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RAHMAN, Zia Haider

In the light of what we know

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I had a friend at Princeton, a Russian graduate student. He had a cute message on his answering machine, delivered in his thick Russian accent: Who are you and what do you want? Some people spend a lifetime trying to answer these questions. You, however, have thirty seconds. My father and I chuckled. What happened to him? Gone. My point is that you could think of the people you meet in your life as questions, there to help you figure out who you are, what you’re made of, and what you want. In life, as in our new version of the game, you start off not knowing the answer. It’s only when the particles rub against each other that we figure out their properties.

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The whole thing is too abstract, continued Zafar, this business of our lives standing for something else. All we know is that we don’t want it to stand for nothing. So we dive headlong into becoming heroes, becoming the big swinging dick on Wall Street or the rock star or the hot-shot human rights lawyer. Which is about making our lives stand for something that our intelligence can grasp, saving us from confronting what we fear might be true—or what we would fear if we gave ourselves the chance—namely, that we’re accidental pieces of flesh, mutton without meaning.

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I love America for an idea. The reality is important but ambiguous. In Senegal, there stands a building where slaves were stored before they were sent on to the New World. It was built in the same year as the American Declaration of Independence. I love America for the clear idea behind the cloudy reality. Without the idea, the joys of America would be mere accident, the ephemera tossed up by the hand of fate, to disappear in the wind. And what is that idea? It is the idea of hope, that grand, audacious idea that makes the Britisher blush with embarrassment. It may be an idea not everyone cares for, but it is one I need, I want. I love her for her thought, first, of where you’re going, not where you’re from; for her majestic optimism against the gray resistances of Europe, most pure in Britain, so that in America I feel like—I am—a sexual being.