What Don't You First See?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 8:42am
What Don't You First See?

There's more than meets the eye in this photo. Stop and peer beneath the surface.

Commentary by:
Trent Gilliss (@TrentGilliss),  Executive Editor / Chief Content Officer for On Being
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35 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours

Indian Muslim girls recite the Qur’an in their classroom at Madrasatur-Rashaad religious school in Hyderabad.

Credit: Noah Seelam License: Getty Images.

I love this photo.

It's relatable. It's humanizing. It's neighborhood. The photographer has captured an image with layers of meaning and connectedness.

At first glance, one's eye is drawn to hijab and hands. It's what we Americans have been trained to do — to look for the extreme, the other, the different, the enemy training their children to be Islamic fundamentalists. This lens, even for an editor and producer who spends most of his days breaking through the stereotypes to discover the humanity in the other, is difficult to shatter.

But stay with the image for a split-second longer and you'll start to see something different. The image is more inclusive than it first appears. Included in the framing of this photograph is a backdrop of a variety of backpacks, including a pink backpack very much like the Hello Kitty bag a young schoolgirl in my Minneapolis neighborhood carries off to elementary school each day.

This framing contextualizes, and I might say normalizes, this scene and makes it special. As a Western observer, I relate in an entirely different way rather than easily focusing in on the religiosity on the surface. Seeing others in this way takes discipline, and a deep pause. If you do, worlds will open to you. And people too.

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Trent Gilliss is the driving editorial and creative force behind On Being. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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35Reflections

Yes, I saw the scarves and their hands. That makes me bad? wrong? extremist? a thoughtless, xenophobic American? You saw Hello Kitty and that makes you disciplined and inclusive? Are you sure you want to make these judgments and sound so superior?

TRENT: Does seeing hands and scarves really make me a bad person? Does seeing Hello Kitty make you a disciplined and superior person? That's what you imply.

Writing here from Amman, Jordan where violent clashes over modernity are a bit too close to home, I missed the backpacks entirely, but from an overexposure to the "normalcy" of it here in Amman. I drive by Chili's, KFC, and Mickey D's everyday on my way to work at an international school. Here the streets are filled with young Muslim's wearing American pop culture backpacks, tee shirts, designer shoes and purses along with their head scarves and will do their prayers right there on the road side. The thing that strikes me as odd and why I'm commenting is that I don't find these things to be normal or comforting. I cringe at the thought of one of these sweet Muslim girls "twerking" for her friends in private, even for a laugh.
I grew up in Accra, Ghana in the early 80's only to return in the late 90's to find an exponentially growing demographic of seemingly East/West Coast Gangster African youth that have since put Ghana's crime rates through the roof. What once was a majority of fun loving and astoundingly hospitable people were starting to believe that they needed to be angry, violent and degrade women in order to be like their cool brothers on TV in the west.
I'm no conservative fundy, but I'm quite concerned that my girls are going to have a similar experience when they grow up. Will they're experience of honorable and hospitable Muslim's turn into one of grief for a culture so rich and thrilling that got traded for something kitsch. Will these countries wake up like Iceland did to find out that they desperately desired to recover their cultural identity?
I'm probably being a bit over dramatic and a bit of a kill-joy purist, but I sure do miss the Africa I knew without Snoop Dogg.

I like your comments...

It is deeply saddening as I cringed with those images as well. I feel your pain and what you see. I am grateful to hear your voice and read what you perceive. Photos that come here are deceptive. There's so much to cultures that a photo will not and cannot explain. My images of what I saw in Iran will never leave me. Perhaps we are the bridges to what is so misunderstood in western culture in understanding the deep fabric of anger in particular against women that has ever so quietly taken over that region. We all have work to do. But I know deeply how comfortable and privileged I am in America. Thanks for your input.

"It's what we Americans have been trained to do — to look for the extreme, the other, the different..." Sorry, I can't buy the load of hooey that "Americans have been trained to do" that.

What's more, all people naturally notice that which is different to themselves and their own. Your comment is tantamount to the ideologically inspired chestnut promulgated by the Cultural Marxists that only White people are "racists" because we--like every people in the world--are more comfortable in the company of our own kind, want to preserve our culture and our people.

The initial impression is of Muslim children studying. Then pink book bag pops out. It took a second to dawn on me that these are girls studying, not boys. One girl, second from the right, seems to have a discoloration or markings on her forearm and hand.

What don't I first see? A well thought out title. :) Second: men. Third: sense in the article. The author alleges that some people look at this picture and first think it captures "the enemy training their children to be Islamic fundamentalists!" Seriously? Is it me that is strange, or the author?

I saw little girls learning to read.

I love this visual learning moment. When first seeing the photo, I didn't see anything different. Then the pink in the back poked up and projected softness and options. I am 71 and losing my smartness but this spoke to me on a subject I am very interested in.Thank you.

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