Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I Go to the Dentist, I Think about Officially Mandated Hate

A little encounter yesterday.  I'm grateful for it, moved by it, and disturbed at the same time.  Here it is:

I have a dental appointment, as does Steve.  While the dentist checks and cleans Steve's teeth, I sit in the waiting room reading Alexander McCall Smith's latest Precious Ramotswe novel.  Out from the back of the dental office come two adorable little children, both in tiny uniforms that look like uniforms from the Catholic school nearby.

The little boy commandeers the child's-sized rocking chair in the room and rocks-waltzes across the carpet, eyeing me from under his eyelids in a way that's a bit mesmerizing, since I know I'm being looked at and, though I want to keep my eyes on Mma Ramotswe and her antics, I can't help looking up to see if I'm being watched.

The little girl, who has nicely said thank-you to the dental technician as she is exiting the dental offices, sits primly on the sofa reading.  Their older sister (as I recognize immediately) then comes out of the back offices and sits with her sister reading a fashion magazine with great intensity.  Though she's wearing an Islamic head scarf (is it correctly called a burqa, or does the latter imply a face veil, too?), she has on blue jeans, a surprising concession to Western taste.

Eventually a brother whose age appears to be between that of the older girl, a teen, and the younger girl, who's perhaps in second grade, comes out.  He, too, is in a school uniform and sits with his two siblings on the sofa, reading a book.  All four children have lambent brown eyes and black hair, skin the color of mocha.  They could be ads for beautiful children in a beautiful-children magazine.

All four youngsters are exceptionally well-behaved, polite, quiet, though the youngest boy does have a slight wild streak, and as he waltzes his rocker over to a little table designed for children with many children's books on it, he scatters some of the books across the floor.  Then he and the younger sister are called back to the back to receive bags of goodies including candy (the dentist must keep herself in business, after all) and some kind of goofy long string thing with a little hand on it, which expands when it's whirled through the air and clings to whatever it reaches.

Rocking-chair child loves the string with the clinging hand (you could have predicted that, no?), and whirls, whirls it around the room, grabbing onto this and that.  Older sister ineffectually rebukes him in a language I don't understand, which is obviously, to my ear, from the Middle East.  The little boy is not in the least bad.  He's just, well, a little boy full of high spirits, and a youngest child who probably has no choice except to assert himself in order to avoid being bossed about by three older siblings.

Finally, the mother comes out of the dental offices, a head scarf also on her head, though she's wearing an attractive gray dress with tiny sprigs of flowers on it and not the jeans of her daughter.  As she opens the door, her eyes and mine meet, and I think what a lovely, kind-looking, and exceptionally shy woman she seems to be.

She smiles and looks away, then proceeds to crouch down by the table of children's books and pick them up, placing them back in order on the table.  The children walk outside as Steve emerges from the office and as he and I walk to our car.

As we leave, I want to say to the mother that she has raised such well-mannered children, but find myself tongue-tied.  How would an Islamic woman receive such a statement from a man who is not her husband, I ask myself?  Could it possibly be insulting, a breach of some boundary an Islamic wife is supposed to maintain between herself and all men other than her husband?

So I say nothing.  At the same time, I want this beautiful family to know that I appreciate who they are (though I have only now laid eyes on them, and don't know them from Adam), and the gifts they bring to my country.

And I feel intense sadness: I'm supposed to hate this family?  I can't see that happening.

Officially mandated hate is a rather difficult thing to muster, isn't it, when you begin to see with your own eyes those you're told to hate.  And when you recognize that, like you, they are human--and, often, human in ways that put your own humanity to shame.

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