Photographs by Reelika Ramot
When I decided to drop out of college for a semester to read books, I wanted to be different than my friends, to be changed, to be extraordinary, and for some reason, I thought the only way to do this was to abandon society as much as possible and live in a shack in the woods of West Virginia. It was a time to come of age, and I knew it, and I thought I could accelerate the long process of obtaining self-knowledge by engaging in some extreme living. Was all this born out of an acute self-understanding or a sincere utopian impulse à la Thoreau? Was I a sensitive soul with a mission to study nature in an age of impending ecological disaster, or most likely, was this merely a plot to piss off my parents?
The plan was to join my friend Cody and build shacks on land, privately owned by a mutual friend, near our hometown of Wheeling, a town off I-70, in what we call the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Cody and I were highly motivated learners, but we had not adjusted well to college life. We had become disillusioned and disappointed with our schools and all the vapid social posturing required to excel. We hated the bureaucratic pressures that college required of students, and we wanted a more “authentic” educational environment. We were convinced that the schools we had invested our time and money were not places of higher education, so much as places of distraction -- training centers for a bureaucratic life, which in many ways they were of course, and we understood at some level that a reductionism calling for a simpler way was what we needed. This was a worldview calling us to action. It probably didn't help that we were very interested in philosophy.
When peers of ours were getting summer internships, seizing opportunities, and showing unbridled excitement to enter the adult world, Cody and I chose to reject that world and its conformist pressures. We were going to embrace our alienation and retreat to the woods, to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge. In the woods, we enthusiastically envisioned living off the land, reading and studying all day, and destroying our reliance on banal comforts like television and mattresses. Like many aspiring intellectuals, we were impressed with ourselves, convinced of our own exceptionalism. We thought that because we were interested in books and grew up in West Virginia, where most people didn't seem to be interested in books, we were somehow destined to be geniuses. We were reading a lot of Ayn Rand at the time.
After spending five minutes with Cody, almost anyone would be convinced of his intellectual talent. As a precocious twenty-year-old, he could engage in stimulating conversations about literature, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, or religion, at the same time he might play you his intricate electronic music, with layer upon layer of unrecognizable samples, challenging melodies, and cryptic lyrics. Cody was the kind of guy who could be a leader of men if he wasn't so suspicious of leadership itself. Born with the body of an offensive lineman, he ended up being an offensive lineman for a bit in college, even though I know for the most part, he hated it. Often seen wearing oversized shorts and hiking boots, Cody was the friend who custom built your PC in 1999, talked about the superiority of Linux, loved Neal Stephenson, and let you know about conspiracy theories before you even knew conspiracy theories existed. He liked the Pogues, They Might Be Giants, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He introduced me to David Foster Wallace and Aphex Twin, and I remember one time he explained the Illuminati to me while smoking a pipe. Before we moved to the woods he wrote me an email that expressed his unbridled enthusiasm to drop out of society, a pep talk for our adventure, and at the time, it was what ultimately convinced me to join him.
Ben, You and I are self-actualized individuals, and our search for transcendent experience has naturally led us to the one place where it can still be found: nature. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not some kind of pseudo-spiritual Geia worshipper. I don't stare into crystals and light rings of candles when the moon is in the eighth house (hehee). I do think that humans were, and still are animals in many ways. We are slaves to our instinct, and modern life is suited in NO WAY to be an outlet for our instinctual motives. Think about it: traditionally, men are the breadwinners, the hunters, the survivalists. But as life has become more comfortable, as the act of breadwinning has diverged from a physical, manly act, to spending eight hours a day sitting on one's ass in a cubicle, man has become lost. Our biology tells us to live life as if there were no tomorrow, to hunt, to kill, to build and to destroy, but the demands of modern life are diametrically opposed! We are taught to conform, to be accommodating, to kiss ass and to be polite. To be good, law abiding citizens (heaven help us, NO!), and thus we will win bread. Thus we will have a suburban home, three cars in a three car garage, and procreate 2.8 children. Thus we will have a safe and happy retirement. Thus we will LIVE COMFORTABLY. It is no wonder our society is as fucked up as it is! Where, pray tell, are we to appease our biological motivations? Nothing good has ever come of comfortable living. Comfort breeds complacency. Only from discomfort is creativity born. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Can you ever begin to fathom the sheer, unadulterated NECESSITY that a life in the woods will bring? The learning curve will be astronomical! We won't need to spend five years in college traipsing between majors, attempting to “find ourselves.” Ourselves will FIND US.
So in the late summer of 2000, I took my gear to West Virginia to join Cody who already had begun building a shack on the land. Our plan was to stay for the rest of the year at least. We were given permission to build dwellings for ourselves if we respected the land and didn't throw parties while the owners were away. This wouldn't be a problem because, if given the time and space, we would be too focused on the experiment and what we might accomplish. It is probably not surprising, but we were extraordinarily single, so there would be no worry of excessive social activity or any activity involving other people anyway.
We chose a plot of land in a small wooded valley near a family farm. There was a natural spring on the top of the hill near a barn where we could collect drinking water. Our camp was just a short hike downhill. When I arrived at the property sometime during August, Cody had already been there for at least a month. He had turned me on to Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival guides, and we would ultimately get our shack building ideas from these books.
On that first day, I could make out the skeleton of a circular structure from cut saplings, a kind of wigwam with a teepee in the middle. At the base of the teepee was a fire pit, surrounded by a ring of rocks. On the top of Cody’s shack was a translucent plastic that served as the roof, cut in the center so the teepee could poke through and allow smoke to escape. His original idea was to build mud walls, but he never got the right consistency of mud and straw, so there was enough trial and error to lead him to fit store bought plywood for the walls. The result was a wigwam like structure of more than twelve feet across.
