Instead of piling food on my plate or baking an inordinate amount of potato kugel and cholent, my mother has shown her “Jewish-Mothering” proclivity by providing me with books. That being said, my mother certainly does not always get the genre, style, or subject right. Sometimes I find myself reading 700-page biographies of obscure personalities I’ve never heard of or 500-page historical depictions of battles I’ve only read about while studying for APs. Though these works of literature have little in common with each other, I credit my mother for picking out books in which matters of social justice and global responsibility are highlighted.
This summer, my mother gave me a book that is right behind Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ To Heal a Fractured World on my favorites list: Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone.
Mekhennet was invited to speak and present her book at The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; it is there that I became familiar with her name. Souad Mekhennet is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post, a counter-terrorism reporter for The New York Times, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, among many other awards and titles.
In her memoir I Was Told to Come Alone, Mekhennet, who was born in Germany, talks about balancing her two cultures: Western and Muslim. Because of her Muslim background, Mekhennet is privy to meetings with ISIS and Jihadist leaders spanning all over Europe and the Middle East, as well as sharing tea and being hidden behind an Abaye and Niqab. As a result of her Western upbringing and modern mindset, Mekhennet is able to translate those meetings into poignant articles on terrorism. Mekhennet provides unique insight into the psyches of some of the most dangerous leaders of the post 9/11 world. However captivating Mekhennet’s memoir is, it is not purely the action and adventure of her daring and Bond-like life that piqued my interest. Throughout the memoir, Mekhennet provides insights that speak of global unity, communal understanding, and interracial bridges between Muslim communities and those of seemingly opposing religions.
Mekhennet continuously recounts the racism and Islamophobia prevalent in her childhood home of Germany. There were firebombs thrown and slurs hurled; at one point an adolescent Mekhennet begged her parents to leave Germany saying, “First they burned the Jews, and now they’ll burn us.”
In the Jewish community, Islamophobia is a taboo topic, often avoided and regarded as too uncomfortable for a table discussion. Islamophobia is a word thrown around in many conversations and in many politically charged debates. It is used in airports, while arguing about racial profiling, and while talking about terrorism in Israel. It is a word that is extremely important if we are to be socially conscious and if we wish to maintain moral integrity.
Oftentimes, when the words Nazi or Anti-Semitism are uttered, such a blind panic ensues that other persecuted nations are pushed to the wayside in an attempt of self-extrication. There is no one nation at fault, no one person to blame but each of us, as citizens of the world, should all claim a portion of responsibility.
Calling a woman in a hijab, niqab, or even a burqa a terrorist is wrong, (though knowing the difference between them is a good start). Singling out a population based on their dress and equating them to the most radical sect of their religion is wrong.
Joking about a Muslim man or woman being a terrorist is wrong. We are a persecuted nation too; how is it so hard for us to remember? You cannot expect tolerance if you are not willing to give to others. Tolerance is the commitment to respect human dignity. The moment you disregard someone based on outward appearances or an unconscious association is the moment you close the door to the possibility of a conversation.
I Was Told to Come Alone is a memoir about balancing perspective and opinion while maintaining ethical integrity. Mekhennet does not disregard a much-needed dialogue within the Muslim community as well, one in which radicalism is discouraged and where a code of universal values and moral/ethical standards are met by leaders. Mekhennet specifies, “The world is not facing a clash of civilizations or cultures, but a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who would rather see the world in polarities, those who are working hard to spread hatred and divide us. While the work of the bridge builders is certainly difficult, there are people in every generation who are willing and able to seek a common ground.”
Mekhennet ends her memoir with one last piece of advice: “If I’ve learned anything it’s this: a mother’s screams over the body of her murdered child sound the same, no matter if she is black, brown, or white; Muslim, Jewish, or Christian; Shia or Sunni. We will all be buried in the same ground.”