A Note on Inter-Immigrant Solidarity

csket.jpgIn the very interesting New York Times article that Naina discusses below, about relations between African-American and immigrant Muslims in the city, virtually all the immigrant voices are desi and Arab, with scarcely a mention of the city’s growing African Muslim community from countries like Senegal, Guinee, Ivory Coast and Mali. The lack of mention felt a bit odd coming in an article published at the very same time that the city was reeling from a major tragedy that put West African Muslims front and center in local news.

As many of you know there was an accidental fire in a house in the Bronx last Wednesday night that killed ten people, nine of them children, all from an extended family from Mali. Excluding 9/11, it’s the greatest loss of life in such an event in the city since the nightclub fire in 1990 that decimated another immigrant group, the Garifuna. There has been quite an outpouring of support in the city, from public officials, churches, synagogues, and businesses: for instance, the New York Yankees are covering expenses for the five victims who have been buried in the U.S., while Air France was covering repatriation of the five other bodies to Mali.

I’ve spent much of the past few days covering the story for work, and attended community gatherings in the Bronx and Harlem over the weekend and also the funeral on Monday, at the Islamic Cultural Center on East 166th St. in the Bronx that has served as the mourning and family gathering headquarters since the fire. On Monday afternoon several thousand people packed the low, storefront-ish masjid and the streets outside to mourn and pray as the eight hearses pulled up and the ten small, plain wood caskets were unloaded for a brief service. The crowd was mostly West African but there were Latino and African-American people present too, along with a host of public officials. Mali’s foreign minister flew in on Saturday, and ambassadors from other African countries paid respects as well.

It’s a sidebar to the main story, but there was a desi angle here that really struck me. There is a lot of talk in situations like these about the affected community coming together in solidarity, which they very much have — in a moving, almost beautiful way. And there is also much talk about the city uniting, “ordinary New Yorkers” pitching in money and other support, and all of this too is very much true. What can get a little lost in the narrative is how much inter-immigrant solidarity we also witness at times like these.hafiz-funeral.jpgAnd so I was struck, and it really warmed my heart, to see how present the Bangladeshi community in particular has made itself at this time. As early as Friday people at Bangladeshi masjids were raising money for the victims, and on Saturday an imam named Hafiz Choudhury, from the Madina Masjid on 11th Street in the East Village, and another gentleman who was introduced as the head of a Bangladeshi organization, were in Harlem to contribute several thousand dollars to the family relief fund. Choudhury is pictured here with one of the family members outside the funeral.

There are many layers of solidarity here: Islam, immigration, and a lot of professional overlap, particularly in the taxi and livery cab sector. Choudhury told me that Islam teaches that whenever there is tragedy in the community, anyone who is in a position to do so must come out and show solidarity, because we don’t know who will be the next to go: those who die merely precede the rest of us on a path we will all follow. That’s the religious rationale — one that all the great traditions express each in its own way — but you could feel that there was more than that at play too. There was a kind of recognition that comes not only from religion but from many other layers of social fact in this most complex, most global of cities.

31 thoughts on “A Note on Inter-Immigrant Solidarity

  1. So many small children most of them belonging to just two fathers and it really has just been an incredible tragedy. You don’t really need to be Muslim or from the Bronx to be touched by this story. Tragedy always brings people together doesn’t it irrespective of culture and race or even class. Most of the communties poor including Latinos and African Americans have been bringing the displaced family food and clothing and money albeit in smaller amounts. Every little counts.

  2. Noticed how there hasn’t been a CNN special yet? Guess there are no boutique hotels in Mali for the anchors to camp out at.

    Meanwhile on MT. Hood…..

    Oh! America.

  3. Siddhartha, thanks for bringing the news. I wanted to acknowledge your expression “layers of solidarity.” It’s deep and it’s true. I’ve been watching the aftermath of this grim event, and that’s been one of the only redeeming aspects of it.

    I think the inter-immigrant solidarity comes from those moments when people can imagine not only how devastating a loss of this kind can be, but how crushing it is when it happens so far away from the larger extended family. They step-up. They become the extended family.

    It’s reassurance for those who suffer, that they really are at home, and not suffering alone.

    Home, as I see it, is wherever you have people around who can hold you right through your bitterest grief.

  4. Well done, sid. I’m glad you’ve been ‘investigating’ this story- must be a remarkable experience. I went to my first Muslim funeral last year and it was a really interesting (among other words) experience.

    Excluding 9/11, it’s the greatest loss of life in such an event in the city since the nightclub fire in 1990 that decimated another immigrant group, the Garifuna.

    I find that kind of amazing. There have really been no other ‘big’ number tragedy? 10 is like how many people die daily in drive-bys in LA.

    I’m taking this Muslim history course, and learned that the first Muslim came over with ‘the discovery’ of the Americas. It was a shocking experience to know that as a Muslim-American, that I have a long standing history in this country- it’s just never told.

  5. I find that kind of amazing. There have really been no other ‘big’ number tragedy? 10 is like how many people die daily in drive-bys in LA.