As purists, we originally wanted to build our shacks with no nails or other store bought materials. We thought we could become as equally skilled as self-sufficient people of the 17th century or something by will alone. Cody showed me how to lash saplings together with jute twine. This proved to be amazingly effective. But of course, there were tools on the ground all around his shack: saws, hatchets, hammers, shovels. He would later equip his shack with bookshelves and an innovative pulley system that allowed him to lie on his bed, which was made from massive amounts of plastic bags, and pull a rope to open the door outward. Perhaps most impressively, behind his shack there was painter's plastic suspended by intricately placed jute twine tied to tree trunks that trailed up the hill in a kind of labyrinthine zig zag. Cody explained to me that he grew tired of hiking all the way up the hill to collect water, so he decided to build an aqueduct with the plastic. He showed me that if you dipped the plastic in the water at the top, it would drip in a bin right next to his shack. Cody, inspirational genius and college dropout, was experimenting with Roman technology just to confront his own laziness.
Of course, people would ask us “What are you guys doing this for?” If you asked that question you didn't get it, you didn't understand how important it was to reject society, how rigged it all was, how your choices were prefabricated. Maybe one of the reasons Cody and I got along so well was because we were both focused on process rather than results. We were trying to live better in the quotidian existence, to live more in the present.
I searched for a place to build a shack for myself. Nearby, I found a spot that would be dry about three hundred yards up the hill from Cody. I found three trees that were close together, almost in a perfect right triangle. I dug a few holes to make the fourth corner, and this is where my door would be made with simple hinges. I lashed cross beams, followed Cody’s lead with the plastic roof and the plywood, but I put in a single center pole to support the roof. The result was a rectangular structure, more bourgeois, with a fireplace on the outside rather than in the center. This was the most obvious difference from Cody’s design, which allowed for the fire to exist in the center and the smoke to escape upward. The danger of my design, I soon realized, was that at any moment I risked having my whole structure burst into flames. I also used river rocks to build my fireplace, which is beyond stupid because once the rocks dry, they expand and can explode. Basically, I managed to masterfully build a somewhat haphazard, smaller and shittier dwelling. There was a problem of insulation for both of us. We knew that the coming winter months would be a challenge. The idea was to build debris huts, to pile three or four feet of sticks, leaves, pinecones, dirt, whatever, on all sides of the existing structure to keep the cold out. For whatever reason, I never did this.
Inside my shack, I kept a plastic bin that contained my books. I had a good sleeping bag and read by candle light at night. I read Crime and Punishment, Walden, Atlas Shrugged, Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up To Me, The Autobiography of Miles Davis, The Crying of Lot 49. Books that you would expect a twenty-year-old with a whiff of the counterculture and a youthful excitement in literature to pursue. Along with this I sat down to write for the first time and produced some horrendous writing that I would never reproduce here, as I apparently thought writing meant combining language from nature, jazz, pop philosophy and the Beats together with an obvious narcissism. Compare this to Thoreau who succinctly begins Walden with, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” In contrast to our hero, Henry David Thoreau, I wasn't writing seriously or laboring very hard at all.
I think Cody and I sort of forgot the labor part. We settled into a routine that mostly involved reading all day, dinner at night together at Cody’s shelter and conversation by the fire. We loved to build fires. It became a ritual for us, in the morning, at night – try to keep the embers going, boil the hell out of coffee. Mostly we ate canned food and ramen noodles. Although we read about it, neither of us was ready to kill animals and gut them. Cody had a 22-caliber rifle that I never saw him use. We had it to protect us from black bears, which I never saw. We would sit around and talk about Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, the Pre-Socratics, whatever we learned in our 100 level college courses. The amount of obligations was fantastically lower. We didn't have to worry about making money, shitty internships, or banal responsibilities. We could sit and read whole books during the day and share our knowledge with each other at night. Often, we would hike up to my parked Subaru and listen to music. Radiohead's Kid A had just come out, and we spoke of it with awe and reverence. I remember Cody playing me Cornilius's Fantasma or the song Alberto Basalam by Aphex Twin, an instrumental track that at one point drops the melody for what sounds like a percussion bridge. Cody would speculate about the meaning of such a song suddenly self-containing itself, as if the song itself fell into a tin box. In many ways, I think we sort of did the same. We became too self-contained, too inward looking, we became comfortable too quickly, wanting to skip the labor and enjoy the benefits of woods living first. We forgot to focus on the essentials like shack insulation, the weening off store bought food staples, and the building of a more efficient water purification system. Occasionally while reading, we would be interrupted by the alarming sounds of gunshots, hunters or locals reminding us that we were not alone.
Perhaps this adventure was the result of our early education. Cody and I were both raised in religious families, and although I can't speak for him and his motivations, I know in our early college years we found philosophy and we found Nietzsche. Never underestimate the power of Nietzsche to influence an impressionable twenty-year-old. Reading Nietzsche for the first time not only seems dangerous and cool, the beginning perhaps of a predictable interest in existentialism, but it is simply intoxicating to read books, difficult and respectable books, that tell you religion is bullshit. A book like Thus Spoke Zarathustra can create a desire to be the overman, or worse can convince the undergraduate that he or she is already the overman. I wouldn't say that I convinced myself of my own extraordinariness, for I suffered like most twenty year olds from a deep lack of self-confidence, but perhaps all of this had something to do with my tendency to embrace philosophy with religious like intensity. If you learn anything from an overzealous religious childhood, you learn to attach yourself to other secular things with the same reverence. I think for me, our project was a result of what can happen when you join the philosophical and the personal. I was a young libertarian who had abandoned society for a life in the woods without ever having worked a real job.
