My friend’s website…check out my best friend and my post! :)
My friend’s website…check out my best friend and my post! :)
Let me introduce Egypt:
The sun has set behind the swampland of the riverbed as we float on a felucca, awaiting a glorious Nubian meal prepared for us by our crew of two men. We have spent the afternoon reading, sipping on hibiscus tea, listening to the Nile lap its way into our inner rhythms. Our first mate quietly takes a break from preparing our supper to spread his small rug out on the hull and proceed with his evening prayer – standing, then kneeling, then meeting his forehead to the rug, rinse and repeat. We will spend the night on this felucca, lulled to sleep by whispers of the Nile and campfire kisses. The warm air turns cold in the early morning hours, but it’s worth it just to watch the sun rise over the palm trees.
I will break out the watercolors (a new resolution to paint once or twice a week) and let my mind wander as I try to capture the scenery on a small white page that barely does justice to a water droplet. I will envision myself in a new place, a new land, experiencing a different culture complete with its own ways of life and ways of thought. Some I will agree with, some I will not. But at least I can try to understand why, quickly becoming my favorite word. I wonder who I will befriend. Or who will befriend me. I wonder what I will miss from home: family, friends, ice, Swedish Fish, climbing, my car, my freedom.
My packing list for a semester in Egypt consisted of very conservative clothing:
Long sleeve shirts……….Check
Capris and long pants…………Check
Long dresses with cover-up sweaters……..Check
Very few shorts, almost nothing without sleeves. I placed a lot of weight on respecting a culture that does not understand or approve of scantily clad Californians in our short skirts and low-cut tops. It’s not my country, not my culture, so I made my vow to respect that, leaving behind most of my favorite clothes.
And I love clothes.
An addendum to this: It’s more than 100 degrees here.
Jeans are miserable. Pants are miserable. Any excess fabric is miserable. Yet I watch hundreds of women walk by me on the street covered in layers and layers cloth à black cloth. Eyes sometimes the only creatures that meet the sun. It’s moments like these when I have to say
I always carry a tiny little book in my wallet that I bought at a flea market for $3: “Speeches and Addresses of Abraham Lincoln.” It’s about the size of my palm and older than dirt (covered in dirt as well), but I take it out every now and then when I need some inspiration, or when I need to breathe in that charming old book smell.
I took it out today.
I need not quote this, because you know it by heart, but it doesn’t hurt to say it out loud ever now and again.
Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.
Of course Lincoln left us chicas out of this, but we know deep down what he means. I don’t take it personally.
Lincoln is right.
I just finished a book called King Leopold’s Ghost which is the non-fiction account of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It tells the story of King Leopold of Belgium’s horrifying exploitation of the Congo in the 1890s and early 1900s, and the more than 10 million Africans he killed in his quest for ivory, rubber, and riches. However, it also gives accounts of the brave individuals (in this case American, British, and Irish) who fought for the freedoms and rights of the people of the Congo. Roger Casement is one such individual who echoes eloquently and in a few more words what Lincoln had the stunning foresight to say only a few decades earlier:
“Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself—than the right to
feel the sun or
smell the flowers or to
love our kind. Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours—and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them—then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”
Now that’s good stuff.
Roger Casement was right. Lincoln was right. King Leopold was wrong.
And I’m sorry to say but the way women are treated in this part of the world is wrong. The men who treat them this way are wrong.
I have been having a recurring argument with my dad about perspective in relation to history, but I think it is relevant when we speak about tolerance and understanding for other cultures and traditions:
Is history fact or fiction?
Or perhaps a little bit of both?
History, to me, is simply a version of facts presented in a multitude of different ways.
I am sitting in McDonald’s right now in Cairo (free WiFi and a wicked good McArabia gyro-like sandwich) with one of my roommates. We are both sitting in the same room, watching the same events transpire; yet, I guarantee if I were to write an account of the last two hours, it would be completely different than my roommate’s. She would present different facts about the evening than I would, but neither of us would be wrong.
The point I’m trying to make has to do with our perspectives and our tendencies to pass judgment based on the facts we are presented with. I learned history, American and World history, in a certain way. I think the history I know is a version of fact. But it’s not the only historical account. Do children in Vietnam learn the Vietnam War the same way children in America do? What about Civil War curriculum in the North versus in the South?
