“I think there’s something about America that makes people crazy.”
That’s what Alaa said as he scanned the headlines of the New York Times: “Gunman slays 6 at N. Illinois University.” And “Attacks on the Homeless Rise, With Youths Mostly to Blame”
“What else would make people do things like that?” he asked.
Every culture has its whack jobs. But it is true that America has a particular brand of murdering mania. In other regions of the world, people kill in the name of tribe or religion. Or, they murder one at a time for the usual reasons: jealousy, rage, or in the course of another crime. Here in well armed, Grand-Theft-Auto-and-Mortal-Kombat-infused America, people ‘go postal’ or take out dozens of classmates in a fiery riot. Teens kill street bums for sport because they think no one will care and they won’t get caught.
The Middle East has its suicide bombers. We have our homicidal rampages that usually end in suicide.
Scanning the headlines, I could see why someone might ask what it is about Western culture that cranks out the nuts.
What non-religious opiate makes a mass murderer?
We were reading the paper over breakfast at a Princeton diner, and Alaa was enjoying his first-ever stack of pancakes. He was recovering from a week in the Big Apple. A young Egyptian Palestinian in the states for the first time, Alaa had gotten a taste of New York’s hectic pace and it wiped him out.
Things will be much more laid back in Texas, I assured him.
But getting there wasn’t easy. Our flight to the Lone Star State was an ordeal. The Houston flight was unable to land because of weather, and the pilot diverted to New Orleans, where we sat on the tarmac for a few hours. Finally cleared to land in Houston around 1:00 a.m., we had long missed our 9:00 pm connection.
The early morning flight the next day got us to San Antonio in time to meet my sister, enjoy some waffles and head to the Texas Hill Country.
When you have a visitor from abroad, you try to offer them a bit of the flavor of true American culture. Some might take him to Texas barbecue, or the rodeo.
I took Alaa to a Central Texas community theater production of Nunsense.
Now that’s Americana.
My friend Melodie, a stellar performer and singer, was in the cast as Sister Robert Anne, the streetwise nun from Brooklyn. We sat in the theater row with my dad, his friend and my sister, as actors in nun’s habits worked the crowd, thanking them for coming to Hoboken for the “fundraiser,” the storyline conceit of this musical comedy. Alaa was a great sport. He whistled at the performances, and shot lots of photos.
And I can guaran-damn-tee you won’t find this cultural opportunity on your average travel itinerary.
The next day, we drove to Austin to check out my graduate alma mater, The University of Texas (And since we began this post on the subject, UT is the first campus where a mass murder took place, when sharpshooter Charles Whitman commandeered the Texas tower and killed 14 people with sniper shots and wounded 31 others. An autopsy discovered Whitman had a brain tumor that likely made him crazy.).
Alaa applied here for an MFA in Film in the same program I attended two decades ago.
We toured the campus and the Radio, TV and Film department and enjoyed a bit of Austin scenery (Mt. Bonnell, Zilker Park and Barton Springs) before heading out.
On the ride back, as we barreled down I-35 from Austin to San Antonio, we took turns playing DJ on my iPod.
I played some of my favorite road trip music: Eno’s Another Green World, a few cuts from Alejandro Escovedo and Lucinda Williams, and, of course, Peter Gabriel.
Alaa played Bjørk and Coldplay, a French song and some of his favorites among the Arabic music I collected while living in Egypt.
As he leafed through the tunes, he stumbled on one and did a double take.
“What the hell is this?” he yelped.
He had found an album by the Cure. And the first cut:
“Killing an Arab!”
“I have to listen to that” and he hit play.
I had some explaining to do.