For me, what soon developed in our “authentic” individualist pursuit was the distressing realization of just how unprepared I was to deal with the slow pace of life that the isolated woods environment provided. What is interesting about living in the woods is that time slows down to an extreme degree. Suddenly you confront yourself, and in my case, I didn't think I liked what I found. Unable to deal with solitude, I missed others terribly. The journals I've kept from this time are filled with sad romantic entries expressing unattainable love, bad poems of loneliness, and pathetic ruminations about sex and companionship. Not to risk oversimplification too much, but perhaps my libertarian adventure in the woods of West Virginia was so appealing because I was essentially just sad, and I needed a distracting project. Perhaps I wasn’t celebrating individualism so much as I was trying to separate from my parents, in what is a much more conventional, albeit Freudian way of looking at it. I could claim to not need community because I was so in need of finding community. This was not extraordinary, but predictable. In an absurdist way, I was testing the limits of individualism by taking myself hostage. By the end, I learned that I was lonely, and I didn't want to live in the woods at all.
These emotional distractions, I imagine, corrupted our project, as I constantly found excuses to leave the woods, unprepared to deal with the solitude and constant self-reflection. We often left at any time to get provisions, go to bars or concerts, or visit our families. One weekend we drove to Boston, on another we went to see a Sunny Day Real Estate concert in Pittsburgh. I began to leave every weekend, to drive to Morgantown, the closest university town, to see friends and go to parties, to interact with women, sometimes bringing Cody with me. And so began the realization that my educational experiment of life in the woods was a failure, as it was always destined to be with such idealism. What I needed to learn about was how to talk to people.
I think as I try to make sense of this woods experiment I should consider it as being a possible grappling with my home state's complicated political and cultural climate. West Virginia is often talked about as having some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, but the state often gets an unfair reputation because of the perceived backwardness of the people. It is not always portrayed flatteringly in media representations and is usually depicted in a way that reinforces the worst Appalachia stereotypes. Consider the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites and the 2013 MTV show Buckwild. However, I am proud of the state, and I am proud to have grown up there, and in a weird way, I'm proud that at one time I was a wannabe Thoreau. I am not proud that West Virginia still struggles with racism, perhaps unsurprising to many who live there, but startling is its overtness to non-natives. Add to this the destruction of the natural landscape and commercial infrastructure because of rapacious corporate interests: coal and mountain top removal, natural gas and fracking, not to mention the slow erosion of small businesses because of big box stores – all of it offering limited possibilities for residents, and I'm left with conflicted feelings about the place. Perhaps my woods adventure and its libertarianism, the retreat to isolation, was an expression of dissatisfaction of having to witness a deteriorating society, the consequence of an already extreme capitalism. In retrospect, I didn't need to reject all of society, just the parts of it that were not for me.
In the influential book for educators When Students Have Power, Ira Shor writes of his conservative college students: “They focus on individualism and self-reliance two hegemonic values deeply embedded in a corporate society, but which they experience contradictorily as values to resist “the system”” (103). This line makes sense to me. The whole project was flawed from the start because I didn’t understand, as I now do, that the society that I was so dissatisfied with was already obsessed with individualism. I wanted to go more extreme in this direction, not because I was special and had some keen insight, but because it seemed the only way available to express my own form of individualism in the West Virginia milieu. There was no visible liberal culture to join. I didn’t need to focus on myself, so much as I just needed to listen to different viewpoints.
I would like to talk to Cody about all of this. I remember the day when I left the woods, leaving him there alone. I was going to continue college and study abroad in Spain, and I needed to get going. He was planning to persist, to persevere, and in the frigid cold, with the grey landscape as backdrop, I remember him wishing me well. Since this time, he has decided to sever all contact with his West Virginia friends for some reason. Recently some of those friends and I found a resume online with some of his contact information. He is living in Texas but didn’t return our phone calls. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could get his address somehow, drive to his house and show up on his doorstep, but I want to respect his privacy. While I needed the woods experience to appreciate society, to understand that I needed to become community literate, perhaps the beginning of my political awareness, Cody has stayed true to his original vision by dropping out. I imagine him writing code or something, scoffing at the Hollywood butchering of The Hobbit, writing music, reading Pynchon's latest novel, laughing. Maybe he is still apolitical and a visionary for alternative living. Maybe he is even living in the woods.
Learning to be a gracious guest in someone else’s language
Photograph by Andy Lehto
When I landed in Jordan, settling after Peace Corps training in a tiny agricultural village, Islam was all around me: mosques, hijab, skullcaps, “Allah” and “Muhammad” calligraphy, pictures of the ka’aba in Mecca, Qur’aan atop most every television. I heard Islam everywhere, too, starting with the call to prayer five times a day.
Each morning when I walked into school, I shook each of my colleagues’ hands and they said, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.—Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings.” Like everyone else, I was expected to respond in kind, “Wa-‘alaikum as-salaam—and peace be upon you.” Then we would go out to the school playground, where the girls lined up by class for morning assembly, including a recitation of the fatiHah, sometimes called the Muslim Lord’s Prayer.
All day long, whenever a teacher entered a classroom, all the students rose to their feet and said, in unison, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.” If I failed to offer the proper response, my students would correct me.
Beyond the schoolyard, there was God-language in every personal interaction. The most common responses to “How are you?” was “al-Hamdu lillah—Praise be to God”. It was one of the first things I learned to say in Arabic, but I didn’t use it for months.
