Happy Cities

Many urban planners have historically focused on positive interactions in cities. Scholars like Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte and more recently James C. Scott, Jeff Speck and Charles Montgomery talk about idealistic communities where everyone is safe because they are keeping an eye on each other. Jane Jacobs famously asserted:

“This is something everyone already knows:A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street.”

Jacobs argued for ‘sidewalk terms’ and ‘eyes on the street,’ small exchanges and conversations that promote public respect and trust. According to this logic, dense, walkable cities promote neighborhood safety.
These neighborhoods sound like they exist in a bygone era, when life was simpler, we knew our neighbors, people weren’t on their phones all the time, kids played outside because crime was low and the air was smog-free. Through people-centered design and transit-oriented development New Urbanists like Charles Montgomery hope to build Happy Cities. The ideal city behind these positive interactions is a communitarian one (according to Martin de Waal’s urban ideal types), focused on beneficial ways we interact with each other.

I’ll write more about unhappy cities next week, and how mixed up in the nostalgia and environmentalism is a denial of racial and class differences that lead to public mistrust of certain strangers.

Personal finance

I’ve been reading a lot of personal finance books lately. It all started when I read The Millionaire Next Door because it was on sale in the Kindle store ($2!).
Later, I attended a seminar on graduate school personal finance put on by Emily Roberts of gradstudentfinances.org.
One of the things she said was that when your budget aligns with your values then budgeting stops being an unpleasant chore, it helps you save for things you want. This idea resonated with me and I wanted to read more about it, being a good former graduate student, Roberts included a great bibliography for her presentation. What I found in my own subsequent survey of 5 personal finance books was that all offered similar advice about getting your budget into alignment but that each one had a different way of determining what your values were. I found each one helpful in its own right.

Smart Women Finish Rich, David Bach

One of the books Roberts suggested to help you figure out your values was
Smart Women Finish Rich, by David Bach. I quickly found a cheap copy, devoured the book and began setting up his 7 step plan to get rich. The way Bach suggests determining your values is based on an analogy of a ladder. You brainstorm ideas until you come up with a value you have about money and then you get to the next value (or rung on the ladder) by assuming that you already have that covered. For example, if the #1 reason you value money is to have Peace of Mind, the next step is to assume that you have enough money to have Peace of Mind and then think of what you would want next. In this way you come up with 5 core values. Mine turned out to be:
Peace of Mind
Health/Spirituality(mental health and physical health),
Justice/Charity(paying back the people and institutions that helped me get to where I am),
Joy, Mirth and Great Renown (A line from the Agincourt Song, a song we used to sing at my high school Sing assemblies).

Another thing Bach suggests is talking to rich people you know about how they set up their own finances, so I sent out an email to 10 or so of my parents wealthier friends. In researching some of the books they suggested I came across this stellar roundup of 52 top finance books by Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar. After reading through this great list, I came up with my own short-list of books that seemed the most relevant to me.

The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke, Suze Orman

This book, and the one below I found in a Little Free Library while walking around the neighborhood. It was on my list so I picked it up along with Stanny’s (they had both been read and heavily annotated by their previous reader). Suze Orman’s advice didn’t differ wildly from David Bach’s but I appreciated the structure of the book and the frank style (also, the classic 90s cover!). The book doesn’t really get into how to set up your values, but rather assumes that everyone reading it is in their twenties or thirties and offers great, if generic, advice to those in that demographic. I’ve left it on my kitchen table, and my housemates have taken to browsing it over meals (we all independently acquired the David Bach book).

Overcoming Underearning, Barbara Stanny

This book is the only one that was not recommended to me and I found problematic, however, I also found it very helpful. Rather than focusing on financial tips like Orman, Stanny focuses on the psychological relationship that people have with money. I’d describe it as a mix between ‘Smart Women Finish Rich’ and ‘The Secret.’ The book is full of Stanny’s trademarked phrases, affirmations, and handouts from workshops she’s led. In order to determine your values about money Stanny shows a list of 100 or so values and has you chose 10, and then narrow them down to 5. Mine were:
Time Alone



After determining these values you are to keep them in mind whenever making any decision in order to make your life (and money) align with your values. I found this and other exercises very helpful in my own personal exploration of my money values.

