What I Learned From The Middle East
I keep my writing in between the lines. Nothing too political. Too controversial. Too public. But then I read UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher’s, “So..Yalla, Bye” as he prepares to depart from his role as the Ambassador to Lebanon, and it moved me. So here we are…
My interest with the Middle East started in a comparative religions class at the University of Michigan. It was one of those huge lecture classes for 300 students. The US was living in a post 9/11 era of Islamic fear where words like jihad and terrorist lit up the daily headlines. This class gave me perspective. It allowed me to make better sense of the world outside. And that was meaningful to me. I was hungry to learn more.
Three semesters and many courses on Middle Eastern policy, economy, and culture later, my academic advisor highly suggested that I actually visit the region before changing my major. What a novel idea!
My parents were not thrilled, to say the least. I went to Michigan to major in the fine arts of communication, not the dramatic arts of Middle Eastern peace. To them my interest in the region was a knee jerk reaction, a fleeting interest, an infatuation with the other, not a career move. I can’t say I blame them.
So I did what any good daughter of an entrepreneur would do, I put together a presentation on all the reasons that it made business sense for me to go, and I struck a deal with my Dad. In short, I could move abroad only if it saved him a semester of out-of-state tuition at college. I received a full ride and board from the American University in Dubai, and off I went.
My experience was extraordinary. So much so, that after graduating from Michigan with the longest degree ever – Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Islamic Studies – I moved back to the region to live.
And while my parents, bless them, again weren’t ecstatic about my geographical desires, the second time around, they had a much better sense of my life abroad after visiting. Together we had walked the pyramids of Egypt and the malls of Dubai, haggled in the souks and then bought coffee from Starbucks, ate alongside the Nile and drank mojitos in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab. After one meal with a group of my Middle Eastern friends (Omani, Syrian, Jordanian), my mom made an attempt to connect the dots of the trip.
“It seems,” she said, “that all everyone wants in the world is to be loved and have a safe place to live.”
And there it was. The simple truth in it’s pure, uncomplicated form. We, at our cores, are the same.
Since my time abroad, I have tried to be an ambassador for the Middle East. I revel in the opportunity to talk about this beautiful, complicated group of countries and cultures, and it’s incredibly hospitable people. People, that as my mom so wisely stated, who are more like us than different.
So Mr. Ambassador, like you, I am for coexistence. I am for humanity. I am for understanding. What I couldn’t learn sitting in a classroom in Ann Arbor is how much being in the Middle East would change me. From waking up to the call to prayer in Jordan to watching the sunset over the Persian gulf, I have come to love the Middle East I know. And I will not be indifferent to it’s future. Today, my Arabic skills are horrible, all the finer points of the history have escaped me, and I struggle to keep on top of the regions many moving news pieces, but my heart is full for the people of the Middle East.
I have tried to share my journey with anyone who will listen with the hope to break down the barriers we have built in the USA about what the Middle East is really like. I’ve spoken at Rotary Clubs, Toastmaster groups, and college gatherings. I’ve conversed at coffee shops, bars, and friend dinners. I’ve tried to answer as best I can each question that comes to me. And no, I never tire of answering “did you have to cover your head?” I’ve sought to explain the insane dichotomy of living in a country where Ferraris wiz by foreign laborers building the worlds tallest tower. And in the end, I hoped to share the sentiment that for the absolute vast majority of the Middle East, the people welcome love and shelter not fighting.
I am not special. Many of you do much, much more than I do – from activating policy to working at NGOs and beyond. But my hope is, that in this little sliver of the earth right now, I can do my part to contribute on behalf of the Middle East. Why? Because I care. Call me naive. Call me unpatriotic. But don’t call me indifferent. I care. A lot. So like, you Mr. Ambassador, I won’t idly stand by silent. I’ll share my voice.
P.S. If there is anyone in your life (friend, family, colleague) who has a passion to live abroad, please forward them this post. It might be the just the story they needed to move forward.