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VOL. 40 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Finding patriotism where others see threats

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Brentwood businessman Kamel Daouk and his fellow Muslims are saddened by the evil thugs who soil the image of their religion, which is one of peace and love, through violent acts.  And he is proud to proclaim his loyalty and love of his country: The U.S.A.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Standing by the Islamic Center on 12th Avenue South, I finally stumble upon patriotism, a dose of the old red, white and blue, a reason to celebrate America, to, for a moment at least, swell with Yankee Doodle pride in this savage summer of slaughter.

And that love of country – homeland of Dylan, Springsteen, Rosa Parks, George Washington, MLK, Honest Abe … as well as Donald and Hillary – finally was ignited in my heart when I met the Brentwood businessman near the entry into the mosque between Friday prayer services.

This man who rescued summer for me is Kamel Daouk, 48, who long ago fled from his homeland of Lebanon to seek peace, prosperity, safety and a happy future for his family.

“We came here because there was still a nasty war going on in Lebanon,” Kamel says. “Things were insecure. It was a very tough situation.”

This was long before ISIS – a gang of murderous thugs and heartless slaughterers of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses and anyone else in their way – came into being. The self-proclaimed Islamic State occupied by those vile punks now stretches across parts of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

But back in the 1980s, when Kamel fled to America, the threat to security was fueled by regular, old-fashioned turmoil in a nation that seems to always be in disarray.

“It was a confusion of mixed, different groups. The PLO was part of it, but really a mixture of different problems,” Kamel says. “Most took the shape of local military groups, all influenced by what was going on in the other countries nearby.”

His family, like those of so many generations of us all, sought America as the place they could peacefully worship and work, free – or so they thought – of the fear, profiling and suspicion that unfortunately has been sparked by the bombs, guns and, of course, tragically commandeered commercial aircraft and exploding underwear offered up by ISIS apostles.

“It feels terrible that someone is talking about my religion in a way that should not be represented by someone who is crazy,” Kamel explains. “There’s a few crazy criminals in every community, but we (Muslims) are being painted by a very broad brush.”

The first Friday prayer service has ended, and the second one is about to get underway when I shake hands with this gentle soul I’d earlier “met” via a lengthy phone interview that transformed into a conversation about love and brotherhood that continued at the mosque.

“Islam is a religion of peaceful submission to God, obeying God’s commandments in a willful and a peaceful way,” he says, as worshipers of all colors and fashion choices come and go from the mosque.

The misrepresentation of this religion – and the fact ours is a nation populated in the first place by a boatload of angry Puritans seeking religious freedom – is the reason I have sought out this reflective and longtime Nashville-area businessman.

He and brothers Zaki, 51 and Nazih, 50, run MKD International, headquartered in a non-descript office park in Brentwood.

“We sell paper to the printing business and paperboard for packaging,” he says. In other words, the box that contained your new weed whacker this summer well may have begun as paperboard sold by the three men in almost three decades of operation.

The two older brothers opened shop here in 1988, and in 1990, and after he got a business degree from a Swiss college, Kamel joined them in the family business. The men’s father had in the same way supported his family in Beirut with the goal of emigrating to the U.S. and continuing this fourth-generation family business here.

“What we do here is do the same business exactly that we did in Lebanon,” Kamel points out.

Father Nabih, too, has escaped to the U.S., as has Kamel’s mother, Hasna. “My father flies back and forth between the two countries, but this is home,” Kamel says.

“We chose Nashville basically because the product we wanted to market was not so much available here. And, from a business standpoint, it is a place where you can live in a free way, the way you want to. And it’s a good place to live and to work and to raise a family.”

He and his wife, Maura, a Mexican immigrant who only recently has gotten her citizenship because she wants to be able to vote in the autumn elections – have one child, daughter Salwa, 13.

I was in the mosque pretty much to flush away the poison caused by evil and reclaim what old Nat “King” Cole (who actually was a merry, old soul) long ago dubbed “those, lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.”

My trip to the mosque – where the foyer is filled with racks of shoes, left by worshipers who enter the prayer hall in stockings or bare feet – actually began as something of a challenge from one of my favorite people and journalists.

Ledger Planning Editor Cindy Smith responded with an uncommon melancholy to my pitch to write a Fourth of July column for the edition that would be on the racks through the holiday weekend.

You see, journalists are, for the most part, cynics, pursuing truth, justice and the American way. But always lurking in our souls are memories of times we’ve encountered the darkest underside of the human spirit. We’ve seen the work of murderers, child abusers, wife beaters and airplane hijackers up close and too personal.

“I don’t know how you can write a patriotic July Fourth column after what has happened,” said Cindy, one of a diminishing breed of journalists who knows the purpose of a pica pole. (I have three of them in my desk here in my office.)

With Cindy’s negative “encouragement” in my heart, I became determined. I promised I would try to find a column subject that, to borrow a phrase from Lee Greenwood, would make me proud to be an American. Yes, at least I know I’m free. (An aside: I also remember well the singer’s pre-stardom days as a lounge singer at places like The Camelot, a cops-newsmen neutral zone that, thank God, was within walking distance of my newspaper home in Clarksville more than a quarter-century ago.)

Cindy had, has really, good reason for feeling more blue than red and white as the celebration of a nation founded on freedom of speech and religion approaches … just days after an evil weasel with a semi-automatic rifle killed 49 innocent people at an Orlando night club. The victims had been celebrating the summer’s eve just a few miles from Cinderella’s Castle, the centerpiece of what some call “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

For me, the Fourth has always been about hot dogs and apple pie, memories of Walnut Lake and climbing on the roof in Chicago to watch fireworks. I am not one to light firecrackers, as I’m trying to save my rock ‘n’ roll-scarred eardrums for one more Rolling Stones concert or something even more heart-lifting and joyous, although I can’t offhand think of what that could be.

