washingtonpost.com  > Education > Education Review > Nov 2004

Worlds Apart

Can five weeks in the United States change how Muslim students see a country they've been taught to hate?

By Eric L. Wee
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page W16

Mamoona Gul didn't sleep at all during the daylong flight to the United States. She was too scared, she would explain later. She'd never been on a plane before. Never been outside Pakistan before. Never been on her own before.

Maybe I'll never see my family again, the 23-year-old journalism student remembers worrying. Maybe her parents didn't love her after all. Perhaps that's why they had encouraged her to get on this plane and go to America. It was a place, she'd heard, where people hated Muslims, a place where she now worried she'd be killed.


Shandana Wazir of Pakistan at a Fourth of July parade in Rock Hall, Md. She was one of 21 South Asian students who spent part of last summer in Chestertown. (Carol Guzy)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Muslim Students Visit America
_____Live Discussion_____
Eric L. Wee discusses his article, "Worlds Apart," Monday at 1 p.m. Submit questions now.
_____Nov. Education Review_____
No SAT-isfaction (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)
Tough Love (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)
Not Someone Else's War (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)
Soldiering On (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)

At first, she'd wanted to go. She was curious about the United States. She could meet Americans herself and decide if what she'd heard about them was true. But now she wondered if she had made the right decision to make this journey.

When she finally came out of customs at Dulles International Airport, she looked exhausted. A solid-looking middle-aged woman with short-cropped graying hair named Charlotte Staelin approached her. She was there, Staelin remembers telling Gul, to take her to where she'd be staying. A relieved expression flowed across Gul's face.

It was 11 p.m. as they got into a white van and drove. Staelin asked Gul about her trip and made small talk. Gul sat with her head covered by a flowing scarf, listening to the soft, melodious inflections of Staelin's voice. It reminded her of her mother speaking. But this woman couldn't be as nice as she sounded, Gul recalls thinking. She's trying to trick me.

They drove until the lights of Washington faded behind them. The night was clear, and the stars were out as the van rolled over the Bay Bridge and onto Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was well past midnight when they turned onto a smaller road and cornfields began to flank them. Then, over a two-lane bridge, Colonial Chestertown emerged, with its steeples and wide-porched Victorians perched on the banks of the Chester River. There were none of the skyscrapers or neon-lit, packed streets that Gul expected. When she got out of the van in front of Washington College, all she heard was silence.

WINNING THE GOODWILL OF ORDINARY MUSLIMS represents a small front in the U.S. war on terrorism, but a crucial one. On this unheralded battlefield, the State Department is taking a gamble: Bring a few dozen bright Muslim students from Arab and South Asian countries and show them America. Have them live at American universities for five weeks over the summer. Give them classes on U.S. history, politics and society. Show them everything from a local soup kitchen and Fourth of July parade to Ellis Island and Ground Zero.

The two-year-old program, which costs up to $18,000 per participant, is aimed at students like Ovais Ali, a 21-year-old from India's Kashmir region who'd always dreamed of studying in the United States. America beckoned with a popular culture that intoxicated him, he says. He'd watch CNN just to hear how the presenters talked. He'd watch Tiger Woods just to see how he walked. He'd watch American movies to cloak himself in the vibe of America.

But hatred for America swirled around him, too, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks led to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. To many in his world, he says, America is the land of evil, filled with godless people who despise Muslims.

Now Ali was among the 21 students from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh at Washington College. Another 55 students from Arab countries would spend part of the summer at Georgetown, the University of Delaware and Purdue University.

Peter Benda, a State Department official who helps run the program, says he and his colleagues know they likely won't change how the students feel about U.S. foreign policy. But give them an honest view of the United States and its people, Benda says, and maybe they'll become voices of reason at home.

The program's organizers carefully planned lectures on all aspects of American society. Each week had a different theme: early American history, the struggle for civil rights, the inner workings of a place like Chestertown. The hope was that these topics would give the students a foundation for understanding the contemporary American world around them. Yet it would be the unexpected experiences that affected these students the most.