    Actually one singular event is probably what Siddhartha meant. Scattered murders don’t always fall into that category. They happen in NY as well.

  6. There are many layers of solidarity here: Islam, immigration, and a lot of professional overlap, particularly in the taxi and livery cab sector.

    True, but mostly Islam I suspect.

  7. JOAT #2: The bright blue jackets were NYPD Community Affairs police. They were out in force and did a good job keeping things smooth in a respectful way.

    Neale #3: True. But interestingly not only the New York Times but also the New York Daily News sent reporters to Mali immediately to cover the story from that angle. Nuff respect.

    Kobayashi #4: Word.

    Amitabh #7: No denying the unifying power of Islam here, no. But at the same time I didn’t see a mass presence of Muslims from all different countries. I think Kobayashi in #4 is on the money.

  8. There was a very telling picture on the NYT, I think, of the child size pine coffins marked with “Tete/Head” at one end.

  9. Just a story:

    This weekend I had a Bangladeshi taxi driver, who of course wanted to know my life story. While we were driving through a neighborhood heavily populated with one particular ethnic group, he asked me if a lot of Indians lived there, and I said no. He commended me for living in such a neighborhood, and I remarked that I grew up without a lot of Indians around, so it’s no big deal for me (plus, like Sid Uncle I hate desis*). He started to talk about Harlem, and how it’s changing, and he said, “Above 125th it’s all the African Americans.” He said that his Bangla brothers (I swear he actually used those words) don’t want to live “up there” because they think it’s unsafe, but that as dark-skinned people (again, his words), we should all stick together. He said, “The rest of them think bad things about all of us anyway. They don’t know the difference.”

    *Joke.

  10. Oooooh – did you just Uncle Siddhartha? Oh no you didn’t …

    Where have you been? I have been uncling Siddhartha for ages.

    Oooh! That sounded dirty! ;)

  11. Dudes don’t joke about it. I was Uncled by a 19 year old cousin-sister of my best friend recently. It hit me.

  12. There was a kind of recognition that comes not only from religion but from many other layers of social fact in this most complex, most global of cities.

    The death knell of such a wonderful expression of solidarity arising from various social circles seems to be suburbia, or more to the point, a lack of proximity to other people. It’s so difficult to have meaningful conversations about solidarity (nevermind actions) when one’s reality allows one to hole up, to not intermingle and have seclusion and little dialogue pass as normal and acceptable. So I wonder, can what happened in NYC happen in Anytown, USA? Can it happen in LA, where immigrant communities are so heavily partitioned?

    I think the forces to huddle up with each other are greater than those that do the opposite, but damn, suburbia makes it difficult for the spirit to jive with reality. Great lesson in this story though.

  13. I think the forces to huddle up with each other are greater than those that do the opposite, but damn, suburbia makes it difficult for the spirit to jive with reality. Great lesson in this story though.

    New York State’s First Lady Silda Wall Spitzer runs an organization that actually tackles something similar to what you alluded to. It’s called Children for Children and it pairs up suburban privileged kids with kids in lesser fortunate neighborhoods and income groups to create partnerships, friendships, learning and opportunities.

    It really is a wonderful way for ‘small-town’ USA to reach out to the America that isn’t as lucky. But in NYC where these two segments of population exist side by side and have done so for centuries the cross connections are a daily occurring phenomenon without a lot of effort. For example I do a lot of work with the American Lung Association because I’m astmatic and asthma is one of the most common childhood diseases in inner city kids in NYC and I work with a lot of parents of inner city kids that are affected by this disease and when the common goal and purpose is the same it becomes very easy to cross connect.

  14. Sad news indeed but may I ask what’s the Desi Angle? Will you cover other non-desi mournful news?

    Oh I forgot you just had like three posts on Obama ( despite other presidential contenders bonafide pro-desi credentials as opposed to Obama’s none ), the post on the false travails ( did you follow up? ) of the Iranian guy at UCLA , the listings on your event tabs announcing the appearances of Sidney Poitier and that of Anti – Israeli protests, and of course the post every now and then about the alleged injustices faced by Blacks and non-desi Muslims. Why not try to widen your readership by appropriately renaming your website something like Sepia Al Chocolate mutiny? In the name of immigrant solidarity I hardly see you cover East Asian stories for example.

  15. Sad news indeed but may I ask what’s the Desi Angle?

    Spade:

    Can you read as well as you complain? Because Siddhartha CLEARLY stated the desi angle, for the comprehension-challenged, like yourself.

    It’s a sidebar to the main story, but there was a desi angle here that really struck me…What can get a little lost in the narrative is how much inter-immigrant solidarity we also witness at times like these.
    And so I was struck, and it really warmed my heart, to see how present the Bangladeshi community in particular has made itself at this time. As early as Friday people at Bangladeshi masjids were raising money for the victims, and on Saturday an imam named Hafiz Choudhury, from the Madina Masjid on 11th Street in the East Village, and another gentleman who was introduced as the head of a Bangladeshi organization, were in Harlem to contribute several thousand dollars to the family relief fund. Choudhury is pictured here with one of the family members outside the funeral.

