Everyone’s a mutt. In one Islamic interpretation of the story of Babel, diversity of cultures is a good thing — an intellectual, social, and spiritual challenge to open one’s mind to new ideas. Babel is a blessing, not a curse. Pluralism rules.
Culturally and intellectually, it is by reaching across divides between disciplines, traditions, and histories that we can understand and improve the world we live in today. Engineering doesn’t just build bridges from one side of a river to another — it holds the power to bond cultures and connect challenges with their solutions. Similarly, words function as both a tool of social empowerment and a simulation of social reality, allowing writers to place their readers in the shoes of the Other, to illustrate the interdependencies of our cultural histories.
Engspurdishabic (ɪŋɡ spɜr dɪʃ-əbɪk): a medley of languages in one; a way and context of thinking, or weltanschauung; the language of tomorrow.
If Moors or Moriscos are the residual prototype of Gypsies, Native Americans, Africans, Jews, Hispanics, and, in general, the West’s undesirables since 1492, we might as well avoid the tragedies that dogmatic concepts of national identities have engendered — the expulsion of Jews in 1492; the expulsion of Moriscos in 1609; the scapegoating of minorities as infidels in the nation’s holy body politic; and the horrors of genocide visited on various non-Europeans and on Jews in Nazi Germany — by accepting our true nature as mestizos in a world where national, racial, ethnic, and cultural boundaries are dangerous illusions.
— Anouar Majid, We Are All Moors
All these voices — Muslim and Christian, Eastern and Western — are responding to the same moral condition, however much their respective vocabularies and idioms may differ from each other. The paramount questions therefore remain: Can these forces, on all sides, transcend their ethnocentricity and join ranks in the interrogation of the modern project and its state? Can the Taylors summon enough intellectual courage to become MacIntyres? Can they all, Western and non-Western, dismantle the pernicious myth of a clash of civilizations? Can they dismantle their moral power so as to bring about a victory that installs the moral as the central domain of world cultures, irrespective of ‘civilizational’ variants? For, just as there can be no Islamic governance without such a victory, there will be no victory in the first place without modernity experiencing a moral awakening.
— Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State
I think it’s important to begin this blog with a brief discussion of interdisciplinary and intercultural thinking in the context of science, engineering, and writing. As someone who grew up with science kits, Legos, K’Nex, build-it-yourself toy robots, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, science, technology, and engineering have always captured my imagination. When my cousin handed me a copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, I discovered a new passion: literature. I never saw literature as separate from my fervor for science and robotics, but rather as something complementary. What I wrote and read had a lot to do with what I built and studied, and vice versa.
As I grew older, I began to understand myself and my goals — my passions — in a social and historical context. I began to come to terms with my Dominican and Pakistani heritage — both my parents had immigrated to the US at a very young age. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was an Italian-American, a US soldier during the occupation of the Dominican Republic. He settled down, had a family, and now years later the bloodline is back in the US.
Was I a first or third generation American? I had to wonder. And, What did “American” even mean?
As a Muslim in a post-9/11 world I had grown increasingly aware of prejudices around me, though at first I was too young to understand my situation. The summer of 2001, I had been up the Towers twice with my cousins from Minneapolis and Chicago. We’d erected a Lego model of the Twin Towers together, happy to remember the trip through building. On the tragic day of September 11, I had only been in fourth grade. School was called off, and when I arrived home my mother was crying. My father returned early from his business meeting in the city; he’d seen the first plane hit the first tower like something in a nightmare, and turned straight for home. I felt wrenched and distraught , but only because I could sense vaguely that there was something very wrong.
As I matured, I came to understand the gravity of 9/11. But as an American-Muslim, I also came to see and experience the ensuing prejudices and human rights violations of the government I respected. In school I read — often without realizing immediately what was wrong — books like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (one subplot involves the deeds of a double-crossing “Turk” whose daughter abandons Islam in order to be a “free woman”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unashamedly Orientalist “Kubla Khan,” and Shakespeare’s Othello, whose protagonist kills himself by declaring, “in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog, / And smote him thus” (Isaac Asimov, in his Guide to Shakespeare, argues the play depicts the titular character “as an exotic figure” who in his final lines must kill his Muslim identity—and thus himself).