Perspective is everything, and understanding how people absorb information and how people see certain events, is key to achieving any kind of globalized, peaceful civilization. So when I read about King Leopold and the author gives me a good account of his childhood traumas, the reasons that potentially explain his evil behavior throughout his adulthood, I can understand why he did the things he did. But it doesn’t excuse them. Reading an Nazi account of the events of World War II would be helpful in understanding all facets of the war, but it would not make the Nazis any less evil.
While I may have argued to my dad once or twice that no version of history is right, I take this opportunity to change that statement. What I mean is that I don’t think history is complete fact
***modern history will be more factual because of our technologically advanced news media
But I do believe that even understanding someone else’s perspective does not prevent one from being morally right. And in this I justify that right and wrong exists
The point being that I want to understand why and how one is right and one is wrong.
So, I have done my best thusfar to understand the facets of Islam, and have tolerance for a culture so vastly different than my own. And I am tolerant. But just as King Leopold is wrong, there are a lot of men in this country who are just plain wrong.
All men and women, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, orange, green, big, small, gargantuan…they are all created equal. There is such a thing as basic human rights.
We were sitting in the bar in our hotel yesterday, my dad, our friend Dave, me, and our wonderful Egyptian guide, George. After a long day in Luxor exploring the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, we were looking forward to an ice cold Egyptian Stella beer. We placed out orders, and a few moments later the waiter returned to tell George that it is forbidden to serve Egyptians alcohol during Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting). George is not a Muslim. He does not follow Ramadan. Yet he had to sit and watch as we drank our beer.
George is awesome and he didn’t care. But I wanted to tell the waiter exactly where he could put my beer.
Egypt is not a theocracy. Technically it is a democracy. But a democracy doesn’t exist here like it should. It’s not fair.
Not fair for George.
Not fair for women.
God bless the U.S.A.
I think in a past life I lived as a Bedouin in the Jordanian desert. Feel free to circle the most likely explanation for how I came to this conclusion:
Whatever it may be, I find this Bedouin culture to be the most captivating thing about our time here in Jordan.
After departing from the land of the deadly sinkholes of the fast-evaporating Dead Sea, we crossed the border into Jordan and greeted the Arab world. Salaam! A sense of wariness pervaded slightly perhaps, as we leave the familiar, Western-feeling nation of Israel, in many respects, and enter into a world in which seems a few steps too many out of a normal American comfort zone. However, this caution dissolved when we were met by our smiling guide Maha, a joyful and jolly Palestinian-Jordanian whose positive attitude is infectious. Unlike Chaim, she seemed genuinely glad to see us and eager to begin a new adventure.
We traveled miles and miles through the Jordanian desert, greeted here and there by giant AK-47s and AR-15s. Bedouin and gypsy tents spotted the brown landscape, and once in a while we drove through a small village, where locals sold tomatoes in carts, pita bread on wooden slabs, and lambs hanging upside down in shop doorways. The last thing we expected to find on this path was a giant Roman city.
Jarash is 2,000 year old city in the middle of the desert. It is a huge Roman city, complete with multiple amphitheatres, a grand forum, and chariot racetrack. It is, of course, smaller than the great ruins of Rome; however, it is absolutely worth traveling to Jordan to see. It’s incredible to imagine what these streets must have been like in Roman times, with people bustling through the streets, selling frankincense on the corner and building towering columns to expand their great empire. We climbed into one of the amphitheatres and I scurried down to the stage, chasing my childhood urge to find a spotlight, and did a little dance for an audience of 2.
I walked behind the stage to do some exploring when suddenly I heard the Muslim call to prayer echo from all directions around me, and I turned 360 degrees to find the stems of mosques sprouting from the nearby neighborhoods. The sound is quite incredible really, one that I already know I will love to hear in the coming months. It is as though these prayers boil in one’s stomach and steam out of their throats, releasing a sound which easily quells the hunger of any ear.
From Amman to Petra, we –
~ Bought a fantastic rug from a Bedouin man
~ Climbed to the top of Mt. Nebo to visit Moses’ resting place and see his vision of the Holy Land
~ Hid in corners and crevices of a Roman military citadel in Kerak
~Found a chameleon battling a cat
~ Dined on hummus and tabouleh fit for kings
~ Counted the number of gigantic photos of King Abdullah and King Hussein
~ Admired an ancient mosaic map of Jerusalem and its neighboring lands
~ Went wakeboarding on the Red Sea
As she often does (Team Sopresa, you will enjoy this), Maha proclaimed as we drove towards Petra that this will be a “big surprise!” The Moses Valley is the town in which Petra finds itself; Petra however, is nestled deep within giant bodies of red sandstone, guardians of a long-forgotten civilization of Bedouin and nomad peoples.