I was deeply uncomfortable with the ubiquitous presence of God in all these everyday phrases. In the humanist-centered Unitarian Universalist congregation and Wiccan-leaning religious education program where I came of age, we were actively discouraged by adults from using the Bible, invoking God, or even saying the word church. That was what “those people” did on Sunday, but we attended a fellowship. Rev. Kathy helped me understand that many of those adults had been traumatized by conservative Christianity and Judaism, as I had been bullied by Evangelicals in school.
When my Jordanian neighbors asked ‘How are you?’ in those early months, I answered any other way I could: good, fine, well, excellent…. God had been a blunt instrument wielded against me and people I loved throughout my childhood, and invoking his name with every person I met felt hollow, hypocritical, even painful.
I thought it would be subtle, that I could fly under the radar as an atheist by just avoiding the word ‘god’ in everyday interaction. Instead, it became a joke in the village where I taught. My first-grade students started to greet me every morning with two thumbs up and an overly enthusiastic “Excellent!” After John Kerry lost the election, the neighborhood girls came to me one day, faces knit in concern. “How are you really, Miss Maryah? Because you haven’t answered ‘excellent!’ for weeks.”
Umm Alaa was a tall, plainspoken woman, the girls’ school headmistress, my neighbor, and my self-appointed Jordanian mother. I was welcome in her home any time for a meal or a cup of tea. Sometimes she even summoned me to help her stuff grape leaves or paint the verandah railing. Umm Alaa taught me about my professional responsibilities at school, and about my cultural obligations in the neighborhood.
When she made social visits, she would often bring me along. Sometimes, in these neighbors’ sitting rooms, I felt like little more than Umm Alaa’s exotic prestige symbol on display, even though I knew she meant to be welcoming and inclusive. Yet, awkward as they could be, these visits were important to my integration into the community, and there was always fruit and candy and plenty of strong, sweet black tea.
Usually, there were small children hiding behind doorframes, spying on this curious stranger with short hair and no hijab, who dressed funny, talked funny, and wasn’t even a third cousin. When it got too awkward, or I just couldn’t follow the adult conversation in Arabic, I could use the universal language of peek-a-boo and big smiles to make the little ones laugh.
One afternoon, Umm Alaa brought me along to visit her father-in-law’s wet nurse, half a dozen houses down the street. I had met her once before, but didn’t remember her name, so I called her Hajjah—pilgrim. Whether or not she had actually made the pilgrimage to holy Mecca in the pilgrim month of Dhuu al-Hajj, the title was also a sign of respect for a woman old enough to be a grandmother.
Umm Alaa introduced us, and the Hajjah took my hand in her wrinkled, papery dry fingers. “It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Maryah. How are you?” she asked.
It was customary to ask this question half a dozen ways of one’s guest. I had them all and almost as many answers ready on the tip of my tongue. “Well, thank you. And how are you?” I asked.
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. What’s new?”
“I’m great, thank you. What’s new with you, Hajjah?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going?”
“It’s going, it’s going,” I said. “And you? How’s it going?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s your health?” she asked.
“Excellent, thank you. And yours?”
Gently shaking her head, she said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah.” Praise God on high. She was an old woman, her health inevitably less than ‘good’ and more at the mercy of God than mine.
“How’s your family?” I asked, ready to move on to the next stage of ritual salutations.
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?” she asked again.
“I’m great. And how are you?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah, I’m well. How are things, Miss Maryah?”
The ritual seemed to be regressing, beginning to repeat, and I was running out of ways to say, “I’m good, and y—?”
Suddenly, the Hajjah grabbed my forearm, shaking it up and down and squeezing with surprising strength until I thought I might bruise. Leaning her face close to mine, she demanded, “Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!” Say, Praise God!
Haltingly, I said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah?”
Smiling sweetly, the Hajjah patted me on the cheek. “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah wa-shukr.” Praise God on high and thanks. She let me go, moving on to take Umm Alaa’s hand. “How are you?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?”
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going with you?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. And you? How’s it going, ya Hajjah?”
“Fine, al-Hamdu li-llah, it’s going. And how’s your health?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah. How is your husband my nephew?”
“He’s well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your sons?”
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your children, Umm Alaa? Please, have a seat. Tell me about your daughter’s tawjihi school leaving exams.”
Having finally learned my lesson about thanking God, I was served tea but effectively ignored.
So I learned to praise God first. How am I? Al-Hamdu li-llah, good; al-Hamdu li-llah, well; al-Hamdu li-llah, excellent, two thumbs up.
Years later, when I had returned to live in the capital city Amman, a Jordanian acquaintance casually referred to me as Muslim.
“Oh, no,” I said, shaking my head. I have great respect for Islam, but I don’t believe its pillars of faith. “I’m not a Muslim. I sometimes call myself a Christian here in Jordan, for convenience, but in fact I’m a confirmed atheist.”
“But you say al-Hamdu li-llah so easily. You say in shaa’ allah with such sincerity.” God willing. Cab drivers say it when you tell them your destination, and receptionists when you make an appointment, and young men pinning everything on a visa application, and fathers trying to silence children begging for a toy or an ice cream.
“Oh, well,” I explained to my new friend, “in my village, if I didn’t say al-Hamdu li-llah fast enough, some Hajjah would grab my arm and shout in my face, ‘Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!’ until I did. So I learned to say it first, because it was easier that way.”
Yet, although I said these phrases often and fluently, I did not say them easily. I struggled every day with the line between expectation and intention. The Hajjaat expected me to say these things, just as they expected their grandchildren to pray and their sons to go to Mecca. Belief, it seemed to suggest, was either irrelevant or would follow naturally from practice.
