Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer living in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.
Years ago I moved back to New Hampshire to be closer to other family members, to settle my family in a place free from the hustle and bustle often found in urban centers, to be in a place that I thought, after having lived and worked in the Middle East. for so long, it was ideal: close to Boston, close to the Atlantic, hopefully a sanctuary nestled within the beauty of the Granite State.
Close to the place where family, friends, teachers and librarians nurtured and inspired me to be who I am today.
What I did not anticipate, on the way back, was that the past I remembered was a homeland from which I had emigrated; that my return to those roots was perhaps an unrealistic expectation that things would be as I had left them.
I know, and I hope, that free societies are dynamic, often in conflict, and that it is from within conflict and debate that we not only witness the evidence of our existence as free people, but from where we learn, while we relate to others, who are neighbors, who are enemies.
This morning I took a deep breath before I started writing.
For more than a decade I have been sharing with you and the world my childhood, my fears, loves, doubts, discoveries and questions. As a second-generation Arab-American Muslim who is often told to go back where he came from (Note to reader: there are no direct flights between Exeter and Manchester) I continue to defend and believe in the promise of America.
Believe in the aspirational promise, articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that all people are created equal.
And within that promise I believe, as one of America’s greatest prophets, James Baldwin, wroteNotes of a native son>: “I love America more than any other country in this world and, precisely for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her forever.”
I also insist on this right.
For well over a decade, I have witnessed the building of walls, of screens, of communities divided by ignorance and prejudice, and it scares me.
I have never been more afraid than today.
It’s a frightening time and I believe that if you are not afraid by my side, you can not only be unpatriotic or immoral, but you can also be a threat to people like me.
I was in college when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was working for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign when MLK and RFK were assassinated. I remember Fred Hampton, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X; remember so many others.
In the last decade I remember Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery; remember so many others.
I remember the 1963 march in Washington, the 2017 march in Charlottesville.
But I never thought I should remember that a President of the United States of America encouraged an insurrection on January 6, 2021, with the intention of overthrowing our legitimately elected government to stay in power.
I never thought that almost two years after the 2020 presidential election there would be so many Americans who continue to believe, or claim to believe, without evidence, that the election of Joe Biden was illegitimate; Americans who would rather believe QAnon and Falun Gong/EpochTimes than US intelligence services.
For a long time I had thought that New Hampshire was different from other places; that people treasure not only freedom and self-sufficiency, but education and community. I never thought, never would have imagined, that here, as in all of America, there would not only be candidates for office who would believe these lies and slander, but who would have a chance to win.
Many are the so-called Christian nationalists who weaponize God to justify the unjustifiable, trying to use God to justify the unimaginable; trying to disenfranchise, marginalize, threaten, and build walls to isolate fellow Americans who don’t look, pray, or think like they do.
Some with a chance of winning are genuine racists and anti-Semites who feel their day has come. Others are power-hungry opportunists who never miss an opportunity to profit. Some are frightened by demographic changes and want to build walls, others are simply narcissistic, ignorant, complex-hating people, people who never read poetry.
New Hampshire poet Robert Frost wrote in his oft-quoted 1914 Wall repair:
“Before building a wall, I would ask to know
What I was shielding or shielding
And who I liked to offend
There’s something a wall doesn’t love
He wants to take it down.”
“Where it is, we don’t need the wall,” Frost continues. What we need is fidelity to facts and truth, fidelity to an aspirational promise that all men are created equal.