Upon arrival in Petra, or rather the Moses Valley, my two companions and I watched the sunset behind the sandstone hills, and I could not help but sit in the beautiful evening air and do some writing. Before it had gotten too late, I had already made a couple of new friends. The lovely wait staff was very inquisitive, and I had fun learning that one was in school to be a tour guide, while another was fluent in almost 7 languages thanks to being around tourists all the time. I then attempted to help translate for one of the less linguistically-talented servers that one of his Spanish guests wanted a glass of milk. When the guest realized I spoke Spanish, she promptly seated herself at my table, quickly stated that she hoped she was not disturbing me, and launched into an epic Spanish tale about her troubles traveling through the Middle East, her recently deceased husband, and her dearly missed Spanish hometown. It was wonderful to hear and speak Spanish after only hearing Arabic for so many days, but I rarely got a chance to say a word. After Mary had retired for the evening, I marveled at the joy of making new friends.
The next morning, we journeyed into the old city of Petra. We walked through the Siq, a twisting turning crevice which opens into a colossal structure called the Treasury. Camels sit out front, chum for his hasty salesman who is waiting to pounce on each and every emerging tourist. Walking to the Treasury, the swirling sandstone is a blend of purples, yellows, reds, pinks, and whites, reflecting gloriously in the day’s soft sunlight. The Treasury is simply this beautiful stone carved into giant columns and decoration, marking tombs of distant souls. On our walk, we came upon more of these giant sandstone structures, not freestanding, but rather emerging from the boulders as if licked to fruition by the wind. Perhaps the most impressive of these sandstone beauties was the giant Monastery, which we had to hike up up and up to.
Huffing and puffing, we finally made it up to the top, after passing at least a dozen Bedouin jewelry stands perched along the 800 stone steps. When we reached the top, we marveled at the Monastery, then wandered to a larger Bedouin shop, with people in one room smoking sheesha comfortably on colorful mats, and antique jewelry laid out in the expanse of another.
We quickly made friends with a young Bedouin named Tayseer, who offered to retie my head scarf the correct way, as the merchant I had bought it from was apparently not schooled in elegant scarf tying procedures. Tayseer told us that his family had been living nearby this monastery in the mountains here for 950 years. He was a very smart kid, very articulate and seemingly at peace with himself and his lifestyle. He described the magic of sleeping outside under the stars every night, watching the sun rise over the Monastery’s columns each day. Why would you want to be anywhere else? he asked. He described his inability to identify with those who felt the need to constantly be surrounded by money and excess; he had a small business which kept him and his family well, but there was not much else he needed to feel happy. Tayseer then invited the three of us to join him under the stars that night, where he would cook us a Bedouin meal by the fireside. Although I could not quite convince my companions to this desert sleepover, I vowed to one day return to the Monastery and spend a night like a Bedouin.
Later the next day, after I had pressed her again and again, Maha finally agreed to stop by a Bedouin tent in the desert, where I and another sweet German woman who also stopped behind us went inside to discover an impressively cool and organized tent house. The tent, divided into a woman’s bedroom, men’s bedroom, and sitting room/kitchen area, housed a family of five or six, including two young women who study business management at university when they are not on summer holiday in the desert. Outside of their tent was a separate tent for the goats and sheep, which were out being herded by the men when we arrived.
Maybe I wasn’t a Bedouin in a past life.
But secretly I wish I was, or will be. I think it is incredibly beautiful to want to live on the land and off the land. To depend on the most basic of necessities, to be able to know where to find water in the middle of a desolate wasteland, to invite solitude in for tea.
The most interesting of all of this: Bedouins own almost 40% of Jordan’s property. Since long before it was settled, Bedouins acquired deeds for most of the land; on some of it they farm, mostly for themselves since they have neither the manpower nor the technology to harvest for large scale export. They move up and down the country depending on the seasons, leaving behind their land until they return again. Most of these people are not poor by any means; in fact, many have made fortunes by selling their property to the government or private investors nearby to big cities like Amman. If the Jordanian government had the money, it could certainly buy most of this land and double its capacity for agricultural export. Alas…
But I think it is interesting to note that sometimes those who we least expect to survive, end up thriving. Unlike the Native Americans of the United States, who now for the most part have evolved with the rest of us and caught up to modern technology, the Bedouins are content and comfortable living the same way they did hundreds and hundreds of years ago. There are not many people who would be able to value such antiquity and such tradition.
