In the cozy Long Island beach town where I live, everyone goes to an old-fashioned soft ice cream stand called Marvel. Not Carvel. It was still open for the season on a chilly evening in October when I arrived with a brand new customer, a confident, petite young woman who wore a red trench coat over blue jeans and a black head scarf.
“She’s never been here before,” I told Anthony, the kindly, gray-haired owner. By “here,” I meant America.
As far as Anthony was concerned, “here” meant Marvel.
“Never?” he asked, looking hurt. For Anthony – and many of us – Marvel is to Long Beach, Long Island, what Rick’s was to Casablanca.
“I am from Afghanistan,” Seeta explained.
“Oh,” the owner replied, a big smile exploding across his face. “Well, that explains everything.”
Seeta smiled back. Anthony handed her a strawberry and pistachio swirl with “house sprinkles.”
And I contemplated the beautiful simplicity of this exchange.
Back home, in addition to writing for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), Seeta regularly risks her life to report and write in Dari and English – which she taught herself – for a local newspaper. Simplicity is not a word one would use in describing her work in that tightly-controlled Taliban province. As a journalist, her job is to ask questions. There are also many she is challenged to answer – and they are as misguided as they are complicated. Questions about why she works, not what she writes. Incessantly, she is asked why a woman would want to work. She is asked why a woman should be permitted to interview men.
Since the late summer, through AWWP, I have been mentoring Seeta by reading her stories and offering reporting and writing suggestions. I have, I believe, learned more from her than she from me. In September, when the course I teach in feature writing at Hofstra University began, I invited her to join as guest from afar and to correspond with my students by email. We all thought this would be merely an online experience – and were nevertheless thrilled and intrigued. Then Seeta wrote that she had been awarded a fellowship to spend three weeks in the United States as a participant in the U.S. State Department’s Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists. She was also the only participant from Afghanistan and the youngest one as well.
When the program concluded, Seeta was able to spend a few days at my home, travel to the Bronx for a meeting with Galen D. Kirkland, Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights and, best of all, to meet my students – in person.
That meeting was beautifully documented by Joye Brown, a columnist for Newsday. And Seeta, in the months and years to come will, I am certain, tell her own version of her experiences here.
What I’d like to mention, though, is how nervous I was about how Seeta would be received on Long Island, a place that has its own tribal divisions, many of them based on ethnicity, race and religion, Here, too – although the risks are nothing in comparison to Afghanistan – boundaries can be difficult to decipher. Rush Limbaugh may be on the radio in one house, Bill Maher on the television next door. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report that described Suffolk County, the eastern of Long Island’s two counties, as a place with a pronounced – and sometimes officially sanctioned – atmosphere of hate, suspicion and prejudice specifically aimed at Latino residents..
What, I wondered, would put someone at more risk in this suburb, a Spanish accent or a head scarf? During Ramadan a Muslim woman, in a scarf like Seeta’s, was taunted on a Long Island street in what was clearly identified as a hate crime.
But like most places, including Afghanistan, the deities are sometimes with us and good does triumph. Days after that Muslim woman was accosted, a rabbi, a Catholic priest and an iman – I know this sounds like a bad joke but I promise it is anything but that – all met at a mosque to discuss the concept of fasting in their different religions.
The reaction on my Long Island to Seeta was also heartening. A woman who was only a casual acquaintance of mine – until now – helped Seeta make an international call to her own mother in the Afghan provinces. A quintessential “white guy hockey coach” welcomed her to her first ice rink with open arms and enthusiasm. And the day before she was due to depart, an Orthodox Jewish woman physician gave Seeta a check-up on very short notice and without a bill, with the doctor’s most senior nurse offering sensitive encouragement.
At Marvel, Seeta – who does not have a large appetite – finished her ice cream and declared it “very good.” Anthony, the owner, warmly wished her a safe trip home and said he hoped she would return. I do too. Her next step will be to look for a scholarship to an American undergraduate program in journalism – and then return to Afghanistan to use her skills to write more about her country. By then I hope we can figure out how to get ice cream that is made in Long Island on a plane to Kabul – and that with the help of reporters like Seeta we can figure out so many other things as well.