11/30/2007 10:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Scholars in the Land of the Prophet

As I write these words in an office above midtown Manhattan, armed men are disembarking from black SUVs on the street down below. A helicopter beats overhead. It's just a Homeland Security exercise, another nail in the coffin of my long-dead sense of security. Farther downtown, there's a hole where 3,000 people died, murdered by fanatical practitioners of one of the world's three great religions.
Is history, known, a way to ameliorate this conflict? Is understanding even possible between the West and Islam? I don't know. I do know that the reasoning behind the current war in Iraq and the hatred in the Islamic world directed our way are both fed by vast reserves of ignorance, suspicion, mistrust, and prejudice.

I was pregnant and living in France when I first heard the story of the French scientists who traveled to Egypt in 1798 with notebooks and specimen jars alongside a brutal, invading army. It was spring 2003, the Iraq war was imminent, French protesters swarmed the streets of Paris toting effigies of Bush. Americans living far from the Home of the Brave, we could do nothing but watch helplessly as international CNN broadcast first the President's implacable warnings, and then the thudding glow of shock and awe.

My daughter was born a few weeks after the bombs fell on Baghdad. She was nearly bald but it was clear she was going to have the blonde hair and blue eyes of her Nordic-looking dad, not the black eyes bequeathed me via my maternal forebears, from far back and deep in the Ottoman empire.

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