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December 2001

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Letter from U.S.A


 "CNN IS NOT THE VOICE OF AMERICANS"

Toronto musician JIAN GHOMESHI went on a U.S. tour determined to speak out against the Afghanistan war. He discovered a very different nation from the one portrayed on CNN.


(Photo: Jason Reiser)

 

"I work at the Pentagon and I’d like to have a word with you.”

 

His opening words are only slightly less intimidating than his size. He is a very large, well-dressed man with a buzz cut and a mustache. He is staring down at me. I am an antiwar Canadian musician of Iranian background with a big mouth, bracing myself to match his stature with my convictions.

 

I have just finished a Monday-night gig at the hip Iota Club in the Washington area. I am standing outside my dressing room catching my breath when I’m confronted by the Pentagonian. This is a moment I have been expecting on this recent whirlwind tour of 10 U.S. cities in 13 nights with my backing band. I’ve been taking the stage each night and interrupting my set list of songs with words about my opposition to the U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan. Now I’m in the U.S. capital, where the ashes of the 9/11 crimes against humanity are still smouldering. The Pentagon is less than a mile away. I wait to be reprimanded for having the audacity to speak against the actions of the U.S. military in front of one of its representatives attending my show.

 

It doesn’t happen. The man gently explains that he believes action needs to be taken against the Taliban, but that he respects my alternative perspective. He says that he hopes the United States also will begin to deal with terrorists at home such as the Ku Klux Klan. We exchange e-mail addresses. He tells me he’ll be at my next show in the area. It’s hardly the jingoistic rant I expect—and at that, one of the only voices I hear from that night who disagrees with me at all.

 

If there’s one thing I will learn on this latest U.S. tour, it’s that I should never make the mistake of assuming Americans to be a homogenous group with one opinion. It’s a stereotype we tend to perpetuate in Canada, if not in the rest of the world and the mainstream media. We should stop lending credence to CNN, with its parade of retired military men, speaking as the voice of America.

 

My unscientific survey was confined to the U.S. Northeast, and I was predominantly meeting people who were attending my own shows. Even so, scratching beneath the flag-waving surface, I was surprised and inspired by the diversity of opinion in the United States. Put simply, many Americans are willing to discuss different options for the way forward against terrorism. If polls show that support for the Bush administration’s decision to bomb Afghanistan is at stratospheric levels among U.S. citizens, I encountered a number of notable exceptions on my tour. Although many vehemently disagreed with me, “America’s War” is not embraced by all Americans.

 

Oct. 24: New York State

Upon crossing the border at Buffalo on our first day, I immediately begin to question the decision to make my antiwar message a part of this tour. Defiant nationalism is on display and it seems only logical that opposition to the U.S. military action will be met with hostility. Images of a nation eager to display its unity and resolve are ubiquitous. Especially with the American flag. It is everywhere. On cars. On buildings. On gas pumps. On billboards.

The epidemic use of the Stars and Stripes can have comic effects. We stop at my favourite Greek diner in southern New York State on Highway 17. Our lunch is served on, well, the flag—in the form of paper placemats. I remember the debate over the legality of burning the flag in the United States. It’s not appropriate to burn it, but apparently it’s okay to spill gravy on it and throw it out when a customer leaves. My band mates and I joke about this juxtaposition. We’re conscious of ensuring that no one hears us.

 

Oct. 25: Philadelphia

The day begins at a popular radio station where I’m being interviewed and plugging my show in the evening. It’s a progressive station that has often played my band, Moxy Früvous, in heavy rotation. I’ve visited before and the station is starting to support songs from my coming solo album. I’ve also previously met the friendly morning announcer who, I think, trusts me and likes my work. Nevertheless, she feels the need to have a talk with me before we go on the air. “You’re not going to say anything anti-American are you? Sorry . . . it’s just a very sensitive time.”

 

At night, I take to the stage in front of a packed house for the first gig of my tour. I’m suddenly overcome by the desire not to politically offend those who’ve paid to see me in one of my favourite cities. I go out of my way to be as sensitive as I can. I preface my opposition to the Western military strikes—and a song I’ve written post-9/11 -- by discussing my ethnic and academic background. I am a Canadian citizen of Iranian descent born in England. I have Muslim parents and I grew up in a Jewish community in a largely Christian community. I studied the politics and history of the Middle East at university. I speak the language used by many Afghans. I tell the audience that it is with this diverse background that I feel comfortable in my opposition to the action being taken against Afghanistan for moral, economic and strategic reasons.

