Review and Interview: The Record

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tracing Muslims’ trek Westward


The comfort and quiet of a suburban college campus holds only so much appeal for Behzad Yaghmaian.

“I’m most energized when I’m on the road, when my life is in transition,” said Yaghmaian shortly before he departed last week for northern Africa and Istanbul.

Yaghmaian, 53, has been a professor in political economy at Ramapo College in Mahwah for more than a dozen years. But the heart of his work comes from what he calls “the vagabond life.” It has taken him to some of the most volatile places in the world: crowded ports in Greece, refugee camps in Bulgaria, and poor, noisy neighborhoods in Istanbul.

There he chronicles the human stories of one of the biggest demographic movements of our time: the Muslim migration to the West, primarily to Western Europe.

The diaspora is large (some estimates place the number of Muslims in Europe at 23 million) and varied: Algerians in France, Indonesians in the Netherlands, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain and Pakistanis in Britain, to name a few.

The stories of their migration are often perilous, if not death-defying. Yaghmaian thinks these stories need to be told. To that end, he spent two years traveling, visiting refugee camps and crossing borders in what has become a modern-day underground railroad to Western Europe and, for a lesser number, North America.

“I wanted to debunk the way we look at migration,” said Yaghmaian. “We often look at it from the perspective of borders. I wanted to look at migration from the point of view of the migrants.”

His travels became “Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West.”

In the book, hailed by the Kirkus Reviews as a “‘Grapes of Wrath’ for the Muslim world,” readers learn the stories of Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese and other refugees fleeing war and political instability and brutality who are not always greeted with open arms.

“Some were savagely beaten by border guards,” Yaghmaian said. “You see these things happen in places that are supposedly bastions of democracy. … I spoke to a number of people beaten up severely by the Greek Coast Guard. I wanted to bring this to life.

“As far as Westerners are concerned, migrants, especially Muslim migrants, have no face to them. I thought it was important to look at the people and who they are.” People such as a young Iranian victimized by human smugglers and beaten and tortured in Bulgaria. Or Uncle Suleiman, an Iraqi war veteran, once imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, who is now a respected elder in a tent city in Greece.

“I met them in camps, prisons and safe houses, and when they crossed the borders I followed them,” said Yaghmaian. Muslim immigrants face added hurdles in that they are treated in the West as “potential terrorists,” said the author. “They not only have all the problems of the journey and migration … but they are distrusted and brutalized much more than others.”

To a lesser degree, Yaghmaian, an Iranian exile, said he has felt the hostility at the border, facing more scrutiny than fellow passengers despite having lived in the United States since 1976.

Yaghmaian is also author of the 2002 book “Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance and New Movements for Rights.”

Yaghmaian will teach at Ramapo during the 2006-07 school year before taking off next May to spend two years researching his next book, the story of four Muslim families living in the West. He will spend time living with a Turkish family in Germany, an Algerian family in France, a Pakistani family in Britain and an Iranian family in Los Angeles.

“I want to write about the experience of being Muslim in the West from the starting point of the family. This type of book takes time. It’s a very ambitious project,” said Yaghmaian, who looks forward to two years on the road. “I get my energy by having a Gypsy-type life.”

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