These prejudices hit hardest when I read a story by Asimov himself. From his Black Widowers series, “The Iron Gem” was a tale about stealing a piece of the holy stone (said to be a meteorite) in Mecca. What disturbed me wasn’t so much the premise as the highly Orientalist manner in which Asimov depicted his Arab villain: mysterious and dangerous. Asimov had in so many ways inspired who I was as both a writer and an aspiring engineer, so I guess I’m geek enough to say it was like an old friend’s betrayal. I didn’t read Asimov for a year. By the time I picked up another Asimov novel, I learned to forgive and forget. After reading his memoirs in I. Asimov years ago, I supposed he was more of the harmless egoist who probably didn’t know any better than an author with malicious intent.
Nevertheless, the betrayal was part of a series of realizations which changed me. I involved myself in high school journalism and wrote about social justice, and my aspirations in the fields of robotics and engineering were also cast in my mind under a similar atmosphere of social responsibility.
This brought me back to the questions, What is America? What does it mean to be “American?”
I don’t really know. In a way, this blog is part of a journey to answer those questions. Half my family is Catholic, half Muslim. I have a Pakistani-Irish cousin who wears kilts to Pakistani weddings. My great-great-grandmother was German. My great-to-the-nth-grandfather was General Pasquale Paoli, who freed Corsica from Italy, which left it available to France so that when Napoleon was born in Corsica, he was born a Frenchman. General Paoli authored what is arguably the first constitutional democracy, and changed the flag of Corsica to the image of a Moor’s face, his blindfold removed. In the late 1700s, Paoli taverns and saloons in his name would host conversations on the nature of government and revolution in the Thirteen Colonies. There is still a Paoli Local train in Pennsylvania. On my father’s side hundreds of years ago, the Durranis were the “Cohens”– a Jewish tribe which later became “Khan,” then “Durrani-Khan”, and finally “Durrani” as it passed into what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the family founded the Durrani Pashtun dynasty. (There must still be some Jewish left in me, because I love Matzoh-ball soup!) A few years ago in the crooked allies and trade shops outside Alhambra in Granada, Spain, my family and I happened upon a Durrani relative we’d never known or heard of. Today I have cousins in Saudi Arabia, Africa, London, Ireland, Canada, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and all over the US. I’m probably missing some.
It was in these contexts that I re-envisioned my goals and passions in science, engineering, and literature. My goals were no longer my passions simply because I enjoyed them, but also because I could use them like any skill to play some minor but hopefully worthy role as what I would humorously call a “micro-minority,” a mestizo in what many today see as an increasingly globalized, muddled, and often unjust world.
Engineering has remained a constant in my life since I received Lego Mindstorms sets in elementary school and participated in Dean Kamen’s FIRST robotics competitions. In high school especially, robotics consumed most of my waking hours as I designed and built in endless preparation for FIRST competitions.
Science fiction writers who are scientists, like Asimov, software technical writer and Brown graduate Ted Chiang, and marine biologist Dr. Peter Watts, have encouraged me not only to love science and engineering but to consider its impact on our changing society. They also showed me, as Asimov recognized, that interdisciplinary action is key to a healthy intellectual life.
Inspirations and ideas such as these draw me to a variety of engineering-related careers, including space law and the looming issue of space debris (which I will discuss in later posts). Recently, President Obama declared a mission to clear junk endangering orbits above Earth’s atmosphere; while a difficult feat, a joint effort of nations to remove debris is an engineer’s ultimate role — working across borders to solve problems. The politicized (and now, with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, increasingly privatized and commercialized) nature of space travel, I think, may find a need for those who don’t only know the science and engineering but also the politics and legislation involved.
The way I see it, engineering doesn’t just build bridges from one side of a river to another — it holds the power to bond cultures and connect challenges with their solutions. This is one of many starting points from which we can understand its socio-legal context today and historically. Without the history, after all, modern efforts to improve our world are fruitless. Conversely, we must understand our modern structures in order to acknowledge the lens through which these histories are viewed.