Thursday, June 28, 2012

for the record...

A very good day   “Some would say you’re a dangerous man,” my old friend, visiting Danville family for a few weeks, said to me. “I love reading your stuff, but some of it seems extreme. But then you write about your daughters. So moving.”

I waited for my friend to continue. Instead, there was a pause, long enough to suggest I was expected to respond.

“I understand. Some people have asked me to stop sending my articles. That’s to be expected. But that doesn’t make me want to stop writing.” The look I received let me know that our discussion wasn’t complete.

We were talking about Islam, especially its practitioners who are most devoted, and who are truest to the dictates of the Koran and shari’a law. Although they’re referred to as radicals, so as to differentiate them from moderate Muslims, they are, most often of late, the rulers or the force behind the rulers of most Muslim countries. Often they are the most respected Imams, wherever they are.

But, unlike my friend, I see those men (I haven’t found a woman who is an Imam), as being the dangerous ones. Since my friend wanted to know why I wrote what I did, I wanted to explain that the radically observant leaders were among the best and brightest; they weren’t stupid. And their agenda was clear.

At least to me. That’s what I was determined to convey to my friend. During our time spent at a buffet lunch, I accepted the challenge to make the seeming complexity of (radical) Islam and its purpose comprehensible. Instead, I provoked a question that really was unrelated.

“How do you feel about the mosque being built in Tennessee?” [please see: Murfreesboro Mosque: Eric Allen Bell, Filmmaker Who Supported ...
[Jun 23, 2012] NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) An outspoken supporter of a planned mosque that has sparked opposition in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has switched sides and joined the]

My answer led to the comment that began this piece. In other words, I had a lot of explaining to do and very little time to do it.

“Yes,” I said, “I believe in freedom of religion. I also believe mosques can be built in America.” As an aside, I mentioned that churches and synagogues should be allowed to be constructed in Muslim countries, welcomed the way that my friend would want me to welcome mosques in America. But they aren’t and they won’t be. I said that.

My friend appeared confused, as if his expression read, “Then you’re not a bigot.”

Of course, I’m not. But, as I told my friend, I don’t believe that our American freedoms are free. To enjoy them, one must be a responsible citizen who is willing to accept the laws of our country, based on its Constitution, as the sole source of those freedoms. That requires a commitment, an acceptance of the fact that no one is above the law.

“That’s the point at which Islam conflicts with Democracy.”

From the look I received, that didn’t seem very clear. Trying another tack, I said that radical Islam wants to replace our American Constitution with the Koran and its attendant shari’a law. “That’s the goal of those who affiliate with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  [please see: CAIR Identified by the FBI as part of the Muslim Brotherhood ...Dallas--In testimony Tuesday, FBI Agent Lara Burns reported before the jury in the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) trial that the Council on American-Islamic Relations ]

“They earnestly believe that Islam was created to govern the world, us included. Remember when I spoke earlier about Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, believers and non believers?”

I waited a moment for that to register. “The perfect world is when non-believers or infidels like you and me leave Dar al Harb and become members of Dar al Islam. [please see: Divisions of the world in Islam - Wikipedia, the free ...Origins|Major religious...|Other ideological...|See also Dar al- Harb (Arabic: دار الحرب "house of war"; also referred to as Dar al-Garb "house of the West" in later Ottoman sources; a person from " Dar al- Harb" is a "harbi -]

“It’s as easy to do as saying the shahada,” I continued. [please see: Shahada (Faith): First Pillar of Islam - ReligionFactsThe first of the Five Pillars of Islam is the shahada. Shahada is the Muslim profession of faith, expressing the two simple, fundamental beliefs that make one a -] My friend looked squarely at me. I thought I noticed a nod of understanding.

It was time to leave. My next stop was to get my daughter and travel with her to Hillsborough, NC. I glanced at my friend. “Sorry you missed my class this morning. Dr. John Guzlowski read his Holocaust poetry. It was so moving. Outstanding.”

I didn’t tell my friend that, even after John left, my students didn’t seem to want to go. They wanted to talk more about his writing, the thoughts they had about it. Being there with them like that felt so special. All lines of communication were open. Indeed, those ten or fifteen minutes seemed reverential. Now this, at the buffet.

“Before I leave,” my friend said, “we have to meet again. I want a few more hours with you. But I’ll go to the library and do some research first. Then I want us to talk some more.”