Cindy was right, of course. Usually is. And I have to admit I was a little bit stumped as to how I could lift my own heart, fly my mental grand old flag. The Orlando massacre is just the most recent major slaughter perpetrated by people who claim they kill in the name of a god I surely can’t recognize. If that truly is what God wants us to do, well, he can count me out.

And the latest horror – the largest slaughter of Americans on U.S. soil since Honest Abe led the North to victory and got shot in the head at Ford’s Theatre by that century’s version of a crazed punk – is omnipresent as presidential contenders fire up their rhetoric about building walls and whether the Second Amendment guarantees the rights of Americans to own semi-automatic rifles and other weapons of mass human destruction.

And that, in short is why, as Ramadan (which I needed explained to me) winds down, I am at a mosque in the heart of our city, enjoying the company of a genuinely warm fellow who sells paperboard for a living and fled the wars in his homeland, Lebanon, to seek freedom here in Nashville.

Ramadan is a time on the lunar calendar when Muslims reaffirm and reinvigorate their faith, fast from 4 a.m. to after sunset and perform selfless acts of charity.

It’s about 1 p.m. on a Friday at the Islamic Center, where shoes are removed and placed in a rack on the wall before the faithful go inside to pray listen to the sermon.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Their good deeds are not restricted to this holiday, though. For example, Kamel and some of his cohorts year-round prepare and serve monthly meals to 85 people at the Room in the Inn homeless shelter. Muslims do not discriminate when the time comes to help others.

Because of the fast, I obviously couldn’t invite my new phone friend to lunch, so instead I met him at this place of peace framed by another epic example of Nashville’s gentrification, 12South.

In addition to talking about religion, God and love, Kamel and I both look across the now bustling gentry settlement of 12South and swap fond memories of Becker’s Bakery, an old-fashioned pie, cookie and bread dispensary where people knew my name and generally were glad I came. And their wedding cupcakes were fabulous.

For Kamel and his brethren, the fast is almost over and the celebration is about to begin. Ramadan’s end will be celebrated July 6, which is Eid ul Ftir. That holiday is a Muslim time of family, food and festivity, sort of a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The children get gifts and food is distributed by every mosque to the needy within the Muslim community.

That I would find my patriotism at a mosque likely will spark some outcry from people who believe one crackpot – I refuse to republish his name – is the authority on all Muslims, like Kamel and the other fine folks who welcome me to their mosque and ask me to return.

Relaxing in the imam’s office, Kamel and I discuss the Islamophobia that was reignited by the scummy coward at the Orlando nightclub.

He says Islamophobia does not really define the people of Nashville he encounters while going about his business as an ordinary citizen chasing the American Dream. But it’s here.

“It’s more subtle and invisible (here), but it is there; and, with everything going on worldwide, is becoming another issue,” he says.

But with that invisibility comes distrust and what Kamel refers to as “a polite way of discriminating” that he combats with good citizenship. “I try to show what Islam is. It’s not about a few criminals, a few crazies.”

That doesn’t mean that the local Islamic population – which likely does contain a few crazies, as do the local Christian, Jewish, agnostic and atheist populations – has escaped unscathed from that “invisible” discrimination.

“You might talk to people who have faced confrontation and been treated badly in public,” he says, noting he has yet to encounter that feeling.

He accentuates the positive, to paraphrase an old World War II Andrews Sisters/Bing song.

“I have faith in a very direct and harsh way. I feel that people are welcoming and interested in meeting new people who come to Nashville,” says this middle-aged man who prays five times a day. “All the prayers don’t need to be done in the mosque. I pray when I am home, at work, in the mosque, wherever.”

He notes that, by his own experience in a turbulent Beirut, “there is a political war in the Middle East that has sectarian lines. That sectarian conflict is pulling in a few crazies. They are inspired by it. They claim certain things nobody believes.”

Some of those crazies have been right here in the U.S., while others have slunk off to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in order to don explosive vests and kill in the name of a lower-case god that’s not even distantly related to the one we share.

“I hope it’s a very small number,” he says, of those American ISIS-cult members. “A handful of people.”

He goes on to say that ISIS – that imaginary sectarian land – and its murderous philosophy is not something most Middle Easterners even recognize. “People don’t accept (ISIS). They are just a group of criminals acting like a legitimate government.”

But that bunch of blood-thirsty crooks provide fuel to the “let’s ban all Muslims from immigrating (and how about adding a wall between the U.S. and Mexico while we’re at it?) fervor that seems to increasingly stir up the curiouser and curiouser 2016 presidential election.

“I feel that the United States is way better than that, and somebody (he doesn’t name names) is ruining the reputation of the U.S. “It’s an embarrassment to me as an American to have somebody talking like that or even to be president of the United States.”

It’s here that he stops to note that he thinks all of that hateful rhetoric is just so much noise in this land that’s our land.

As a result, the immigration bans and even the wall “won’t happen. Even when there’s good ideas that both parties agree on, they still don’t act on it without Congress,” which disagrees on most things.

“There are too many checks and balances” in this democracy he has chosen as his home.

“It feels terrible that somebody is talking about my religion in a way that should not be represented by anyone unless they are crazy.

“I feel that my religion is being used.”

He restates that the crazies “do not represent Islam,” this faith of peace.

The actual Fourth of July isn’t all that important to the Islamic community, he adds. But not for lack of patriotism.

“Celebrating America is what we do on a daily basis. The way we live, it is not the Fourth of July one day a year. It’s every day.”

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