupid and hurried back to the search engines after apologizing. As I continued researching, I felt that the Persian-American character was a good addition to the story because of the reference to Old Hollywood he represented, but I thought that the reason I was looking in this direction at all was because of my emotional reaction to what was going on in Iraq. I decided that a second character should be an Iraqi-American. My searches turned up GayArab.org and the Yahoo group GayArabs. More links and a few more emails.

Unfortunately, I didn't make much progress in getting gay Muslim-American men interested in talking to me about their experiences in the U.S. Of course I can understand their reluctance. A complete stranger sends you an email asking if you'd like to talk about your life so he can work it into a script? Ya, right. Who knows where that could lead? Any number of scenarios, all of them unpleasant. I even had one fellow write to me asking me not to include any Muslim characters. He suggested I write about the Armenian experience in America instead since, with my Christian background, I would have an easier time understanding the Christian Armenian mind than the Muslim mind.

But I really didn't want to give up the idea of taking the story in this direction. It felt like an important thing to do every evening while watching the "end" of the war in Iraq and the ongoing occupation. I had learned enough already to know that all Muslims aren't murderous zealots. I wanted to learn more just for my own knowledge and to make at least a small contribution to the public's knowledge. I thought that the next best thing to talking to a person would be to read a book they had written, and my searches led me to Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. A beautifully written book! I learned much from her exquisite descriptions, her firsthand knowledge of the Arab-American experience in the Westwood suburb of L.A. Other sources I used for research are:

Scattered Crumbs, Muhsin Al-Ramli

Islamic Homosexualities, Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe

The Arabian Nights, Husain Haddaway, translator

City of Strangers, John Shannon

Tales From Arab Detroit (VHS), Joan Mandell, director

I'm currently reading The Trouble With Islam by Irshad Manji. It did cross my mind that converting to Islam would go a long way toward helping me understand the Muslim mind, but at this point (I'm an agnostic ex-Baptist), converting to any religion would be a daunting task. I'd have to put my entire left-brain up on blocks in a garage and leave it there to accept anything beyond what a scientist accepts from the data that results from his experiments. So I thought it might be useful to approach Islam from the opposite direction and learn from Ms. Manji as she dissects and examines her personal experiences with Islam in the U.S. She's an engaging writer. I think of her as the Arab world's Gloria Steinem, a feminist who just won't let up. I hope Manji can have as positive an effect in the Arab world as Steinem had in the U.S.

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