Lexington's Changing Face(s)
By Jeff Birkenstein
Birkentstein is a phd candidate at uk and is actively involved in the ESL Association

ADINA REZAEI, 28, has lived in Lexington for eight years, and
converted to Islam from Christianity about three years ago.

Last Tuesday, noon, I was in the Newman Center on UK's campus.

Before the service started, a man said that this attack was bad, very bad, and that "they" might start interning people with Middle Eastern backgrounds.

A few weeks ago, I was playing sand volleyball at Kirklevington Park in South Lexington. In one of the adjacent asphalt courts, a group of Muslims was playing volleyball.

At sunset they let the ball bounce away and the boisterous competition halted. In unison, and facing the east, they began to pray, something they must, as devout Muslims, do five times a day, every day.

But this is not about volleyball.

Last Thursday, I went to my second candlelight vigil at Triangle Park.

This one was called together by the UK Muslim Student Association. Someone gave me a candle. I stood there listening to Adina Rezaei, tearfully calling for peace among the world's people as wax burned my hand. Prayers, calls for unity. The typical - all good and necessary - and all heard before.

But this is a very different country now. All people, if legal, are welcome here. We would not, will not, intern anybody. You have heard all the commentators; President Bush, Governor Patton, and religious leaders say that this is not an attack from Islam, but an attack from enemies of peace.

And yet:

The following opinion was printed in the Kentucky Kernel's Sept. 17th edition: "The vast majority of enemy forces live within our borders, work in our government and drive on our highways. Many are undoubtedly American citizens and may even teach our children." (

Flyers were posted on UK's campus that read: "Thousands of dead Americans can't be wrong. U.S. meddling in foreign affairs must be stopped."

On the answering machine of Iranian-bon, American citizen Mohammad Kasmaei: "You can't stay in the U.S."

Thursday night: 300 police in Chicago needed to restrain a flag-waving crowd marching through a Muslim neighborhood.

Laramie, WY: a Muslim woman and her children chased from a Wal-Mart by angry customers.

Mazen Mislmanion's gas station in Fair Haven, MI was fired on Wednesday night.

On an Islamic Center answering machine in Bellevue, WA: "You will all die," and "Get out of this country."

In a recent memo issued from the Director of the Office of International Affairs at UK, Professor Douglas Boyd states: "By now you have heard about the series of terrorist attacks in the U.S. As you can imagine, the tragic events may provoke intense emotion in many Americans. Because of this, it's possible that based on your physical appearance, people could make unfair, harsh, or hurtful comments to you. Please know that this is the voice of pain and ignorance. If you encounter problems, please contact the University's Police Department immediately at 257-1616 or 911 if the situation is an emergency."

Invisibles become visible

I started this essay two months ago.

I needed fresh cactus paddles and banana leaves, dried guajillo chilies, manteca (pig lard), epazote (not dissimilar from cilantro) and, of course, fresh masa de harina (corn meal, sort of) for the tamales. Seemingly, a difficult task in Lexington. My neighbor, Renata, from Veracruz, Mexico, recently taught me how to make what I have long longed to learn: authentic Mexican tamales, with sautéed cactus thrown in for good measure. Soon after, anxious, I was going to try them on my own. I was anxious because, regardless of how they were going to turn out, I was having seven people over to eat them.

But this is not a cooking article and that dinner is long past. And, yes, the tamales turned out fine.

Two months later, I'm anxious again, but not about finding "exotic" food ingredients. Rather, I am anxious about the future.

I don't know if, at press, we are at war, though it seems to be the road we are traveling. But this isn't even really an article about last Tuesday's horrible, unimaginable events, though the connection is impossible to ignore.

No, this started out to be an article about the steadily changing, though often invisible, face of Lexington.

But that's no longer correct either.

It was going to be about the people in Lexington that are pouring in, yes pouring, and changing the very face of the city even while remaining mostly under the radar and out of sight.

(Though Senator Jim Bunning stereotyped migrant farm workers to prey on our collective fear in order to help his election campaign and it worked.)

Last Tuesday, when planes swooped deliberately from the sky as we watched live, while commentators voiced what so many of us thought: it seems like a movie.

Everything is changed.

And, ironically, those who were largely invisible just a few days ago are suddenly pushed to the forefront.

They are visible, because, at a glance, they seem different. Their skins are a rainbow of colors; perhaps they wear their facial hair differently or cover their heads.

They eat different foods and, aside from the ubiquitous Wal-Mart - which, in true capitalist fashion has an excellent selection of tortillas - they shop at different stores in order to find the foods they are familiar with from their native country. They pray in different ways. They speak all the languages of the globe. They cannot be easily grouped by any particular category, save one: for so many of us, they appear as "Other." And herein lies the danger.

Names and Faces

I would like to introduce you to a few of the people that make up Lexington's changing face, faces which may perhaps be unfamiliar now but will not be in the coming decade - or tomorrow - here in Lexington and across the nation.

Bob Woodward and many others have wondered aloud: who are we to attack, for our enemy is invisible? But, in a sudden irony, because of the events last Tuesday, many of our fellow Lexingtonians who had been invisible because of their wonderful differences, their otherness, may now be dangerously visible.

