Community

Seattle's Underground Railroad by Jahan Sharif

Seattle at dusk

Seattle at dusk

Seattle is what I imagine happens when you put white intellectuals, composting, unlimited money, and nature into the same place. If you fall into one of those buckets, life can be pretty good here. If you don’t, things can be a bit trickier-- at least for me it was.

I don’t live in Seattle, but I still felt “the Seattle Freeze.” The Seattle Freeze is how outsiders and transplants describe the experience of making friends in this city. It’s the feeling you get when you know that no matter how close you might feel to this person, you’re probably never getting a dinner or party invitation. It’s Drake singing “No New Friends,” but to the extreme.

I described this experience to a new friend, Annette, last week over steamed soup dumplings and fried pork buns in Seattle’s International District— formerly known as Chinatown. As I ranted about my confusion, she nodded with a knowing, but empathic, smile. Finally, I relented; and in a soothing tone, she said something like, “You’re not crazy. What you’re feeling is actually happening.”

Anette is an archivist working to collect, preserve, and share Seattle’s rich Asian history by documenting and contextualizing oral histories. It’s a fascinating and hugely important project. She’s been doing this work since returning to Seattle about 11 years ago, after being away for about as long to study and teach.

Anette is a third-generation Seattleite, but apparently that didn’t make it any easier for her to find a Seattle tribe when she moved back.

“I had basically the same experience when I moved back.” She told me, “Except it’s worse, because… you know… I grew up here! I’m supposed to already know what to do!”

Through her archival work, Anette connected with one of the historical societies, and there she found her vibrant community. In hearing how Anette found her people, I remembered an experience from that morning:

Before lunch, I visited Efrem at his coffeeshop, Boon Boona, outside of Seattle. (You might remember that I interviewed Efrem for my eighth post: Coffee, Culture, and Nipsey Hussle — Building Community Through Entrepreneurship.) I arrived around 10am and the place was packed; and, apparently it had been so from the moment they opened. As I scanned the room, I noticed something remarkable: There were hardly any white people!

It seemed like practically every POC was represented, with maybe 2 white people in the whole place. This is the first time I’d ever seen something like this in Seattle— and frankly, I couldn’t stop staring!

I figured I’d try to explore my observation with the barista. I made small talk with her by asking about her shirt? It said “Honor Indigenous Lands. Kill the Black Snake.” She said that she bought it from the owners of another POC owned coffee shop that was raising funds for an educational program that would be about the history of land that they were on. She also recommended I check them out, because “they’re great peeps and we’ve got to support them.”

I relayed the story to Efrem and he co-signed it, and then added, “Did you notice that we serve beer now? It’s from a local brewery nearby— they’re part of the fam too, you know?” I certainly did know.

As I was telling Anette this story, a comparison to the Underground Railroad popped into my head. Finding community as a non-white person was kind of like traveling the Underground Railroad ONLY (<— did you see that? ONLY.) in the sense that you needed to know where the safe houses were in order to get to where you were going. For enslaved people it was to the North, for POC Seattleites it was finding other POC Seattleites!

Boon Boona, like the community of preservationists, is a metaphorical safe house. They attract people who value these connections, and they know where the other metaphorical safe houses are. Through this informal network-- this community-- history is preserved, culture is transferred, values are reinforced, and knowledge is spread. Anette agreed. She added that it’s easy to forget that people existed in this city, and on this land, for a long time before Microsoft and Amazon showed up. And they didn’t last this long by accident. However, if we-- the current beneficiaries of their efforts-- don’t do the work to record and teach it, this history will be suppressed, or even erased. And that is the true danger.

Seattle is as strange a place as any other. But this trip, I was able to see it with a new lens, and, thanks to Anette, her fellow preservationists, Efrem, and Boon Boona I received a new lesson: Don’t let whatever’s happening now, erase what came before. Every thing, every place, and every person has a backstory. And to understand why they’re here and where they’re trying to go, you have to also understand where they came from.

Or as Baldwin (who borrowed from Shakespeare said), “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Seattle, WA, USA
July 2019

5 Steps to Proactive Kindness by Jahan Sharif

Photo by, Ghazal Sheei

Photo by, Ghazal Sheei

Hi Friends!

This week, I listened to a podcast where the guest complained about how people weren't "proactively kind" anymore. She went on to say that people rarely did things for the sole purpose of bringing happiness to another person. I thought this observiation was curious, and so I polled a few friends to see what they thought about it. Much to my surprise, many people agreed with her! Since they thought this was a problem and that they'd like for things to be different, I asked them why they didn't make like Ghandi and #BeTheChange?! 

