Several years ago, I read an excellent novel called “ House of Sand and Fog,” by Andre Dubus III, which later was made into a movie. Now and then, there is a novel which makes me think about the human condition for days after I finish reading it, and this novel was among the most haunting ones.
“House of Sand and Fog” is about the conflict between two families, one being a lower middle class American woman, a reformed drug addict; the other being a peaceful Iranian family trying to build a good life in America. The two families fight over the same house which the American woman inherited from her father but lost through a back tax problem. The story is told in the first person from each side of the conflict, with the reformed drug addict and the Iranian head of household being the main characters. The ending of the book is tragic, as it shows how two good people can destroy each other as they misunderstand each other’s way of life. They do not realize that beneath the superficial social or cultural differences and barriers, they are indeed very similar at heart.
After reading this novel, as I completely immersed myself in the two main characters who were telling their stories from their point of view, I learned how we have to experience someone’s life to understand how they feel about different issues, how they conduct their lives, or simply how they view the world around them. As in “House of Sand and Fog,” we tend to judge others using our own standards, which are formed by our cultures. We label people “weird” or “strange,” as their habits and customs are not the same as ours. We also judge others based on external factors such as their life circumstances or their physical appearance. We put them in categories, often using condescendent or critical terms such as “Yuppies,” “White trash,” “Free loaders,” or “Rednecks.” We often cross the street when we are alone to avoid certain people, fearing we will be robbed or assaulted. We stay away from certain neighborhoods, fearing again for our safety. Many of us believe we are superior, our lives are impeccable, just to find how some people we thought we knew, due to our cultural bias and assumptions, turn out to be more educated and successful than us. Stereotypes become a normal thought process leading to predictable actions.
Last night, on CNN”s Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, I watched Bourdain’s journey to a village in Ethiopia, where the communities of Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully. They slaughtered two lambs to prepare a feast for Bourdain. They stood in a circle, facing each other, praying in their different ways. Ethiopia is considered less “civilized” than the United States. The villagers in this story, however, understand wisely how peace can be achieved by respecting each other’s beliefs and ways of life. As one of the villagers summed it up beautifully about the people in his village “We dance together, we eat together. When we are together, we are happy.”
Until we all see each other as part of our common community of humanity, with the same goals and hopes, with the same good intentions to live a happy and meaningful life, we will never solve the problem of racism. We will always live in the house of sand and fog.