We must decide what we want our country to be. What the man in that church service did not understand is that there is no "they." There is only "you." Things do not happen magically in this country. Things happen because you allow or don't allow or participate or don't participate in them.

ADINA REZAEI, 28, has lived in Lexington for eight years, and converted to Islam from Christianity about three years ago.

"[A few years ago] I met some Muslims and we talked a little comparative religion and I'd start reading a little more on Islam because I respected things just in their actions, their goodness in general, these guys, these men. And then I'd read [the Koran] and think, and I would just notice things, it's almost like a change in mentality. . .

"Officially, you bear witness, it's called shahada. You basically have a couple witnesses and you testify there is only one God, that is Allah, Allah is just the Arabic word for God. That Mohammed is the prophet, the servant of God... and that what Mohammed said is actually a message from God. Those are the basics . . .

"[My parents] have been very supportive. They don't like Islam practiced in their home. That's fine. I visit them after I pray and I pray right when I get home. You know, I work out my times to go see them. But they've been wonderful, as far as how they feel, 'We don't like it, we love you.' You know, it's so hard to watch your parents when they have tears in their eyes.

"I didn't marry for religion which is, I know, a lot of people's initial [impression]. Now, I know a lot of women [who] have converted when they married but one of the reasons why they like their husbands is because, the way they explain it to me, is because they are... there's something about them... they're just respectful and they're nice and their genuine and they want to get to know [their wives] more. And then [the wives] learn a little bit more about the religion. And so, from what I've spoken about with several friends, it's that attraction that goes with them, it's the behavior from their religion that makes them interested. But it's not like they fall in love with this guy and then [say] 'OK, I'll convert.'

"Hijab. Scarf. Veil. You can call it anything you want. It's a very misunderstood concept. And we can go back to the Old Testament, we can go back to the New Testament. And we can talk about women in their veils. It's just, why do women have to wear shirts and men don't? You know... the bottom line is modesty. It comes down to, in your house, with your husband, especially, you can be as sexual as you want. You're supposed to please each other sexually... Both partners are supposed to be satisfied. Your beauty is for your husband. We love to flirt. So it's a protection for us to not put ourselves in those positions where we're going to try and get men's attention. For men's sake, it's so that they don't go to their office around women that look good, they smell good, their hair is perfect and then they go home to a wife who's been sitting in a house with three kids and, you know, when you deal with kids, who cares what your hair looks like? So, it's the idea that a man should be attracted to his wife, not every woman that he sees around him. And our focus should be on our husbands, not on every man that we see."

SHAILENDRA CHALASANI, 26, from Andhara Pradesh, India. After studying for several years in Russia, he came to the University of Kentucky four years ago to pursue a Computer Science degree.

"I was in Russia but I flunked out and the US gave me an opportunity to get back in. I was feeling bad that I was going to drop out and I didn't feel like studying anymore [in Russia], because I couldn't understand anything in class... I didn't expect the U.S. Consulate to give me a visa. I [thought there was a] 90 percent [chance] I'm not going to get it but I went there and applied and they didn't ask me any questions. He just said 'OK, here's your visa.' I'm lucky. Just the one in front of me was turned down. I don't know [why I got a visa]. I have no idea. I think it's sheer luck

"One thing," he observes in the way of cultural differences "[there are] no people on the street in Lexington. [In India] you have human interaction everywhere. Another thing is there are Indians. I mean, I'm an Indian. Here it's, like, different. Now I'm kind of adjusted . . .

"When [last Tuesday's attack] started all the international students I know, they went and started donating blood and they were calling up their American friends saying, 'I'm sorry to hear this.' America has given me a chance. And as long as I am here I am part of it. What happened to America is something that happened to me, too. As long as I'm here it's my country, too.

"If you talk about Gandhi's philosophy, it was long term. He didn't do something which had immediate effects. But most of the people don't have this kind of thing - you do something now it might take a little bit of time but you will see the after-effects of what you're doing now. That comes with a deeper understanding Most of the politics that run the world today, it's basically instant. People want to be at peace instantly and Gandhi's way of non-violence - it can be used! [but it] will take a long time."

That the nation's, as well as Lexington's, ethnic, religious, and cultural makeup is changing is fact. But the question is, then, is it good, bad or other?

I recently spent three weeks in Ireland. A big issue facing the Irish is a skilled-labor shortage. Somewhere amidst all of the anti-Bush articles (all of Europe was writing anti-Bush articles - until last Tuesday, that is), there were articles addressing their labor problem. Some people think they know how to solve this. There are, after all, no shortage of skilled workers on the planet. The problem for Ireland is that most of them are not Irish. Thus, one possible solution is to bring in skilled, non-Irish workers quickly and in substantial numbers through relaxed immigration procedures. The theory continues that this will ultimately help Ireland economically as well as, a few dare to suggest, help diversify Ireland's homogenous ethnic landscape.