The short answer: They didn't know how. 

I'll admit, my first reaction to this answer was that it was nonsense. But as I had more conversations, I realized that the issue wasn't that people didn't know how to be kind, it was that they didn't know where or how to initiate the process so they could show that kindness, proactively.

And so for this week's Jaja, my official 5-step guide for being proactively kind!

It’s very simple:

  1. Think about one specific person.

  2. Think about one specific experience that has made that person genuinely smile.

  3. Think about what you could do to cause that person to smile.

  4. Do it.

  5. Repeat.

Ex.

  1. Tania.

  2. Surprise invitations to catch up over tea.

  3. Call her and invite her to tea.

  4. Makes call.

  5. Thinks of Tania again, or of another person.

Moral of the story: Think. Act. Repeat

Ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it!

Los Angeles, California, USA
June 2019

Jesse Morton -- Former Al-Qaeda Recruiter on the Indisputable Power of Networks by Jahan Sharif

Jesse Morton

Jesse Morton

How does someone who traces his family lineage to Plymouth Rock, become the most prolific Al-Qaeda recruiter in history? And then, how does he come back from it?

It’s a story that’s as riveting as it is insightful; made all the more unbelievable by the fact that it actually happened.

This week, I spoke with Jesse Morton— the man who founded the extremist and propagandist organization Revolution Muslim. At its height, officials say that at least half of all of the terror plots disrupted in the English-speaking world were connected to Jesse and his organization. He tells me how he got there, why he did it, and how he’s using those same tools now toward positive ends.

He joined me by phone from Jordan.


Five Takeaways from my Conversation with Jesse

What does it mean to be “radicalized”?

“So when we look at radicals, they’re people who have particular grievances against whatever order— it might be a nationstate, a transnational institution, the European Union or something along those lines— they have a perception of the world that it is unjust and it needs to be torn down and restructured in a different manner.”

“The ends justifying the means is incredibly crucial to distinguishing between radicalization as an academic and in the current context.” Jesse tells the story of how when he was a “jihadist, propagandist, and recruiter” he would oftentimes conflate the struggle of Al-Qaeda to the United States today, with the United States’s struggle against the British in the Revolutionary War. He says that because he saw things without nuance, he failed to see the fact that the Founding Fathers never called for people in England to rise up and kill civilians to advance their cause. All he saw was the American’s engaging in violence to fight the Empire.

And so, the logic of using “violent means to justify a non-violent end” is a demarcating factor between someone who is frustrated and someone who is susceptible to violent extremism.

Jesse as Younus Abdullah Muhammed preaching on the streets of New York City

Jesse as Younus Abdullah Muhammed preaching on the streets of New York City

How does radicalization become violent extremism?

Jesse stresses the importance of trauma in making someone vulnerable to radicalization.

“What we’re learning more and more in situations where radicalization leads to violent extremism is that there’s oftentimes a traumatized individual that is lured by a broader movement that synthesizes or merges their identity with that of the movement, because they don’t have an ability to function on their own and they need that sense of community. There are different movements and different ideologies, and the fascinating thing is that when you dissect and pick them apart, they’re relatively the same.

One of the best ways to display that is with regards to the way that we see this relationship between jihadism and far right wing extremism, currently. So, we have the jihadists that proclaim the United States is a crusader force allied with the Zionists controlling Israel, and they have declared war with the Muslims at large. It’s the same narrative that’s utilized by far right wing extremists. They use the term “Zionist Occupied Government” that American foreign policy is controlled by Zionists. The far right wing extremists despise globalization, they despise the “New World Order” in the same way that jihadists do. They all call to a focused task: Isis calls to its caliphate, the White Nationalists call to an era when there was slavery and there was no such thing as having to appease liberal or democratic norms— back to an era of authoritarianism and conquest of the strong and the powerful. It’s very very similar. They’re not that different when you look at the core fundamentals.”

TL:DR (Too long; didn’t read): Whether or not someone who might be radicalized actually engages in violent extremism, has a lot to do with the norms and expectations of the movement (network) they’re part of.

What was the key to Jesse’s de-radicalization?

