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Imran Ahmad Headshot

Week 3: 50-City U.S. Speaking Tour

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I'm from London, but I'm currently working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I wrote a book that was published in the U.S. earlier this month: The Perfect Gentleman -- a Muslim Boy Meets the West. I have taken two months off to conduct a 50-city speaking tour of the United States during April-June 2012.

Sunday, April 29th

I wake up to a beautiful day in Savannah (well, somewhere out-of-town near the airport).

Savannah is a curious town, a cultural anomaly. This is definitely Georgia -- there are plenty of muscle cars and pick-up trucks and rugged men in baseball caps, which confirm this. But it's also over-run with bicycles, like some liberal city in the Netherlands. And there are bicycle rickshaws!

I spend the afternoon in Starbucks, writing with my new MacBook Air, which is hip and cool. Obviously, in order to look hip and cool in Starbucks, I had to get one of these. (But, between you and me, it's a real struggle to use it. I've been a Windows user for virtually 20 years. Everything in Windows is disciplined and structured. I just don't get this MacBook Air= - where are my files? It seems so anarchic and counter-intuitive. But, it is hip and cool.)

Afterwards, I hail a bicycle rickshaw and Ethan -- a scraggly young man who is majoring in political science, but wants to switch to literature -- takes me to see "the house" from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. (I actually know the writer John Berendt; I was with him at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.)

I give Ethan an inscribed and signed copy of my book. And money for the ride, of course.

Monday, April 30th

I'm stuck in my motel room doing writing assignments all morning. Finally, I get out and drive back to downtown Savannah. Another beautiful day spent walking around this extraordinary city.

In the evening, I go to visit Jerry and Andrea Silverman at their home -- Terre Balof in Richmond introduced us by e-mail. Jerry is a retired political scientist and has lived in about 10 different countries and worked in about 40. Their home is tastefully decorated with many delightful pieces from Indonesia. This is only the second time on this tour that I've actually been in someone's home (the first was Phyllis Rosenzweig in New York) and it is wonderful to spend the evening chatting with a couple of completely typical Americans. We have some fascinating discussions.

Jerry recounts that during the '60s and '70s he worked hard to explain that Communism wasn't a singular, monolithic entity -- that many so-called "Communist" movements in various countries were actually disparate nationalist movements with nothing much in common with each other. But there was a strong push from the right wing of American politics that Communism had to be viewed as a unified, organized force, with a specific set of goals diametrically opposed to U.S. interests. This was completely nonsensical.

"But," says Jerry, "substitute 'Islam' for 'Communism' and I see exactly the same thing happening today. Islam is being presented as a monolith. "

Jerry also made several trips to Iraq during the first years of that war (2003/04) -- to design monitoring systems for USAID's Democracy and Governance Program -- and describes the use of private military contractors as catastrophic. These contractors have absolutely no interest in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people -- they operate solely to protect their own clients without regard to how they alienate Iraqi civilians in the process. Some of these contractors are Serbian ex-militiamen; not known for their empathy towards Muslims. And those Serbians, along with Nepali Ghurkas, Filipinos and South Africans, all operate under American management and the American flag.

As for American soldiers, dressed in all their high-tech gear, they look like robots or aliens. Now, we know that underneath all that body armour is a decent 19-year-old kid who just wants to survive and go to college and marry his sweetheart and have a family and make his parents proud. In other words -- a human being. But the Iraqi people who see only the intimidating exterior don't know this. Mutual dehumanization occurs so easily.

Tuesday, May 1st

Head towards Atlanta. Have lunch at a Waffle House en-route. Everywhere in America looks exactly the same when I'm sitting at a table in a Waffle House, sipping unsweetened iced tea, while watching my silver Colonial Raptor parked just outside the window, and working on my BlackBerry and iPad. Everyone in the Waffle House can always tell that I ain't from around here. It must be the Connecticut plates.

In downtown Atlanta, check into the delightful Georgian Terrace Hotel, and then walk about two miles to check out the President Carter Center, where I'm speaking tomorrow. The concierge at the hotel seems a bit cynical - do I really want to walk? Nobody does that around here. Yes, but I'm from England.

At the President Carter Library and Museum, there are posters about my speaking event! Someone's bound to show up.

Wednesday, May 2nd

I have the whole day to prepare for my flagship event to-date. I begin by sleeping late. I walk to the Carter Center again, just for the exercise and as an act of defiance. I meet Tony Clark, in charge of Public Affairs, who shows me the auditorium.

Walk back to the hotel, exercise, shave, shower, dress in jacket and tie, drive the Raptor to the Carter Center (well, even I am not going to walk two miles in the Atlanta heat in a jacket and tie). My event is well-attended and seems to be enjoyed by the crowd. Tony even says that I am one of the best speakers they have ever had -- which is very kind of him. But, as a Federal Government employer, he can't put this in writing, apparently.

Thursday, May 3rd

I return to the President Carter Library and Museum one last time, and Tony gives me a guided tour. I learn many, many things about this extraordinary man, Jimmy Carter - it's unfortunate that a nation of Muslims was responsible for him losing re-election. (I also learned recently that there is a body of evidence that presidential candidate Reagan made a deal with the Iranians to treat the hostages well, but not to release them until after his inauguration. A journalist investigating this affair was found dead in his hotel room in West Virginia. I won't say any more about this.)