To conclude – Jordan is one of the most wonderful countries I have visited. The culture is incredibly accommodating and gentle, very unexpected perhaps for our perception of this part of the world. If you have the chance, don’t miss Jordan, Jerash, Petra, and the wild desert countryside whose traveling inhabitants have secrets worth discovering.
As I waddled awkwardly into the Dead Sea, I was reminded of how strange this place really is. As soon as I fell into the water, I floated right to the top, like a log, at the same time becoming painfully aware of each scrape on my body as the salt began to eat away, down to the tiniest hangnail. It is the strangest feeling, to be completely buoyant – you feel strangely insignificant, like if the sea felt so inclined it could spit you right out onto the sand. Helplessness is a common feeling in this country; from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to this sweltering desert, there are times when I have felt so confused – and so smothered by the question ”why,” which nobody seems to like very much. Anyhow, I suppose I should start from the beginning.
My dad and I arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, woozy from air travel, but anxious to get started. Our guide, Chaim (pronounced like Khayem), met us at the airport and suggested we explore Tel Aviv for a short time while we waited for our third party to arrive on a different plane. So we threw, or rather lugged, our baggage into the van and headed off.
Chaim is quite a strange fellow. He is probably fast approaching 70, a tall, gangly fellow with shorts that are only slightly too short, and a little clip-on nametag/tour guide license. Born in Manchester, but raised in Israel, he fluently speaks a multitude of languages, of which I have heard English, Hebrew, Arabic, French and German. (We’ve had an interesting time practicing my Arabic together.) He knows quite a lot about everything – probably knows more about U.S. history than I do. His resourcefulness has been a gift, but by Day 3 of Chaim, we are just about ready for Guide #2. Chaim’s funny disability is his inability to walk and talk at the same time. I am always afraid to ask a question because I know it will mean stopping for at least 5 minutes while he slowly answers. Perhaps the most comical anecdote I can give is when he pulled the car over to the side of the road in the middle of a bustling main street to fully commit his energy to telling us a joke. I would tell you the joke, only I can’t remember it.
Back to Israel. Israel is a beautiful country. Even Tel Aviv, which is more of a regular city, still has a lot of charm. Our first stop was Jaffa, which is a restored area of town designed to resemble the time of the Crusaders, now inhabited by artists. To live in Jaffa, you have to go through a selection process in which a committee decides whether or not your “artist-enough” to be permitted residence in the old stone beachfront. Isn’t if funny that someone can tell you whether or not you are an artist, whether or not your own expression of creativity can be considered “art”?
Driving into Jerusalem that evening, I awoke to what seemed to me to be hundreds of white, cubical structures painted onto hillsides. Jerusalem is the quaintest of cities; its modernity is captured pleasantly by its ancient breath, and you are constantly reminded that your footsteps are far from the first that have walked this ground. The Mt. Zion hotel is seated daintily on a hillside, looking out onto hillsides and religious structures, literally fit for a King.
We had a lot to see in the Old City, but Chaim decided to first show us some of the newest developments in Jerusalem, including what I will refer to as the Separation Wall. This wall was built by the Israeli government to separate Jerusalem from the West Bank, or more accurately, the Israelis from the Palestinians.
The wall’s destination however, is completely arbitrary. It weaves its way through homes and businesses, separating long-time neighbors, friends, and even family members with 30-foot pillars of cold, hard stone. Along the wall, players have graffitied impassioned messages upon the wall such as “Friends should not be divided; enemies should” and “Scotland for a free Palestine.” As Chaim is explaining the history of the wall, we see a shop owner walk past us and into his quiet and run-down grocery store next to where our van has parked. Chaim tells us he knows this shopkeeper, and that before the wall was built, he had a thriving business that served a relatively large radius. Now, this clientele has been halved, at least, and business has obviously dropped off significantly. Not only has this wall devastated the economy of those living on the West Bank side, but it has created a multitude of other problems for these people, problems like lack of healthcare, education, trash pick-up services, among other things. Not to mention the psychological damages it must do to revoke all rights and privileges from someone completely arbitrarily. Even more eye-opening is how many people are unaware of the existence, location, or damages wrought by this wall: most Israelis have never even seen it up close. And few Americans could tell you where a wall existed, if they could identify one at all.
