Exactly 28 years ago, in 1992, I, a former film star from a country that no longer existed, was standing at the corner of Amsterdam and Broadway Avenues in Manhattan, in my waitress’ uniform. It was a warm June evening and there were no patrons coming in. My fellow waitress from Lebanon and I were standing at the door of the our café, watching processions of people marching down the street, demonstrating against the verdict announced that day in Los Angeles, the verdict that exonerated four white policemen who had cruelly beat up Rodney King in front of the whole nation, thanks to the recording made by a nearby neighbor who was watching (and recording) the whole thing from his balcony. Just a couple of hours after the proclamation of the verdict, the riots had started in Los Angeles.
In New York people were on edge. You could almost taste fear in the air. Would the riots spread across the country? Would they reach New York?
Aviv, the manager of our café, didn’t know what to do: should he close the place or leave it open?
The girl from Lebanon and I were standing at the café door, watching the passing crowd. She lit a cigarette and said:
“Well, let them see how it is in our parts of the world for a change.”
“Them?” I asked.
“Yes, them, the Americans. Let them see how it feels when the world is collapsing. Let them fear for their lives. For a change.”
I laughed. I was thinking about the amount of times I had heard the usual commentary from our American acquaintances as they listened to our stories about nationalism, ethnic hatreds and war:
“We don’t understand all these primitive tribal feelings“, “We cannot grasp all those ancient hatreds and those unresolved animosities, all that violence and anger.” “It’s just that our history is so different: we have never had such experiences here in America”, they would repeat again and again, accompanying these uniform sentences with a well meaning smile that, on a closer look, seemed just a little bit patronizing. (Exceptions were so rare that it’s hard to even remember them.) “We don’t know how lucky we are”, they would say with a wistful smile.
“Why is that?” asked the Lebanese girl in disbelief. “Don’t they learn their own history in schools? Which history do they learn? Or is it a deliberate negation of that history? Or maybe it’s just short memory? Or is it the product of their well oiled propaganda machine that had so brilliantly created a sanitized, made up version of American history, a history without genocide and slavery?” asked the young (we were all young then) architect from Beirut, now a waitress in New York, in other words a typical emigrant. Just like me.
“Maybe it’s bad education. And maybe that “bad education” is part of a carefully planned, long lasting politics that tries (and succeeds) in preventing the poor from joining the rich, the emigrants from joining the natives, the black and brown from joining the white”, I tried to find an answer.
“Ok, so we criticize Them. But what about us?” asked the girl from Lebanon. “Do you remember when we – well, certainly not me – sent you that enormous ship with insane amounts of weapons? Like the Olympic torch? As if we had said: here is the war for you, we’re finished, it’s your turn.”
“I remember. Yes, just before the war in the former Yugoslavia, there was a huge cargo of arms that had mysteriously arrived into a harbor in Montenegro directly from Lebanon, after the end of war in your country. We were shocked.”
“But didn’t you think then: we are not Lebanon. We are different. We don’t understand their tribalism. Why do we need those weapons?”
“Well, maybe something like this did pass through my brain”, I said. “I admit it.”
“Do you know that a book was published in America in 1935, a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis under the title “It Can’t Happen Here”? The novel imagines an America under the fascist rule, with a fascist president. And the title is, of course, ironic.”
“Ok. What do you want to say?” I was puzzled.
“I want to say only this: EVERYTHING can happen to ANYBODY, ANYWHERE. There are no exceptions. They don’t know it here yet. But they will have to learn. Like we had to.”
I brought two glasses and poured us some prosecco (while Aviv was not looking). A young black man was passing by. He was holding a board with the words “Stop Killing Us.” We waved to him. He waved back and smiled. We raised our glasses in his direction.
“Zivio”, I said in Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian.
“Fe Sahatek”, my Lebanese friend said in Arabic.
“Cheers”, said the black passer-by, smiling.
Yes, there’s no doubt: the three of us have already learned The Lesson. We have learned the lesson against our will, the hard way. We have learned the lesson on different continents, in different countries and in different circumstances. But the lesson was the same.
We drank the prosecco. The young man passed us by, then turned around and blew us a kiss. (Once again: we were young then.)
And I started to cry.