Jesse as Younus Abdullah Muhammed on CNN

Jesse as Younus Abdullah Muhammed on CNN

Jesse is a case study in radicalization. He was severely mentally, physically, and emotionally abused by his mother growing up, and ran away from home when he was 16. He joined a group of hippies and toured with the Grateful Dead for 3 years, soaking up “anything that would give me some sort of belonging and stability.” He is what the intelligence community calls a “seeker.” During a stint in jail, Jesse read The Autobiography of Malcom X. The book resonated with him, and he converted to Islam. During a separate stay in jail, he met a man who was a fighter for the Afghan Taliban during the Soviet Jihad. This man taught him how to be a real Muslim, and gave him a new name: Younus Abdullah Muhammed. A year later, 9/11 happened and Jesse interpreted it as the beginning of the war between Muslims and the West.

Soon, Jesse founded Revolution Muslim—an organization that over the next few years, would become the number one tool for recruiting to the radical Islamist cause in the world. After threatening the lives of the creators of South Park, Jesse (still living as Younus Abdullah Muhammed) fled to Morocco where he was arrested in 2011.

There were a number of factors that came together to help Jesse along his journey to de-radicalization.

  • Age: He was now in his early 30s.

  • Separation from the jihadi network: By being forced to lay low in Morocco, Jesse didn’t have the same type of regular exposure to other jihadists like when he was living in America.

  • Exposure to young people: The Arab Spring happened while Jesse was in Morocco. He talks about the conversations he had with the young people he was tutoring, and was able to understand what they wanted from life, and how his work might be misguided.

  • Meeting an idol: While imprisoned in Morocco, Jesse met a Jihadi whose speeches he used to translate. The man counseled him to think about “throwing his life away for this cause.”

  • Empathy, Humanity, Dignity, and Respect: After Jesse’s arrest, a female FBI agent began working with him. She treated him with dignity, respect, and humanity. In fact, Jesse says that she “re-humanized” him. Over time, they established a sort of professional relationship, in which he became an informant for the FBI. Because of his cooperation, prosecutors advocated for a reduction in his original 11.5 year sentence, which was granted.

  • Therapy: Jesse has gone to hundreds of hours of therapy to better understand his trauma and the role it plays in his life.

Networks are the key to combating extremist ideology and influencing behavior

Jesse, along with Mitch Silber, the former Director of Intelligence Analysis at the NYPD, have co-founded Parallel Networks— an organization that establishes a space for community among former extremists by providing the same meaning, significance, and purpose offered by recruiters for violent extremism, but with a positive end goal.

“Parallel Network is based upon the philosophy that we live in a world of networks. And it is from our network that we synthesize and create our individual identities— our sort of ‘social self’. And it is that ‘social self’ that can become part of a collective consciousness depending upon what network we belong to. And so we’re trying to build a parallel network that parallels the current situation we have in our world— one of polarization, one of hate, one of extremism, and resentment of the other. And our problem that we face, and that we perceive as the root cause for the perpetuation of this age of extremism, is the fact that in a polarized society we always look at the other as the enemy. But as Einstein said, you can’t address a problem at the level of consciousness that created it.

And one thing that we’ve realized from working with extremists is that at the end of the day, it’s all about idenity and it’s all about finding a purpose, meaning, significance, camaraderie, and community. And the same way I can tell an individual to go blow himself up for the cause, I can tell a young kid ‘sacrifice yourself and do something with your life that is incredibly useful and rewarding, but that also gives you a community to belong to.”

Jesse today

Jesse today

What we can do right now to combat the trends of division in our own country

“We need to understand that when we look at the other, we have to have empathy. We’re divided. We’re united on somethings, but Americans are divided. We’re black and white. Democracies don’t work under black and white perspectives. When you start to fight and argue in an “us and them” realm, you cannot have an educated citizenry that can make democracies flourish. We have to elevate our consciousness. We have to talk to people that we disagree with. So if I’m a liberal or democratic, I have to reach out to people on the Republican aisle— be able to put myself in their shoes. Listen. Not try to instruct or preach. And we have to come up with ways where just in the same ways Evangelical Christians have never met Muslims, and therefore they hate Muslims until they meet, we have to do the same with our politics right now. We have to talk. We have to promote the idea of engagement with the other. Communicate with people who might seem to be your enemy. Open up safe spaces, where people can share how they really feel, so we can bridge some of those divides.


