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A good deal of weeping

Judith Fein

October 16, 2001

Dear Friend,

There was, once again, that moment. We were supposed to meet at Tribes Coffee Shop in downtown Santa Fe tonight at 6 pm. At five minutes to 6, there was only one person there, besides the owners, Paul and me. I began to feel the same rising panic: What if no one shows up?

Then people began to trickle into Tribes, and they were all Americans. Where were the turbans, the beards, the people whose voices we needed to hear? Wait. How did I know these people were Americans? What does an American look like, anyway?

The owners of Tribes are Muslims--beautiful people. She is from Egypt and he is from Libya. They spread carpets on the floor, and set out humus.

"You have to talk tonight," I told the Egyptian woman.

"But I can't," she said. "I am too shy."

"Forget shy. Yesterday you were shy. Tonight we need to hear your voice."

"What should I say?"

"Just talk from the heart. Whatever you say will be right."

Suddenly, the coffee shop was full of people. Sixty. Seventy. Eighty. I heard accents, saw the rainbow of skin colors; I could relax. A Catalonian man. A woman from Kuwait. An Israeli Arab woman. A German man. Two women who spoke a western African language. A woman of Lebanese extraction. Two Mexican nationals. A Spanish man. A Jordanian. A Vietnam vet who was in the Tet offensive in 1968. The man from Catalon said a brief prayer, and then there was a run on the food tables.

Everyone brought potluck food, and I think edibles are a prelude to peace. You can't sit next to someone, both of you chawing on pieces of chicken, and not feel a certain salivary similarity. There were salads and chicken chili and homemade grape leaves and kugels and nori and root vegetables and macaroni and potatos and cornbread and Paul's pumpkin flan and a huge chocolate cake and cookies.

At about 7 pm, we gathered into a circle. We asked people to speak in different languages--to say prayers or greetings so we could hear the human song from around the world. Bill recited the mourner's Kaddish in Hebrew. Fehti recited the opening of the Koran. There was a Celtic prayer. Hopi words. Arabic. Afghanistani. Portuguese. Spanish. French. Bronx. Why not.

To most people, it's another country.

We were sitting in a room with people whose hearts, souls and cultures were directly implicated.

We proceeded to reiterate the ground rules: 1) No debate, no dialogue, no cross-talk. 2) We will each introduce ourselves and say, very briefly, whatever we deem important. 3) People from other countries and cultures will get a chance to be heard, without interruption.

At first it seemed like there wouldn't be enough time for everyone to speak, but time stretched, and there was. People said they felt lonely, isolated, fearful, despondent, anxious, depressed, confused, hopeful. Many said they had heard about multi-culturalism here in Santa Fe, but this was the first time they really experienced it. People thanked the group for allowing them to come. A few people made brief political statements and sat down. One man said he wanted politics and spirituality to come together.

There was weeping. A good deal of weeping. People had accumulated a lot of unexpressed emotion since the events of September 11th, and now the bombing of Afghanistan. It all seemed very immediate, and very personal. It was different from seeing the video game of night shooting--white blurs against a green background--on CNN. We were sitting in a room with people whose hearts, souls and cultures were directly implicated.

We agreed that each person would say a sentence...but it was impossible to keep to that.

A Palestinian woman needed to say that she had never felt hatred toward Muslims till recently. The man who had lived in Afghanistan needed to tell us about the history of misery and loss and oppression the Afghanistanis had suffered. Another man needed to say we were all blessed and beautiful. A woman needed to cry. Another woman needed to ask why. A DJ needed to say he was fired for playing a song on the radio that his boss didn't like. People needed to say they felt some action was required. A woman asked others to join her in Nit Wits, a circle of women who could knit afghans and blankets for refugee children, sewing in love and nurturing and concern. Another woman asked for support for the cabinet position of Secretary of Peace. It took about an hour to go around the room.

Then the hard part began. People who are fearful and suspicious during these difficult days, people with dark skin and accents, people who are "aliens" in the country, had to trust the group enough to open up and talk.

Surprisingly, the Palestinian woman who said she was too shy to talk took the floor. She said that she had seen babies heads blown off when they were in their mothers' arms. She said these atrocities had been going on for decades, and no one cared. She began to cry, and said that in spite of this, she didn't hate Jews.

Even more surprisingly, the Vietnam vet began to speak. He said, "I am the one who did those killings." He told us how out of 600 men in his unit, only about 27 survived. He said "collateral damage" was bullshit. They killed innocent people all the time. Once he started to cry, he couldn't stop. He said that the kids going over to Afghanistan are victims too. They believe what they are told by their government, just as he did when he was 18 years old. But now he knows it was all lies. The government promises you everything, and they go all out to recruit you into the service, and then abandon you afterwards. He made an impassioned plea against violence, against war.

The Brazilian woman said she was blind to what her government was doing when it was a police state. The USA did horrific things in Latin America, and no one cared. Only when it happens in America does America wake up.

The woman from Kuwait echoed this: people die all over the world every day. Why is it only considered terrible when it happens in New York City?

The German man said that in Germany, Hitler laid out his plans in Mein Kampf, but no one stopped him as he waged his war against humanity. Bush has said this is just the beginning. Is no one going to stop him either? An American man began to ask the German for clarification. He started grilling him. The group jumped in and reminded him there was no debate, no dialogue. He clammed up. The Catalonian man said calls for justice against the perpetrators are appropriate; war in Afghanistan is not. People just listened. They didn't have to agree with what they heard; they just needed to allow it to be said.

There was a general consensus that the media report that 90 per cent of the country is in favor of the war in Afghanistan. But here we are in a room where no one is in favor of it. There are surely more people, many more people like us everywhere.

People began to say that a gathering like this gave them hope. That in a small way, they WERE doing something. They were learning. Listening. They were in a room with people they would never ever meet under ordinary circumstances.

At 10 pm, people began to drift away, so we asked if everyone wanted another meeting. It was unanimous. Someone suggested we do it in two weeks. Others wanted it in one week. There is no agenda. We don't know where this is going. But we trust it will lead us where we need to go.

We asked people to invite more foreigners next time. These voices have been silenced for too long.

In two weeks, we meet again.

Wish you had been there. Wish you could be with us next time.

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