November 4, 2010

America’s Muslim Problem, in a Toronto Taxi.

Catching a late-night cab in Toronto worried me, but within seconds of leaving the building one appeared. We were on College Ave after all, a main thoroughfare with plenty of life in the midnight hour. I’ve just had bad experiences with taxis in cities outside of New York; even at home some nights present problems. Like much of everything that I’ve experienced in Toronto, however, all went smoothly.

Twice a year I head up to T-dot to teach at the Yoga Sanctuary, a beautiful haven nestled into two excellent locations in the city. My friend Richard, aka DJ medicineman on CIUT, spins international beats behind my classes, weaving a dub-heavy set into the flow. With each trip I appreciate the city more: people saying hello for no apparent reason on the street (try that in New York), wine bar waiters who sit down with you to chat about travel and life, taxi drivers that make K turns to get you to your destination quicker (find that in New York). Nowhere is an Eden unless you make it so. Toronto does a great job at trying.

As Erica, my fiancé, and I jumped inside, she said that something like 50% of the city’s population was born elsewhere – its cosmopolitan nature certainly feels like that. Our hotel was only a mile away, but it was late, I had gear, we were tired. To make small talk the driver asked us where we were from. Returning the favor, I inquire. His voice drops: Pakistan. Maybe he’s aware that that country isn’t getting the greatest press in America. Maybe he’d heard that brown people make better electoral villains than actual human beings.

Fortunately the Nevada tea partier made infamous for telling a group of Latino high schoolers that they look Asian didn’t oust Harry Reid from his senatorial seat. But other incredibly ignorant and blindly selfish candidates did achieve major victories. Marco Rubio. Jim DeMint. Ron Johnson. Some semblance of intelligence seems to have fended off Ken Buck, but already Rand Paul is telling us that we need rich people, so just get off their backs with all that regulation nonsense. Meanwhile new House leader John Boehner cries over the Democrats not playing fairly…well, that is, not playing his game the way he wants them to.

Joe Barton is the ranking Republican of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This is the man that apologized to BP on national television for the ‘government shakedown.’ This is also the man who used to work as an executive at ARCO, which was eventually bought by BP. Barton is now the point man for energy policy in the United States. No wonder my driver mumbled.

Mainly, however, he went quiet because of the media commentaries about America having a “Muslim problem.” With Bill O’Reilly continually citing this issue to his over three million nightly viewers, plenty of people buy in. Watch garbage, you spew it. Juan Williams gets fired from NPR for exposing his racism on air; Fox gives him a raise. Glenn Beck hawks freeze-dried food in backpacks for the approaching apocalypse – when the next plane crashes, he means. Fear is contagious and spreading pandemically here.

A few moments pass in silence. I follow up my initial question. “Do you like qawwali music?” The driver replies yes, then, “Do you like qawwali?” I tell him it’s one of my favorites. He laughs, replies, “Well why didn’t you say so?” He pulls out an album by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, pumps the tabla-harmonium beat into his system. I play a snippet from the new Badar Ali Khan record on my iPhone. He brings up Rahat, Nusrat’s nephew; we both agree he has a really high register, then briefly talk about his life in Bollywood. We sit parked in front of my hotel a few minutes more. When I pull out the fare, he waves it away. I pay anyway, but the gesture was sweet.

It was human.

I don’t think that music will save the world. But it helps bring people together. It’s not only music that does that. Conversations with strangers connect us quicker than anything else. If we don’t initiate the dialogue, our fears and anxieties remain stalking terrors in our collective imagination. There is no Muslim problem in this world. There is, however, one comprised of and fueled by ignorance. And it always seems to be the people claiming themselves to those confronting it with their narrow, selfish motives that are the ones running from it. Or, better put: running it.

We can’t keep voting the people who make us fear into office. We’re only feeding the flames that will burn us in the end. It’s been two years since an actual human being attained the presidency and I still have hope. Going backwards is going to run us into the same problems we’ve been plagued with, and there’s only so many times that can happen before our spirits are broken for good. By then, I may very well find myself living in Toronto, a city that seems to remember its humanity before its terror.

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