I let my friend know how honored I would be if we could do just that.

                                                    B.Koplen 6/28/12

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Monday, June 18, 2012

truth be told!

Rightful owners         It was difficult, at best, to make my question clear to Mustafa. “How long has your family lived in Turkey?”

His friend and mine, an English speaking graduate of a nearby university, repeated my question to Mustafa in a Turkish dialect. Even so, the question stumped him.

I thought I knew why. Although it seemed important that I counted only three American born generations in my family, the man from Turkey may have claimed his family had lived near Ankara for almost a thousand years. How could he be sure? Who would have kept those records?

I didn’t ask. Instead, this question followed: “Did your grandfather talk about the Ottoman Empire?”

“Yes! Yes!” he told the translator. Then he said something to his friend. All that I understood was Attaturk, a pivotal figure in Turkish history.

We talked about Turkey becoming more Islamic, the reasons and the possibilities. I asked about Hagia Sofia, for 1,000 years one of the largest and oldest Christian churches in Istanbul. Lately, stories had circulated that Muslim Turks wanted to make the Hagia a functioning mosque rather than the museum it is today. (Even so, following the conquest of Constantinople and its name change to Istanbul, Islamic elements were installed near the top of the interior of the main dome.)

That rankled me. What other religions revel in such expropriations? I recalled reading in Wikipedia: … In 1453 Sultan Mehmed laid siege to Constantinople, driven in part by a desire to convert the city to Islam.[20] The Sultan promised his troops three days of unbridled pillage if the city fell, after which he would claim its contents himself.[21][22] Hagia Sophia was not exempted from the pillage, becoming its focal point as the invaders believed it to contain the greatest treasures of the city.[23]…As written above, immediately after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II converted Hagia Sophia into the Aya Sofya Mosque (please see: Hagia Sophia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia History|Architecture|Mosaics|Minarets
Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, "Holy Wisdom"; Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia ; - )

When I visited Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) almost a year ago, I was both spellbound and heartbroken at the sight of Hagia Sofia, a magnificent structure that has been debased by strings of minarets on each side of the paths leading to it. “There will be more!” our Islamic guide announced proudly. I grimaced as if I had seen a rusty Chevy hood attached to an antique and pristine Model T.

But I said nothing. Instead, I thought of Edward Said and his ilk, frauds who decried colonial and post-colonial Europe with an outrage that was little more deceit (taquiyyah). It was as if I could hear Said claim that Islam had no interest in colonializing, would never stoop to that. Sadly, his was a lesson in semantics; in their lexicon, Muslims don’t speak of colonies. They do, however, speak of spreading Islam by means of jihad that has never stopped since the days of Mohammad.

Tragically, Muslims believe that once land has been conquered by and for Islam, it can never be returned to infidels, i.e., non-Muslims. That sounds like colonialism by another name.

That’s why, although it’s a significant treasure that belongs to Christian culture, the Hagia Sofia will never be given back. Such an honorable thing to do is beyond the Islamic ken.

 B. Koplen 6/18/12

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

shouldn't be forbidden!

Loving Cuba(ns)           “Do you want to meet me in Havana?” a friend had asked.

Why not? I thought, then asked my friend how and when. Soon after, I bought my tickets.

On the return trip, although I’d been warned, U.S. Customs agents cornered and questioned me until I admitted I’d visited Cuba illegally. “We’ve got you now!” exclaimed the agent who’d coaxed my confession. Prior to that, pretending fatherly concern by assuring me that everything would be O.K., that there was nothing to worry about, that I could tell him everything, the agent convinced me that no harm would come to me.

Not wanting to miss my plane that would leave in less than twenty-five minutes, I confessed. I told him that I’d been to Havana, that I’d visited galleries and art exhibits, that I’d talked to artists about their work. Without pausing, I told him that I had asked whether the people I’d met would like to come to America. Then I stopped.

And the agent ordered me into a locked room where I was strip-searched.

Almost three years later, another agent from the Department of Treasury, Michael Newfeld, called to arrange the amount of the penalty I would have to pay. “Now it could be up to $40,000,” he told me. But, since he said I impressed him as being a sincere and nice guy, we could settle for much less.