Most often, I uneasily chose the path of least resistance.
I struggled for the better part of a year. I found myself returning for answers to a story from my childhood. In the Seventies, my mother’s family hosted an exchange student from Afghanistan named Fakhria. She went to high school with my mother and, together with their class, they rose each morning and said the Pledge of Allegiance. One day, my mother asked Fakria if she didn’t struggle with the ‘under God’ part.
“Oh, no,” she said, “I just translate it in my head to something that agrees with my faith.”
It was not that simple for me. For months, I silently contorted myself into theological and linguistic knots. If li-llah comes from the word ilha—divinity, then I wasn’t really saying ‘Praise God’ but ‘Praise that divine consciousness I may or may not believe in.’ If I said ya’atiik al-‘afiah and left off the subject allah, then that wellness might have been given from anywhere, not necessarily from God. Yet, all of this theological contortion felt dishonest, deceptive.
I do not wear hijab, except in a mosque, because I am not Muslim. I do not ever say the words of the shahadah, that beautiful Arabic phrase that translates to ‘There is no god but God,’ even when I am teaching about Islam. To do so is not just to speak words, but to become Muslim. I don’t take even the words and trappings of Islam lightly, because my Unitarian Universalist faith teaches me that these traditions are sacred, even if they are not my own.
To say al-Hamdu li-llah and in shaa’ allah without intention felt like violating my own values.
Then there was ‘thank you.’
It was no struggle to say. In fact, it was one of the first words--shukran—that we were taught, and I employed it liberally. Then one day, Umm Alaa’s seventh-grade nieces Aaliya and Aiat asked me, “How come you say shukran so much?”
“It’s polite. My mother raised me to always thank people when they do something nice to me or give me something.”
“But you say it a lot. Like, a lot! And you say, ‘No, thank you.’ Why, when no one has actually done anything for you? What are you thanking them for?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. “I guess I’m thanking you for the offer, for thinking of me,” I said. ‘No, thank you’ was just an automatic polite response that my mother had always insisted on, just as the Hajjah demanded that I praise God.
This conversation niggled at my consciousness for weeks. I began to realize that, as much as I said it myself, I never heard the word shukran from others. No one ever thanked me. And I had always known that Peace Corps, more often than not, was thankless work, but it disappointed and frustrated me all the same.
Once I had started thinking about how ‘thank you’ was and wasn’t used in my community, I started to notice something else that began to grate on my nerves, and eventually I discovered a connection between them.
The women and girls I knew in Faiha’ were terrified of being alone. So was everyone they knew. To them it was clearly human nature, and obviously I must be afraid of solitude too. Especially in my first few months there, I heard this often. “Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you worry that something might happen to you?”
Consequently, I rarely got to be alone. Sometimes it was Aaliya and Aiat with their English homework or younger kids asking endless questions about my family photos. Sometimes it was their second cousins down the road, demanding that I do their homework for them or give them something of mine that they desperately wanted. An A-level student like Umm Alaa’s eldest daughter might chase out the younger ones so I could check her work on a practice test for the tawjihi school-leaving exam. Whenever I was home, there were children with me.
After a while I discovered that the constant invasion of my space had been encouraged by Umm Alaa’s sister, my neighbor on the other side. She would look out of her window and into mine, then snag her daughter or niece and say, “Ya Haram! Poor Maryah! She’s all alone in her house. She must be terrified! You’d better go over there and keep her company.”
“Just try to imagine,” I said one day to her older daughter Alya, “living all day, every day in English. Speaking it, hearing it, trying to understand, to learn it. Imagine you’re in America and no one speaks Arabic and you need English to eat, take the bus, at school, at home. All the time. Try to imagine.”
I watched Alya try to picture a life of English. She didn’t reply, but her eyes spoke volumes.
“That’s how I feel. I love you all, and I love your company, and I love Arabic and want to learn it and live it. But at the end of the day, I need two hours to myself, without people, without Arabic, just me.” To my surprise, it worked. They still didn’t understand, but they let me have my solitude if I wanted it, and it felt good to carve out that time for myself.
It also reminded me that Islam is a tribal desert religion, like Judaism, and the Bedouin are a communal culture. To lose your tribe and be alone in the desert is to be dead, and so maintaining equilibrium within the tribe—be it the Prophet’s tribe of the Quraish or the global tribe of Muslims, the ummah—becomes central to Islamic law and daily practice. Their fears and their communal life was their inheritance from desert forebears.
Maintaining societal equilibrium means caring for the least of these, but it also means humility in one’s generosity. A Muslim does good works, not for thanks or praise, but to support and uplift the community. Indeed, to receive praise might make a person too proud and draw the attention of the evil eye. Whenever I said, “What a beautiful baby!” the mother would quickly say, “Ma shaa’ allah—What God hath wrought,” deflecting attention from herself and her child towards God the Creator.
It was a Muslim fellow volunteer who helped me see that the neighbors showed their appreciation for me every day. They invited me in for tea, delivered meals to my door, took me with them to weddings and on outings … the girls even cleaned my house sometimes. When I did things for their mothers, they said, al-Hamdu lillah—praise God, and allah ya’atiik al-‘afiah—God give you wellness, but they did not say shukran. Not to each other, not to me. I might be blessed in the next world for the things I did in the Peace Corps, but my neighbors left that decision up to God.
Over time, I began to look past the religious overtones and appreciate the beauty in the words they did use. When food was served, yislamu eedayk—bless your hands, and before they ate, bismillah—in the name of God, and at the end of a meal, baarak allah—God’s blessings.
