Thursday, December 03, 2009

still no titles....on main street, back to the future?

when i first heard there were libyans in our program I went and met one guy right away. our countries are so isolated from each other that I had gone years without meeting anyone from there; however, times have changed and we now have several; they've been here about a year now, and are coming to the point where they will probably go home soon. I have now had several in my classes, and thus had an opportunity to ask them a few questions, find out a little about the place. It always seemed to me very exotic, faraway, unknown to us.

we listened to libyan music, which i found enchanting, and had various other cultural exchanges. they of course listened to ours. one day one of the guys insisted that the female smoking rate in libya was 0. it wasn't done. I didn't believe him; in fact, i didn't believe him rather publicly, but he stood behind his claim and finally I backed down. what do I know about libya? It could be 0, for all i know. there are a lot of things we don't know about each other, in general. While they were here, khaddafi came to new york, and while in new york, he stayed in a tent, reportedly. I asked them about this. actually it kind of makes sense. the americans bombed him and killed his daughter. why would he stay in one of our hotels? at least in a tent he would have a fighting chance.

unspoken between me and this small group of guys, was the fact that the reason our people have been separated all these years is the lockerbie bombing. I of course know very little about this, and had to admit that today when I was talking to one of these guys. but the us apparently has blamed khaddafi and libya, all these years, for that bombing. now the governments are talking; now libya is even sending people over here, like my friends. but for all these years, it has been virtual isolation.

so one of my colleagues was in the air force, and was telling this one libyan guy this, when I walked up and heard part of the conversation. I hope you didn't blow up khaddafi's daughter, I said to her; she was too young, however, to even remember it. i was thinking, if someone blew up my daughter, of course, i'd never forgive them. no, she said, she didn't do anything like that. but the libyan guy was a little animated by what i'd said to her. he said that he didn't feel the libyans were really behind the lockerbie bombing. well, I said, we sure thought they were. yes, he agreed, there's no question we thought khaddafi did it. but he didn't think khaddafi would do it. his reasons were several; first, khaddafi was afraid of anything like the americans who could kick him out of power. second, libyans didn't have the technical expertise to blow up an airplane at that time, whereas others, like the iranians, did. third, the americans had shot down an iranian plane that very year, by accident, and that would give them a motive, whereas the libyans really didn't have a motive. he said there was an outside chance the palestinians could have done it, but he didn't think so; they also could have had a motive.

it's too bad, I said, that such a thing could divide our people for so long. in fact I've really enjoyed the libyans, their sincere hardworking honesty, and their kind of old-world animated machismo. We've had our miscommunications, as we did the day we came back from a break caused by a bad storm, and it seemed as if one poor guy had hauled water for his young baby, the entire week, while the bus didn't run, and stores were closed, and he literally couldn't go anywhere where they had electricity. another guy was in and out of the hospital with his young baby; I get the impression that these guys are quite isolated, and I'm sure their wives are even more so, if they are even here. but actually, this guy that I was talking to said that americans had been very nice to him, and that when he went back home, he would correct the impression of libyans he knew, and tell them that we were actually very friendly people.

i was touched by his story, and actually wanted to say that we also felt grateful to know such nice guys, who had tried their best, and had been among us, pleasant and generous. Instead, by impulse, I told a true story I knew from the lockerbie incident. I have no idea whether he would appreciate this story or not; it seemed like this particular guy had an earthy kind of common sense, and would like it. It turns out I know someone who lives near lockerbie, and who told me this true story. the day after the bombing, back in the late 80's, the british police came to the house of a nearby farmer, because a main part of the plane had landed on his farm. It was now a crime scene, they told him, and cleared him out while they went around it, taking pictures from every angle. after they had studied it for a while, they got the bomb experts out and took it apart and, to make a long story short, spent most of the day out there on his farm. they sure took a lot of pictures, the farmer said. I didn't have the heart to tell them, the bull had been pushing that thing around all morning.

to get back to the crash itself, there is of course no way for me, here in my armchair in small-town usa, to have any idea who was responsible for such a crime. we americans have always had our suspicions about the shooting of jfk, and are no strangers to the idea that people can get away with stuff like this. but what do I know? It is entirely possible, we both agreed, that some third party did it, and somehow set up the Libyans to take the fall. If so, what a tragedy. though it is now possible for us to know them, there is clearly a wide gulf. our idea of libyans came mostly from 'back to the future'- almost none from real experience.

I would also say, however, that not only is there a general thaw between the countries, but also the age is rapidly approaching that people in any country can communicate with others fairly easily, so there will be not only less need to travel for English education, but there will also be less general isolation, even in the case of such people as libyans or north koreans, who we, up to now, have had like a zero percent chance of meeting. I am always curious about people like this: how they view our country? what surprises them? what is difficult about our language? I could actually talk to them for hours, but rarely have more than a minute or two to spare. I glean a little bit of wisdom from them, here or there; it's a perk of my job, to be able to learn anything at all.

In the language classroom, they struggle; like many of our arabic-speaking students, reading is not easy for them, partly because the languages are so different in the way they appear. arabic shows no vowels, but it doesn’t matter, because you infer them anyway, and it doesn't change the meaning of a word if you're wrong. in english, they get trapped by the time alone; our test is very fast, and they have trouble reading fast enough to pass it. these are rank generalizations of course, and it's entirely possible that some of these guys will make it, and manage to stay in the us a little longer. if not, I'll miss them; they made our classes better; they changed our town. one guy told me today he was going to washington to deal with his embassy. he's one of the guys with tiny babies, here in this country, isolated, depending on us for health care, i assume. perhaps the insurance is dealing with it. I never ask; there are some things I really don't want to know.

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