Saturday, April 30, 2011

Library News from Bald Eagle, PA...and Suzanne Fisher Staples

In sad, enraging and all-too common news, the march of stories about the death of support for librarians and school library goes on. In Bald Eagle, PA, the librarian teaches 6 library classes in 4 buildings from 8:20-11:30. Then she is required to go to the high school and teach Family Consumer Science to 3 more 50 minute classes until 3:10. Her lunch is eaten in the car as she travels from the elementary schools to the high school. Her libraries are not organized by Dewey or Library of Congress- they are slammed on the shelves in AR order by the kids-- so good luck finding anything by topic or author or keyword or any other way... sometimes the school secretary helps reshelve.

Suzanne Fisher Staples of Shabanu fame is a trained journalist who spent years in Asia, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India. One of her goals is to bring little-known cultures to Americans. She is speaking today about cultural misunderstandings. Thank god for political people-- Jeri Hurd, you would love this discussion-- the first thing Suzanne brings up is the war with Afghanistan and its misguidedness, based on misunderstandings of the Afghani people. Here are some amazing highlights of her wonderful discussion with us at PSLA today:

* The WHO had to remake their standards of poverty for Pakistani people-- since trade largely takes the place of money, per capita income doesn't apply-- so the WHO replaced per capita income with number of calories taken in each day. Grown men consume 1200 calories while doing hard physical labor all day.

* Suzanne speaks Urdu, the language of Pakistan. When in Pakistan, she wore the clothing they wore to fit in-- she says they are half her size with fine features and dark skin. She wore a chador- say "cha-der"--a 56 inch square piece of fabric over their heads. Suzanne does not find the chador to be a sign of male oppression. It is a tool for carrying kindling, makes a great sling or hammock for babies, protecting them from snakes and scorpions, a bed sheet, a bandage, a towel. Suzanne says the chador is a symbol for her of remaining open minded and open hearted about cultures we are unfamiliar with.

* The myth of the hookah smoking male oppressor keeping women sheilded from Western ideas was met with incredulousness by Pakistani men Suzanne spoke with. They were very happy, according to Suzanne, to have their women learn to read and write, and gain in any way from anybody. They exist in abject poverty and look for help, she says. She says the men didn't know what to make of her--she was big, she was blond-- she says they didn't know if she WAS a woman. Sitting with the women was entirely different-- they touched her face, her hair. Once a glove she was wearing came off in a woman's hand, who was appalled and then hilariously amused--the woman thought Suzanne's skin had come off. She said she and the women would discuss food, birthdays, children, etc. Suzanne was able to carry news of droughts to the governor of Punjab province, endearing her to the men who began to see her presence as helpful.

* American schools were built out of huge square blocks of heavy materials to ensure their safety from earthquakes. Pakistanis would not go into them not because they eschewed education but because they knew should an earthquake occur, being inside the building would mean being crushed. These schools were built without electricty, and the only time people had to attend class was at night after working all day. 120 degree days and freezing nights kept teachers and doctors away.

* 1200 calories does not mean that is the amount a man ate everyday. During the dry season people ate much less. Suzanne gave teddy goats and banty-sized chickens, both of which ate little and produced much milk and eggs, to people who attended her literacy programs in Pakistan. This gave people the ability to live and learn.

* Shabanu, Haveli and House of Djinn are going to be made into MOVIES!!

* People ask her, "Isn't it hard to be the only woman in these countries?" Suzanne says that being a woman in the Islamic world was for her, an advantage. She says if anybody seeks hospitality from a Muslim, they will protect their guest literally with their life. Any time she visited a refugee camp she was offered a cup of tea, a meal, whatever they had-- even in the face of crushing poverty.

* Suzanne is mystified by some popular novels about Western women in Saudi. Her experience is with countries based on Persian culture-- she finds Pakistani culture to be very different from depictions of cultures in Iran and Saudi Arabia. She makes a distinction between Arab and Persian cultures. During the Bush years, Suzanne was shopping in a souk. While there, she met a spice merchant who said, "I am Iranian. Your President and mine have troubles, but you and I will be friends." As he shook her hand, he palmed a beautiful container of mahogany saffron into her hand as a gift.

* In response to a question about the French law forbidding Muslim head coverings, Suzanne says, "There are more Muslims who are victimized by fundamentalists than Westerners." She strongly states that laws like this only make the Muslim and Arab world less able to believe in the goodness of Western countries.

Suzanne Fisher Staples is a calm, attractive older woman with gray hair, glasses and no make up. She is soft-spoken and totally believable. She would make a wonderful speaker for middle school kids who need to learn about Muslim culture. I feel very lucky to have heard her today.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! I'll link to this in my blog. I do think it's a bit disingenuous of her to imply ALL Pakistani men have no problem with womens rights--there have been egregious abuses of women-- but totally on board with her general premise! Americans--westerners in general--are shockingly, even willfully, ignorant.