Sunday, July 22, 2007

One of the Holy Land Foundation [Terrorist financing] Gentlemen

(Please scroll down to post of July 15 for background information about the trial.)

Two men meet, shake hands, sit opposite each other at (breakfast) table.

We have met once before, about a week ago (at a Town Meeting about the Holy Land Foundation Trial), briefly, and exchanged telephone numbers. We have talked by telephone once. Now we are about the difficult business of getting acquainted. Some apprehension gathers in the air above the table between us. Beginning this conversation—this conversation for which we have no stated purpose—is at first awkward, but not for long.

Shukri. Shukri Baker is not a tall man. He is not thin, but not large. Compact. Balding with black slightly greying hair. A full beard cropped short, very short. Mostly gray. He’s a pleasant-looking fellow, energetic and alert. Not dramatic or frivolous. Very much alive, but somehow reticent. We order coffee. Middle Eastern. He jokes, “I don’t even know there is American coffee.” He explains that he needs strong coffee, not to wake up but to give his medication a kick start to ward off a migraine. And then we talk, engage in conversation, and I immediately sense his intelligence, his forthrightness.

(Shukri Baker before stress grayed his beard)
The conversation feels to me to be contrived at first. He has no hesitation about explaining his situation to me, but I already know a great deal about his situation. I’ve attended meetings about his situation. I’ve talked with many of his friends. We’ve read about him in the papers. We saw him on Dallas TV news the day he was arrested three years ago. But sitting in this restaurant—described by the Dallas Morning News as “a taste of old Beirut” in a story clipped and mounted on the wall, with hookahs in a line on the counter—sitting here listening to him talk is not real, but surreal, “overly” real. How did I come to be here, sitting at breakfast with a man whose entire life is about to be made public in a way designed to humiliate and destroy him? And how did he come to be here. “Where were you born?” I was not prepared for his answer. “Brazil.” His father, a Palestinian of the Diaspora met his mother when he fled to Brazil.

Shukri’s deference is, I decide, at least partly wariness. He probably wonders who I am. Why is this strange man of white European descent interested in me, he has every reason to wonder. I think he’s got guts just to be here. His friends may have told him I’m OK, trustworthy, on his side. But he has to find that out for himself. He seems at first to be one of those people who does not look others in the eye when he talks to them. But later I find out that isn’t true. He’s a bit wary. That’s all. And—a mutual friend who knows him well says he's not shy—he’s deferential, conerned about the feelings of others. We talk. His friend, another mutual acquaintance, joins us. We talk and talk about the trial, about the media distortions, about the absurdity of the charges he and his colleagues are facing. He’s surprised to find a non-Muslim who knows about his situation. We’re beginning to make eye contact, to be comfortable, even making jokes.

But I want to know. No one has written about it. So I ask him. “How has all of this affected your family?” His eyes, until now hard to read, intensify to reveal his anguish—and his strength. His wife. His wife has excruciating constant pain, pain for which the doctors can find no physical explanation. He says, “We know what causes it. But there is no way to treat it. There is nothing physically wrong.” Himself. How impossible his situation is. “I have always been the person who helped people, the person who could respond to tragedy, the person people looked to for assistance in times of trouble. Now I need help. I have nothing. My friends support me.” He looks over his glasses, his eyes seeming to plead, to plead for understanding of his dismay. He is grateful for his friends, for his friend beside him and all of those who have supported him and his colleagues through this real (not “surreal,” but oppressively real) experience of devastation.

His daughter. His greatest anguish is for his daughter. She is twenty now. She has Cystic Fibrosis and was in the hospital the day Shukri and his colleagues were arrested. Five days. Five days without even the customary one phone call from prison. Five days without word about her condition. And now they wait. Wait to know what the outcome of the trial will be. Will he be taken away at the time his daughter most needs him, when her body is shutting down in the slow destruction of her incurable disease? Shukri shows no anger. He seems to be free of anger or bitterness or resentment (OK, he may have a little resentment that one of the men eavesdropping on him and listening to every conversation he had for years—even conversations with his daughter’s doctors—one of these men received a plaque from Shukri’s community, from Shukri himself, commending his service to the community, even while he was forging a case where there was none). But Shukri’s sadness does not seem to turn to anger.

Make no mistake. He understands his position completely. He understands his situation to be absurd, untenable, unjust, and hard. But he seems (to this new acquaintance) to be a man of peace. A gentle man. A better man than the system of justice that has him in its power.