When Iftekhar "Ifti" Ibne Basith lost his Bangladeshi passport in an airport baggage claim, and a janitor found and returned it, Basith was amazed. Maybe Americans were different from what he thought. Later, the return of Basith's lost bag in a New York City diner solidified his view that Americans were an honest, even moral, people, he says. Instead of hatred, he found strangers on Chestertown's streets saying "Hello" and "Welcome." And, for the first time, he met Americans who were opposed to the war in Iraq. There was a difference, Basith discovered, between American foreign policy and Americans. The policies were bad, he says. The people were not.

His problem, he says, is that people back home won't believe him. They'll think he's been brainwashed.

NINETY MINUTES AFTER LEAVING CHESTERTOWN, the bus slows in front of the minor league baseball stadium in Wilmington, Del., home of the Blue Rocks. As the South Asian students climb off, fans in shorts and T-shirts engulf them. Parents yell after their children, who scurry past with mitts. The Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis move past the blue cotton candy stand. Past the Blue Moose Grille, with its $4.50 Italian sausage sandwiches. Past "Rocky," the Blue Rocks' moose mascot. Eventually, they reach their seats along the first-base line.

They cheer. They eat funnel cakes. They buy souvenir bats and balls. They ask endless questions, using the game of cricket as their frame of reference. ("What happens when the bowler throws the ball, and they don't hit it?")

The sky has darkened by the end of the game. The stadium lights dim to nothing, and a fireworks display starts to stream upward. Red shards of light fill the sky, followed by blue and green and purple. Volley after volley shoots up. The South Asians think it's over; then another stream of lights streaks skyward.

The mouths of the students gape as the pyrotechnic show continues for five minutes, then 10, then more. The students scramble to their feet, break out their camcorders and struggle to film themselves in front of the exploding colors. Then they fall back into their seats, eyes skyward, stunned looks on their faces. When it is finally over, the crowd erupts into wild applause. Some of the students join in.

"It was beautiful, wasn't it?" one of the American student aides asks Ali and a group of Bangladeshi students.

"It was beautiful," they say in unison.

But as Ali and the Bangladeshi students walk to their bus, they try to make sense of what they've just witnessed. How, they ask, can Americans spend so much money on a fireworks display for just a few thousand people? How can they consume those kinds of resources when people in their home countries don't have food to eat?

As the bus makes its way back to Chestertown, everyone is quiet. They aren't singing as they did when they arrived. Ali sits alone, his legs stretched out.

"It was awesome," he whispers in the darkness. "But, at the same time, I feel awful. I can't comprehend the feelings inside me right now."

IT WAS GUL'S 10TH-GRADE TEACHER, the young woman says, who taught her to hate America. He'd visited the United States and warned that it was a place filled with arrogant people who hated Muslims. Don't ever go there, the teacher told Gul and her classmates.

Then there was the night she was studying for exams. Her mother leaned into her room and told her that planes had hit a building called the World Trade Center. Gul would see the images of the attack later. But when her mother told her the news, she recalls thinking: Well done. America got what it deserved.

Now she stands at a wire fence on the edge of Ground Zero. She'd arrived in New York City a few hours earlier. She looks up at a large black building next to the gaping hole. She asks Minty Abraham, one of the American student aides, if the World Trade Center was taller than that building. Yes, Minty replies, describing how people jumped from the burning buildings. The enormity of what happened in this place begins to dawn on her, she says later. Standing there, she starts to weep.

Ali is not with them. He doesn't want to look at something that doesn't exist anymore, he explains later. His take on September 11 would unnerve a lot of Americans. Of course, it was a tragedy, he agrees. But he doesn't believe there is enough evidence to blame Osama bin Laden. And the idea that a group called al Qaeda hijacked planes with box cutters and flew them into buildings?

