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The Blue-Collar Scholar of Minbar

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I had an uncle who served on The Line. He’d tell tales of how the Minbari ships were faster, more maneuverable, blasting Earthforce ships out of orbit left and right. Ships with crews of hundreds of men and women sacrificed themselves to give their comrades an opening. They hurled themselves into the line of fire to slow the enemy down long enough for a few more non-combatants to escape the planet.

My uncle would tell how, all of a sudden, the attack stopped. And then the Minbari surrendered to the force they were minutes from annihilating.

Minbari may not lie, but they sure do stonewall like a sonuvabitch. They never really explained what happened, or what made them call off the attack. A few humans done run off and joined the Anla'Shok, some Minbari version of the Foreign Legion; they might be in the know, but word never made it back to Earth.

Now, Momma says my first word was, “Why?” I never cared why the sky was blue, or why cows eat grass – it was people that I wondered about. I needed to know what made ‘em tick – first my family, then my classmates, the people in my church, folks in the big city. I traveled to other countries, and then to Mars, seeing what made those people different, and what we had in common. Anthropology, the professors call it, or ethnography. I call it getting to know my neighbors. Might be I just live in a bigger neighborhood then most.

So when the Minbari finally agreed to set up a cultural exchange, I was one of the first to apply.

Most of the questions I’ve got sitting in my ask box right now are wondering how I managed to get selected, out of all the (older, more famous, more eloquent, more diplomatic, more qualified, and better looking) candidates. No, there were no sexual favors involved, to either the human or Minbari members of the selection committee. Keep that shit up and I will report y’all for harassment, don’t think I won’t.

It’s hard to be sure why they picked me, but for anyone who might want to apply in the next round, here’s what I think might of helped.

First, I’d put in the effort to learn all three of their primary languages, not just Adronato. That said, my Feek is terrible. Then again, every human’s Feek is terrible. More on that later.

The Worker Caste representative on the selection committee was interested in my blue-collar background, once I explained what the term ‘blue-collar’ means. The Minbari spent hours questioning my ethics. I’m an anthropologist, and there’s a lot of dark, biased, ‘studying the savages’ garbage baked into the discipline. That’s not my way. I go into a community, learn to see them as they see themselves, then try to build a bridge back to where I come from. And that bridge, it goes both ways. ‘Cause the way I see it, gathering knowledge without offering the same in return is no better than stealing.

I can tell you why I was the only human that made the final cut. There were twenty humans selected for the exchange. The Minbari representatives declared they would accept any of us who would agree to participate in the Ni’cha. That’s a ritual challenge every adolescent Minbari undergoes, to make sure they’ve chosen the true Caste of their heart. The ritual involves letting a Minbari telepath in your head. Between the Psi Corps, Nightwatch propaganda, and the psi attacks during the Telepath War, I was the only one said yes.

If anyone out there reading this blog is trying to decide whether to risk the Ni’cha, I won’t sugar coat it. It’s called a challenge for a reason. But I can guarantee the only demons in your head will be the ones you brought with you. Anyway, my Granddaddy’d be proud that after the ritual I was placed in the Worker Caste.

I’ve been living with my host clan on Minbar for four months now. I’ve pushed through the first bout of homesickness, and the second, disorienting loss of center and self that comes from immersion in a foreign culture. I’ve found out that, although qual fruit are on the approved list for humans, they make me break out in hives, which are embarrassingly similar to a young Minbari female’s signs of oncoming sexual maturity.

And I’m starting to learn.

The Worker Caste are less hierarchical than the other castes. There’s an elderly matriarch, Yemal, who’s in charge of the clan, but for day-to-day matters everyone talks to Vedronn, a middle-aged male who stays home to look after the little ones and seems to act as den mother and social hub. Mazinn is head chef, or something like that. She plans and prepares meals for the 82-person household. I’ve been greatly honored, in that I’m one of the three people allowed to help her prepare the morning meal. The others are children who’ve shown some talent in the kitchen, and are being mentored by her in that work. I was a decent cook, back home, so learning to cook Minbari food’s been a lot of fun.

Following breakfast, there’s morning prayers. Attendance isn’t required, but everyone does go, unless there’s some personal or professional emergency keeping them from it. I go to school after that. And by school, I mean kindergarten. As one of the students.

The Worker Caste representative was the one who proposed it. The Religious Caste rep seemed amused, and I’m pretty sure the Warrior Caste representative on the committee thought the assignment was meant as an insult. But now that I’m here, I think it was a good call.

Remember how I said every human speaking Feek, the language of the Worker Caste, is terrible at it? I’ve had a real hard time understanding people here, and being understood, except by the young ones. I’d brought my Feek language course recordings along, and when I played them for Vedronn, wondering what I was doing wrong, he started to laugh. Seems we’re the victims of an epic, slow-burn prank. Whatever Worker Caste guy got hauled in and ordered to record a series of language lessons to teach humans his language, taught us all to speak like a bunch of six-year-olds.

It’s not that Minbari ain’t got no sense of humor, it’s just … different.

So all that crap about how Feek is a very simple language without nuance or depth, only useful for technical discussions, and the theories about the Workers as intellectual inferiors because of it? Turns out those theories really, truly, are complete crap.