 

It all goes very well. My words and song are received warmly. The atmosphere is positive. If anything, I’m taken to task afterward for being too sensitive about offending the audience. Numerous fans tell me that I need not apologize for my opinions or justify my right to discuss them. Many thank me for speaking out. One woman says she is a proud American but is ashamed of her country’s foreign-policy decisions. Another person wonders why we are “picking on the poor people of Afghanistan?”

 

My first show has been a surprising success on the question of the war. I am no longer afraid to speak my politics in the United States at this time. I question how I ever could have bought into the notion that Americans have a monolithic opinion.

 

Oct. 26: Northampton, Mass.

On this night, my opposition to the strikes against Afghanistan appears entirely uncontroversial. The majority of the young crowd in this liberal college town nod along during my antiwar statements as if I’m making a case for lower tuition. Who’s going to disagree? It’s all very progressive. I wonder which America I’m in. This is one place where the severity of 9/11 has not served to engineer consent for mass military action as a response. Two Yale students who’ve driven up for the show tell me that many on their campus don’t agree with “America’s War.” It’s not the right tactic. I ask where they’re getting their information these days. “Mostly the Internet. CNN’s a joke.”

 

Oct. 27: Rochester, N.Y.

The supportive bubble bursts. My show goes off well tonight, but upon returning to my hotel room and checking my e-mail, I’m faced for the first time on the tour with the outrage of those who disagree with me. Angry messages sent through my Web site are scattered throughout my inbox. Contributors sternly remind me that my political opinions aren’t in concert with those of most Americans. One e-mail is from an anonymous writer who threatens me for “continuing to rant about America.”

 

I have received negative response or hate mail in cyberspace before. It sometimes trickles in after a gig or an opinion piece is published. But I will get an unusual amount of disturbing mail before this tour is done. Seems some people are more comfortable remaining quiet amid the crowd at my shows and firing off an e-mail when they get home. I question whether certain indignant pundits were at the show at all. More than one suggests that I “leave the politics behind in Canada” next time. Another anonymous writer to the message board says, “Who the hell cares that he’s opposed to the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan? Keep your comments to yourself, Jian.” Some of the letters are well written and earnestly make a case for military action, or why some people would prefer not to hear politics while attending a concert for the music. Much of the e-mail is laced with vitriol.

 

Oct. 29: Washington

At the same gig where I meet the Pentagonian, I soften my stage banter in the hopes of making political points without offending the sensibilities of those who are victims of the attacks in their own back yard. I begin my nightly discussion of opposition to the bombings—and my government’s complicity in the action—by stating that I wish to test the resolve of my American friends and their great tradition of respect for free speech and dissent. A guy at the back screams, “You’re not going to sing in Arabic, are ya?” Nobody laughs. The mood is heavy for a few minutes. I’m caught between the momentary shock of hearing such an offensive attempt at humour and a grudging respect for a man who would choose to wear his colours so loudly in a crowd.

Later, one woman suggests I should sing a couple of songs in Arabic next time. I thank her for the support but tell her that I speak Farsi, not Arabic. She looks confused. It’s another reminder of Western ignorance about the Middle East. I feel uncomfortable and patronizing having to explain to this well-meaning woman that Iranians are not Arabs.

 

Oct. 31: Somerset, Pa.

After a gig in Pittsburgh the previous night, we stop at the Summit Diner in Somerset for lunch. We are only a few miles from the site of the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. Emotions are raw in this town. I pursue a conversation with a man who is loudly opining about the war to a waitress while sitting at the front counter. Gary, a Vietnam veteran, tells me he opposes the nature of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. His reasons are quite different from mine. The strikes aren’t fast and powerful enough, he contends. We should just “take care of these people already.”

 

He draws a parallel to when U.S. hostages were held in Iran in the 1980s. He wears a T-shirt that says, “Nuke ‘em and steal their gas!” That’s the way he sees it, he says. He appears comfortable in his bombast and racism. I surprise him with the news that I have relatives in Iran and that they are, in many ways, pro-American. He tells me that he doesn’t mean to offend, but “we need to teach all these people a lesson.” We talk for about half an hour. I realize that conversations can emerge beyond jingoistic slogans. We end the debate with disagreement but an odd feeling of camaraderie. Gary offers me a deal at the motel he runs next time I’m in the area. I thank him and hope we get the chance to chat again.