Additional Information, Resources, and Links

Parallel Networks: http://www.pnetworks.org/

Light Upon Light: http://www.LightUponLight.online

VIDEO: Combating Violent Extremism

VIDEO: The Unmaking of an Extremist

REPORT: NYPD vs. Revolution Muslim: The Inside Story of the Defeat of a Local Radicalization Hub

Los Angeles, CA, USA
April 2019

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The Unintended Consequences of Buying a Rolex by Jahan Sharif

A typical weekend at Maru— neighbors, caffeine, and puppies.

A typical weekend at Maru— neighbors, caffeine, and puppies.

So I'm sitting there, at Maru, telling a friend of mine about why I bought my watch. We got onto the topic because we were discussing the frustrations we have that come from dealing with the assumptions people make about you because of your appearance or presentation. I assure you, I am not rich; but, I wear a Rolex. 

I don't know where my interest in luxury fashion came from, as nobody in my family or immediate circle growing up had a particular affinity for luxury, and they certainly placed no importance on fashion! But for reasons that are not important now, what could have been a passing impulse turned into a legitimate pursuit to try to understand why certain things justified higher prices.

At 11 years old, I made my first luxury purchase— a wallet from the Versace outlet at Woodbury Commons, in New Jersey. It was an unremarkable brown leather bifold with the only exterior branding being a tiny metal Medusa head. I don't know why I chose it, but I remember being certain that it was what I wanted. I had with me about $200-- roughly my entire net worth-- which I had saved up from the previous few birthdays and Christmases. The wallet cost about $190 with tax.

Every hour, a coach-sized shuttle bus from New York City brings foreign tourists to the mall. So, I wasn't surprised when the salesperson didn't react to me, a random young kid, buying a Versace wallet in cash. The reaction came from my dad who was, in hindsight very reasonably, a little shocked and confused as to why I was buying a luxury anything! Never mind that I had nothing to put in my new wallet, I loved it and I was happy to own it. 

Eventually, I did have money and cards to put in it, and it served me well for almost six years, which is when I upgraded to a Prada.

This is the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí walking his anteater in Paris. At first, this is what I felt like wearing my Rolex.

This is the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí walking his anteater in Paris. At first, this is what I felt like wearing my Rolex.

But this story isn't about a wallet, it's about a watch. And, my move to watches happened after luxury clothes became somewhat less novel. (It might be the "perfect" t-shirt, but it's still a t-shirt.) Watches had a different appeal to me, because with cellphones around they serve almost no essential purpose. So why are they still important? Status, sentimentality, and fashion aside there is something to be said for an object that is almost entirely made by hand and can perform a specific set of functions perfectly... for forever. Other than a house, do you own anything that you can reasonably expect to outlast you? 

It took me about six years to save for an entry level luxury watch ($5,000-$8,500). And after a lot of research, I settled on the Rolex Explorer (ref. 214270). It is the great-great-great-great-grandchild of the Rolex that Sir Edmund Hillary wore as he, along with his expedition parter Tenzing Norgay, became the first people to successfully summit Mount Everest in 1953. (You can learn more about it here.) 

But, just because I knew which watch I wanted to buy, doesn't mean that I could just walk into a store and pick one up. The watch is made in very limited quantities, because it's not that popular. The Explorer is intended for people who know its history, or for whatever reason, understand why this simple piece that can only tell time, is special. It took me a full year to track one down, and when I finally had it in my hands, I hesitated.

Me, the precious Lucy, and my watch.

Me, the precious Lucy, and my watch.

How could I, a then-26 year old with barely a job let alone job security, really justify a purchase that took me almost six years to save for? Then my mom, who was with me, reminded me of something: Trump's recent election. And I quote, "The man has bankrupted everything he's ever touched. Who knows what's going to happen to the value of your cash in a few years. You'll always be able to sell a Rolex." That insight, along with a special zero interest holiday financing offer, allowed me to walk confidently out of the store with the most gratifying purchase I've ever made.

That was about two years ago, and it turns out that that purchase was also one of my most important. Los Angeles is a notoriously lonely city. It is really hard— like really hard— to meet people here. There’s no central district, no mechanism that forces people to be aware of each other (like New York City’s subway), and it’s very segregated. In many ways, LA is like a collection of gated communities— you can’t get inside if you don’t already know someone. But there are a few places where you can meet random people and hope for the best: Cafes and Uber Pools. The challenge is finding that little piece of common ground that can be used to justify starting a conversation.

