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Gayle Brandeis

Stewarding Liberty


In 1986, when I was eighteen, one of my essays was chosen to be included in the Centennial time capsule of the Statue of Liberty. During the official celebration on Liberty Island, I was designated a "Steward of Liberty for the next hundred years." I stood below the big toe of the Statue and wondered how a person could live up to a title like that. I pictured myself dressed in a catering tuxedo, handing out pieces of liberty like hors d’ouerves on a silver platter, saying "Hello, I’ll be your steward of liberty this evening!" I wondered what liberty would taste like—a spinach puff pastry? A chunk of brie? I couldn’t begin to process the enormity of the title that had just been bestowed upon me, and spent the rest of the ceremony staring out at the Manhattan skyline, instead.

After September 11, 2001, when that skyline was brutally, irrevocably, changed, I began considering this title more seriously. I knew it was just a token dubbing, just a sweet gesture, but I suddenly couldn’t help but feel some responsibility to live up to the name.

That October, I decided to create a forum to give people the liberty to express themselves freely and creatively. Mass destruction, in my mind, called for mass creation. I set upon organizing a benefit concert. My roster quickly filled with a diverse mix of poets and musicians and storytellers and dancers. The local Unitarian church, a gorgeous building with spectacular stained glass and swoopy beamed ceilings, offered to host the event. Local arts and peace organizations agreed to co-sponsor and help spread the word. Things came together easily—everyone seemed very excited by the prospect of a cathartic, creative, community event.

My friend Karen approached the local Islamic center to see if they would like to be involved in the program. They generously offered to co-sponsor, and told us a group of children from the Islamic academy would be happy to sing. We were thrilled—we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to build bridges in our town, erase fear, open doors for dialogue and connection.

Then things began to get complicated.

Karen heard that at a recent interfaith service in a nearby community, a Middle Eastern dancer was asked not to perform because her movements and dress would be insulting to the Muslim representatives at the event. Other performers had been told to cover their arms and legs out of respect for Islamic customs. I hadn’t considered that this might be an issue in our concert; in fact, I had been thrilled when my friend Nancy had agreed to perform Middle Eastern dance because I thought it would be a great way to incorporate Arab culture into the program. Karen and I decided to investigate; she contacted the Islamic center, and then called to tell me that they would indeed be offended by the presence of a "belly dancer."

I found myself thrown into a very awkward situation. I didn’t want to do anything to offend the Islamic community. I knew how vulnerable they were already feeling; I wanted them to feel welcome at the event, wanted them to feel their needs were been respected. At the same time, I didn’t want to censor any of the performers who had so graciously offered to share their talents. I was a "steward of liberty", after all—how could I take away someone’s freedom to express herself in the way she saw most fit? Plus, part of the proceeds from the event were going to go to RAWA, an organization working to help women gain freedom in Afghanistan—it would be more than ironic for me to take away a woman’s freedom here, in America, in the process. I had no idea what to do.

I asked everyone I knew for advice. Some people told me that I shouldn’t buckle under pressure, that I should produce the show I wanted to produce, belly dancer and all, that I shouldn’t let anyone take away my vision. Others were adamant about the fact that I needed to honor the Muslim restrictions and ask my friend not to perform. Nancy, the dancer, was, of course, just as confused as I; she didn’t want to offend any one, but she didn’t want to be silenced, either. We talked about the possibility of her dancing in a burqua, with a sign across the front that read "I am dancing underneath."

Karen and Nancy and I arranged a meeting at the Islamic Center so we could learn exactly what was problematic about the dance and try to come to some understanding together. Maybe, we hoped, it was just the costume that was an issue; maybe if Nancy covered herself up, it wouldn’t be a problem.

The meeting was scheduled for 2:30; there was just enough time for me to pick up my kids from school and head over to the mosque. My son was fortuitously invited to a friend’s house, but I had to bring my daughter along. I had been careful to wear long sleeves and pants that day so I wouldn’t offend anyone, but I had forgotten that Hannah was wearing short shorts, her seven year old legs bare almost to the hip. I didn’t have time to go home to change her clothes, didn’t have anything to cover her up with. I hoped girl skin was not as much of an issue as woman skin.