What Color is Your Parachute, Dick Bolles

This book is a classic for a reason. And when Trent Hamm sang the praises of the flower exercises on his list I quickly added it to my list (as well as my boyfriend’s). In addition to helping to kickstart my job search (which I’ll be doing in the next couple years) the flower exercise helps people determine their values as their relate to jobs and money. The way Bolles helps you find your values is to list 9 and use his prioritizing grid to get to the one value/purpose/life-goal/mission our most identify with. Of the 9 values:
Human Spirit

I most identified with Conscience/Will because of its focus on morality, justice, righteousness and honesty. I’ll definitely be coming back to this book as I get further along in my job search.

Your Money or Your Life

In a way, I saved the best for last. Robin’s book is the only one I am excited to pay full price for after initially borrowing it from the public library. I suspect I will return to it often (and I want to support the author’s charitable mission). Although another 9-Step plan for financial independence was sounding pretty trite by this point, it was so highly recommended by Hamm that I decided add this book to my ‘Must Read’ list. I’m really glad I did. The book briefly mentions money types, of the 4 (guardian, rationalist, idealist and artisan) I most identified with the idealist http://money.cnn.com/popups/2005/specials/money_type/frameset.exclude.html

In order to figure out your money values the authors have you take a thorough inventory of the things you own now, all the money you’ve ever received and your current job in order to calculate a ‘real hourly wage’ which they use as a measure of ‘life energy’. Rather than using abstract words and concepts to align your budget with, the authors have you use your own budget and your current real hourly wage to calculate your budget’s alignment with your values. It’s a little hard to explain (though not complicated), it’s well summarized here:

One of the things i really appreciated is that this book is the only one that isn’t focused on getting rich. As such, it doesn’t rely on risky stock market investments to plan your finances.

The Women Reading Upstairs

When I lived in New York, I (think) I came up with an expression: The difference between being lonely and being alone is a good book. I had spent a lot of time lonely but not alone and alone but not lonely and the distinction seemed arbitrary. I was trying to find out how to flip the switch when a friend recommended Atlas Shrugged which I greedily devoured over the next month or so. What I realized was that it had a lot to do with how I felt I was being perceived by others. I felt loneliest when I felt the pity of others. When engrossed in a good book it didn’t matter what others were thinking about me. Recently I read Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The women of Messud and Heller are alone with books. Their worldviews are shaped not just because they were alone, but because of society’s perceptions of their loneliness as women.

Messud and Heller have both been criticized for these characters. Messud gave an interview in Publisher’s Weekly where the interviewer criticized her character’s likeability, a decidedly gendered attack. Heller’s book is on the Wikipedia list for ‘unreliable narrator.’ While I acknowledge that the women had boughts of anger and bitterness, I completely empathized with both of these characters. In fact in response to Messud’s interviewer, I would want to be friends with Nora and Barbara, they’re both whip-smart and well read, I’d love to see Nora’s art or compare biting cultural criticism with Barbara.

I see these women as potential friends but also as cautionary tales. The criticism of the books belies the scorn I would experience from society if I became a woman upstairs. Society only teaches us to measure us in the mirrors of others. Both stories deal with betrayal, but the moral of both of these stories is one of the narcissism of solitude. Of the distortion of individualism that we experience without others:

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out…About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

I kept thinking, as I was telling Didi, that somehow what was in my head—in my memory, in my thoughts—was not being translated fully into the world. I felt as thought three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter. that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me. There they were, shrinking before my eyes; shrinking into words. Anything that can be said, can be said clearly. Anything that cannot be said clearly, cannot be said.

Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs

Works in Progress II: Prison stats

When I found out that a friend of mine was imprisoned at San Quentin I was reading Dreaming in French. The book talks about Angela Davis’ experience with the Soledad Brothers at San Quentin. When I saw that she would be speaking in my area I bought some books for her to sign. ‘Are Prisons Obsolete‘ was short enough for me to finish in the week leading up to her talk. It reminded me of this clip from black power mixtape:

The introduction to the book was full of mind-boggling statistics. For my job I had been using the d3 library to make data visualizations, so this seemed like a great opportunity to make a compelling infographic about these statistics. I haven’t done so yet, but here are some of the stats I want to use:

