9/11 Commemorative VOICES Reading Series Concludes

The Voices Reading commemorative 9/11 Series concluded with two readings, held on Oct. 13 and Oct. 27. Crowds of students came to Daugherty-Palmer Commons (DPC) to hear two prominent poets, Laila Hallaby and Amiri Baraka.

Laila Hallaby was born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and American mother, and drew from her heritage to write “West of the Jordan”, her first novel, published in 2003.  According to Hallaby, her second novel “Once in a Promise Land” follows the story of Jassim and Salwa, who left the deserts of their native Jordan for Arizona, each chasing mirages of opportunity and freedom. Although the story does not directly touch Ground Zero, the couple cannot escape the “dust cloud of paranoia settling over the nation” Hallaby said.

Hallaby read several poems on hope and culture, and an excerpt from her novel,“Once in a Promise Land.” The excerpt included a section of the introduction that was left out of the paperback version of her book. The excluded prose used an airport luggage check as a metaphor for removing stereotypes and misconceptions, just as one would remove shoes while going through security, and recommended that the reader do so before beginning the novel.

“No turbines or violent culture” Hallaby said.

“I keep thinking about how things have changed and where we have gotten to in the past ten years,” Hallaby added. She went on to read an article she wrote about the incident earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona, when congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in a supermarket.

“I do not live in fear of crazed gunmen or terrorists” Hallaby said. “Though I do worry about planes crashing. Quite often my heart skips when I hear a plane’s engine as it prepares to land a few miles away.”

Hallaby has always believed that if other people could see her world from the inside, then they couldn’t have “such ridiculous and negative stereotypes” she said.

The 9/11 series concluded with Amiri Baraka, a well-known American poet since the 1960’s
and former poet laureate of New Jersey. Jeffrey Coleman, Associate Professor of English introduced Baraka as a “renowned and sought after author.”

“Suffice to say, Amiri has been writing extremely provocative literature since the sixties and is still writing amazing things,” Coleman said. “His last book, not including the one that came out this week, won the American Book Award. It’s a book about the African-American presence in American classical music.”

Baraka has written over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism, and is a revolutionary political activist. According to Baraka’s website, his influences include musical orishas such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra to the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X and world revolutionary movements.  Baraka is also known for being the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s.

Baraka read several powerful and musical poems including his famous piece “Someone Blew Up America.” According to Baraka, the poem made headlines when the governor of New Jersey and others demanded his resignation as the state’s Poet Laureate after a reading of the poem at the Dodge Poetry Festival. The first few lines caused controversy as they referenced to those who knew beforehand about the New York City World Trade Center bombings in 2001.

“These are very weird times that we live in,” Baraka said. “It is very important for us to be conscious. Don’t let the world pass you by; you wont even know its happening. The dumbest thing I can image is you being in the world and not even knowing how it works.”

"Divided We Fall" Film and Director Bring Message of Tolerance

Four days after the September 11 terrorist attacks by radical Islamists from the Middle East, a self-proclaimed American “patriot” retaliated by murdering an Arizona gas station owner—a native of India whose Sikh religion required him to wear a turban. Although the victim was a stranger to then 20-year-old Valarie Kaur, she shared his religion, and the senseless murder so shook her that she spent the next four days holed up in her room, escaping in the world of Harry Potter. But on the fifth day, Kaur decided that she needed to respond, and she wound up spending the next eight years completing a documentary.

On Friday, on Sept. 23, Kaur came to St. Mary’s to share her work, “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath of 9/11,” and to lead a discussion about fear and religious tolerance in the decade since the towers fell.

The film explored the hate crimes and discrimination against both Muslims and those mistakenly perceived to be Muslims that swept the U.S. in the wake of 9/11. In the seven days following 9/11, there were 1,000 hate crimes and 19 murders of Arab and ‘Arab looking’ people.

Kaur focuses especially on the hate directed towards Sikhs, the followers of an Indian religion that traditionally require male followers to wear long beards and turbans. Although the Sikh religion is focused on the brotherhood of man, the turbans and bears make them look, to many Americans, like the Muslim radicals that have come to personify terrorism.

Kaur tells the stories of Sikhs living in the post 9/11 world as a means of exposing the way that the war on terror has constructed a view that equates being or looking Arab with being Muslim, and being Muslim with supporting terrorism.

On film, Kaur interviews law professors, Americans with ignorant and hateful views of Arabs, and those victimized by hatred. She chronicles the story of a white man stabbed for being with his Arab friend, a white woman who realized that she had been living with an irrational fear of Muslims, and a young Muslim boy who had been facing taunts that he was “Osama Bin Laden’s son.” One story that is widely discussed in the documentary is the murder of the gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, whose murder shook the Sikh community and Kaur herself.

