The scene of unbridled jubilation broadcast from in front of the White House last Sunday in reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death could have been mistaken for a Fourth of July celebration. American flags flapped around behind reporters speaking over a roaring crowd of revelers; a group of 20-somethings hoisted upon their peers’ shoulders pumped their fists in the air; pride and ebullient nationalism coated the content of every cheer.
With the completion of a 10-year man hunt for the most recognizable religious fanatic in world and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the celebration felt long overdue. Yet, as sweet as the justice dealt tastes for “fighters of freedom,” those Americans who lost loved ones in the attacks and Obama’s national security team (not to mention Obama himself), taking out the linchpin at the top is more likely to make a martyr than unravel the well-entrenched organization, Al-Qaeda, into a state of confusion.
If you were to hear the news from abroad, how the American media reacted — as well as how they depicted the American people as reacting — certainly bore its own fanatical undertones. One has to wonder how recently awakened fighters in Misrata and across the Middle East are going to interpret the terse headline “Rot in Hell,” published by The New York Daily News. Assuming the writer of the headline wants to send bin Laden to a Christian hell, probably with far less pomp.
Don’t get me wrong. The death of Osama bin Laden will undoubtedly make our world a safer place; but, showing some grace and composure would make it even safer.
The Sunday before last, I walked into the Lanzhou Pulled Noodle restaurant located directly across from my apartment building for a late lunch. I’ve been going there for over a year now. All the food is as familiar as the faces, though the lineup of random “relatives” popping in for some part-time work does change.
Pictured menu boards take up nearly all of the two largest walls in the narrow eatery. On the top right hand corner of each menu, the word halal is stamped in a circle symbol, which denotes that food prepared here is done so in accordance with Islamic law. Just next to it, a clear statement in Chinese: no alcohol allowed.
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province, home to the Hui minority. Once part of the legendary Silk Road, Gansu province, along with bordering Xinjiang Autonomous Region, have the largest Muslim populations in China.
While the food and language bear some semblance to that of other Turkic countries (Turkish people can communicate, fussily at that, with Uyghurs, the minority group of Xinjiang), the culture developed in Gansu is distinctly its own, a buffer between the Han of the East and the expansive deserts of the West.
I’d grown instantly accustomed the food, despite the occasional quicker-than-average bowel movements. This time I felt like switching up my order a little bit though. “I want the beef potato noodles, but with lamb instead,” I shouted towards the kitchen. “You don’t want to have the beef?” a young boy wearing an Islamic cap, also known as a taqiyah, and in the midst of pulling fresh noodles, said. I quickly confirmed and took a seat.
An older man, most likely the young boy’s “relative” (Chinese people will often distinguish family friends as relatives, such as uncle or aunt), wearing a plain-red polo sat across from me. “Your Mandarin is very good,” he told me. “Where do you come from?”
“America,” I said, which was followed by an apathetic “Ahh.”
With little pause, he preceded, “So you believe in Christianity?”
“I was born a Christian,” I responded with equal readiness. “And you believe in Islam?” He gave a firm nod of the head, and then made the sign of the cross over his body — up, down, left, right — finishing with a flash of the middle finger.
My instinct said: laugh it off. So I did. Then, glancing over at the young man, I gave a nod towards his older “relative.” “What happened,” the young man asked with strings of noodles stretched out in front of him. “You can tell him yourself,” I told the older man in the red polo. He sunk his head down and looked away, perhaps too ashamed to repeat what he had just done. Because there were no other customers, my noodles were quickly done, so I thanked them both and made my way back home without another word.
Far from getting combative in the face of blatant bigotry, I chose a response that will leave a lasting, pleasant impression (I hope) in place of the ignorance that first existed. This is perhaps the best way of bridging two worlds, up until now, caught in a perpetual war of conflicting ideologies.
This incident was not the first time I’ve ran into cultural fiction, and it probably won’t be the last. As I prepare for my first trip to Turkey, I try to keep in mind the possible prejudices that await me. “Should I just say I’m Canadian?” I sometimes ponder. No. Taking to the path ahead with a clean plate — one ready to be feed, that is — requires a sense of clarity that can only come with honesty. That is, at least, my food for thought.