-Only 5% of world population lives in the US, but it holds 20% of prison population
-There are 2x as mental mentally in in prisons/jails than in all psychiatric hospitals combined
In 1990 1/4 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 have been incarcerated…
by 1995 it was 32.2%
-Many minorities are more likely to be in prison than educated

Fastest growing portion of the prison population is black women
Up 78% in 5 years
-There are more women in prison now than in the entire decade of the 70s

California Statistics

in 2002:
there are 157,979 people incarcerated
20,000 for immigration detention
35.2% Latino
30% black
29% white

I’d like to make a CA prison timeline, showing their proliferation during the Reagan Era and how they continue to be built at alarming rates:
1852 San Quentin
1880 Folsom
1952-55 9 prisons built
1962-65 3 jails
1980s (Reagan Era) 9 prisons
90s 12 new prisons
Takes 100 years for 1st 9 prisons, last 9 in 10 yrs
Now 33 prisons, 38 camps, 16 correctional facilities and 15 prisoner mother facilities


Growing up we used to say grace before every dinner. I’m not sure when or why, but we stopped. Maybe it was after my mom broke up with her boyfriend or after my brother went off to boarding school, probably some point in between. We used to have cards with graces from different traditions. We had blessings we chanted in Hindi, humorous English ones, short ones, long ones. Even at music camp we always sang a blessing before lunch and dinner, a popular favorite being ‘My Plow (Brings me Happiness)’.
Last year when I was in Afghanistan our host seemed surprised that someone as polite and well-mannered as myself hadn’t the patience to say grace before eating. I was out of practice, I’d like to get back into it. It’s a moment of meditation in our busy day. A moment to acknowledge the privilege that, unlike most people in the world, I don’t have to worry about where this meal will come from. Grace is Good.

‘Privilege is a headache you don’t know you don’t have,’

-Ani Difranco

Thanks to Dom for reminding me @6:40:


“They were all four of them providing a service for the rest of the people in the café, simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred. For this reason, too, they needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons.”

Zadie Smith, NW

My new place is a lovely treehouse in the hills surrounded by paths and trails and wilderness. It reminds me of a friend who grew up around here, when she moved to a more urban area said she missed running the trails in the evenings. One of my roommates this semester said she missed swimming in the pristine ocean, saying ‘not having the ocean is like not having carrots.’ I felt these people were being unappreciative, just because you grew up in a particular way doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse than another place, you can take a bus to the ocean or take a walk to some trails. When you grow up in nature, you gain a lot, but you miss out on a lot to, it’s often harder to access culture, but most importantly to me, you miss out on diversity.

I recently read Zadie Smith’s new book, NW and it reminded me of the a lot of racial issues around geography and urbanity. One thing I appreciate about Zadie Smith is her insight into middle-class black life. I don’t envy my mother’s cohort of educated black (often single) mothers who had to chose between raising a child who grew up in the comfort of an urban area around black people (knowing her roots), and the extreme discomfort of being the inkspot in a richer, whiter neighborhood. My mother chose to make our home in a middle-class neighborhood that was very mixed racially, and send us to schools where my brother and I were often the only people of color in our class. I think it worked out great for us, but I don’t envy people who have to make such difficult decisions.

People who grow up in urban centers, projects like the ones described in NW, have to deal with the realities of poverty, criminality, lack of access to education, and all that this entails. But people who grow up as the token brown person have to deal with the realities of not being represented in the culture that surrounds them and the pressure of representing their entire race and class, a pressure I’ve been feeling a lot in my job lately. The weight of that burden is difficult to describe for someone who has never experienced it. I know it’s not my responsibility to teach everyone what black people are like, but when I’m the only brown woman on my team, there is added pressure to perform. I carry this burden on behalf of my generation (people think millenials are lazy), for my locale (people think Californians are lazy), for my race (people think black people are lazy), for my sex (people think women aren’t smart, and can’t do science), for my family and for myself. A friend of mine was telling me how fun it is to act crazy sometimes, frankly I don’t think I have to luxury of lunacy.

I listened to the Slate Audio Book Club on NW. On the podcast they discussed the character Keisha, a black woman who grew up in the projects and became a successful lawyer. She was my favorite character in the book and the one I related to the most. The people on the podcast seemed to believe that the character could never really be successful. That she was bound to fall from grace in a way. I don’t think she had a dramatic fall from grace, but I also don’t think such a fall is so inevitable. In any case, I liked the book, and the discussion and I’d highly recommend both.

