“Look Out of the Window, Camel Jockey”

Twenty-seven years ago, I arrived in the US, and shortly thereafter, began graduate school at a small technical school in Newark, New Jersey. Once classes picked up speed, I spent increasing amounts of time in our grim library–rather inefficiently if I may say so–struggling to stay awake while finishing my readings and programming assignments. To this end, I would often park myself in one of the many carrels that ran along the walls of the library. Thankfully, some of these were positioned next to windows through which one could cast despairing, if drowsy, glances at the world outside.

It was on one of these desks that I spotted a bit of illegible graffiti in Arabic. Written below it, clearly in response to its provocations, was a blunt and sharp message:

Look out of the window, camel jockey. Do you see any sand? Do you see any camels? No? Then learn how to speak English or fuck off back to where you came from.

My graduate school’s student body was richly populated with international students (like me then). Most of them, unsurprisingly, originated from the usual suspects–India and China/Taiwan–with the rest drawn from the Middle East and other far-flung corners of the world. They were often a source of much perplexity to the college’s administration, which desperately sought their tuition payments, but didn’t quite know how to cater to their visible and vivid presence on campus. Neither, it seemed at times, did the staff, the faculty, or the rest of the local student body; stories of brusque, unhelpful, rude, or racist behavior were all too common. Administrative staff disliked the daily negotiation with unfamiliar accents and incomprehension of bureaucratic procedures; faculty were made irate by the constant, anxious requests for fellowships; local students found the international student’s cliquishness annoying and intimidating.

International students found their own ways to combat this prickly response to their presence; some retreated, as noted, into cliques; yet others into heavy drinking. And some began counting down the days to their graduations and onward movements to jobs or returns back home.

One member of that demographic had decided to lazily doodle on a desktop in the library; perhaps he or she was thinking out loud about distant homes; perhaps a witticism or rude joke or dirty ditty had occurred to them, which needed immediate commitment to concreteness; perhaps, sloppily, a note was being left for a fellow student.

Whatever the reason and rationale, the effort had not gone unnoticed. It hadn’t been appreciated. It had reminded someone of the ever-present imposition of the unfamiliar on the previously familiar; it had evoked prejudices and disdain of all sorts. It provoked thus, a sharp and pungent retort, an exhortation to remove themselves from the premises if they were unable to abide by its rules.

I wasn’t from the Middle East; I didn’t speak Arabic; I was not a “camel jockey.” But I was unnerved anyway. I knew that for those who could and would write graffiti like that, these variations were irrelevant. It certainly kept me on my toes.

7 comments on ““Look Out of the Window, Camel Jockey”

  1. Noor Alam says:

    Its amazing that there are groups of people that pride themselves on this degree of ignorance, it seems so obviously a product of their own lack of self-esteem. Regardless, I can’t imagine that comments like these made for a very comfortable space within which to contemplate your graduate studies.

  2. That’s a powerful memory. Funny how things like that stick with you for such a long time. I would like to say that attitudes toward international students have improved since you went to school, but I can’t honestly say that they have.

  3. In fall 2001 a Saudi college friend got yanked home after two cousins were beaten on their campus in Minnesota. Never saw him again.

    The fact that racism thrives in America is no surprise, the real shame is that it is so prevalent in centers of “higher learning.” I guess the lesson is that education alone is insufficient to break traditions, even if they’re of animus.

    That the understandable frustrations you list are viewed as frustrations at all, instead of opportunities for shared growth and development is also a shame. A lost opportunity. I suppose on the other hand the disconnect there may result from flawed impetuses. What I mean is that maybe the university is seeking international students for marketability, etc instead of genuine diversification (which would include sharing/exchanging/merging of cultures) and some of the students (like most of their American born cohorts) are there for career advancement, etc instead of genuine learning (which again would include sharing/exchanging/merging of cultures).

    Lastly, the graffiti being in Arabic made me initially think it was a native speaker taking on the persona of the “master” to say to her fellow subjugates “this is how it is, wake up, to them you ain’t nothing but a — so get with it or move on with your life.” Not a justification at all, just what occurred to me as a white man who’s probably seen too many movies about slavery and the prison (ah-hem, slavery) experience in America.

    Good read, thanks for the 10 minutes of distraction.

  4. jimscarver says:

    I had dozens of international graduate students under me. I remember well the initial difficulty communicating with them. I could not even tell if the rocking of their heads meant yes or no. It was not just the language, but the totality of cultural differences that made communication challenging. Some spoke Kings English but still left me baffled interpreting their intentions.

    Perhaps it is my own social awkwardness that I think made me a bit more accepting of their confounding differences than many.

  5. […] was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American […]

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