Anyhow, sitting in kindergarten’s appropriate based on my language level, and I’m also experiencing what the Worker Caste consider vital education for their children. There’s plenty of reading, and writing, and math, but those little kids do some crazy advanced vocational and artistic training, as well. The purpose being to help every child find their own gifts and passions, which they’ll develop and master over their lifetimes. They think it’s great I’ve already found a passion, learning about all kinds of people and teaching them about each other, but that’s only one job. A Worker Caste Minbari has at least two major vocations, as well as a slew of serious amateur hobbies.

This famous opera singer also repairs antique speeders. That tailor is trained as a trauma surgeon, but finds it stressful and only reports for duty in emergencies. The terrifying sculpture of the Shadow Vessel outside of the war memorial was carved by a woman who works with people who lost limbs to war or accident, and designs prosthetics to meet their needs.

Vedronn looks after the children of the clan, but he's also the organizer of an online orchestra for Minbari who work at distant, isolated posts. Mazinn spends the dry autumn months working construction, building housing for new families in the community. By then, I should have mastered the three simple recipes traditionally served in that season. Any menial, uninspiring tasks not yet made superfluous by their technology are divvied up among the people who need and benefit from them.

I’d say it’s a Marxist utopia, but there’s more to it than economics. There’s a basic mistranslation at fault here. In most Earth languages ‘work’ has negative connotations of drudgery, of something one does to earn a paycheck. Yes, “hard work is its own reward,” but we’d rather play. In Feek, it’s WORK sung by a choir, Glory Hallelujah! To pursue and develop your gifts to their utmost potential, and use those gifts to help others, is not only a sacred duty, but your path to joy.

Of course, I’m seeing their world at its best. No one’s hungry, there’s no armed conflict, and if there’s civil unrest among the Castes, they’re being awful quiet about it.

But if there’s a zeitgeist for our time, among every species in the Alliance, it’s that we live in an age of war, repression, revolution, and resistance. The Minbari are recovering from a civil war between the Religious and Warrior Castes. And from what we heard on Earth, the Worker Caste took it in the teeth. If I'm to know a culture, I can't just learn about them at their best. I've got to know what happens when things are worst, to understand their responses to stress and their mode of failure. Lord knows I seen enough to know how humans respond under pressure.

So I told them our stories of survival and resistance,in my childish Feek, falling back on Adronato and Lenn'a when I’d no words to describe things no child should see.

I told them about the food riots on Mars, and the fear of living under the Nightwatch. I talked about the wild-cat strikes, hunger strikes, and union-busting that went on under President Clark. I talked about the atrocities of the Telepath War, the sprawling, desperate, failed evacuation during the Minbari fleet’s attack on Earth, and what it was like to live in an information blackout.There’s no word for propaganda in Feek or Adronato. The closest synonym is in the Warrior Caste tongue, and it means, ‘false tactical data.’ But I tried.

And to anyone who says I revealed too much, that giving that kind of information to aliens is treason – fuck you. The kind of painful honesty I was asking from them can only be earned by showing your own scars. I told them our stories of survival and resistance.

Then I asked them, “What did you do to survive?”

They were horrified by plenty of what they heard from me. The idea of a strike, of refusing to work, is anathema. But it turns out there was resistance by the Worker Caste. Yemal, her voice rough with age and emotion, explained to me that each Worker’s product is theirs and theirs alone. They create it, according to their own standards and the needs of their community. It is a perfect gift of themselves to the universe.

A simple bicycle built by a child might not function, but that don’t mean it’ll be thrown away or rebuilt by adults. Instead, the child will be mentored by more experienced mechanics and engineers; offered different options for them to redesign or repair their bicycle until either it works the way they want, or they choose to give it up for another project. The only part of this that Minbari Workers grow out of, is the giving up.

It’s a very specific type of autonomy that only the most highly-regarded artists and artisans can claim, on Earth. And to trespass against it is sacrilege.

When the Religious and Warrior Castes were blowing each other to bits a few years back, an Alyt of the Warrior Caste ordered three dozen sub-orbital bombers for use against other Minbari. The Worker in charge came up with a truly revolutionary design – the first one’s due to be completed in a decade or so. When the Alyt had members of his own caste try to build some bombers, they found certain essential metals were impossible to acquire from the asteroid mining stations in the system. The Worker Caste there had instituted a new set of safety protocols that had slowed production to a trickle.

When a mayor of the Religious Caste wanted to send an order to capture and imprison the children of the local Warrior Caste, her communication specialist declared that such an unprecedented message would need special encryption and authentication protocols, and immediately took apart the hardware to begin the process. The other two people trained on the equipment were Religious Caste – but they concurred with their supervisor.

These acts of conscience are highly respected in Minbari culture. Apparently, there were a few cases in which Worker Caste were reprimanded or punished for them – but those are considered war crimes along with the worst excesses of the war.

Which brings me back to the anonymous Worker Caste linguist who created the Feek language tapes for humans. It might have been a prank. I’m still trying to get a grip on Minbari humor, which is very dependent on Caste and context. But with what I’ve found out, I wonder … could it be an act of resistance by someone who believed that trying to attain fluency in a language, without experience of the culture in which it was developed, is impossible, and can lead to dangerous miscommunication?

Might be he has a point. I’ll get back to y’all once I’ve learned more.

Signing off,

Carrie Baker