Growing up where I did I was surrounded by a diverse group culturally, socio-economically, and ethnically. I’ve written a little about this before but as I’ve lived and moved to other places I have found that this is very important to me (and that such a mix is pretty much unique to Oakland). But it brings up the question, what are we entitled to in a home? Is what your parents had good enough? Is what you had good enough? are you entitled to the same experiences as your peers? do you need wilderness to breathe free? do you need to live with both a mother and a father? do you deserve your own room? How much culture are you entitled to and what?

NOTE: I have started a new job (see resume) and don’t have much time to blog. It’s probably gonna be more like once a month from now on.

Healthy Infrastructure for Single People

One idea in our society that I find prevalent and destructive is the idea that being in a romantic relationship is a sign of mental health. I resent the idea that everyone should be involved in a romantic relationship, but especially the idea that people who are in these relationships are somehow healthier than those of us who aren’t. I’ve found, based on completely anecdotal evidence, that my friends who were raised by single mothers are more likely to share the point of view that ‘until you’re comfortable living alone, you’re not ready for a relationship.’ But even people with this philosophy ultimately tend to think that once you get yourself correct, you’ll be ‘healthy’ and ‘ready for a relationship,’ as if there’s some sort of equivalence. The idea is that once you establish a romantic relationship you’ll be happy, have kids and in doing so become a healthy, contributing member in society.

The idea is so prevalent that our society lacks the infrastructure to support single people as well as single mothers. Architecturally the places created for single people are not thought of as permanent; rooms in apartments, studios, 1-bedroom apartments, in most places, (even cities), these living situations are thought of as temporary while stand-alone houses are considered permanent. We tend to think, ‘I’ll live in this apartment until I get married and we start a life together and buy a house’. The lack of urban density and smart-growth is in part fueled by this American lifestyle that says you grow up in a house, you live in an apartment in your twenties, you get married and start a family in your 30s, buying a house, and you hold onto it until you die1. This biographical timeline is so common and so ingrained that most don’t even notice it enough to question it.

The reason I find the idea destructive is not only that in discourages smart-growth, but that it discourages the development other types of relationships. Relationships with close friends and family are back-burnered in favor of romantic ones. It privileges sexual relationships over asexual ones, and often encourages a type of co-dependency that can be much more unhealthy than independence. In fact, I always thought, growing up, that people in relationships were weaker than people who weren’t. Now I can see that there can be health in romantic relationships and that independence is not always strong (and never truly independent). It’s not black and white, and neither is life, but when there is one vast and prevalent idea I think it’s always helpful to question it.

1Housing Life Cycle

From Rapid Fire White Paper, Calthorpe Associates.

Albért the turtle

I keep meaning to introduce you to Albért, my turtle. I got Albért last summer at some point, and named him after Alber Elbaz of Lanvin. Don’t you think they look alike?:

From thegloss.com







Anyway, we’re moving this weekend. He’s lived in this bathtub for a year, among the Dr. Bronners.


What a house; my, she was yar. But it’s onward and upward from here.

love as destructive force

It’s takes no strength to be a cynic, and I don’t harbor illusions that it’s courageous or noble. But right now this is how I feel, and these are my thoughts and I promised myself I would write these down once a week. Indeed this week I seek to record these thoughts because I fear they might change, and I need to record how I’m feeling now so I can mark my progress in the future, when I might finally grow out of my adolescent views on love.

Love is one of the most destructive and dangerous forces we know. Yet people celebrate it rather than fear it. I’m not talking about what happens after love, heartbreak, divorce and death being its common aftermath. And this isn’t a bros before hos rant about the friends left behind when you pursue your own happiness and spend all your time with a significant other. I’m talking about how love itself is force, producing just as much evil as good.

As a teenager I was discouraged from using the word hate, they said it was too strong, and added unnecessary negativity to the world; but I observed that people are encouraged to use the word love, even overusing it. Most people agree that love and hate are two sides of the same coin, but when we chose to focus only on the one side we forget the other (I feel it is just as important to know how it feels to be hated for no reason as it does to be loved, unconditionally*). I believe that all love can be re-read as hate, its equal and opposite reaction. It seems that much as your are attracted to the things that you love, as much as you want to protect them, this is how much you are disgusted by things you don’t love, and want them to disappear. Every attraction has a reaction.

