By Gary Wasserman
Skyhorse Publishing, 2017
The following is a modified excerpt from The Doha Experiment: Arab Kingdom, Catholic College, Jewish Teacher, which was released in November, 2017.
A number of faculty, staff, and students at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar were in fact first-generation Americans. They brought all the ambivalence and affection of immigrants for their adopted country. This range of emotions was unexpectedly on display in a Thanksgiving celebration that the American Studies faculty gave at this branch campus in the Persian Gulf several years ago.
Despite Doha’s (the capital of Qatar) reputation for wealthy extravagance, the affair was jerry-rigged—60 folding chairs, paper tablecloths over metal tables, a movie screen in front, and a buffet table in front of that—all positioned at the juncture of halls that met at the large entrance inside the University’s then temporary building. Our one-off celebration was confined by budgets, haphazard planning, and the limits of our own creative ideas. Quite by accident it turned into a moment that I still remember.
As a foreign faculty in an American college that opened its doors in 2005, we were always in a quandary about celebrating US holidays—what to emphasize, what to talk about, and whether anyone would show up. Left wing colleagues objected to the ‘cultural imperialism’ of indulging in our national heritage. Still a few of us pushed the educational value of an American university-sponsored Thanksgiving festival. Ultimately it happened; but compromises were required.
The moderates among the faculty were assigned the food—the customary meal of turkey, stuffing, rolls, apple cider, green beans, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. The progressives controlled the movie selection and accompanying commentary. In their hands, the celebration emphasized graphic examples of Indian massacres by White Guys. Those of us inclined to communicate a more benevolent view of American history were saved by technology — make that the lack of technology. Like most home movie projectors of childhood memory, ours didn’t work. Something went wrong with either the video or the delivery system. The lack of media left us speechless, temporarily.
Attempting to compensate for the blank movie screen as well as the embarrassing depths of a silenced academic event, a brave young faculty communard rose up to address the crowd from the ramparts. She pointed to the establishment of the holiday as an effort to recreate a history that never existed. This peaceful traditional meal between the settler colonizers and Native Americans was fabricated by subsequent generations. America’s actual legacy, she proclaimed, was littered with genocide, broken treaties, burning villages, concentration camps, racism, etc.
She had a point. I for one was not going to argue that American history had nothing to do with white foreigners invading a continent, murdering the darker residents, stealing their land and locking them up in wasteland reservations. The problem with this history wasn’t so much with the accuracy of the presentation as with the largely Middle Eastern audience.
Trying to horrify a group from this region with the sins of 17th and 18th century America was a tough sell. Here were people already introduced to government by, for, and of, the predators; the thugs who killed, imprisoned, robbed, and tortured others because of ethnic or religious or regional or political differences. And of course stole their lands in the process. The critical unspoken distinction was that these were current events — neighborhood regimes that had committed these crimes in real time on some of those in the audience, their families and friends. Many of those listening had gone or hoped to go to America to rid themselves of these contemporary afflictions. For them the history of two centuries ago only reminded them of what they had already survived and wanted to be rid of in the century in which they lived.
Such sentiments were only quietly and privately expressed, some of which I heard because I was sitting in the back of the room. This was not a crowd that had come to engage in public debate. Instead, when people were invited to speak it was framed as sharing personal memories of their own Thanksgivings. This had been inspired by necessity—to fill the time left by the unavailable movie. Purely by accident the event turned into something unusual.
In the accepted social order of these affairs, the least shy went first. In this case the most articulate, highest ranking, whitest, usually male, native-born Americans started. One staffer from Boston remembered a particular Thanksgiving that was his first visit home in his freshman year of college. That dinner marked the moment that he felt acknowledged as an adult and welcomed back in his family as a man who had his own presence in the world.
The Dean of Student Affairs, Brendan Hill, recounted the mixed customs, food and conversations around the table of his half-Japanese, half-Irish family in Wahiawa, Hawaii. There was chicken chow mein and sushi, along with turkey — “nothing that went with anything else,” he recalled. This uniquely unharmonious, cacophony of divided cultures provided an instance of togetherness for a family that hadn’t always been close.
Brendan’s heartfelt recollections loosened up other recent immigrants who had hesitated to speak of their own not-quite American memories.
An Egyptian bookkeeper spoke movingly of his family’s difficulty fitting into his New Jersey neighborhood. They felt like aliens with a different language, religion, and customs. For them holidays like the 4th of July and Christmas seemed strange and difficult to wholeheartedly embrace. A Libyan staffer remembered Independence Day as smacking of boisterous, breast-beating patriotism, screaming fireworks, and smelly, drunk barbecues. Others noted that Christmas, the holiest of Christian holidays, with crosses, mangers, and carols was not exactly a “y’all c’mon down” welcome for those of other faiths.
Thanksgiving, a librarian from Iran recounted, was different. Religion was invisible. Symbols of nationalism faded to the background. Family and food came to the fore. Here were two true universals, recognizable and comforting. Captured by this most American holiday, family and feasting were two warm constants that seemed to transcend cultures, religions, and national origins. The distant relatives, cousins, neighbors, friends, singles, and students from abroad who were rarely included in the secularists’ nuclear family, were embraced on this holiday. And immigrants, who more broadly defined kith and kin even before these gatherings, recalled their eagerness to greet at Thanksgiving as many strangers as could fit around their tables. For now they could play the host, welcoming to their home numerous others who lacked a place for the holidays.
Thanksgiving became an easily absorbed tradition.
The holiday was the meal; the meal was the holiday. The Cairo-born husband of a woman in the admissions office remembered the warm feeling of having Egyptian dishes of kashari and fatta cooked in his kitchen for the American holiday. This moved formerly quiet women to stand and speak. One spoke about how preparing a family meal was something mothers from anywhere knew how to do. Get the men out of the kitchen, let them waste time talking politics, smoking, watching sports on TV or other harmless pastimes. Then the womenfolk could get on with the serious preparation of the goats, sheep, chickens, fish, or even this large strange American fowl shown in the newspaper advertisements. They might not understand how to say what they felt in English, but they sure as hell knew how to cook for their families.
Toward the end of what had become a long afternoon, a seemingly ageless Yemeni woman stood up. In her black abaya with a scarf over her hair, she emotionally told about cooking turkey mandi, a dish that mixed two cultures in the kitchen. She said that it was the first time she felt that yes, she too could be an American.