The wall is just a symbol of the deep and destructive consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are walls and obstacles everywhere you look. An American-Jew named Moscovitz, buys up properties in the Arab districts of Jerusalem and build residencies for Jewish people, not to foster tolerance, but rather as political show of claiming one’s right to this land. On another day, Muslim terrorists target Jewish city centers or modes of public transportation as a way to express their anger at the situation. Neither is right. Both have acted wrongly in the past. Both believe they are entitled to this Holy Land. But who knows the answer? Certainly not me.
The next wall we faced was the Waling Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Slightly less controversial, but not much. The Old City is beautiful, with is piles of old stones, and narrow alleyways with shopkeepers selling everything you can possibly imagine – from underwear to cinnamon. We learned about the architecture of the city, its inhabitants, and its conflicts. When we finally came upon the Wailing Wall, it was much different and much smaller than I had imagined. About to skip merrily to the center of the wall, I was quickly ushered onto the women’s side, which was only about 1/5 of the actual wall. The men got the other 4/5. In spite of having limited space, women crowded against the surface of the wall, writing their messages to divinity, and slipping them in the wall’s cracks, perhaps to be absorbed and swallowed by the great feat of an ancient King. Bookshelves lined the fence dividing the women from the men, stocked with copies of the Bible and the Koran for all to read and pray. I peeked through the fence onto the men’s side to see what I could possibly be missing out on. Orthodox men with black top hats and sweltering black suits stepped lightly around, some prayed on the wall while others looked on.
After the Wailing Wall we walked down the Via Dolorosa, the narrow city streets through which Jesus walked, bearing a cross and an imminent death. The walk ends at the Church of the Sepulcher, which is Jesus’ supposed place of burial and crucifixion. It was then explained to me, as I watched group after group kneel upon Christ’s tomb, kiss it, rub their clothes on it, and pray upon it, that historians really do not know where Christ was buried nor where he was crucified. Yet, this church and its tomb stand anyway. Furthermore, the Church is divided into several different pieces of ownership; different sects of Christianity all lay claim to this church as their own. There have been numerous violent outbreaks inside the very walls of this church.
As I watched the multitudes of people wander in to touch the tomb of Jesus Christ, I found myself dearly wishing to know what they were feeling. Even though I know that historically Christ was not buried in this tomb, they are just as certain as I that He lays beneath their kneeling bodies. People come from all over the world to see this church; they save penny by penny for years and years to see this place, to feel this place.
If only I could understand ?Why?
On the way home from the Old City, Chaim drove us through a religious quarter of Jerusalem, which was home to a community of Orthodox Jews. In Jerusalem, you see them walking around everywhere, with their top hats and sharp dress, but their degree of zealousness differs for the most part. In this community, however, they are as serious as it gets. In this sect of Judaism, men and women do not go to work; rather, they rely on charitable donations to survive. These pious men spend their days praying and studying the Torah, while their wives tend to the children. Women who are married must shave their heads and wear a cloth wrapped around their bare head. Oh, but once in a while when they are out in public they are allowed to wear wigs. Apparently, a woman’s hair is what cradles her beauty, so when she is married, she no longer needs to look beautiful, god forbid another man look at her.
?Why? ?Why? ?Why?
Women engage in a silent competition to see who can have the most children. If a wife is doubtful that she can handle more children, the husband will consult the rabbi to see if he says she can have any more. They of course are strictly kosher, which is another strange tradition I have yet to understand. Keeping kosher means not mixing dairy and meat; kosher meat consists of animals with split hooves, and I believe there are a few other requirements. I have asked more than 5 people on this trip
Why do meat and dairy need to be separated? Why do animals need to have the split hooves? The answer I got 5 times was because the Torah says so.
I’m learning a lot about faith on this trip. You don’t question it.
Oh by the way, did I mention that these Orthodox men are the #1 biggest consumer of prostitution services. But don’t worry, the rabbi says it’s ok because it is not considered adultery: the prostitutes are not married.
For all the hell we give parts of the Arab world for how they treat women, and rightly so, these men are just as bad.
I will note, however, that this community is very small and its regiment unique to itself. Like any other religion, there are fanatics and fundamentalists that engage in behavior difficult to understand and impossible to agree with. These are one such example.
As we stood looking out on a beautiful of Jerusalem the next morning, I was disappointed it would be my last. This city, for all its “whys” had so much charm. And anyway, I love the word Why? I want to know how people work and how the world works, and why is the straight path to truth, or at least one version of truth. Maybe you don’t question religion. But the discussions that I find when I do are worth it.