    Or do Bangladeshis not count as desis in your odd, sloppy reality?

  16. Who are these Torquemadas who sit waiting to see a post that has a non-desi angle so they can pounce red faced and spittle-spurting to berate? Get a life you losers.

  17. I am not complaining dear – I am exposing. I am alerting you on how you repeatedly stray from your only-desi proclamations.You have not explained those deviations that I pointed out. It’d be nice to read stories about Bangladesis that are not just sidebars to non-desi stories.

  18. I am not complaining dear – I am exposing. I am alerting you on how you repeatedly stray from your only-desi proclamations

    All you are “exposing”, dear, is your embarrassingly poor reading comp skills. The unbrown meanderings of this blog don’t vex you and you couldn’t care less about accountability. There, there. You got attention. Happy?

  19. I am not complaining dear – I am exposing. I am alerting you on how you repeatedly stray from your only-desi proclamations.

    Do you realise how pompous you seem?

  20. OK SpadeASpade, how about this. Why the hell does it burn your skin what the SepiaMutiny people write about? It’s their blog, they can write about whatever the hell they want to write about. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. What are you, some kind of ethnic-blog standards enforcer? You weirdo.

  21. “SpadeASpade” — By your presentation, argumentation, tone, theme, and world-view, you make a sad example of how far we have yet to come as a culture. Please be assured that sectarians and chauvinists such as yourself will not stop me from writing about fellow desis — and in this case, fellow Bengalis — in whatever context I deem suitable. Thank you and goodbye.

  22. There have been posts with desi angles far more obscure than the one here (which is not obscure at all), but nobody tries to “expose” anything because, in most cases, the bloggers are aiming for timepass humor, so we end up not taking the angle very seriously. Siddhartha consistently gets the worst of the DesiAngle (TM) Police because he usually does imply something serious about the connections. Ultimately, the problem for people like Spade is not that there isn’t a valid or sufficient desi angle, but that there is, and they’re afraid of seriously entertaining it.

  23. No Von Mises

    The death knell of such a wonderful expression of solidarity arising from various social circles seems to be suburbia, or more to the point, a lack of proximity to other people. It’s so difficult to have meaningful conversations about solidarity (nevermind actions) when one’s reality allows one to hole up, to not intermingle and have seclusion and little dialogue pass as normal and acceptable. So I wonder, can what happened in NYC happen in Anytown, USA? Can it happen in LA, where immigrant communities are so heavily partitioned? I think the forces to huddle up with each other are greater than those that do the opposite, but damn, suburbia makes it difficult for the spirit to jive with reality. Great lesson in this story though.

    Hmm… according to Judith Butler, the one human condition we all share is the experience of loss, which, constituted in part politically by the vulnerability of our bodies, becomes the basis for relationality. She says losing another makes oneself “go missing”; we are constituted and, consequently, dispossessed by our relations. Her project was to figure out what compensates for loss. If no one escapes loss and the vulnerability that accompanies it, then perhaps the compensation comes from the act of mourning it. Mourning doesn’t replace what’s lost, but it does facilitate a transformation, and that implies the possibility of new politics of solidarity.

    If what you are saying about the difference between the city and the suburbs is true, then it means that suburbia dehumanizes its inhabitants by reducing their sense of their own vulnerability. Suburban isolation offers a kind of security that begins in blinding insularity and ends in that creepy contentment and self-affirmation you see in movies like Pleasantville. And this, of course, is in stark contrast to the equally unsettling fatalism you see in the millions of people who face the exact opposite of suburban security.

    You’re right about the inevitability of feeling solidarity in the city, if for no other reason, then because the “huddling” leaves people with little choice but to be exposed to each other. (And yes, I think LA has difficulty with it because of the way it’s sectioned off — one of the reasons for the emergence of ethnic gangs in the mid-20th century.) Anyway, on NY and feeling the kind of solidarity that proximity cultivates: it truly is a great thing, as long as you keep in mind that feeling pain for another’s loss is not the same as sharing the experiences that led to it. It would be highly problematic if we used our feeling of pain for others to trivialize the issue of our own privilege (or lack thereof, as the case may be). As Virgina Woolf once said about our use of pictures (media), in looking at other people’s pain, one shouldn’t take for granted who the “we” are. But still, I think the greater threat here is in the conclusion that pain isn’t sharable, so I’m glad we’re being exposed to this in angles by which we can make connections to our own lives.

  24. Wow.

    I hate when I cheerlead but some of the stuff I read on SM, by both the bloggers and commenters, is so exceedingly good that I have to just use the pom-poms. Shruti that was brilliant.

    Mourning doesn’t replace what’s lost, but it does facilitate a transformation, and that implies the possibility of new politics of solidarity.

    Alot is made of the politics of vendetta’s so this was a refreshing look at when barriers are broken. Again, brilliant.