I speak and write often about my favorite coffee shop in Los Angeles, Maru. Yes, it has the best coffee in LA. Yes, they have the best staff in LA. Yes, they have the best location in LA. But Maru is important to me, because it was the gateway into what has become my vibrant, loving, and supportive community of neighbors and friends in this city. And it all started one typical Spring day in 2017, when I interrupted an elegant man minding his business, to let him know that we were wearing the same watch.

Los Angeles, California, USA
February 2019

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Vol. 5 -- Jaja in LALA by Jahan Sharif

This essay was originally published March 12, 2018.

We document to preserve; and yet, I am astonished at how quickly the memories fade. Sights that once brimmed with details so precise that I could paint a hologram in my mind, have morphed into a hazy field of pixels-- an image enlarged to the point of distortion.

Occasionally though, I’ll swipe past a photo that prompts a flashback. I’m thinking of my visit to Wat Pho, the reclining buddha in Bangkok. It’s around the corner from the Grand Palace, the historic home of the Thai royal family. Unfortunately, it has become a tourist attraction so overrun with people that I felt like I was in some tragic ancient Disney World.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.

I see the image and remember the struggle I went through to capture the size of the beast-- my little head poking out of the bottom edge of the frame while the lounging buddha, clad in gold, loomed enormously overhead. And then, how could I forget the man who, while I was taking my photo, leaned the weight of his whole body into me like I was a wall so he could take the same picture! I had to laugh at the whole situation, especially after I tapped him on the top of his head and offended him. (Oh? You’re mad?!)

I wonder, especially now that I’m home and talking about my trip with my friends, if that guy will choose to include this tidbit in his telling of the story? I doubt it. But I do think about the stories he, and the thousands of others, will tell.

I reread the essays I wrote to you to see how they resonate with me now that I’ve been back for a few weeks. As I read them, I remembered a quote I came across a while ago by the composer John Cage. He said, “It is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature, and we must act as though people are good.”

A trust in the goodness of humans allowed everything you read about, and more, to happen. From the exciting adventures to find sex shows, to the lady who grabbed us by the hand and helped us cross the street. None of it would have happened had I not trusted strangers.

Andy, me, and the lady who told us about the Sansab ferry and helped us to cross the street in Bangkok, Thailand.

Andy, me, and the lady who told us about the Sansab ferry and helped us to cross the street in Bangkok, Thailand.

It is hard to remember now, but there was a time when both Andy and Vicool (and you) were strangers to me. However, when life brought us into vibrant and unexpected connection, we chose to explore the possibility of more. And why? Because despite the knowledge that everyone has the capacity to do wrong, we trusted that the other person would do right. We gave each other the benefit of the doubt, and became friends.

Vicool and me sharing a laugh over coffee in Bangkok.

Vicool and me sharing a laugh over coffee in Bangkok.

When Vicool moved to Bangkok last year, it ceased to be just another name on a map or just a place for expats to escape to. When Vicool moved to Bangkok last year, it stopped being a city where 9 million people lived, and became a city where just one person lives. The same is true for Andy in Hong Kong, Ilija in Kigali, and for you wherever you might find yourself reading this right now. Life is about people, connection, and relationships. So when life threw an ocean between Vicool and me, we simply learned to swim.

Seventy years ago, in the thick of WWII, the poet, thinker, and writer Henry Beston wrote, “There are moments in which melodrama becomes life, and this is one of them.” The line vibrates again with eerie relevance. Like then, the world today seems intent on finding ways for us to cleave instead of to converge. But our saving grace against this wave of cultural destruction comes from the power of community, which says, “I may not know you, but I see you— and I’ve got your back.” It is recognizing ourselves in each other, and then allowing life to thrust confidently outward into the world.

On the tram in Hong Kong moments before I met Jenny.

On the tram in Hong Kong moments before I met Jenny.

We document to preserve; and yet, I am astonished at how quickly the memories fade-- but the feelings do not. When someone makes you feel, they become part of you. I think that’s why this trip for me has been so incredible. It’s not just the things I did or the sights I saw, it’s the people-- the ones I shared with you, and the dozens I didn’t. I wanted to document, but how? Feelings can’t be documented in words nor in images. Feelings are documented through actions. The people I met on this trip made me feel so rich with life that I was driven to share them with you. And their stories, through my words, inspired so many of you to write back. Through that interaction, we established connection and fostered community. Having you all-- my community-- along with me on this journey amplified this experience in ways that I could never have anticipated. And so, for this final installment of #JajaInAsia, I have nothing left to say, but thank you.

Until the next one! <3

Jahan

Los Angeles, California, USA
March 12, 2018

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