Georgetown is a small-ish town north of Austin located in a notoriously conservative county that - until recently - did not permit the sale of alcohol in restaurants. The judges there are very fond of inflicting harsh punishments on criminals; social life centers on the church, the golf club and the high school; the average age of residents is 45; and so on.
Anyway, I lived there for a few months after I first arrived in Texas and quickly started to lose my mind. After all, I had just spent 10 years living in Moscow, that mega city of beauty, evil and horror, and now, here I was in small-town America, in a place so perfect it shimmered like a mirage. The boredom was intense. Is this how I shall spend the rest of my life? I wondered, scarcely able to suppress my panic.
When I moved to the city my aversion to Georgetown was tempered but did not abate, even though I know now that the town is essentially a good thing: a very nice, solidly respectable, thoroughly middle class embodiment of the American dream. But I could never really imagine that something interesting might occur in Georgetown, especially as the city authorities work so hard to keep the place dull. Two years ago an angry man did fly a plane from Georgetown airport into an IRS office, but the climax of the story took place in Austin; the town only played a supporting role.
Recently however something unexpected has been sprouting in the center of the suburb where my relatives live, a semi-rural section of town where people keep horses, goats and chickens (keeping livestock keeps your property taxes low, you see). For a long time there was a large tract just beyond the city limits that lay empty; occasionally I’d see a bull there. Then one day the bull was gone and I spotted construction machinery and bricks in its stead. Somebody was laying down the foundations for a large structure.
“What’s going on over there?” I asked my relative.
“Well, the rumor is they’re building a mosque,” he replied.
Since this rumor had come from an ultra-right-wing neighbor I was rather skeptical. Why would anybody want to build a mosque in a hyper-conservative suburb of a hyper-conservative Texas town? With so much other available land lying around, it just didn’t make sense.
But now the walls are going up and I have to admit: it does look kind of mosque-y. The windows are arched, like you see in churches and… mosques. More curiously, while American churches face the street this building is situated at a peculiar angle. Could it be facing… Mecca? Lastly, there is no sign at the entrance stating what they are building, whereas American churches, banks and even burger joints announce their future manifestations with great fanfare.
I suppose I could ask the builders, but I must admit I’m enjoying the suspense. Last week meanwhile I had a very commercial idea. It’s all the rage for American authors to spend a year doing something asinine and then write about it. I think it was started by a guy who spent a year “living biblically” but since then other people have spent a year living according to the precepts of Oprah Winfrey, or a year making all the recipes in some dead chef’s book, or a year living in a town selected because of its stupid name (e.g. Utopia).
This could be my big break, I thought. I could spend a year studying the interactions between the very conservative locals and the incomers from a religion that most of them, I suspect, do not like very much. Maybe I’d even get some action like in the Texas town where the local pig farmer started organizing hog races just to piss off the Muslims who had complained that his swine farm was too close to their mosque (which was much newer than the farm, it must be said).
Then came the drawbacks. First, the thought of spending a year in Georgetown was pretty horrifying. Also, I doubted I could sustain my interest in the theme that long. And finally, it is very hard to write about Islam in America because the topic is so highly polarized. You either have to approach it as a “liberal” who celebrates “diversity” while turning a blind eye to entrenched sexism, homophobia, etc; or a paranoiac “conservative” who relentlessly bangs on about hand chopping and honor killings. In America’s Manichaean cultural/political discourse there isn’t much room for ambiguity.
But what if these Muslims are really boring? I thought. What if it’s not a mosque but a Sikh temple and that right-wing dude just doesn’t know the difference? Hell, what if it’s a church?
So I don’t think I’ll be writing a book. But I will be keeping an eye on things. And if anything interesting does happen, friends, you’ll be the first to know.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.