For many, the ultimate culmination of love is sex, whose ultimate end is a child. People say they love children because they are full of potential, but it’s this potential that scares me. As much potential as a child has to do good, so have they to do evil. Children are the ultimate agents of chaos. Bringing extreme joy and extreme sadness with them, and leaving love and frustration in their wake.

When a person loves another person, this is celebrated, but many will agree that a love of objects can be destructive. People say this love is ‘unhealthy’ and ‘unnatural’. But there’s a reason why we use the same word, love; the feeling is the same. I posit that it’s not the object of love that’s the problem, its’ the act of loving which corrupts relationships. I don’t believe that love is a universal salve, bringing Goodness to everything is is applied to. I’m not arguing that love is not transformative, love changes things, it changes the subject and the object. But change isn’t always good. I think my point here is just that love is dangerous and that people should use discretion around it, not blindly follow it wherever it takes them.

*When I was younger I felt it was my responsibility to hate those I who I thought had never been hated. It’s embarassingly presumptuous to pretend to know what someone else has, or has not felt before. But when you’re a teenager, you think you know what’s best for everyone.

Refugee Camp Part 2

As we walked to the tent we all took off our shoes, as is the custom in Afghanistan, but our hosts insisted that we keep our shoes on. The hospitality and generosity of the Afghan people was a recurring theme on the trip. I think there was a thin rug covering much of the ground, but I sat in the corner and the ground was completely frozen. Aware that showing the bottom of one’s feet is considered rude, I chose to sit on my heels, either because of the cold or because of my seated position, my feet were quickly numb. As Salena began to set up her video equipment we were served tea and men began to file in.

There was Ismail, Najib’s friend, who was one of 6 elected elders of the camp. There were two other men we spoke to (Ruzi Khan and Khoja Mohammed), and then there were maybe 10 other people in the tent. All men, all staring at us. I felt scared and out of place, I did not know the customs of this tribe. In college I studied Persian (Farsi, as spoken in Iran), I did manage to take a summer of Pashto language, but I am really unfamiliar with their tribe and customs and even less familiar with the language and culture of men. Culturally speaking, I didn’t belong there, I belonged with women, somewhere else. I didn’t see any women at this camp, they were in different tents. Just men, and their sons, staring at myself and my colleagues.

Ismail began by introducing himself and explaining where he was from Helmand province, a village called Minrodai. There were 850 families in the camp, which had existed for about 5 years and the majority of families there had lost a family member. Most of the people in his town were farmers, wheat and vegetables mostly, but their land had been destroyed, their homes, everything had been lost. They said that the majority of the destruction in their area must have come from Americans since the Taliban doesn’t have aircrafts; he told a story of 2 jets that had come and dropped bombs on their village. As he spoke men kept coming in and out. There was only one door in the mud tent so when someone came in the room would go pitch dark. We couldn’t really see their faces until they were in front of us and they would whisper something to Ismail and then stare at us. Salena was a journalist, doing her job, Tim, a middle-aged minister, having a conversation about cultural and religious understanding, and Najib was our translator, this all made a certain amount of sense, but who was this black girl with big white glasses and what was she doing there? I tried to blend into the wall.

Salena continued to interview Ismail, who emphasized a need for permanent housing. There is an expression in Pashto about the need for your own graveyard. Recently, NYTimes journalists had come to the camp, over the cold winter some children and an older woman had died because of the cold, and the elders took the journalists to their temporary graveyard. The ministry in charge of refugee affairs had given them wood, coal, blankets and tents but what they wanted was permanent housing, and daily work. The men had been going into town to work as laborers, but there wasn’t enough work. Ismail stressed that what he wanted was a small permanent house, his own graveyard and enough work. At this point Ismail became very busy with the visitors who kept coming in. He explained that his father had just returned from a pilgrimage to Mazar-e-Sharif, a holy place for healing, the visitors were coming to ask him about his father’s health and give him their best wishes. While I was relieved that the people weren’t just coming to ogle us, I was distraught as Ismail left to talk to these visitors and another man began to talk.