I remember clearly the day I learned the magic words to ward off a stomachache.
One of our colleagues at school had given birth the month before. One day after school, a dozen other teachers and I piled into a couple vans and went down the big hill to the next town where most of my colleagues lived, including the new mother.
Her sisters-in-law had been cooking all morning, and laid out a mansaf feast for us. This national dish of Jordan is goat or mutton stewed in a sharp yogurt sauce, served over rice and topped with roast pine nuts and fresh chopped parsley. Men typically form the mansaf into little balls they ate with their hands, though most of the women I knew used spoons. In either case, it is typically eaten from one large platter, but as was often the case for me as the American guest, I was given my own plate piled high with rice and the choicest lamb.
My mother always taught me to clean my plate, so that’s what I did. To my hostess, though, this meant that I was obviously still hungry. She gestured peremptorily to the teacher sitting next to me. “Give Maryah more mansaf. That piece of lamb there is a good one.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s delicious, but I’ve had enough. Sha’baan—I’m full. Really!”
They ignored me. “Kuli! Kuli!—Eat! Eat!” urged the teacher next to me like a Jewish grandmother, while piling on more food.
I tried to keep eating. My stomach was starting to complain under the weight of all that heavy food, but my mother’s lessons in manners were too ingrained to leave food on my plate.
As I slowly forced down more small mouthfuls, I watched the other teachers. Our hostess and her sisters weren’t shouting ‘Kuli! Kuli!’ at anyone else. When they were finished, there was usually a token protest, but one by one each woman did the same thing.
When I thought I might actually puke, though there was still a massive pile of rice drenched in yoghurt sauce on my plate, I leaned back on my cushions and laid my hand over my heart. “Da’iman, in shaa’ allah, ya sid!” I declared.
My hostess beamed. “In shaa’ allah, ya’tiik al-afiah—God willing, may He bring you wellness.”
I had finally learned the magic words, though it took me several more months to interpret their meaning: da’iman, in shaa’ allah—may there always be plenty, God willing. It was as though, only by invoking God could I make myself heard by my friends in the village.
The Arabic word islam means ‘submission’ and from the same linguistic root comes salaam, peace—in Hebrew, shalom. By submitting to God, you find peace. In the words of my Catholic best friend’s mother, “Offer it up.” Relinquish your worries and your uncertain future to God’s care, and find comfort in knowing, que sera, sera—what will be, will be. Kul shi’ maktoob—all things are written. These thoughts don’t give me peace or comfort, but they are fundamental across many faiths, assuaging the fear and misery of billions.
Ultimately, I decided that I was fixated on the wrong part of my personal theology. I was so focused on rejecting dogma that I forgot my belief in religious inclusivity. I want my Unitarian Universalist faith to be a movement that embraces Jews and Sufis, Buddhists and yogis, Baptists and Quakers, theists and atheists.
This was their language, this was their culture, and I was a guest in it. This was the language that they used and expected. It was how they expressed their gratitude, and I learned to do the same with automatic ease.
The Hajjaat might be disappointed that belief did not follow naturally from practice for me, but they let me in on a rich tapestry of little rituals I still treasure. I became so accustomed to these phrases that, back at home in the States, sometimes I still yearn for them: SaHa to bless a cough, na’eeman to bless a haircut, al-Hamdu li-llah in relief, in shaa’ allah in hope, yislamu eedayk for a beautiful plate of food, da’iman to bless a feast.
Allah ya’atiikum al-‘afiah, ya Hajjaat--may God give you blessings, pilgrim grandmothers.
Images by Chieh-jen Chen
Translated by Q. Lei
QL: Would you say that the social class you belong to shapes your work?
Chen: I grew up in the martial law period (1949-1987) in Taiwan. It was a time marked by the Cold War and anti-communist propaganda. The area I grew up in was surrounded by a military prison, a sanatorium, munitions factories, industrial areas, and illegal shantytowns. It was a world divided by visible and invisible walls. The fact that I grew up in an area like this necessarily made me sympathetic to people of the lower class who were oppressed and marginalized by the society. One can also say that the lives of these people and their history have lived in my consciousness since a long time ago.
What inspired me most was how these people despite their difficult circumstances remained optimistic about life and even gave birth to a poetic sensibility. In such a small area where it seemed art could not possibly exist, they somehow still found means of self-expression. For instance, workers of my father’s generation still chanted old Chinese poems, which was a skill that most of the intellectuals at the time already lost. Another example was my mother. My mother never went to school, but she learnt to compose songs from listening to local operas. I remembered when she worked she would always hum those songs to herself. I remembered many stories like that.
I kept these stories in the depth of my memories, until one day I became increasingly suspicious of the history of modern art as it was studied in art and educational institutions, and these stories resurfaced in my mind. The forms of these local arts did not so much interest me as their ways of thinking and transforming everyday material into art. I found them inspiring. Some even possessed quite radical worldviews and views of life, which significantly influenced the art I later started to create myself as a visual artist.
QL: Your images have the conflicting quality of being very surreal and rooted in everyday experience at the same time. Where do you find your inspirations?
Chen: Everyday experience is the source of one’s sensibility, but it is also where contradictions take place. What we call “inspiration” sometimes is just a clash of contradictions.
During the martial law period, I tried to find my artistic expression in American contemporary art, as it was being imported into Taiwan at the time. But their artistic view, which was very far away from my own life experience, made me fall into a very nihilistic state, and I gradually lost my passion in art. Eight years after I gave up making art, I happened to return to where I grew up. I saw those military prison, sanatorium, munitions factories, and industrial areas again, I met again those people who were cast from different cities in China and Taiwan to live together in this small area. I realized what I saw in front of me—the so-called “reality,” which encompassed interwoven times, spaces, histories, memories, emotions, and conflicts. Everyone’s consciousness and body carry these interwoven times and spaces. As soon as I realized that, my creative passion was rekindled. What I mean is that life experience inspires new forms of art, it is not connected to art forms that are already known, but to art that is unknown.