As we drove to the mosque, I spoke to Hannah about the importance of being respectful, the importance of being calm. She can be a wild child, and I worried that if she started to get wired, it would disrupt what I hoped would be our peace talks. I talked about how this was a great opportunity for us to begin to understand another culture. I suppose Hannah took this to mean that the people there didn’t understand English, because as soon as we walked into the office of the Islamic academy, she gaped at the women in their hijabs as if they were displays in a museum and said "I like the green lady best" like they couldn’t hear her at all.

Then she pointed to their feet and yelled "You said they couldn’t show skin!" Indeed, most of the women were wearing toe-baring sandals—stylish platform ones, for the most part. I wondered if Islamic women expressed themselves through their feet, but I felt too shy to ask, and whispered to Hannah to be quiet.

Everyone was more than kind to us, more than sweet to Hannah; no one seemed to mind her bare legs or her outbursts.

"They have Oreos," she said in awe, pointing to the shelf of bulk snack foods in the hallway. "They have Nutty Bars." Sometimes I came home from the local Middles Eastern market with jars of rose petal jam and tins of cumin-scented fava beans, which Hannah had been more than willing to try, but the sight of "American" food in the Islamic center seemed to comfort her--junk food as common ground.

Karen and Nancy soon arrived, followed shortly thereafter by the Principal of the Academy, a woman in her sixties wearing an ivory hijab shot through with gold thread. We gathered around a table by the much-used copy machine. The Principal was very gracious, very interested in our event, and glad that we asked the Center to be part of it. She was more than willing to share information about Muslim culture, from the five periods of prayer a day, to the importance of only eating meat that has been bled a certain way. We were grateful for the education. Then we started talking about dance.

Belly dance is a definite no-no, she told us. I could feel Nancy blanch beside me.

We told the Principal that a modern dancer was planning to perform in a long sleeved leotard and asked if this would be appropriate. She shook her head. "A woman should not show any contours of her body. She should not show her waist, her…" She gestured to her chest.

"What if she wore loose clothing?" we asked.

"No dance," she said, smiling.

"No dance at all?"

"No dance at all. A man should not see a woman dancing."

We had four dancers scheduled to perform. I couldn’t imagine asking all of them to drop out of the program. I also couldn’t imagine doing something that would cause discomfort among the Muslim members of the audience. I tried to control the hysteria I felt building inside of me.

"There is one dance," she said. "The debka. Do you know the debka?"

Nancy nodded; she was familiar with all forms of Middle Eastern dance. The debka, she later told me, is a fairly stiff folk dance, done in lines, with everyone wearing long white robes.

"We would like to see the debka."

Nancy and Karen and I nodded, unsure how to respond. Hannah walked around the room in circles, sighing loudly that she was bored. I shot her a warning glance and put my finger to my lips. She collapsed onto one of the black leather couches.

One of us raised the subject of music. The Principal shook her head again. "No music," she said.

"No music at all?" we asked.

"There is one type of drum," she told us. "It can be played very slow."

She said that people from the Islamic Center did listen to some music, but it was calm music, quiet music, nothing too jazzy, nothing that would excite any emotions.

"What about a person playing the guitar and singing?" I asked.

She shook her head.


She shook her head again. "Only religious music," she said.

How could I tell the musicians they couldn’t share their work? I felt my show beginning to slip away from me, note by note.

We thanked the Principal for taking the time to talk with us. I deeply appreciated the fact that she was willing to share her concerns, raise our awareness, but I felt more conflicted than ever. She suggested we speak to the Director of the Islamic Center.

Hannah whined that she wanted to go home; I told her it would be just a little bit longer. As we walked across the parking lot to the mosque, I was filled with confusion. Part of me wished we had never asked the Islamic Center to get involved in the first place; then another part of me was horrified I would even have that thought. I felt like a spoiled child, wanting to do things my way or no way at all. I took a deep breath and made a resolution with myself to keep an open mind, an open heart.

