My first week with an Arab nation
No – I am not in Oman, Yemen or Iraq. I have not traveled to the villages of Bahrain or Palestine. Instead I have walked beside, stood before and shared tater tots with 19 men and women from each of these Arab nations.
In America we are raised in families at various stages of stability and turmoil. There we are introduced to customs, expectations, preconceived ideas, belief systems and standards of behavior.
- We have pets, neighbors, friends and teachers.
- We visit with family near and far away.
- We are punished when we do not conform and praised when we meet the needs of those around us.
- We fight with our siblings, struggle with our self-esteem, feel awkward toward romance and crave acceptance by our peers.
- We eat the food our mothers prepare.
- We adopt the language, silliness, habits and trends of our social group.
- We seek spirituality, tradition, connection – the reliance and hope for a higher, protective power.
- We listen and read about political hotbed issues, participate in debates on laws and rules set forth by faith and government, place energy in maintaining the strength of certain stereotypes and fight passionately against the labels we despise.
And with all that I know, all I have experienced these past 40 years – I stand humbled today by the events of my first week with the Middle East.
- Some of women wear headscarves …most don’t.
- The men are confident and outgoing… or shy and reserved.
- They are beautiful, bright, aspirational, opinionated, inspired.
- They are daughters, sons, sisters and brothers.
- They love family and value friendship and connectedness.
- They are deeply religious … or not.
- They are spiritual and expressive… or free and playful.
- They are inquisitive, anxious to share, excited to experience new things.
- They are at times bored, nostalgic, homesick for their comfort food.
- They are activists … and passivists.
- They want to love and be loved by a good partner one day.
- They seek education and experience… they want to make an impact in their countries; make their families proud.
- They honor tradition, respect their chosen code of conduct… hold each other accountable.
… With each new encounter and casual chat, the gaping hole I once knew between the Middle East and U.S. has closed in. The open space that remains is small enough for me to step across. There is no distance… just difference.
The distance between us
Where the U.S. has Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist, 7th Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Christian Science, etc. – they have Christianity and Muslim; Shi’a and Sunni.
They have fathers that set high expectations… We have helicopter parenting.
Their al-Qaeda are our gangs… Our religious right is their extremist groups.
Their hilal is our organic.
Their value of modesty and humbleness is in direct contrast to our obsession with vanity and over-indulgence.
They hold chastity and discretion close while we encourage exploration and over-sharing.
- They enjoy music and dancing
- laughing and playing
- learning and loving
- exploring and discovering
- They take pictures and share stories
- act silly and flirty
- seek rebellion and respect
- desire acceptance and accolades
I am one week in and I am hooked.