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International Students At Our Dinner Table, “Too Many Who Hold A Rifle Never Have Held A Pen”

November 25, 2019

I have long contended the best way to spend time is with a great meal and leisurely conversation.  The only way to improve on that is to add some international flavor to the faces around the table.   Such was the case at our home.

Two international students, Manzoor from Pakistan, and Ferit from Turkey found out how some of the traditional Thanksgiving foods are served and tasted.  As they enjoyed the flavor of an early holiday the remarkable dinner conversation will go down as one of the best that has taken place this year around our table.

Both of the men are in college and are also immersing themselves in American culture when they are not cracking the books.  They are older than the traditional students so their level of maturity and seriousness was already known to us.  After all, they had been invited to our home weeks ago but felt they could not take the time away from studying.   They wanted to keep pace with others in the class. There are certainly relatives on the other side of the globe that can be mighty proud.

What struck me about both of these people is the insightful way they view the world.  Traveling to other lands does provide that larger clue to how all the international pieces can fit together.

Both Manzoor and Ferit connected the dots from viewing our news coverage that much of the real story is never told about international events.  The old saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ when speaking of what gets press attention was not lost on our dinner guests.   They each found that troubling as the real story of nations far from our shores is not really known to Americans.

Manzoor lamented that too many people think that all of Pakistan is in disarray and turmoil.  In fact, it is not.  He spoke of most Pakistanis not being embroiled in the tensions that make the front pages of the newspapers.  Islamic extremists are a small minority of his country.   Manzoor says he would estimate that apart from the region near Afghanistan only 1% of  Pakistan is made up of Islamic fundamentalists.

As a tour guide in the mountain regions near China Manzoor spoke of the 20 languages that one can find in his country.  He speaks three of them, and also English.  I reminded him that some Americans can barely speak one.

Both of the men follow Islam and resembled every other person of that faith I have ever met.  In other words, the average every-day people.  I wished that all those who have grabbed headlines this year for anti-Muslim remarks could have eaves-dropped into our kitchen.

After all, it is all about education.

When I asked about the clerics who foment divisiveness in Pakistan Manzoor said: “Too many who hold a rifle never have held a pen.”   The line was direct and perfect.  All the ills of the world boil down to a lack of education.

Manzoor spoke fondly of Greg Mortenson and the work he does in the region by building schools.  The book “Three Cups Of Tea” and the work behind it is the source of hope for many.  Educating children and changing realities is where we should be spending our money and time when it comes to foreign aid dollars.

Both of these guys were more in touch with life and priorities than many men their age I know in America.  I am sure it has everything to do with how they were raised, and the culture they carry with them.  It was so refreshing.  So noticeable.  There was no macho type of language or attitude.  It was a level of genuineness that made for easy laughs and deeper thoughts to be voiced.

Ferit spoke about the need for traditions to be honored.  He asked about how Thanksgiving and Christmas were spent, and James and I told of our childhoods.  We spoke of the old ornaments that hang on the Christmas tree, and special foods that transport us back to childhood memories.  We told of the stockings and how Santa visited.  Ferit spoke of watching American films about Christmas when he was younger and wanting Santa to stop at his home.

Several times Ferit made note of the importance of honoring one’s heritage.  That to me was wonderful to hear from someone of an age where that type of sentiment is rarely heard.  He spoke of values and used the word over and over.  That was not lost on me.  It made me aware again that good parenting is priceless.

The taste of apple pie has made quite an impact on Ferit during his time in Madison.  With the promise that we would get him the recipe for his mom back home, we, in turn, served homemade pumpkin pie.  With a smile, I told him he needed to learn how to put on whipped cream topping.  “You need more!” I told him after he had only added a small spoonful.

At the end of our meal and conversation, Ferit looked at me and stated he needed to ask for permission.  I thought he wanted to use the bathroom and was about to say ‘down the hallway’.  But he quickly added that it was a custom to ask permission to end the meal and leave.  I looked at Manzoor and he added it was also customary in Pakistan as well.  It was perhaps the most polite ending to a meal I have ever encountered.

I wanted to ask, “what happens if people say no”  but left that joke for another day and another meal.

As they left our home I thought of how big the world is, and how little of it I come in real contact with.  I also was left with the wonderful sense of something I have long felt.

People are so much more alike than we are different.  That fact was again made clear thanks to Ferit and Manzoor.

I thought this blog post above from 2010 needed to be posted again given the tone of too many of our national political discussions and xenophobia which continues across the land.  Many a night over the years at our home in Madison James has invited people from the college who had grown up in places as far away as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, or Russia to have a meal and share in conversations.  To talk about culture and history and ideas over a long evening with someone with differing perspectives remains among some of the most memorable times at our dinner table.

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