Friday, May 4th

I drive to Dahlonega and from there to Woody Gap, a crossing on the Appalachian Trail. I don't have the time or the equipment for an extensive hike, so just walk a couple of miles to a viewpoint I remember from my GE days spent in Atlanta. Linda, an American woman coming along the trail, kindly takes my photograph at the viewpoint. She is a software engineer who lived in Germany for over twenty years and speaks fluent German. We have a great conversation about how there's no such thing as Muslims as a unified, homogenous entity. I give her (and her mother, who is waiting in her car at Woody Gap) both a signed copy of my book. I love it how I keep having insightful conversations with regular Americans wherever I go.

Drop in to see Annetta, who was a colleague at GE, but now breeds horses on her own horse farm in nearby Suches. My third visit to a typical American home during this tour.

Saturday, May 5th

After a most pleasant and possibly overly self-indulgent stay in Atlanta, I pack everything back into the Colonial Raptor, and take off. I'm on the road again!

Still in Georgia, I pull into a Waffle House for breakfast. I am determined to force my weight back down, and I will do this using the Dukan method of pure-protein days, and with the help of Waffle House. I have determined that the Waffle House menu item of steak and eggs can meet my pure-protein requirements. "Steak medium-to-well-done, eggs poached medium, and no toast or hash browns, please. Just the steak and just the eggs -- nothing else." Dr Dukan would most certainly approve.

Hours later, I'm now in Tennessee and it's time for lunch. I pull into an identical-looking Waffle House, and place the exact same order, using exactly the same carefully articulated words.

After consulting the senior person, the young woman returns to explain that, although I'm not having the toast or hash browns, I must still pay the full cost of the set meal.

"That's fine," I laugh dismissively.

After a while, the young man doing the cooking brings me the steak and two fried eggs.

"Oh, I asked for poached eggs," I explain. "Medium."

He looks confused and takes away the plate. A little while later, the waitress returns with the steak and two freshly fried eggs ('over-easy' I think is the term).

"These are fried eggs. I asked for poached."

"What's a post egg?"

"You don't know what a poached egg is?" I articulate the word 'poached' as clearly as I can. She looks blank. " Okay, never mind, I'll have these."

But I had poached eggs in Georgia!

Afterwards, I go outside and take an anti-cholesterol statin pill from the Raptor's medikit.

There's a decent audience at my talk at the Unitarian church in Nashville, including a group of friends who all came because one of their number saw it mentioned in the Huffington Post. So it does work!

After a virtually pure-protein meal at a Red Lobster in Nashville, I am determined to cover at least some of the distance to Little Rock, my next venue (where I have two events) before sleeping tonight.

But I'm really tired -- my energy is so low. Suddenly, I can't go on anymore. I pull into a shadowy corner of a gas station. I have a dark secret, a substance abuse problem, and the pure-protein diet really brings this issue to a head. Frantically, I rummage around in the Whole Foods grocery bags in the back of the Colonial Raptor. Here are some organic apples, some handmade potato chips... who gives a damn? Buried underneath all this wholesome stuff, I find it. A bar of dark chocolate, infused with ginger. May God grant me self-discipline and resolve.

Actually, God decides not to intervene and I consume the entire bar. It feels wonderful, that surge of ecstasy. I tried to hide, but the carbs found me. Now I feel that I could drive all the way to California tonight.

In actual fact, I get as far as a Day's Inn somewhere before Memphis and sleep soundly -- if somewhat guiltily at having sabotaged my pure-protein regime.

Sunday, May 6th

I have a very strange dream. I'm driving the Raptor around Washington, D.C. in my pajamas. Kind of like the 'going to high school with no clothes' dream.

It's a beautiful day to drive a couple of hundred miles to Little Rock. Still in Tennessee, I stop at a Waffle House for lunch. The waiter, observing me working on my iPad with the help of a small black box (mobile wifi), asks me if I know how he can get Internet at home, because he wants a Play Station. I advise him that mobile wifi is too expensive for general home use, and refer him to his local telephone company. Where am I again? This isn't Yemen, is it?

The sun blazes unremittingly, and the sensor display in the Raptor tells me that it reaches 95°F outside. Unbelievable - it's barely May. The road signs tell me that the speed limit is 70 for cars and 65 for trucks, and that it is enforced rigidly with no tolerance. I set the cruise control to exactly 70, because I don't want to be pursued by a sheriff who races out from behind a giant billboard. Hey, how come all the trucks are passing me?

I have programed the NeverLost for the "city center." Downtown Little Rock could certainly never be confused for Manhattan. Rather fortuitously, there is a DoubleTree hotel down the street from the Clinton School of Public Service, where one of my events will be. A quick call secures a room.

I'm sitting in the bar of the hotel, working on my Huffington Post Week 3 blog. The television is playing in the background. This is the first time on this trip that I've been exposed to any American television. I never once turned on the TV in any of my hotel rooms, and whenever I was in a New York cab, I would turn the damn thing off. (You see, if a show is worth watching, its worth waiting five years until it's all over, then getting the whole thing on DVD, so that you can watch it on your own terms. I have a whole waiting list of shows that I can watch.) On the TV in the bar, there is some sport going on, with the all-to-frequent advertisements.

Slowly I have a realization. I keep hearing British accents. From the television. From the television commercials. I realize that I've heard several commercials with narration in British accents. What an interesting sociological phenomenon! What does it mean? It must be that British accents carry more credibility -- that the Mad Men have determined that the American consumer thinks a British voice is more trustworthy. Well, that's just my guess. What do you think?

See the 50-city U.S. tour plan on the website.

Photos are on the Facebook page.