QL: What do you think about the relations between art and politics?
Chen: As everyone knows, art and politics are two inseparable fields. I want to compare it to our cognitive system where various conflicting concepts, and both reason and emotion, coexist. These conflicting things in our cognitive system are related to art and politics, the self and the other, to govern and to be governed, at the same time. In other words, I think art and politics are interrelated symbiosis.
QL: There is always a sense of political urgency in your work. Is it your goal to inspire social movements with your art? Do you see your art as a form of resistance?
Chen: Although I know quite a few activists personally, practically my current circumstances do not allow me to participate in social movements in the long run. Whether it is social movement or the production of art, it is always about sustained effort. Hence, as an artist, I am more interested in the capacity of art to open up a new space for resistance, to find a new way of intervention when a social movement reaches an impasse.
My most recent piece, “Realm of Reverberations,” (2014-2016) is a good example of this. “Realm of Reverberations” was inspired by the “Losheng Sanatorium Movement”—it was a social movement that aimed to fight against the Taiwanese government’s forced demolition of the Losheng Sanatorium, which housed leprosy patients. The movement lasted for ten years. But by the end of 2008, over 70 percent of the Losheng Sanatorium had been demolished, and the movement subsequently reached a low point. Apart from a few activists who kept on fighting, the movement was no longer covered by the media nor paid attention to by the public. As I happened to know some of the activists, I started to invest time in the idea of rekindling the younger generation’s interests in the movement and in its extended social meanings in 2013. I spent three years creating a series of videos and activities which attempted to reopen the space of discussion for the “Losheng Sanatorium Movement.” To put it simply, I wanted put forth this question with “Realm of Reverberations”: if the forced isolation of leprosy patients was a traditional means of governance, what is the new means of isolation, what is today’s “Losheng Sanatorium”?
Three years into this art project, those activists who keep on fighting against the demolition of the sanatorium decide that they will organize a massive demonstration this April in forms different from the movement before. Of course, I wouldn’t say that my art directly inspired them, but what I want to say is that when it comes to social movements, there always needs to be new discovery of the problematic and the development of new forms of resistance. Art provides a space for imagining new forms of resistance outside of the box. In other words, for me, the meaning of resistance lies not only in resistance itself, but also in inspiring new social imaginations.
QL: There are many violent scenes and images in your work. What is your opinion on the representation of violence in visual works?
Chen: In the mid-1990s up to 2002, I did a series of artwork on the subject of torture in human history. But actually what I was really interested in was not the images of torture itself, but two rarely discussed topics. The first was “the history of the photographed or the filmed” which was rarely discussed in the history of film or photography, especially when it concerned non-Western individuals and societies. A hundred years or so after the technology of photography was invented, these individuals were merely included into the history of photography as “voiceless subjects.” Obviously, images of torture were one of the most complicated and extreme examples of the “voiceless subjects” in photography and film history.
The other issue I wanted to explore via those images was their composition. Their basic elements always include: the tortured, the onlookers, the executor, the person who created the image behind the camera, and the bureaucratic group which gave order to the execution. In other words, images of public execution or torture are also profile images of “politics founded on death” in the sense that they are composed of the law-breaker, an anonymous audience, the lower-ranked executor, the outsider who recorded the event, and the bureaucrats who ensure the smooth operation of the penalty system. I wanted to ask the question of what kind of role we play in the “politics founded on death.”
QL: What is your opinion on violence in general?
Chen: Visible and invisible violence is undoubtedly a complex subject. I can only speak about it briefly here. In modern life, in particular in the entertainment industry that you are speaking of, violent images have already become the norm. They have become a device for stress relief, whose primary function is to provide the audience instant pleasure and a temporary escape from the stress of everyday life. I often compare it to drone weapons in that when the operator of a drone weapon drops a bomb, he or she can only see the massive explosion in the operating room, which makes it as if the violence of war is nothing but video games as it causes no “real pain.”
A long-term task for artists of our time, I believe, is to make pain visible and “feelable,” and more importantly, to make the various power apparatuses who try to conceal acts of violence visible and knowable.
QL: Do you think that a lot of films and other media today work to entertain the masses, making them the passive receiver of information or entertainment? What do you think the relationship is between your work and the public?
Chen: Any technology, when it is first born, already carries with it the conflicting quality of being both medicine and poison at the same time. It will have both the positive side, which is usually widely spoken of and the negative side, which is less likely to be considered when it was first invented. It is the same for image making technology. As the capitalist system operates at a faster and faster speed, the majority of people have to give up their free time for the sake of survival in the system. Then, the entertainment industry as a device for stress relief becomes almost omnipresent in our society.
Of course, we need entertainment. But the problem is the means of entertainment, or more exactly, the homogenization of leisure. For me, the key to change lies not only in critiquing the cultural industries, but we as artists must think of and practice new social imaginations. We not only need to retrieve the leisure time that people are deprived of, but also to suggest new answers to the question of “what is entertainment?”
Perhaps what we call the “sweep-floor plays” during the agricultural period can still inspire us today. The so-called “sweep-floor plays” were plays created by farmers during their leisure time. They would sweep the floor clean of a small space in their village, usually under a big tree, and then put on a play for their fellow farmers to watch. I am particularly interested in such a self-organized cultural production. When the play is on, it is not only the moment when art takes place, but also a moment when a farmer is not restricted to his or her own identity as a farmer, but becomes a farmer, an artist and whichever character he or she is playing all at once. The space where the play takes place becomes an interwoven space-time.
