“My Pashtun Rabbi,” named to Kirkus Reviews “Best Books of 2018,” tells the story of David Eden, a Jewish-American journalist who was hired as the “journalism expert” at United Arab Emirates University — and nobody knew he was Jewish (except the American who hired him!). This all takes place during the 2008–09 school year when Obama was elected U.S. President, the world’s economy collapsed ushering in The Great Recession, and a bloody war broke out in Gaza. Get your copy at mypashtunrabbi.com.
Here’s an excerpt of the book:
The Big Lie
You never forget the day, the five minutes, in which you come to a shocking new perception, a realization that knocks aside cherished, romantic and often naïve ideas. That moment resides in your present, but extends into your future, putting an end-point on your past. Yet there’s an irony to all this when your new perception is: “Nothing really changes, does it?”
That hit me, along with the thought that most likely nothing ever will, at the end of a lively session of Intro. As a further irony, this was the Wednesday following the historic Tuesday on which Americans chose a black man with a Muslim father as their 44thpresident. Hope. Hope?
As usual the a/c in my Building 66 classroom was broken and it was hot and stuffy for early November. I’d scrawled on the whiteboard behind me, in a rainbow of dry-erase colors, a quartet of buzzwords: Propaganda, Seek the Truth, Speak Truth to Power, andThe Big Lie. My teaching plan was a lesson and discussion focused on uses and abuses of journalistic influence, not on the U.S. election.
Noura 1 was anxious to get the subversion going the moment class started. “We are so excited about Obama. He is our president, too.”
“He is the world’s new hope,” Fatima 4 exclaimed.
That word again. I’d arrived knowing the students would want me to go off-topic. With their first genuine exam set for the following Wednesday, they weren’t going to derail me easily. I stood firm. “We will talk about Obama and the American election another day. Today, we have other things to do.”
Noura 1 persisted. “Are you glad he won, Doctor?”
“Yes.” I smiled, trying to hide my jaded journalistic doubt. “Keep hope alive.”
The class erupted in applause and loud chatter — in Arabic — and I waited for the moment of youthful political passion to subside. That “hope” thing. I’d felt that way once myself when I voted for the first time for president. But Nixon won and my man, McGovern, was crushed. The rest is history.
When the chatter persisted, I raised a hand and reminded the class that the midterm was a week away. That did it. Calm — and anxious calm — was restored. I skipped over to the whiteboard and put big red quotation marks around “Seek the Truth”and“Speak Truth to Power.”
As I wrote, I all but chanted: “You trust your government. Your leaders never lie. Politicians are honest and truthful.” I pivoted on one foot, with a bit of flair, and faced the students. “Right?”
“All politicians lie,” Noura 1 said, with a big laugh.
“All governments lie,” added the Sri Lankan, Mariam 3.
The “choir,” the majority who seemed to blend together in the background and who by then I had come to see as something between a Greek chorus and a black-clad cheerleading squad, nodded in agreement. Together, we’d just breached the rules and raised the taboo subject of politics. But in a generic way since no government or politician was being identified.
So, I pressed. “Are you saying allgovernments lie?” That drew uncertain stares. “Are you saying that the UAE government lies?”
“Oh, no, sir!” the choir sang. But the answer was shaded with sarcasm, even laughter. This was getting close to a much more dangerous taboo: criticism of the powers that be. Probably vastly closer than most in this group had ever ventured, at least in a public setting, to sedition.
Fatima 4’s hand went up. “Our government doesn’t lie,” she declared, each word dripping with irony. “It always tells us the truth, Doctor.”
“Very good answer,” I intoned, looking up at the ceiling and getting a laugh. That routine hadn’t failed yet. The illicit, in all its forms, is evergreen. Sometimes as I performed my shtick — scribbling madly on the whiteboard in colored inks — I reminded myself of Professor Irwin Corey, “the world’s foremost authority” on everything and a staple of TV variety shows in my youth.
I had one more topic to circle. The one I’d been building up to — The Big Lie.Maybe there was some free thinking here. I had seen flashes. Something was simmering beneath all the black and uniformity. The thirty-five young women in this class hadn’t just sat there and played with their sheylas, as other faculty widely complained.
“Who,” I asked, “can give me an example of ‘The Big Lie’?”
“A lie told so often, so insistently, that it passes as the truth.”
Still silence. Whether it was apprehension, puzzlement or both I couldn’t tell.
“So, someone, tell me a Big Lie! Tell me one!”
To get them going, I batted out a couple softballs. “America invaded Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East.” That met with derision. “George Bush always tells the truth. He is one of the greatest presidents in American history and has made the world better.”
“No, sir! You are crazy!” Fatima 4 exclaimed, rising to her feet.
The chorus’s cue. “No, sir! No, sir! He is bad. Very bad.”
Noura 1 took the floor. “But, Doctor, we like Americans. We just all hate Bush.”
Anood 2 from the back: “You are just trying to be funny, Doctor.”
Thinking back to that interval, I recognize it, somewhat paradoxically, as a “come to Jesus moment” in a Muslim classroom. The wiser choice would have been to shut the conversation down and go to safe ground. Wrap up the hour, say, “See you next time.” But I had gone too far, as I saw it, to wimp out… More important, this class had come along with me and it wasn’t my prerogative to play the authority card. Even if I was the world’s foremost authority on everything! The girls in black were coming out of the shells they’d been raised in. I reiterated my request for a Big Lie.