The discussion and movie screening was organized by sophomore Pooja Taneja, who first saw the film in her Advanced Placement World History class in high school and fell in love with it. “I knew the stuff that was going on in my South Indian community but I didn’t know that it was to that extent. I had family friends that had experienced hate crimes, but I didn’t see it with my own eyes. But in the film she shows it, and it was really powerful.” She says that she had been surprised that so few people on campus knew what Sikhism was “and I thought, ‘they have to know’. They need to know what the religion is and what [the Sikhs] went through.”

After the movie screening, instead of a typical question and answer, Kaur led a powerful discussion about discrimination in America. The feeling in the room was incredible. Many students expressed shock at the level of hatred against Sikhs and Arabs that occurred, some expressed that they really related with the Sikhs in the film. Some were crying and many others expressed regret at their ignorance of Sikhism or their lack of outrage at the discrimination that was going on. Kaur led the discussion with grace and compassion, making sure that everybody got their chance to be heard and keeping careful record of what was being said and who was saying what.

Kaur then took the stage and gave a speech incorporating the questions that had been raised during the discussion.  Among other things, she talked about how she learned to handle hearing about intense racism and discrimination on a regular basis without coming away jaded or feeling hatred in return. She admitted that as she traveled the country collecting stories, “Somewhere along the way… I had a really hard time not becoming angry and bitter.”

Sometimes she found it hard to continue the fight with compassion and love, but at some point she had a powerful realization: “I walked home from school and an African American kid was walking toward me in the street. And I crossed the street. And I pulled my bag close and I felt this knot in my stomach. And for the first time in my life I asked ‘why is my body reacting this way, when my mind isn’t saying a word? I realized that we all have done this in some way. That in a way we shouldn’t feel guilty.  It’s not the first moment that we have responsibility over, it’s the second moment. Because in the second moment, we can decide to go along unthinkingly with the stereotypes that are in the air about how we should react. Or we can ask ourselves, ‘what has been wired into me? And what is the difference between protecting myself and harming another person?’” She argues that this recognition–that we have all been seen as outsiders as well as seen others as outsiders–is the beginning of addressing racism.

At the end of her speech, Kaur left the audience with one final message: “In college, many of you have the desire to do something good. To change the world in some way. When you leave college there are so many forces that will try to extinguish that flame. There’s a question of career, and marriage and economic hardship. All I ask is that you keep that flame alive…find the friends who nourish it, find the professors who nourish it, find the texts that nourish it. Keep those close to you… Because you’ll need those to keep that flame alive.”

Before the screening, Pooja said that she hoped that “this film will have an impact on [the students] as a community and that they will spread the word. That’s what Kaur’s mission is, to spread the word about what happened and to change people’s perspectives.” From the standing ovation that Valarie Kaur received after her talk, it seemed that that hope was realized.

Political Science Department Panel Discusses the Legacy of 9/11

Correction: Sahar Shafqat is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department, not an Assistant Professor of Political Science as originally reported.

September 11, 2001 was one of those moments in history that everyone will always remember exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing. That day is frozen in time—but what happened afterwards? How did the United States respond to the terrorist attacks? Does this response affect our daily lives? What about our standing in the world?

On Monday, Sept. 12 of this year, the Political Science Department hosted the panel “Ten Years Later: Political Science Reflects on 9/11.” Assistant Professors of Political Science Matt Fehrs and Todd Eberly, along with Professor of Political Science Susan Grogan and Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department, Sahar Shafqat, each discussed different impacts of the events of September 11 on politics, policy, and public opinion.

Fehrs discussed President Bush’s reaction to 9/11 and America’s subsequent foreign policy. After September 11, Fehrs said Bush chose “militaristic solutions over diplomacy” because the “U.S. would not wait to be attacked but would seek out threats and attack them.”

As a result, the United States became closer with foreign countries whose policy the U.S. may not agree with in order to better confront terrorism. However, in terms of national security, Fehrs said, “it’s not possible to defeat terrorism.” Terrorism will always exist, but it’s not necessarily a direct or constant threat to our country.

Senior Emily Gershon, a public policy and economics double major, said, “Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the discussion for me was the perspective the professors were able to provide. Growing up in an era of post 9/11 it can easily seem as if we are the first generation to have the fear of terrorism injected into our daily lives, but simply it’s a false feeling.”

Grogan spoke on civil rights in America in the wake of 9/11, and said, “the real support for civil liberties in this post-9/11 world will lie with the people.”

Eberly addressed the ramifications of 9/11 in American politics and policy, and said, “rights [became] for Americans and Americans only, Americans that were not plotting terrorist acts against the United States.” The political climate became increasingly hostile towards non-Americans, or anyone exhibiting ‘suspicious behavior.’

Relating back to Fehrs’ discussion of foreign policy, Shafqat talked about how the United States’ foreign policy influenced the policy and actions of other nations. She said, “Governments around the world are pursuing their own agendas using the language of the War on Terror.” The legacy of the tragic events of 9/11 continues to influence American political policy and thought. America’s actions in the wake of September 11 still affect our status in the world and impact our relations with other nations.

Gershon said, “attending the panel served as a reminder to think of 9/11 on a more global scale and in the greater context of time, as opposed to an isolated incident.”