Guinea, not Jackson Heights
I'm in NYC this week and judging by the taxis, I really am in one of the most cosmopolitan, international city in the world. The guy who drove me from JFK to my hotel on the Upper West Side came here from Kandahar, Afghanistan. He came as an illegal immigrant, spent 3 months in jail and eventually was granted political asylum. Each of his two younger brothers came and remained here the same way. His wife and elderly parents are in Qetta in Pakistan and he's hoping to bring them here too. He works 7 days a week and sends a lot of his earnings to Qetta. The two younger brothers work in a fried chicken restaurant. They live in Queens. His American odyssey seems very much the same as the story of immigrants I've heard all my life.
We drove through Queens to the 59th Street Bridge through whole neighborhoods of Muslim immigrants, from Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, India... some from Afghanistan, Egypt and other countries.
Last night my friends Charlie and Sharon got married and I dressed up in a Zegna suit and a Fray shirt, reminiscent of my old corporate days-- not something I thought would be the right dress for the subway. I waited for one of those van-looking yellow cabs. The driver, Mohammed, was also a refugee who sought and was granted political asylum. He was the first taxi driver-- or anyone else-- I had ever met from the small West African country of Guinea. When I was a child Guinea was granted independence from France and I remember the fiery president, Sekou Touré coming to the UN and pushing a socialist agenda. He was demonized by the American media. When he died in 1984, General Lansana Conté staged a coup and became president and still is. He's more pro-American and a pretty brutal, if ineffective, dictator. In 1998, Mohammed, my driver, was elected to the city council in Fria, just north of the capital, Conakry. Unfortunately for him, his party, the UPR, won the national elections and Conté decided to kill lots of them and... change the results. Mohammed was one of the lucky ones and he escaped to the U.S.
Guinea is a desperately poor country and would like to encourage a tourist industry. Their propaganda refers to the country as the Switzerland of Africa, which is clearly absurd, although it does have mountains. The tourism industry has potential and promise but they only get about 100,000 tourists a year (few Americans). You can fly there from Paris. There aren't many hotels, though the best one in the country is a Meridien with 96 rooms and there is also a Novotel.