"I don't believe that scenario at all," he says. To him, it sounds like something out of a Hollywood film. He isn't even sure that there is a group called al Qaeda. But he is certain that the destruction of the Twin Towers gave the United States a convenient excuse for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This isn't coming from someone who seems like a fanatic. Ali is charming, intelligent, more reflective than most Americans his age. But, as he talks, it's clear how much of his vision of America is colored by the lens he's imported with him.

He says he can see the frustration in the faces of the Americans he's met. He says Americans are weakened because they leave home when they're barely adults and their families become strangers. He compares Americans to unprotected acorns without shells. This, he declares, has resulted in a government with a foreign policy that attacks others.

Americans, he argues, exaggerate everything, including 9/11. What about all the death in the Third World that no one pays any attention to?

"There are many places in the world that are facing much more terrorism than America is," Ali says. "They aren't talking about their 1/1s and 12/30s, and all the days in between."

BY THE PROGRAM'S MIDPOINT, the group has fallen into a comfortable routine. The Pakistani students, who initially kept to themselves, now mix easily with the Indians and Bangladeshis. The women's traditional clothing and head scarves have begun to give way to jeans and Yankees baseball caps.

Gul continues wearing elaborately patterned, richly colored salwar kameezes, though she often drops the scarf to her shoulders, leaving her brown hair and smooth face visible. At home, in the traditional market town of D.I. Khan in north-central Pakistan, everything but Gul's dark brown eyes would be covered in public. And she wouldn't mingle casually with male classmates, as she does here.

Chestertown has become a haven for her and the others. One student from India nearly didn't come because of her fear of crime in America. Now she regularly rides her bike at midnight to the local convenience store.

And America has surprised each of them. A Pakistani student recounts her shock when an American student she briefly met lent her his laptop when she needed a computer. Ali is amazed that students work in the cafeteria, something that would never happen in his country. He marvels at how proud people are of whatever work they do. The South Asian students express astonishment that Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest drove to Chestertown in his truck, without any bodyguards, when he came to speak to them. This, they say, would be unthinkable in their countries.

But not everything has impressed them. When Ali arrived in the United States, he thought Americans would know about his country just as he knew about America. He waited for people to ask him about the new South Asian trade accords. He waited for Americans to discuss the troubles in Kashmir. But the questions never came. Then one night an American student aide explained why: "I don't care."

First, Ali was shocked. Then it made sense. Americans, he says, are like children who don't know what their country is doing to other nations. They care about their individual lives and little else.

Mohsin Mughal, a 22-year-old from India, says it's obvious to him that America is still a segregated society. How else to explain why most of the blacks in Chestertown live in one neighborhood? Why, he asks, are the ones making the speeches at local civic gatherings always white and the ones sweeping the floors always black?

Then there's the dinner Mughal and Basith attend one evening at the home of a Chestertown resident -- part of an effort to give the South Asians opportunities to interact with typical Americans. Jane Hukill serves the two of them hot chicken salad and local vegetables out on the porch of her bungalow. The 71-year-old former library director tells them her husband died years ago. Her grown children and grandchildren are spread out from North Carolina to California.

"It's just me and the dog," Mughal remembers her saying.

It's a common perception among the students that Americans don't care much about family. For Mughal, this confirms it. Coming from a country where an extended family of a dozen people often lives together in one house, Mughal finds it intolerable that this "old woman" lives alone. As he looks into her eyes, he is sure he sees her deep loneliness.

Told later about Mughal's pity, Hukill laughs. Lonely? She takes adult classes down at the college. She's got a semester-at-sea trip coming up. And don't come over on Thursday. That's golf day. She's practicing for a tournament. As for her kids, she phones and e-mails them all the time. It's great when her grandchildren visit, she says. But it's great when they go home, too.

"Most of the time," she says, "I'm wishing I had a free day."

THE STUDENTS SPEND THE FINAL DAYS OF THE PROGRAM IN WASHINGTON. One afternoon, they take Metro's Red Line to Rockville and then pile into cabs. Soon they're driving through a neighborhood in Potomac. The houses are large and the lawns neat.