We were about to go into the door marked "Sisters Entrance" on the side of the building when the Director waved to us from the main door. He and the leader of the youth program ushered us into the office, and we began to talk about our program.

My voice was shaky as I spoke. I told them what an uncomfortable place I found myself in. "I want to respect your needs as a community," I said, "but I also want to respect the needs of the artists. I don’t want to restrict anyone’s expression, and I’m feeling so confused about how to reconcile these things." Despite all my efforts to stop myself, I started to cry. I apologized for being so emotional; everyone was very kind. The leader of the youth program left the room and came back with cups of sweet orange drink for all of us.

"You’re right—you can’t restrict an artist or a philosopher," he said. "There is no way to do that. But if you want us to be co-sponsors of this program, we need to let you know our concerns."

We nodded.

"We think what you’re doing is a beautiful thing," he said. "We appreciate that you want us to be involved." He said the mosque continued to receive threats. Someone had recently called, growling "I’m going to get you. Just tell me how to get there!" He laughed, then said he had been touched by how many people had called offering their support, as well.

The Director’s daughter poked her head, with its lacy hijab, into the office; she and Hannah began a game of long distance peek-a-boo.

After over an hour of talking, we finally reached a compromise: the first half of the show would be aligned to Islamic mores, so those who wished to do so could leave at the break; the second half would contain the more "controversial" performances. That way, we wouldn’t have to censor any of the artists, and we could still respect the needs of the Muslim community. It was something we could all live with.

Later, I told Nancy and Karen how I had been worried at first that my vision of the performance had been limited, restricted, but I came to see that it had been expanded. In working to find common ground with the Muslim community, I knew the evening would ultimately be more meaningful than it would have been if I had just assembled a collection of like-minded folk. I couldn’t comprehend a world without music and dance, a world where a woman’s body needs to remain hidden, unspoken, but I knew I needed to find a way to respect the needs of those who live within that world. I went home and changed the order of the program accordingly.

I named the concert "Speaking to Thunder: Local Artists Respond to the Events of September 11th", adapting the title from Stephen Dunn’s poem, "To a Terrorist", which reads, in part, "The first poet probably spoke to thunder/and, for awhile, believed/thunder had an ear and a choice."

Through our art that evening, we spoke to the thunder of planes turned into bombs; we spoke to the thunder of bombs raining down from planes; we spoke to the thunder of racism, the thunder of hatred, the thunder of intolerance and fear. Thunder may not have an ear. Thunder may not have a choice. The roar of war may threaten to drown out our voices, but as artists we need to keep singing, we need to keep writing, we need to keep dancing and making our music and telling our stories and praying for peace, and that is what we did that night.

The event was a huge success. The performers were incredible, the audience was warm and supportive, and we raised hundreds of dollars for relief efforts in both America and Afghanistan. Many people came up to me later and told me the event was just what they needed. It was an inspiring evening, a healing evening, but an evening not without its sadness.

The Muslim community never showed up. The Principal had decided the day before that the children couldn’t perform because the event was too late in the evening, but she assured us that she would be there, that the Director and the leader of the youth program would be there, that other members of the Islamic Center would be there. They didn’t come. Karen called the Principal a couple of days later to see if maybe we had offended them in some way, if perhaps they had never intended on participating at all. The Principal assured Karen that she had planned to attend, but she had fallen ill that day. We were unable to reach any one else from the Center.

I was concerned that perhaps members of their community were worried about coming to a public event where emotions were sure to run high; it may have felt too vulnerable, too risky. They would have been welcomed with open arms—it was such a generous crowd—but of course they couldn’t have known that. Whatever their reasons for not coming, I vowed the door for dialogue would remain open. I vowed my own heart would remain open to the possibility of further connection. I vowed that as I continued to try to live up to my steward of liberty title, I would remember to also be a steward of compassion, a steward of peace.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (Harper San Francisco), The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel (Harper Collins), which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and the forthcoming novel, Self Storage (Ballantine, 2007.) She was named a "Writer Who Makes a Difference" by The Writer Magazine, and lives in Riverside, CA with her husband and their two children.

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