The reason why I use this as an example is because I see the importance of encouraging this kind of self-organized cultural production when media technology has become so cheap and easy to use. But more so, I think we should encourage a culture of dissent where the number of likes or views is not seen as important, because only in this way the masses can turn into active citizens who are not afraid of upholding opposite viewpoints than what is accepted by the mainstream.
If you look at my own artwork as well, few people are interested in what I do. But in the past ten years or so I’ve always been working with the same groups of people: unemployed workers, temporary workers, migrant workers, foreign spouses, jobless youths, and social activists. We have become the “sweep-floor play” artists of our time. I believe in the development of a new mass culture from the collaboration of just a few active individuals.
QL: How do you view the relationship between the individual and society?
Chen: I want to speak about this with an episode that happened to me a few years ago. I was invited to attend an art exhibition in New Orleans, which was part of an effort to restore New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When I applied for a non-immigration visa at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), I was rejected of my visa because the officer suspected me of intention of illegal immigration. Afterward, I created a blog titled “The Illegal Immigrant,” collecting different cases of verbal violence and discrimination during visa interviews at the AIT. It also served as a platform where people discussed the ways in which the relevant institutes can change the discriminating system of visa application as well as the structural problems behind it.
I developed the project “Empire’s Borders I” out of people’s comments on my blog. The video comprises two parts: the first part consists of eight typical cases of Taiwanese citizens being verbally abused and rejected of a US visa for unknown reasons; the second part consists of eight cases of Mainland China spouses also being grilled and discriminated at the airport and at the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency.
This project was perhaps the first open objection to the unequal visa systems between Taiwan and the US. In February 2010, when the AIT published their official Facebook page, many people commented on their page criticizing their visa system. The AIT deleted all the protesting comments afterward.
Being one of the US’s “allies” in Asia has led to the silence of the Taiwanese people when it comes to inequality in visa systems. However, when someone stands out to protest, there will naturally be more people who are willing to stand out as well to testify with their own experience of discrimination.
After Trump was elected, followed by a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies, I often question if the American people truly know how their government treats people who are not its citizens. I also ask myself if the Taiwanese people ever truly reflect on the reasons why Taiwan plays the role of a humble servant to the US. Returning to your question about the relationship between the individual and society, I believe that only when there are individuals who dare to voice their dissent, we can have a more equal society.
Cynthia stared at the stars
Night after night,
On the lonely beach,
Looking for a meaning to all that had happened.
But the stars wouldn’t give it to her-
They were selfish in their beauty.
Night after night,
She watched how the sea
Swallowed the orange sun,
Until it became so dark,
And tiny crabs enjoyed a last evening dance
Before the cold foam curled up onto the shore
And hustled them off into little craters in the sand.
wished the waves might carry her
through crests and troughs
Far, far away with them.
Fatou sits there in a dark prison cell,
Rejected by all,
The Medea of modern times.
Night after night,
She sees her children in her dreams
And the one that never was -
The Unwelcome One.
‘It will only be a matter of a few minutes’
said the agent at the Electricity shop.
And she had thought of her children who needed light.
Village whispers had spread from door to door
Trickling like a runnel of poison into her worn heart ;
Her husband had taken a second wife,
And the money from Europe had stopped coming.
So she had made a deal and thought of her children
As she laid down her virtue on the cold cement floor.
The minutes went by and the the light came back
But Darkness took over,
In the shape of a swollen belly.
And so she threw herself down flights of sharp stairs,
But her body would not rid her of her
‘Let us get married’, he had said to Cynthia
As he pulled her closer and touched her hair,
But the stars looked down in subtle mockery
For Love was another Continent ;
Cowardly in its nature and never to be-
Promises recoiled at news of the Unannounced.
His voice at first a muffled sound,
Stretched thick with anger as time narrowed down.
‘You must get rid of it !’ he screamed at her,
‘It is only a matter of a few minutes !’
Insomnia stiffened her eyelids,
Loosened the bounderies
Between heart and reason.
Cut-out, ready-made thoughts,
Tugged at one and then the other-
In her Darkness she had wanted to rip off her skin
-she could stand the feel of it no longer.
It was not hers-
It was not she.
Then time was up
And with clouds in her eyes and lead at her feet,
Along to the clinic she went,
Where sympathetic white overcoats greeted her
And wheeled her through pristine white corridors.
The neon lights turned into foggy bright blobs
As slumber bloomed inside of her.
Minutes went by and when she awoke,
Relief poured through her veins in faded colours.
And later one night on the cold, empty beach,
The stars at last told her the story,
Of the death of godhood
And the beginning of Life.
Fatou sat in the courtroom and listened to the verdict,
Her eyes were vacant and her pulse subdued.
Even the agent from the Electricity shop was there ;
‘I know her not,’ he told the judge with hands raised high.
In a nearby forest the villagers had found
The murdered infant wrapped in white cloth,
And knew it to be hers.
With wrath-filled mouths they chased her from the village,
Into the twisted claws of Justice.
Five years of vicious solitude in a dark prison cell,
Had smoldered her spirit, consumed her words, unfed-
As she had spoken and no-one had listened.
And when at last she stepped outside,
A solitary skeletal figure,
The skeins of her hair heavy on her fragile head,
She lifted her neck to breathe the warm air,
A flicker of anger lit her abandoned heart-
It was, she felt, the beginning of Hope.