Approximately two years later, after numerous conversations about terms of payment, he instructed me to accept an offer of a fine of $1937.50.  On April 4, 2004, I received a Confirmation of Settlement in that amount from B. S. Scott, Chief, Civil Penalties Division, Office of Foreign Assets Control.

On each monthly check, I wrote sarcastic epithets. While in Cuba, I had done nothing wrong or illegal. If anything, I had painted America in glowing terms to the Cubans I had met. Many were afraid to speak against Fidel Castro. A few, artists and writers, were so open and friendly that I hoped to see them again.

One of those has been a Net friend whose family I have known for more than a decade. When I think of the harm that America’s embargo causes, I curse the leaders of our State and Treasury Departments for allowing trade with Communist China and not allowing the same with Cuba. Surely our bureaucrats know that the currency of choice in Havana is the American dollar. By terminating the embargo, democracy would flourish there.

But I digress. Little did I know that, just before I visited Havana, a friend, Jerry Meadors, had gone there to make a movie. On Friday, in my Humanities class, he talked about the movie, Rhythm and Smoke, just before we watched it.

“Filming took sixteen days. Getting permission required us to get signatures from fifteen different ministries,” Jerry told my class.

Fascinating scenes of the Cuban culture, its music, its geography, and its cigar making captivated my class, left all of us wanting to dance and applaud. Throughout the film, Jerry and I chatted about aspects of the culture. Time and again, our commentaries added an unexpected dimension to an impeccably crafted movie.

My students were surprised. One, who had been born in Puerto Rico, interpreted parts of the movie. All left wondering why we were punishing the people of that country; Jerry’s movie captured their spirit. They were seen to be good hearted and vital, exactly the way I had seen them.

Despite an average salary (given to almost everyone) of only $25-30 a month, people there weren’t bitter. They weren’t savages, and they didn’t beg.

Their beaches were safe and beautiful; their smiles were genuine. And seeing their art in all of its various expressions, as Jerry saw too, was worth whatever the price of visiting Cuba happened to be.

                                     B. Koplen 6/18/12

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Monday, June 11, 2012

A stark contrast

What I miss about Yugoslavia  We were speaking English with a mix of German. While hitchhiking through Europe forty years ago, I caught a ride with a professor from Prague who was headed home to visit his wife and parents in Spielfeld, Austria. Stirring as a piece from a Sound of Music puzzle, his family home was at the foot of a gentle mountain turned into a grove of various fruit trees and bushes. Across the unmarked street, at a distance of about one hundred paces, was a castle. “if you’ll renovate it, our government will give it to you,” said my host.

Early the next morning, I climbed out of the shuttered windows and picked berries and grapes and as many other fruits as I could fit in my shirt I’d folded into a bag. Pleased and surprised, the family welcomed my harvest when we shared breakfast.

Following that, the professor took me to see his father where he worked as station master at the train station. We shook hands; in German, as his father said goodbye, he said that I was like a second son, that I must return.

“Danke sehr!” I replied. Thanks so much, I’d said, as I hopped in the professor’s car to go to the highway to hitchhike to Trieste.

Although I did get a ride, I didn’t get one directly to the Italian coast. On that pluperfect day, I said “Why not?” to an offer of a ride to Yugoslavia, to Ljubljana (please see: Ljubljana - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Very quickly, we left democratic Europe and drove into the jut of mountain land that separated southern Austria from northeastern Italy.

Along both sides of that uncrowded two lane highway were Christian icons on poles, once neat and carefully crafted, that had faallen into disrepair. Behind them were fences that bordered wheat fields on mountain sides. Despite the beauty that I saw there, I felt the wither of the culture, rooted in Christianity for more than a thousand years until Communism. Unconcerned, the driver said nothing about the perished history that struck me so directly.

In a sense, that prepared me for what greeted me in Ljubljana. No one there was dressed in peasant costumes; there were no country folk circulating in lederhosen singing folk songs. Peddlars and their carts had no place there.

Instead, I was dropped at the center of town at a bus terminal. “Ticket to Trieste,” the driver said as he pointed to the ticket booth. Throngs of college age travelers were there. So, too, were army officers, servicemen I recognized by their uniforms. One had wings on his shoulders.

I spoke to him. He responded in English, seemed to be friendly.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a helicopter pilot,” he answered, with a smile, as he drew circles in the air with his index finger. “I watch the people,” he told me. “It’s better than working on the ground,” he said.