 

Nov. 1: New York

This is the show I’ve been most anticipating and dreading on the tour. I am performing up the road from Ground Zero. I continue to equivocate about what I will dare say on stage until I’m halfway through the concert. I decide to go for it. If I can’t be true to my politics here, I am a coward. After all, I believe that if we respect those who senselessly lost their lives in New York, we should not knowingly take more innocent lives across the ocean.

I end my talk on the war by saying that “anyone with any rudimentary history of the Middle East knows that you can’t bomb people into liking you.” There is a pause. Then a significant portion of the audience erupts in applause. Even amid mourning the horrors of 9/11 and fears of more attacks, some New Yorkers aren’t convinced that mass strikes against Afghanistan are the appropriate response. I’m grateful for the thoughtfulness of those who’ve lost so much in their city. I know this audience may not represent the majority opinion, but I am proud that they are here.

 

Nov. 2: Asbury Park, N.J.

This is the first night where I actually see people walking out during my performance. Perhaps buoyed by the warmish reception in New York the previous evening, I’m once again shocked into remembering that my opinions don’t jibe with many in America. I remember the time when hundreds walked out of a festival show in Arkansas after Moxy Früvous sang a tune poking fun at Rush Limbaugh. It was almost a badge of pride to think we’d created such a stir by sending up a ranting, right-wing caricature. There is no pride tonight. I’m concerned that I’ve personally offended those who still are mourning the loss of fellow citizens, if not friends or family members. I question my need to speak out and try to remain resolute. A young dread locked punter thanks me for my “empowering” thoughts at the end of the night. I’m not sure his words are enough to make me believe that I’m doing the right thing.

 

Nov. 3: Albany, N.Y.

A massive American flag is hanging as the backdrop of the stage when we arrive at the club for tonight’s show. I inform my tour manager that I’m uncomfortable performing in front of it for fear that it may be interpreted as support for the bombing. Stung by the walkout of the previous night, we all debate the best and most sensitive way to tell the promoter about this. A bartender overhears us and tells us that bands have been taking it down all week. No problem. The promoter later informs me that she has stopped wearing the Stars and Stripes on her lapel because she opposes the military action and the use of the flag for commercial purposes.

 

Nov. 4: Boston

With the seventh game of the World Series playing on one television screen at the back of the House of Blues, and the Emmy Awards show on another, it’s as if we all have to remind ourselves that life is not “normal.” For the first time, I feel as though many people would rather leave the war to the military experts and get on with it. Nobody seems particularly passionate either way tonight.

 

One undergraduate at a Boston college explains that students at her campus are antiwar but, for the most part, “don’t really care that much.” Another guy assures me he enjoyed my show but states that he disagrees with my stand on the bombings. “What’s the alternative?” he asks. This is the most common response, I’ve learned, among liberal thinkers who believe in the need for military strikes. As if the international community can come up with no ideas to bring the perpetrators of the 9/11 crimes to justice other than bombing the hell out of a nation of innocent Afghans. I ask him if the strikes will serve to curb terrorist activities. He says no, but “we have to do something.” Then he reiterates that he loves the part of the show where I jam on my hand drum. The conversation moves on to music and the Emmys.

 

Nov. 5: New York State

We stop at a service area on Interstate 90 on our way back to Canada. Amid the predictable choice of corporate fast-food options, there are TV sets hanging from the ceiling that are tuned to CNN. A retired military chief is pointing at little dots on a map of Afghanistan where the latest bombs have been dropped. The new slogan, “America Strikes Back,” is superimposed on the Stars and Stripes in the bottom quarter of the screen. I’m amazed at how embarrassingly simple and undifferentiated a representation of the United States this is. I am pleased to have tasted a piece of America beyond the television coverage.

 

I have received a good deal of mail since I’ve returned to Toronto—some of it positive, some of it critical and downright nasty. My favourite e-mail is from Daniel, my new friend at the Pentagon. He’s been explaining the need for a ground assault in Afghanistan. I’m glad we’re in touch. The discussion continues.

 

(Jian Ghomeshi is a Toronto musician, writer and producer and a member of the group Moxy Früvous. He will be releasing his debut solo album in 2002. He can be reached at jianghomeshi.com . The article was first published in the Globe and Mail Toronto, Canada, on November 27, 2001)