“Democracy is a Big Lie!” called out Mariam 3, the Sri Lankan, who had asserted that all governments lie.
In an hour already notable for the unexpected, that took me by surprise. “Democracy is a Big Lie? Why do you say that?”
“It is a lie because democracy in America is a lie,” she offered, earnestly. “Obama only got seventy percent of the vote, and thirty percent didn’t vote for him. So democracy is a lie.”
I think I kept my poker face, but my silent reaction to that was, Huh?“First,” I noted, “Obama did not get that many votes. But are you saying that the fact one candidate didn’t get allthe votes makes democracy a lie. A Big Lie, even?”
Mariam 3 was adamant. “Yes, Doctor. It is a Big Lie.”
The chorus concurred. “Yes, Doctor, yes.”
I pressed on. I had a real Big Lie I wanted to float with this group. “Now I’m going to tell you a ‘Big Truth.’”
The chorus rang out. “What, sir?”
“Sometimes there isvery little difference between a Big Lie and a Big Truth.” I paused for a beat. “Now, tell me which one this is.”
I took a breath, squared my shoulders. “All Muslims are terrorists!”
The chorus was mute. One count. Two count. Three. Four …
Noura 1 shot to her feet, towering in the first row. “No, sir, it’s a Big Lie, a terrible Big Lie!”
I couldn’t resist. “What do you mean?! Everyone knows that all Muslims are terrorists. I see them on TV all the time. Blowing things up. Suicide bombers. Murderers.”
Noura 1 stood tall. “We are not all like that!!”
“But it’s on TV,” I pushed.
Anood 2, near the back wall, was on her feet as well. “No, sir, that is a Big Lie! We are not like that. Only a very few. They make us all look bad!”
I grinned, pointedly, and refrained from eyeing the ceiling. “Yes, it’s a Big Lie. Of course it is. Some infinitesimal minority of Muslims are terrorists. But this unfair stereotype persists. And it persists strongly among many people, especially in America, because it’s repeated again and again in the media.”
The lesson I was driving at, how journalism has to be vigilant against efforts — including its own — to be subverted into the dissemination of propaganda, which it more and more is, was lost in the shuffle. It took a back seat to a more pressing issue in the students’ minds.
“Doctor,” Fatima 4 said, “do youthink we are terrorists? Do youthink we are bad?”
“No.” In the brief pause, as I considered how to elaborate, I sensed the room thirsting for my answer. “I think all of you here are good people. In any group, there are some bad people who do bad things and make unthinking people hate everyone in that group. There are many unthinking people in the world, however, including many people in America, and they think Muslims are terrorists because that’s what they see on TV. And, after all, TV is reality, right?”
“No, sir,” Anood 2 said, sitting down. “It is not.”
“She is right,” echoed Noura 1, doing the same. “TV is a Big Lie.”
We weren’t going to have time to examine that, not today, so I simply shrugged. With two minutes to go, I went for broke. Not once in this class had I allowed my religion to come up. We’d talked about theirs, and just now gotten to prejudices they face because of it. Clearly they had assumed, with nearly everyone else around, that their teacher, as he was an American, was Christian. I had done nothing to make them think so nor had I found any occasion to make a religious declaration — not that I necessarily would have.
But I had the chance now, in the context of The Big Lie, and in a roundabout way that appealed to me, via the natural follow-up question. I hadn’t anticipated this, but it was obviously the place to go. When would I have another chance to pose thequestion to an ensemble like this? I moved to the center of the room and drew in a breath like a flute player. “Tell me if what I say next is a Big Lie.” A pause for effect, and then I spoke slowly, without inflection. “AllJews are evil.”
This time Fatima 1 jumped to her feet, balancing on her spike heels. “It is true, sir!”
The chorus reached the top of its range. “It is true! It is true!”
Holy shit, I said to myself. Had they misheard the assertion?
“Now, listen to what I said. ‘AllJews are evil.’ Are you saying that’s true? AllJews,allJews everywhere, are evil?”
The chorus, usually so retiring, sang out. “Yes, sir!”
“So not all Muslims are terrorists. But allJews are evil?”
Fatima 1 punched the air. “All!”
I scanned my students’ faces. These were women I laughed with and who joined me in mocking untruths we’d been fed throughout our lives. Now I could detect not a trace of the irony that had gotten us on this track. Nor could I see a flicker of doubt. I was as desperate for a break in their certainty as they had been for my answer only moments before. Under their definition, I was evil by association.
The reprieve came from Anood 2, my star, in the back: “Not allJews are evil.” Noura 1 and Mariam 3 joined her: “Not all.” Fatima 4 had visited Venice, the city of Shylock, and had a like view: “No, Doctor, not all.” Two more voices: “Not all Jews” That made six. This sextet hummed in agreement.
But the choir, directed by Fatima 1, countered with one voice. “Yes, sir. They are allevil.”
“So that is nota Big Lie?” I asked.
Fatima 1 rang out defiantly. “No, sir, it is The Big Truth!”
The chorus rose to a crescendo. “The truth! The Big Truth!”
There were still those voices saying “no,” but our time was up, class was over. I’d gotten my comeuppance and been asking for it. Neither the answer I had sought nor, more disconcerting, the one I had, with breezy confidence, expected. My students, the educated elite, the country’s rising female generation, maybe even political leaders, simply wouldn’t, I had convinced myself, hold such blind prejudices. But that’s what they’d been fed their entire lives. AllJews are evil. What did I expect?
TO BE CONTINUED.
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