Opinion

Commentary: I'm tired of apologizing for being a Pakistani Muslim Southerner

HOUSTON — I'm tired of apologizing. I apologized for being a Muslim after 9/11. Now I'm apologizing for my Pakistani origins, and apparently for being a Southerner, too.

When environmental catastrophe erupted in my backyard, courtesy of British Petroleum and others, I looked to the media to tell our stories; instead, I found quotes from experts ruminating on energy policy. Where are the families and fisherman whose livelihood suffers at the hands of big oil? Where are the restaurant owners of the French Quarter who still haven't caught their breath since Katrina swallowed their lives?

When I recently rubbed elbows with fellow liberals from the East and West coasts, their disdain for the South was palpable. This led to my quest: to understand why mouths drip with condescension when it comes to the South, and particularly to its people.

Is it Dubya? He was born in Connecticut, a member of Yale's elite Skull & Bones Society and a graduate of the Harvard Business School.

Then it must be Sarah Palin, but she was born in Idaho and raised in Alaska.

They claim that Texas is overrun with bigoted right-wing conservatives. Texas has had 48 governors, but only six of them have been Republicans. Gov. Ann Richards delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention, where she uttered the famous words, "Poor (Bush) . . . He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Then it must be our pervasive racism.

When I interviewed for medical school, I was asked whether I'd wear a burqa and told that Muslims belong in the seventh circle of hell. This humiliation occurred in Chicago, though. When I interviewed in Manhattan, I was told that I wasn't welcome because I'd done medical relief work in Gaza.

Which brings me to my favorite specimens: cocktail party progressives. You know the type: They can't have a conversation without quoting The New Yorker or The Economist.

Wake me when the cliche changes: Pretentious, self-congratulatory liberal narcissists applaud their own humanity while they ooze mockery of the South. Curiously, these same people feign knowledge of Johnny Cash when that's fashionable, although their intellectual elitism forgets that Truman Capote and William Faulkner were southern geniuses.

Perhaps this abhorrence of the South stems from our monochromatic populace. Except that as a physician in Houston, home to the largest medical center in the world, I've treated patients from Somalia, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia, among other places. Our Vietnamese population blesses us with phenomenal pho and necessitates a translator on-call 24 hours a day. Of 82 majority-black counties in the U.S., all but one is in the South.

Or maybe this contempt is because the South has no national political relevance.

Did I mention that Texas is the uninsured capital of the nation, with uninsured rates that are twice the national average? One in four Texans, including 1.5 million children, has no health insurance. Every major city in Texas has a higher uninsured rate than the nation as a whole does. In 2004, 20 percent of Texas children were uninsured, compared to 11 percent nationally.

Then there's our immigration quandary. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 14 percent of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are in Texas. I delivered 40 babies in medical school; only five of their mothers spoke English.

Then this scorn for the South must be because we don't contribute to the greater good. However, the Department of Defense reports that 35 percent of the nation's active duty military comes from 13 Southern states. Of the U.S. troop casualties in Iraq, 38 percent were based in the South, and 47 percent of the U.S. troops who've been killed in Afghanistan were based in Southern states.

Oddly, the people who condemn the South also have a love affair with our cultural cliches when it's convenient for their Bohemian images. To disparage us and simultaneously pretend to know something about Nina Simone or Hank Williams when it's trendy strikes me as disingenuous, particularly if you've never tasted jambalaya, the title of one of Williams' hits.

Perhaps I'm hypersensitive because I recently was in my birthplace of New Orleans, that soulful city so overflowing with culture, cuisine and music that you don't know whether to lick the saxophone or dance with the crawfish etoufee.

Walking in the lower 9th Ward, surrounded by the ghosts of Katrina's cataclysm, I came upon a man standing near some rubble; we locked eyes. With a voice that only someone who's endured great calamity can have, he spontaneously sang. In a grim plot of land where the world watched 1,800 people die, and where minimal rebuilding has occurred since, I listened.

"It's been too hard living . . . . There been times I thought I wouldn't last for long. Now think I'm able to carry on. It's been a long time coming, but a change gonna come."

Southerners aren't the ignorant, inbred trailer trash that my progressive colleagues paint them as. They're strong, passionate Americans with resolve and a vivid spirit. They're a people who've survived, no flourished, through the civil rights movement, disastrous hurricanes and oil spills, Enron and Halliburton scandals and Ft. Hood's tragedy, and they've watched their loved ones return from war with PTSD or TBI, or not return at all.

They have epic stories, and it's time for our media to act as their vessels, not the pundits' playpen.

I've grown to love our iced tea and our crawfish; I adore our Southern nights and the taste of authenticity in Willie Nelson's voice and Muddy Waters' blues. I love that we celebrate everything colossally in New Orleans: Jazz Fest, Crawfish Fest, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, and even jazz funerals.

I was touched beyond words when our kind neighbors baked us casseroles and sat with us to ease our troubles as we endured post-9/11 racism. I'm proud that Houstonians opened our homes to 250,000 New Orleans evacuees. That's Southern Hospitality.

So spare me the politico-babble about how we're an abomination to the sanctity of bleeding heart liberalism. Our hearts bleed when 400 miles of Gulf Coast, which provide 20 percent of U.S. seafood, get 200,000 gallons of poisonous oil thrust into them daily. Recreational fishing contributes $41 billion dollars in economic output and more than 300,000 jobs; our fishermen are bleeding.

Our soldiers are bleeding in Kandahar and Baghdad. Mexicans bleed when they cross the Rio Grande, and my uninsured patients always bleed. We haven't forgotten the blood of Katrina that the Bush administration washed its hands of, either. Stop the snarky quips about our accents, only to pull out your tourist photos of our beloved Austin at a chic party. Did you disparage our Southern drawls when Katrina left people to perish in the Superdome, too?

Shame on you.

We're a vibrant region, one that can't be reduced to a toothless population of gun-toting rednecks. Instead of snarky quips, extend a sincere hand to help us discover solutions to American problems. If you'd be so obliged, we'll treat you to Southern hospitality, which means brisket, swaying to Buddy Guy and BB King and discussing Faulkner. We only ask that you stop building cultural firewalls between us; we'd prefer it if you just helped us build levees instead.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Seema Jilani, M.D., is a Houston physician who specializes in pediatrics at The Texas Medical Center. She's worked in the Middle East and the Balkans, and is a freelance journalist. Her radio documentary, "Israel and Palestine: The Human Cost of The Occupation," was nominated for a Peabody Award. A version of this commentary was published in the British newspaper The Guardian. She can be reached by e-mail at jilani@bcm.edu.

  Comments