A Writer Resolves to Reclaim His America
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
Ethan Casey is a peripatetic traveler. His travels in Haiti and Pakistan have resulted in three well-received books: “Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti,” “Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a dangerous Time,” and “Overtaken by Events: A Pakistani Road Trip.”
Casey’s goal is to go beyond the cliché-ridden reporting by mainstream media about developing countries and reveal their deeper truths by narrating the personal stories of people intersecting with public events. He gives us the context against which the confluence of culture, politics, belief and social dynamics in countries like Haiti and Pakistan can be understood, without which any foreign policy is bound to come up short. How does he do it? “By being on the road and talking with real people, instead of reading about them on the Internet or listening to ‘pundits’ on TV.” His strategy is to focus not on events but on people living through the events and bringing them to the human level, as opposed to using them as abstractions to pass sweeping but unfounded judgments.
After living abroad for several years, however, Casey felt that it was his patriotic duty to report on his own troubled country, by giving expression to the full range and variety of American voices. “I wanted to feel the pulse of my country. The typical American thinks that important events happen only in New York and Washington. That isn’t true. Most places are not in the limelight but the story of these places and people must be told and heard to fully understand America.”
Casey has just completed an exhausting three-and-a-half-month, 18,000-mile journey across America. He recently shared his insights with Muslims at the South Bay Islamic Center in San Jose, California.
Casey’s odyssey began before the U.S. Presidential election and ended after Barack Obama won a second term as President. The billboard signs and bumper stickers he saw pre and post-election were a reflection of the mood of the country. “I’m a gun-toting Wyoming Democrat,” read one. “Ann Avanse,” said another in Little Haiti, Miami. (The words are a play on Obama campaign’s theme word, “Forward” and mean “Let’s Move Forward.”) Throughout his travel, he was awed by the efficiency of the Obama campaign at the grassroots level to turn out voters for Democrats. “The Republicans were just no match,” observed Casey.
The various stops he made in his journey were facilitated by his extensive network of school friends, relatives and Muslim acquaintances, particularly Pakistani-Americans, whose hospitality overwhelmed him. In Wisconsin, Casey met an affluent Muslim doctor who provides free medicine to patients who cannot afford their prescriptions. “These are people who work for low wages under dangerous conditions to make frozen pizzas for you and me!” In Brightmoor, a suburb of Detroit, he saw decay but also signs of rebirth in which neighbors – Blacks, Whites, Latinos - engage in community gardening that not only help feed their families but also allow them to sell fresh vegetables to local grocery stores. Detroit used to be a flourishing city of 2 million people but with the onset of urban blight and recession, the population had sunk to about 700,000. But his hope soared when he met Rasheda Taleb, an energetic Muslim woman and a go-getter who is working tirelessly to revive the racially-divided city, one block at a time.
Every city and suburb that he visited – Harrisburg (PA), Miami and Orlando, (FL), Springfield (MA), Detroit (MI), Macon (GA), Aurora (CO), The French Quarters in New Orleans, Navajo and Hopi reservations in New Mexico, Salinas (CA) – he was moved by the basic goodness, decency and enterprise of ordinary Americans, even though many of them held conservative, and even extreme, views diametrically opposite to his. Yet by engaging in serendipitous conversations with them, he was able to at least partially understand why they felt the way they did.
At the Islamic Center at Macon, Georgia, that used to be a protestant church before, he came across a thriving Muslim community and one of its leaders, a cardiologist. In Florida, he saw Muslim doctors offering their services from mobile clinics. In Orlando, he participated in the local Muslim community’s “I am Malala Day” observation, held in honor of the young girl shot by the Taliban in Pakistan. “Many Americans claim that Muslims are silent when their fellow-Muslims commit atrocities but who become violent when condemning atrocities by non-Muslims,” said Casey. “But Muslims are not silent. We just don’t hear them. They should take note of events like the Malala Day.”
In Salinas, Casey met Kathy, an American who took part in the Gaza flotilla in May, 2010, in solidarity with the suffering Gazans. Here was an ordinary American who embarked on a dangerous mission driven solely by the dictates of her conscience. The point Casey was making was that many middle-class Americans are more fair-minded than we give them credit for. They are more intelligent and aware than we think and are not as easily brainwashed by FOX as we suspect.
However, it is also true that there is hardly a liberal American, particularly a white American, who has not a family member, a relative or a close friend who is not a conservative or who does not hold extreme views. (We also must make a distinction between conservatives and right-wingers, Casey said.) This often causes these liberal Americans to mute their criticism of them. “That is why it is important for you, American Muslim and other minorities, to speak up. You have to become more pro-active, more visible. You have to play offense rather than defense. If there is anything we have learned from our history, it is that unless you toot your own horn, no one will notice you, far less listen to you, in America. If you show up, if you act and move forward, you can create your own luck.”
Two days before Casey spoke at the South Bay Islamic Center, a deranged gunman had killed 26 people, including 20 children, in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Casey had strong opinion about the massacre. “The Second Amendment has been highly disputed since it was ratified in 1791,” said Casey. “This whole hunting right thing is an excuse for the pro-gun lobby to promote reckless gun ownership. Ours is a gun culture. It provides an outlet for built-in aggression, particularly for white Americans.” A pastor he met during his 18,000-mile journey across America told him that the most desperate and lonely members of his congregation are whites. “If you feel humiliated, you want to blow things up.”
For each of us, the question now is: “Who am I and what kind of country do I want to live in?” “For me personally,” said Casey, “I am sick and tired of being bullied by the N.R.A and the pro-gun lobby. I want to regain my self-respect. I am willing to fight for the America I want,” asserted the writer-journalist. Casey is hoping that President Obama will come through this time. ”I want him to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to draft a gun-control law and put it before Congress. He can them take his case directly to the American people.”
In the lively question-and-answer session that followed his talk and slide presentation, Casey summed up his opinion of American-Muslims this way: “Unity does not seem to be your forte. I met many Muslims in my travel who are frustrated. Yet many of these well-to-do Americans – doctors, engineers, lawyers - are averse to taking a public stand on critical issues. They think that if they do, they will be risking their success. This is wrong. I repeat: In America, if you don’t toot your own horn, no one will listen to you. You will remain invisible.”
Ethan Casey, who makes his home in Seattle, WA, is that rare breed of American writer-journalist whose perspective fills a critical gap in our understanding not only of developing countries like Haiti and Pakistan, but also of the United States of America. The least we can do is visit his website (https://www.ethancasey.com) and support him by buying his books. You can pre-purchase “Home Free: An American Road Trip,” in which he details the observations and insights of his recently-completed journey.