Posted by: MC | August 31, 2010

“It says ‘Islam'”

I met Cheri Carter on February 11, 2009 in a coffee shop in Tucson, AZ.  We were seated in the two cushiest chairs in the place, both hooked up to the shop’s wifi.  She looked to me to be a white woman in her 60’s, carefully dressed, of slight build and great earrings.

At one point, still a stranger, she leaned over to ask me something about my laptop.  It was the same brand as hers.  I was still having a little trouble overcoming the shy thing and let that opportunity to talk with Cheri pass.  But, finally as she was putting her things together to leave, I handed her one of the EX:Change lapel buttons and told her what I was up to.  Like most people, she was interested and agreed to an interview.

So, there was the interview conversation that made it onto tape.  Then there was before and after the ‘interview.’  Let’s stick with chronology.  Before the interview, Cheri told me she was a recently retired career law enforcement officer (remember the slight build part).  She said she was working to set up practice as a private investigator and in the meantime was grooming dogs.

She said that she speaks Spanish, but isn’t Latina – and that she raised her son and daughter to be fully bilingual as well.  “I was raised in the South Side of Tucson in a Hispanic community.  I had to learn Spanish,” she said, “And I’m glad.  Now, it just seems irresponsible to have any kind of job in Tucson without having both Spanish and English.”

Then I turned on the recorder.  To the first question – What do you mean today when you say the word change? – Cheri responded, “Our government has to change. It has to change to suit the people.  Our elected leaders work for the people and not for the government, not for Wall Street, not for the car manufacturers.  They have to work for the common good of the common people. That’s what change means to me.”

Cheri went on with the next question.  “And what I want to have remain the same is our freedom. Our freedom to go from one country to another to another to another without the United States government or the powers that be having any authority to say you can’t go into a particular country. I’m half-Iranian. I’m not allowed to go to my father’s country.  That is where my father is. I don’t even know him. By the rights of the Iranian government and the way they’re set up, if a person is born to an Iranian father, no matter where he is, that person is an Iranian citizen. I want my citizenship here and in Iran. And I want to be able to go there without having to go through different countries to get the papers to go only to come back here and be, you know, tongue-lashed by our government or whoever – homeland security – for going to Iran or to any other ‘questionable’ country.”

So much for my assumption Cheri was white/European-American.  So much for assumptions of any kind.  Cheri’s words didn’t fit with any of my expectations given her appearance.  I never would have called law enforcement for her career and knowing of that part of her history, I would never have guessed she’d be telling me she was half-Iranian.

“It’s the freedom,” she said.  “The freedom to take a breath wherever the heck you want to take a breath.”

Then there was after the taped interview.  Cheri had a little more to say.  “I am Muslim,” she said, “and I do cover.”  She went on to say she wore hijab as a part of her daily life until 9/11 when she chose to take it off for safety.  “A few years ago, I was so mad about having to hide who I am that I did this.”  Cheri turned around and lifted the back of her bobbed hair off her neck to reveal a tattoo.  Arabic in lovely script.  She turned back around, eyes beaming and said, “Every time I show anyone, they always say, ‘That’s beautiful.  What does it say?’ and I get to say, ‘It says Islam.  I submit myself to God and live in service to the wellbeing of all people.’”

I have more to learn from Cheri Carter.  She will teach me again when we speak the next time.  This woman born in Washington State and raised in Tucson – this bilingual mother of bilingual children with no Spanish-speaking ancestry – this retired law enforcement officer and practicing Muslim who chose in her 60’s to break a taboo of her religion and have a tattoo etched into the back of her neck as a way of teaching of Islam and peace.  This woman has more to teach – and I want to listen.

This is the EX:Change.

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