I’ve not really talked about writing on ye old blog yet, which is slightly bemusing, as my love of writing is my whole reason to have one: well, that and I like to delude myself into thinking I might make an interesting point every now and again.  I could now go off on a long diatribe about what I think makes for a good writer, but I shall refrain from that and just focus on one point.  In order to write well, you have to be open to life, and some of the oddball events that happen to us all.  It is this, more than anything else that explains why I am currently sitting in Brattleboro, Vermont at the School for International Training as the driver for eleven Islamic scholars from Pakistan.  They are here to work with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) on a weeklong workshop to promote understanding of and improve the overall madrasas system, the school system, in Pakistan.

We meet in DC last Saturday, and from there we drove to New York City.  By and large, I can’t understand the conversations the group has in the van, as they mostly occur in Urdu; however, Baber, one of the group’s translators and my roommate here is kind enough to let me know what all the hubbub is/was about, and because every now and again, we are out of the earshot of the delegation, I get his insights as well.  This was useful when I drove this group to the site of the World Trade Center.

By the time that we arrived, we had been in the van, fighting traffic for more then an hour.  I’d never been to ground zero before, and was shocked by the seemingly insignificant amount of progress that has been made in rebuilding.  You’d think after almost a decade, there would be the skeleton of the spire that is to replace the towers.  Yes, there is a visitor center, and the boards that that prevent people from wandering into the build site are adorned with facts about that fateful day, but all in all, it is a muted and unsettled place that seems devoid of real progress.  Of course, that could have just been my impression, as we arrived close to dusk.

While the group of scholars walk around I wound up sitting in the van.  I wondered how people on the streets were reacting to this large group of foreign, Islamic teachers.  After all, they do fit just about all the stereotypes one could pile on: most of the men have large beards, the one woman in our group is not seen in public without a full burka and she tends to walk behind all the men, (even though she runs one of the largest female-madrasas in Pakistan), and the men were mainly in Pakistani garb.  It was while pondering this that Baber called me to ask if I could bring the van to the opposite side of ground zero, “to pick us up from the Burger King.”

Turns out that it was too cold be out walking, and that once they reached the other side of the hole that was once the towers, they just walked into a Burger King and went up to the second floor so they could look into the construction ground. Apparently not everyone looked, and after a few minutes of me being lost (most of the streets in that area are one way, so it is not overtly easy to get from one side to the other), I pulled up to a rather shabby looking Burger King and out piled my guests.  Getting out New York took time, and during that ride the conversation turned to what they had just seen.  The leader of the group, who I have since discovered has a name that would translate into “quiet” or “silent,” but who is actually quite gregarious, began explaining how they wanted to see the site, as it was a place that changed the world.  Upon hearing this, the only other American in the van, who is an employee of the ICRD, began to recount how important it was to her personally.  It struck me then and since just what different languages we speak.  And not just the actual phonetics and words of a language, but the intent and meaning.  With this in mind, I admit that I remain dubious as to how effective efforts like this are in actually building bridges.

For the group, it was mainly an academic interest.  The carnage and shock American’s experienced is something the people living in Pakistan experience on a day-to-day basis, which is something that should not be forgotten.  Thus while Mr. Quiet was genuine when he spoke, it was the same words that American politicians use when they speak of the massive market bombings in Pakistan or collateral damage in Afghanistan.  It is a genuine sorrow, but at the same time it is abstracted.  On both sides there is no empathy—just an intellectual acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a condolence.

But if ground zero was an intellectual curiosity, then shopping is a genuine interest.  On everyday that I’ve driven, I have had at least one request to detour to visit a shopping area or Walmart.  In fact, one of the funniest moments I’ve had was when a delegates, who gives off a very calming and measured air and is a well respected tribal leader in northwest Pakistan, held up two watches in Walmart and queried, “America?  China?”  The reason behind this was that one of his daughters has asked specifically for an American watch.  I know it is an oversimplification, but I just waved my hand at the whole store and said “China.”  Which from my point of view, didn’t really feel like a lie.

Another of the delegation, who is a short, heavyset man with a handlebar mustache and a lawyer by trade, had a good laugh at my expense, because I called my mom.  He asked me about my day on Tuesday, and I let him know I called my mother because she knew I was driving up to Vermont and I wanted to let her know I made it safely.  That way I wouldn’t be in trouble.  This tickled him, because as he put it, “it is good to know that mothers are the same everywhere.”  This was the same man, who also laughed, because I told him I recently started seeing a lady, and I was glad that on the day we meet, she was by herself.  He instantly agreed when I noted that, “it’s much harder to meet a girl when her friends are around.”  This, as it turns out, is also true in Pakistan.

Since undertaking this trip, I’ve learned a great deal about the evolution and devolution of the madrasas system in Pakistan and about the people I am driving.  I take great comfort in the fact that, even when they speak in political language, these people genuinely want to improve both their community and their relations with the world at large.  I also find it comforting that they are just as concerned with finding a watch for their daughter or in sharing an experience as they are when dealing with the problems of their school system being co-opted as training facilities for extremists.  And just think, now I can write about going to ground zero just as validly as I can when it comes to talk of meeting girls.