“Like Big Brother,” I said, wondering whether I was being too bold to make that comparison.

But it didn’t bother him a bit. “Yes,” he answered, “exactly that. Just like Big Brother.”

His, it seemed, was the new face of Yugoslavia. His message made me wish I’d spent a second day in Spielfeld, maybe more.

I left him, eager to buy my ticket to Trieste.

                    B.Koplen  6/11/12

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Found it!

Follow my lead        For the past month, I’ve worked on Mom’s yard, doing battle with it as if it shouldn’t be a jungle in the making. Years of benign neglect have left bushes looking like bulky and unkempt bouncers, guardians of her hidden front door. Using my Dad’s hand held snub-nosed clippers, I’ve trimmed and trimmed and trimmed.

Although what I did was necessary, it’s easy to see how severe my pruning had to be. If Mom’s decades old azalea and compacta and holly bushes were poodles, you’d agree that they’d just had their extreme summer shear. If you’d seen bags loaded with what I’d clipped, you might have congratulated me on eliminating the crowns of comb-overed growth.

It was that bad. As for the wide space between two of the bushes, a space that had lost its bush years ago, it appeared to be a sacred spot where nothing would grow. Having one less shrub to snip didn’t bother me at all. In fact, because I’d read about today’s Super Flea at the Greensboro Coliseum, I thought I might go to find just the right garden sculpture to fit the gap.

Before 1:00 p.m., I was there. Sadly, there seemed to be nothing super about the Super Flea other than the amount of time it took me to see it all. In less than fifteen minutes, I was on Interstate 40 East to Graham, NC. Surely, I told myself, I’d find something there at Willow Walk, Alamance County Arts Council’s 6th biennial Sculpture in the Park.

Little did I know that the Willow Walk sign I saw when I was one stop light away from the historical center of town had nothing to do with Graham. Nor was it related to the ante-bellum building with huge columns and its front yard statue of a 20’ tall couple dressed for an 1860’s ball. The sign that advertised Sculpture in the Park was four feet from the tall man’s calf.

That’s why I was convinced the sculpture was in Graham. All I had to do, in that little town of less than 15,000, was to find Willowbrook Park. Helpful people at six different places told me they’d never heard of it. One woman called her husband, then apologized because neither of them knew. I asked her how to get back to where I saw the sign.

“There’s a new building behind there,” she told me. “Maybe that’s it.”

Minutes later, I found the building. It appeared to be a classy science museum for children. On its front door was a sign that read, “Open Fall of 2012.” I was stuck. Even the guy who sold beer at the run down convenience store, my stop before asking the apologetic lady at the Dollar Store, didn’t have a clue.

It was almost five. According to the ad, that’s when the event  ended. Disappointed, I stared straight ahead at the parking lot to my right and its six empty police cars. A light shined: They should know, I told myself.

Inside was quiet as a library. Maybe quieter. “Never heard of it,” said the receptionist, a pleasant older lady who appeared to be content with waiting for her next call, even if it never came. “Let me check,” she said. I read about next week’s Police fundraiser and its $2 hot dogs.

“There’s a Willowbrook Park in Burlington,” she told me. “It’s easy to get to.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t far, and, although I drove past it three times, it was relatively easy to find. Just hard to spot from my car without my navigator. “Gotta be it,” I said, when I saw a small park that was less than a block wide, but longer than a football field. If there had been a sign, I’d missed it. When I pulled over to park, I saw sculptures, lots of them, 111 according to the catalog.

And they were open until 6:00. I was glad to be there, happy to be in what would have been a quiet little park bordered by a meandering stream but for the German Brass Ensemble, a group of six or eight men who were struggling with Edelweiss.

By the time I’d viewed all the sculpture, they’d begun to play Edelweiss again. I was content to listen, pleased that the fractured melody reminded me of the route I’d taken to get there. Although I’d found the perfect piece for Mom’s front yard, Ode On An I-Beam by Mike Roig, the city had already purchased it for $4000. I  thought about that too.

It had been a good day, full of new ideas. Maybe I’d build my own piece of art. Its design was coming to me. I’d get an old tuba and re-shape it to look like an airplane. Its winngs would be loosely attached; the entire thing would hang like a mobile ready to fly in whatever direction the wind might take it.

        B. Koplen 6/4/12

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