Epiphany in Appalachia

I SIT HERE in the middle of the night in Appalachia, in fulfillment of a commitment made long ago to one dear.

Appalachia is among the resource-richest places on earth, long one of the poorest, and certainly one of the most maligned and misunderstood cultures in America. It is more than ironic how these things go together, the natural wealth of a land, poverty of a place, and distorted portrayal of a people.

That is, in fact, exactly the mechanism for how such impossibly contradictory juxtapositions go down. No one should know this better than Muslims, though I am afraid we don’t anymore. Or we don’t know how to gather that intuition together in a big ball, grasp it, form it into crystalline words, and roll it back as undisputed truth and call out the world.

I didn’t fly here. I drove down from the north. You have to let me describe this. The landscape as you approach is absolutely stunning. Ascending up out of the plains, you enter the Bluegrass Region, named for the Poa grass that grows here, that when left to thrive to 2 or 3 feet shows a very blue seed head in spring and summer.

You almost have to be a horse to appreciate it. The land rises and rolls as probably the lushest horse pasture in the world. Its leeching limestone base and mineral phosphates make the soil profoundly fertile, and calcium-rich, which goes right to the bones of those legendary swift and solid steeds.

As you head east through what they call the Knobs, you hit them—an arc of hundreds of cone-shaped hills rising hundreds of feet high that sweeps from west to south to east around the Bluegrass Region. Then you pierce it, the Appalachian Plateau.

And you kind of laugh. And you kind of weep.

Oh for the joy that Allah has bequeathed unto man in this spectacular earth, where the people live mostly humbly in two long parallel lines amid the hollows, beneath and between the old rounded-down mountains.

Alas for what the hands of man have put forth, the abrupt sight of ruptured mountaintops, massive acres of hauntingly fractured trees, gouged out soilless, soulless paths, and bleak disembowelment of the rock of the earth, as if colossal monsters ravaged there in evil.

American writers and journalists in the 19th and 20th centuries wrote a lot about these mountain people. About their congenital ignorance. About their inhuman propensity to violence. About their severe emotional and mental dullness due to “inbreeding.” About their culture of aggression.

All of which added up, “mathematically,” to the Appalachians’ self-inflicted poverty, and their consequent need for paternalistic control by outsiders, who from the kindness of their hearts would assume control of Appalachians’ resources, their mountain-folk freedom, and their economies.

What a job has been done on these people! And, surely, we know why: Utter, unbridled, lusting greed.

For what, after all, is the purpose of such relentless stereotyping? That is how you break a people. That is how you shake them down, then shackle them to your plows of profit.

That is how you deprive them of the fresh mountain water Allah gave them to drink, the clean mountain air Allah made for them to breathe, the wholesome food Allah enabled them to grow in their cattle and crops…until they become completely dependent on the soothing sounds lilted on the gilded tongues of those whose skins and ribs hide bestially avaricious, rapacious hearts.

Allah has spoken the truth, even unto the people of Appalachia, if only they knew:

Now, there is among humanity, [the like of] one whose words about the life of this world please you. And he [openly] calls upon Allah to bear witness as to what is in his heart, though truly, he is most relentlessly contentious. For when he turns away [from you], he strives in the land to spread corruption therein and to destroy tillage and livestock—and Allah does not love corruption. Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:204-5

That persistent media image superimposed upon the Appalachian people, that’s not what I saw. Deep into Appalachia, after an hour driving without seeing any place to replenish, I pulled into a sandwich shop, with my ḥijâbi wife and daughter, not knowing where exactly I was, to get some food for the ride. It was all smiles and politeness. I could have been home.

Then a young man, poorly clothed, walked in from the cold. As he moved to the counter where I stood, his eyes caught mine. I saw him take in the whiteness of my hair and beard, then nod his head with a deference that reached my heart. The young Muslims I see, they haven’t met me in such a manner in…well, I can’t say how long.

When the young local making my sandwich caught the man’s approach, she turned discretely to the middle-aged woman who was either the shop owner or her boss, and said softly for no ears but hers: “Tyler’s here. Give him whatever he wants if he doesn’t have the money.” Tyler came up, got his sandwich and sides, and sat down to eat. No questions. Nothing said. It was all duty and dignity.

I could almost hear Revelation echoing off the mountaintops: We feed you purely for the sake of Allah. Sûrat Al-Insân, 76:9

Sandwiches in hand, I turned to leave. Tyler looked up as I reached the door, met my eyes again, and nodded something human, something true.

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