Khoja Mohammad took over and explained to us how upset he was about the Qur’an burning at Bagram airbase. When talking about the incident after the fact, a colleague who hadn’t taken down his name, said he had referred to this man simply as ‘Angry Man’. Khoja Mohammad never screamed, but he spoke loudly, pointedly and aggressively, he was very angry that Americans had burned their Holy Book. Although we had explained to him what little influence we had, he told us to tell our people not to do this again. He explained that they were ready to sacrifice if someone did this again. They had planned to protest with the others but their leaders advised them to be patient, and explained that the burning had been a mistake. President Karzai and his ministers advised them to be patient, and Obama had apologized. But he said that the next time they would surely have a jihad.

Khoja Mohammad was also very upset at America for our treatment of Afghan civilians; he told us of wedding parties, town meetings, women and children being bombed. He knew that Americans had satellite vision so he knew that these civilians were being targeted intentionally. We were supposed to be helping Afghanistan to stand on its own feet, not killing their children. He said we should not capture innocent people and say they are Taliban. Khoja Mohammad talked about a friend at Bagram prison who should have been released, he had done nothing wrong, he is innocent. They had written letters and talked to guards and people in charge but to no avail. Khoja Mohammad said that not all men with turbans and beards are Taliban, that these things mean at you are a good Muslim. People with beards and turbans are not enemies, and we should not kill these men. We tried to explain that we didn’t know how we could help, but it didn’t seem to matter, he continued.

Khoja Muhammad said that they elected the president, and they respect him. The Qur’an said that God likes patient people, and so they were being patient. But the Qur’an burning was a terrible thing. They had lost children and an old woman over the winter, but this man said it was not as bad as the Qur’an burning. This holy book that teaches them right from wrong (halal from haram) and was written by God. He told a story about a tent, how without tent poles there can be no ceiling, but God is so Great that he can hold up the entire sky. And here we are burning His words, burning the words of Allah.

Salena asked what he wanted, what his wish was, and he echoed what Ismail had said about a permanent home and some permanent land. Then he continued about the Qur’an burning. He said that Afghans have respected our religion, and we should respect theirs. We explained that there were Muslims in America too, and he said that he knew this. The people who burned the Qur’an should be punished, he said, the US military is a guest in Afghanistan to bring peace. The man finished with the sentiment that they knew how to separate one bad person from many good people and that we should do the same.

Our guide and translator had explained beforehand that when visiting the refugee camp we would need to bring some money with us, the camp was very poor and it was customary to bring an envelope with money. After packing up we gave them some money we had collected for them and explained that it was a small gesture and that we would go home to our constituents and tell them their story, perhaps they would be able to send more money. They counted it and distributed it among the elders to show their transparency. Although it seemed like they had just spent an hour berating us, they didn’t seem to want to let us leave. They offered us lunch and more tea and seemed sad to see us go.

There were many children by the entrance to the camp, some asked us for pens on our way out, Salena and Tim took pictures of some of the children, they seemed very eager to have their pictures taken. I chose not to, partly because I was still in shock from the experience. I spent the rest of the day processing the experience. We talked about it as a group in the evening, for me, I was terrified to be in a room full of angry men staring and screaming at me for an incident I barely even knew about when we left. I felt very out of place. Others said they were surprised by Khoja Mohammad, how he kept returning to the subject of the Qur’an burning as we tried to ask him different questions. Although he seemed to know that we couldn’t do anything about it, he seemed intent on telling us, and repeating to us, that this was a very bad thing that happened and that it must never happen again. As a group, I felt like we were some of the Americans who were most sympathetic to Islam as a religion and to his story, but the fact that he kept repeating himself made me feel victimized and attacked. Like he was yelling and me, and angry at me personally for burning a Qur’an, when I had spent years studying his culture and religion in an effort to better understand.

As we were walking to the car, Najib asked me how I was doing (I think at one point I may have actually had tears in my eyes), and I answered that I was scared, that all these men were angry and screaming at me in a room that I couldn’t get out of. Najib explained that he would never have put me in a dangerous situation, that it was completely safe. Though I was still scared, and in shock, I believed him. The trip was not about danger or recklessness, it was about cultural understanding and human exchange. As the trip continued, I became more comfortable and trusting, but this experience was the most intense, and ultimately the most memorable.