However, at least one graffiti artist that I had the good fortune to read, painted this rejoinder: "Keep Ireland white." This was on a wall in the trendy, bohemian Temple Bar area in Dublin. Clearly, this graffiti author would not agree with the above proposal. But why? Well, the details are vast, but it is worth considering in that it illuminates some of the conflict presently facing the U.S.

Recently, Bush has significantly increased the quota of J-1 visas for foreign-skilled workers. The US tends to see the benefit of skilled (and unskilled) foreign help. Though this will increase the amount of foreigners in our country, this is, despite all the different forms of xenophobia over the years, the exact history of our country.

What do the people that I have introduced you to want? Well, they don't think as a group. They want a myriad of things. You ask them. I can't tell you.

What do you want for Lexington and the U.S.? And why do you want that?

Yes, we have lots of problems, but this is a great country because, simply, theoretically anyone on the planet can be an American.

This is not true of any other country that I know of.

My wife is from Spain. We might move there. Who knows if we'll stay; the job opportunities are not as good. But if I live there the rest of my life, I will not become "Spanish." True, I could renounce my U.S. citizenship and take a Spanish passport, but to the people in Spain I would just be an American with a Spanish passport. There would be no prejudice against me, but the difference is significant.

To be Spanish is an ethnicity. To be an American - despite what many ignorant Americans think - is not. "American" is an idea, an idea that we are still developing, an idea that we need not look alike, talk alike, think alike, smell alike, pray alike, or, thank God, eat alike.

It is not an idea, nor an ideal, defined by hate.

Jeff Birkenstein is getting an MA in English as a Second Language and a Ph.D. in Literature at UK. Last summer, he married fellow UK teacher Maria, from Spain, and he hopes to become an expatriate ASAP, preferably an ex-pat sitting on the Mediterranean, reading books and eating paella.


According to Census 2000, 13.3 million immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 90s, which is 44 percent of the nation's immigrants. 1 in 5 students now speaks a language other than English in the home. In Fayette County, things are changing, too. According to the Census, Fayette County is, as you might suspect, still overwhelmingly white (81 percent; 84.5 percent in 1990). Hispanics, however, have increased dramatically to 3.3 percent (1.1 percent in 1990). Asians: 2.5 percent (1.6 percent in 1990). And there are other changes we are still learning to understand. In Census 2000, 1.6 percent of Fayette County residents identified themselves as members of two or more ethnic backgrounds, a category that didn't even exist in 1990. Currently, the U.S. is 69.2 percent white. National Geographic predicts that by 2050 whites will be 52.8 percent of the U.S. population. -JB

What are we??

What is white, or Caucasian, anyway?

My wife is from Spain. In Europe, she does not consider herself white or non-white. She considers herself a Spaniard. But, here, obsessed as we are with color - though we pride ourselves on an as yet unrealized universal acceptance - Maria had to pick a box on the Census. And on the UK application form. Would it be white? Or White, non-Hispanic? How about Other?

I must admit that for the first time, I honestly didn't know how to answer the Census "race" question for myself. Let's assume that with German ancestry on all sides (both parents of both parents), this means that I am white. OK. All right, fine, my Mom's father was born in Prussia. Just a detail, as Prussia didn't last past World War I and, besides, they were German settlers.

So I am white.

To look at me is to see me as just another white American.

But now, the rub. Three of my four grandparents (all but my mother's mother) were Jewish.

How can I honestly consider myself white? Had I lived back then, in Germany, I would have been seen as an inferior race and exterminated. Fortunately, my grandparents on my mother's side left Germany in '35 and thus I am here today.

But the Germans weren't the first to target Jews, so clearly whatever I am, I am not the dominant culture of white. So could it be that white is not a reference to the level of pigmentation in my skin, but something else altogether?

Certainly our government does not use the same racial criterion that the Nazis did. But the problem of genuine classification remains. I have a friend, Shailendra, from India. His skin color is darker than most African Americans. But most people would not describe him with the generic term of "black."

No, he would be, and is, called Indian, though not native American, of course, but Indian from the sub-continent of India. So, what is white again? Is it those people of Irish stock, many of whom have skin that is whiter than white?

They were once not so affectionately known as the "niggers of Europe," further suggesting that skin color may not be the key factor involved.

In 1790, the U.S. passed its first naturalization act, something reserved for "aliens being free white persons."

As Ellis Cose wrote in Newsweek (September 18, 2000), "America's cult of whiteness, after all, was never just about skin color, hair texture and other physical traits. It was about where the line was drawn between those who could be admitted into the mainstream and those who could not."

Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the U.S. was attacked, apparently without warning. During the past week, we have all heard the comparisons: "this generation's Pearl Harbor." And we have heard also the superlatives: this is "more devastating" than Pearl Harbor. In Hawaii, it was military against military. Last Tuesday, no armies were in involved. No navy, no air force, no soldiers. The enemies, wraith-like, descended on the innocents from the clear, blue sky.

In early '42 FDR authorized the internment of 41,000 issei, first-generation aliens, and 72,000 nisei, second-generation U.S. citizens. This, despite the fact that not a single instance of "disloyalty" was ever recorded. No people of German or Italian origin were so detained.