Culture clash at the breakfast table

Harpers FerryIn 2011, my husband and I decided to celebrate our February anniversary with a getaway to Harpers Ferry.  The big news story at the time was the Arab Spring. As we headed out all eyes were on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the next steps in Egypt’s revolution. Like many inside the Beltway, I welcomed the chance to dial down the political conversation when DC disappeared from the rearview mirror.

The Jackson Rose is a small B&B, only 3 rooms, close to all the sights – a perfect choice when the weather might be blustery. After a day exploring the park and the hilly streets of Harpers Ferry we headed to Charlestown for dinner. Everything as planned.SnowyHouseYard

The next morning we headed to breakfast and a table set for six. I can’t remember anything about the food but the conversation will stay with me always. As guests at the same dining table, we introduced ourselves. We started with a coincidence. Before leaving town, Dan was a guest on a weekly radio show at WFED. While there he was introduced to a new engineer with WTOP, with which WFED shared studio space. The engineer, a young recent Egyptian immigrant, was there with his wife, a Palestinian staff member at CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. For both of them the news from Egypt was critically important.  Most of his family was still there so there was a mix of concern and excitement.  For her, the political and public impression of the Arab Spring and its impact on Arab-Americans was key. So much for leaving the Beltway behind.

The second couple was visiting from Norfolk, VA. Retired, she was a dedicated docent at the art museum. After talking about that for a few minutes she began speaking about her real passion. Her grandmother was a survivor of the genocide of Armenian Christians by the Turks in 1915-16. Her mother was born shortly after her grandmother arrived in the US. Her mission was two-fold: 1) to see a museum in downtown DC dedicated to telling the story, raising awareness of this often forgotten event, and 2) to secure a proclamation from the Congress criticizing the government of Turkey for the genocide and demanding acknowledgement that it did occur. The museum plans stalled and, despite many calls for passage, neither the Congress nor the White House formally criticized Turkey on the 100th anniversary this April.

And then Dan and Ellen. The “small world” conversation made clear what Dan does and I mentioned I facilitated a number of book groups. Any questions about our ethnicity/religion were answered with my responses about the groups and books that I was working with at the time.

At this small table we sat, Muslims, Christians and Jews, talking about the perceptions and misperceptions of our peoples. Talking about lands under contention and governments with mixed motivations. A playwright would have been criticized for writing such a scene.  We all looked or sounded our parts.  The young Palestinian-American with the hijab, the older Armenian-American with a glistening gold cross and me; each with our matching spouses. We each spoke with passion about our heritages and the importance of respect. I’m certain there were many points of difference in our views, but I see their faces at that table whenever the Armenian genocide or CAIR are mentioned. And I hope they do as well for putting a human face on conflicts can change the way we deal with them.

Yesterday, on the confluence of Yom Kippur and Eid al Adha, the holiest days on the Jewish and Muslim calendars, I completed my second reading of Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls, a novel about the Armenian genocide and those who stood witness. While I will write about the book separately, I’m sure Bohjalian would have loved to be at that accidental gathering. Sometimes it is a book or a serendipitous conversation that brings a new perspective. When we hold on to those experiences we more able to bring the a human face to big international issues.

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7 thoughts on “Culture clash at the breakfast table”

    1. I spend a lot of time thinking about the difference between dealing one on one versus them. While there are views I would find unacceptable if someone directed them at me, it is almost certain there would be views we’d share in common. The best I can do is to try to understand the motivations whether or not I agree. Some days I think the war of words is as great within the US as it is with threats from beyond the borders. Thanks for reading.

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