Even here, I get insulted sometimes for all kinds of small reasons – or maybe they’re big ones. For example, I was insulted to depths of my soul when the sanitation workers left me a brown note glued to the garbage bin, asking that I not place it so close to the recycling receptacles.
I took it hard. At first I accused my wife of cultural non-adjustment, though in truth that was uncalled for, because I’m the one who takes the garbage and recycling bins out every Thursday night, since the sanitation people make their rounds on Friday morning.
So offended was I, that since the incident with the note, which apparently marked us as deviants, I’ve started to clean the garbage and recycling containers, now placed a few meters apart. I perfume them with air-fresheners, and every Friday morning I position myself by the window, behind the curtain, and wait for the sanitation workers to arrive, around 6 A.M., to make sure that they’re satisfied with the distance, with the garbage and with us as tenants in the United States.
I also get offended when security guards in the airports here direct me to a different line for the security check. It usually involves their running some sort of cloth strips over my palms and a wait of a few seconds before I continue on my way to the terminal.
I’m offended, but differently than in Israel: Here it’s with a smile of embarrassment, almost of gratitude. What in Israel would enrage me to the point of bursting veins and maybe also shouting about being a victim of discrimination and racism, leaves me here with a feeling of great unpleasantness – but not anger or an urge to cry out against the injustice.
Maybe it’s because I’m a guest here and have no ambition to be an equal citizen, or possibly it’s connected to the saying that every Arab child has engraved on his forehead, “Al’arib adib” – meaning, roughly, the stranger must be polite.
I am offended when I hear a broadcaster on the local radio station repeating the term “Islamo-Nazis” 10 times in five minutes in connection with a shooting incident in Texas that was caused by a cartoon contest about the prophet Mohammed. And I fidget uneasily in my chair whenever I hear the commentator Bill Maher convey a message of Islamophobia to his viewers – though it’s nonetheless different from the levels of frustration and anger and nerves that comments on radio and television in Israel generated in me.
I feel no need for self-defense here. They’re not talking about me, I tell myself, or about my children. I’m only a guest here, they’re referring to other Muslims. This is a problem of the Arabs and the Muslims who are American citizens, not mine.
Sometimes I wonder whether the day will come when I will get mad at a politician or a local newspaper the way I did in Israel. Sometimes I think about my children and wonder how they feel, how the other kids treat Arabs in school, what they think of Muslims. Do my kids also behave like polite strangers? Do they too get offended sometimes?
This week, I was seriously offended when a neighbor knocked on my door and introduced himself as the representative of the neighborhood committee. I smiled politely and asked him in for a cup of coffee, but he declined and said he had to go but only wanted to tell me that the grass on our lawn was too long, that it’s a blight on the neighborhood landscape and that I should mow it fast if I didn’t want a fine from the municipal authorities.
I was affronted to the very depths of my soul, wanted to tell him to go find someone to give his mother’s mother a good shaking, that back home in Tira a neighbor who came with complaints about the grass would be shot on the spot, and that there is no grass in Tira anyway.
I wanted to tell him that this whole thing that Americans have with their lawns is just sick, that all day long I hear the nonstop buzzing of lawn mowers, even though no one, but no one, ever goes out to the lawn except those who mow it.
But I’m not like them. I don’t understand this national sport, on Saturdays and weekends, when the white neighbors ride their lawn mowers back and forth.
“I am so sorry,” I found myself telling the neighborhood committee representative, though until then I’d never heard of any such committee, not to mention the fact that I have no idea what the name of the neighborhood is.
“I am so sorry, sir,” I smiled and blushed with shame. “Our gardener actually apologized last week that he couldn’t come because he was sick,” I added, lying brazenly. “He promised to come tomorrow and deal with the lawn.”
The neighbor nodded his head and said “Alright” before leaving, and I thanked him and stood at the entrance to the house, smiling at his receding back. If I’d had a white kerchief I probably would have waved it in his honor, too.
“What did he want – that guy?” my wife asked.
“For us to cut the grass,” I said, and restrained myself from accusing her of being responsible for the length of the grass, even though she has nothing to do with it.
“The nerve,” she said. “What’s it his business?”
“That’s how it is, it’s his country,” I said, and picked up the car keys.
“Where are you going?”
“To buy a lawn mower.”
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