They pull up beside a large red-brick colonial belonging to a South Asian international relations professor who teaches at Washington College. He's throwing a barbecue for them.

As the others chat on the deck, Ali roams the house. He breaks out his camcorder and films each room, slowly panning back and forth. He sits by the professor's pool. He eats the professor's burgers.

Ali's criticisms of the United States haven't disappeared. They've only grown. It's a country, he says, that doesn't have a distinct culture or a real history. It's a nation without strong values. It's a place where people constantly brag about everything. But his time here has changed him, he says. He thinks he's become more American, more concerned about his own individual life, more materialistic. If he moved here, he says, he could become wealthy in a way that would never be possible in Kashmir.

He records the front of the professor's house, then puts the camera down and looks at what's before him, what could be possible for him one day if things go right. "I'm liking America more and more," he says, smiling.

THE STUDENTS HEAD TO A NIGHTCLUB in Dupont Circle. From a perch on the second floor, Gul watches the throngs below her drink and mingle at the bar. Young women drift by wearing tight T-shirts that read "Bad Girl" and "50% Angel." Soon the dance floor is packed with couples dirty-dancing to pounding rap music.

A place like this doesn't exist in her world. Gul says she wanted to see for herself who comes here. These people, she concludes, don't respect their elders. They obviously came here not caring what their parents thought.

Two nights later, Gul and three other friends walk down Connecticut Avenue away from their hotel. It's late, but they want to find some Indian food. They are laughing as they move past the closed shops. I trail after them with my notebook.

A large shirtless man approaches them and politely introduces himself as David. He says he needs $5 for a place to sleep. I move the students away from him as he becomes more insistent. He wants some money. I tell him we don't have any and flag down a cab. As I wait for the students to get inside, David is behind me, yelling. He blocks me from getting in.

"You lied to me!" he screams, spewing obscenities. He lunges and tries to grab me. I dodge his grasp and scramble to get into the cab from the other side. But there is no room. David chases me around the car as the terrified students watch from inside. Eventually, David gives up. I slide into the passenger seat, and the cab races off. Everyone is quiet, stunned. I find myself telling them that I'm sorry they had to witness that.

"We have to see this side of America, too," says Sarah Alam, who's from Pakistan.

Gul doesn't say anything. She cups her hands over her mouth almost as if she's praying. Her smile is gone now. When she does speak, it's almost a whisper: "I'm scared."

GUL IS AMONG THE LAST OF THE SOUTH ASIANS to leave the United States. She stays up most of the night before, painting henna designs on the hands of one of the American girls with the group. She picks up her photos at a 24-hour CVS drugstore, where she stands at the counter and flips through pictures of her at Rehoboth Beach, in the middle of the mall at Pentagon City, in her Chestertown dorm room, the one she now misses.

Her time here has altered her view of Americans, whom she now describes as "good" and "peace-minded" people who are against the war in Iraq. They've taken care of her like family, she says. She describes how she came down sick briefly and had to be taken to the hospital. The nurses hooked her up to an IV machine and told her she'd be attached to it for several hours. Minty Abraham remained by her side the entire time.

And her time here has altered the way Gul sees herself. She's more confident, she says. She'd never spoken in front of a group at home. But on her last night in Chestertown, she found herself going onstage during a cultural event and singing from the Koran.

Now she stares out of the van as it heads toward Dulles. When they get there, the program's associate director walks Gul toward her gate.

They stop to say their final goodbyes. Gul, who five weeks earlier wouldn't shake a man's hand, hugs him, he says later. Before she goes, she asks him to do the group's secret handshake one last time. As they've done many times in the weeks before, their hands go up and slap for a high-five. Down for a low-five. Their hands go to their hearts. A nod of the head. Another low-five.

They laugh one final time over this silly shared gesture. Then Gul turns and moves past security, back to the life waiting for her.

Eric L. Wee is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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