'I Kneel to the Desert God': An interview with Richard Rodriguez

Raised in Sacramento, California, the son of immigrants from Mexico, essayist and journalist Richard Rodriguez has always grappled fearlessly with the intricacies of cultural identity—the clash and meld of race, religion, class, and language. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books: Hunger of Memory; Days of Obligation; and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. He was an award-winning essayist for PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and is a contributing writer and editor for New America Media and contributing editor of Harper’s. He spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter in April, at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Julie Polter: You’re working on a book about the desert origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What led you to this topic?

Richard Rodriguez: After Sept. 11, I grew closer to Islam, rather than farther away from it. The most shocking thing for me was that those men were praying as they drilled those 767s into the World Trade Center. When Osama bin Laden began to refer to crusaders, I was reminded that this was a religious war that we were involved in. That seemed so European—killing each other over Protestants vs. Catholic, heretics, Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic, and so forth. But America having a religious war? That was new to me. So I was interested in Islam.
The other thing was that I’d always felt an attraction to the desert. I’ve hiked through deserts for much of my life and always had a secular curiosity about them—their beauty, their secrets, their survivability. But after Sept. 11, I suddenly realized that maybe I was being drawn to the desert because I’m a Christian.
I’d read so much of my Christian past through Europe. I’m a Roman Catholic; I was raised in an Irish Catholic church; I was schooled in religious controversies that had to do with Geneva, or Zurich, or Zwingli, or Calvin, or Luther. When I went to Union Theological Seminary for two years, it was all European theological drama. It didn’t engage this ecological question, that we are people of the desert. Christianity is a desert religion, a Middle Eastern religion.
This interested me because that’s how we think of Muslims, basically, as a desert people. I had never gone to the desert looking for Christ. I’d never gone to the desert expecting to find Muhammad. And I’d never gone to the desert expecting to hear the voice of God. But that’s precisely what I’m doing now. I have a Palestinian driver who imitates Elvis Presley, and we drive around the Middle East, and I’m enchanted by the desert. I’ve never felt so close to God as I do there.
I’m asking questions about how the desert protected Jesus, protected Muhammad, protected Moses. How they hid themselves in the desert. How the city—Mecca, Jerusalem—was often at odds with these prophets, these holy people, and how the desert took them in, and how God appears in the desert. The drama of mirage and the drama of dryness.
The first story of Abraham that we read in Genesis is a desert story: The desert God has come to a dry old man and told him that he will be fertile, that his wife is going to bear him a son. Overhearing this—I always imagine her as [the actress] Rhea Perlman—she laughs; the whole idea of becoming a mother is ludicrous to her. God says to her, do you think that there are things that God cannot do, that this is impossible for God? And suddenly there is this notion of fertility in the desert, that God will make the dry woman fertile.
And these two children, Isaac and Ishmael, the legitimate son and the illegitimate son: Abraham, who is this George Burns character, casts away his Egyptian servant when Rhea Perlman says “I won’t have her around.” She goes out to the desert and almost dies there with her son, until they are rescued by God, who promises them that they will have a race as numerous as the stars.
So what am I doing in the desert? I’m looking for that God. The God who is promising a world of fertility in this dryness. The desert, by the way, is the fastest growing ecology in the world right now. There are dust storms in Beijing. The desert is the most implacable, most demanding ecology, and it keeps advancing.
We keep sending Christmas cards with these pictures of evergreens, a sort of Swedish Christmas, with the snow falling over Stockholm and Santa coming in with presents. But God is a desert God who comes in the middle of a desert winter. That’s thrilling to me. It’s like discovering that the world is round. It is so elementary, but so breathtaking in its simplicity. To go to Jerusalem and to find that it is a desert city is really wonderful. And demanding. I kneel to the desert god. Not to the variant Christmases of Santa Claus and snow bunnies.

Do you feel you’ve found life and beauty in the desert?
This is a God who sometimes speaks to Abraham in a whisper, because the desert is so still. This is not a God who speaks through Cecil B. DeMille thunderstorms. This is a very subtle God, who wants to meet us in this place of desolation. All the images of heaven that we create are green. But our human experience is lived in the desert. That’s where we live with God.
Before Easter, I was in Las Vegas helping a friend who was dying of AIDS. It’s true what they say of Las Vegas, there are no clocks in the casinos. That means there is no Good Friday, no Easter Sunday. There is no time. But there’s water everywhere, swimming pools, fountains go up and down at the Bellagio to Frank Sinatra songs on the hour. The curious thing about desert cities like Las Vegas and Dubai is how deliberately they reject the landscape.
In some way the dream of the kibbutz, the movement of making the desert bloom, is part of that. We don’t like living in the desert. We want air conditioning. You could not live in Las Vegas without air conditioning. I know people who live in Tucson who say they love the desert, but they don’t love it at all. They live in these air-conditioned little cubicles. They run to their car, which is also air-conditioned, and go to their air-conditioned mall.

It’s as if people weren’t meant to settle in the desert.
That’s right. And you should wonder what that means. Why are so many Bible stories about people wandering, these people who don’t settle, these people who don’t have a home, these people who are seasonal? It seems to me the truest model for what we are becoming is a pilgrim people.

From the interview with Richard Rodriguez
Refusing the New Racism
Whenever I’m asked about my race, I just want to subvert those categories. I don’t know what they mean. I don’t know what it means to be Mexican—I have an American passport. I’m intrigued that I have an Indian face, but equally intrigued that my father’s family had some rumor of Sephardic Jews in the family.
As I go down a street in Cairo one day—this is a true story—I’m trying to figure out why I feel so at home there. For the first time in my life I begin to think about Islamic Spain, that for 300 years Spain was Muslim. I know that Spanish has an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Arabic words within it; that by speaking Spanish, I speak Arabic. I know this intellectually. But it wasn’t until I got to the Middle East that I thought, “I might be Arabic.”
By 1492, the year that Columbus goes off looking for India and spices, Spain had expelled the Jew and the Moor. But it was too late. The Jew and the Moor were already within the Spaniard. So when the Italian under the Spanish flag comes to the new world to meet the Indian, already he’s bringing the entire cargo of the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian within himself.
I think of myself as part of that tradition. As a Christian I belong to that Abrahamic tradition, and I feel connected to Muslims and to Jews. I now feel defiant. I refuse to participate in the new racism that makes the Muslim “other.” I am Muslim, by virtue of being Christian. I am Jewish, by virtue of being Christian. You understand? In that sense, I’m very happy that anyone would think that I look Arabic. When I’m taken aside at airports and given a special search—in Toronto or Milan there will be this special room, with all these Yemeni old men and Syrian mothers. We’re all there together. And I think to myself, that’s where the Mexican Catholic belongs. -RR

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