From Jerusalem, we began our journey through the West Bank and the
It’s hot. We stopped at the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, where the prophets of the Old Testament lived and toiled under the sun, recording the Words.
We then made our way to Masada, which was a refuge, a place of escape, for King Herod, whose paranoia fueled his fear of attack by any of his many enemies. The palace is built on top of a huge plateau in the middle of the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. There is a special way of getting to the top that is only evident to those who have climbed it before. On this mountaintop, was the first creation of an aqueduct and water storage system; for somewhere in the middle of the desert where water was nonexistent, this was quite an achievement. King Herod, however, never had reason to flee to this desert hideaway. Years after his death it was inhabited by almost 1000 Jews, who lived there peacefully until the Romans conquered the land. When the Romans arrived, however, did not know how to get to the top, and proceeded to build a huge ramp. This ramp took three years – three years in which the Jews were basically trapped upon this mountaintop with no way to escape or successfully fight off the Romans. As the story goes, when the Romans were finally finished building the ramp and the Jews knew there was no escape, they committed mass suicide, choosing death rather than eternal slavery to the Romans. Aside from one man’s account who never saw the battle, there is no evidence that this suicide actually occurred. First of all, no bodies have ever been found that suggest massive numbers of death. Secondly, to kill oneself in Judaism is a sin, one that people as religious as these most likely would not have considered. Whichever story is true, it was certainly a fascinating palace in the most terrifying of deserts; definitely worth the trek.
Now we are finding solace in the air conditioning of our Dead Sea hotel room. Floating in the Dead Sea was a fascinating must, but now that the excitement is over it is time to be out of the sun. The water in the Dead Sea is warm, like a Jacuzzi, and the beach is covered in balls of salt crystals (don’t worry mom we brought you some with your Dead Sea sand!). The swim was truly bizarre. When you’re in the water, your limbs immediately float to the top, even as you awkwardly flail to keep them down. Watching somebody try to stand in the water is quite a sight, as you really have to struggle to keep your body vertical underneath the water. Interesting, though, the Dead Sea is almost like a medical haven. People with skin diseases like eczema and cirrhosis come to the Dead Sea to cure their ailments. Apparently the combination of minerals in the water, and spending time in the area itself, has proven to be a quick cure for these skin conditions. As a result, people have “treatments” all throughout the day — we saw people floating at 6 in the morning, before the sun was rising. Unfortunately, the standard treatment period is 3 weeks, which would be quite boring. The Dead Sea is like Las Vegas without restaurants, casinos, or swimming pools.
Tomorrow is on to the Jordanian border and new adventures.
Do you ever wonder what the world would have been like if Pangea had never broken apart into the continents we know today? What if we were all just smushed together into one big pile of people and land? Would we have passports form
How cool would that be? We would all be World Citizens. That is my new life goal in fact, Pangea or no Pangea. When someone asks me where I’m from, I want to be able to say, “Same place as you: Planet Earth!” I suppose I could say it now just for kicks, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I want to be there, but I’ve got some time left yet before I can be of the World and not just of Los Angeles or California or the United States.
I have found a running theme this summer in the conversations and issues that have arisen throughout my stay here, that theme being how as a society we focus on our differences rather than our similarities. In a recent dinner conversation we pondered whether or not it is better (at least within the United States) to emphasize how we are different or how we are the same. It’s an interesting question, and one that has sat in the back of my mind for quite a while.
To preface, does America have a national culture? I have a friend who is often bothered by the fact that her significant other is partially attracted to her because she is of another race, another culture. He sees her, as she puts it, as exotic. While I understand her frustration completely, I can understand where he finds this appeal and why: it is hard sometimes to identify where my American tradition and culture lie, mostly because America is just an infant finding its legs in a world saturated with language, culture, history, epochal billows of life. I think it’s interesting how much I am fascinated and attracted to other cultures, people and places that are different than me, mostly because they are different. And also because, I think, it is easy to feel void of a specific culture in the United States. What is beautiful, yet confusing, about this country is that it is such a smorgasbord (I’ve always wanted to use that word) of flavors and colors and sounds; people have traveled from every single country in the world to live in the United States, to translate their way of life into new phrases and forms, mixing, matching, swinging and singing with everyone else….
Case in point: I attend the Fourth of July parade in Washington D.C., a parade celebrating the Independence of the United States of America, and 80% of the parade’s attractions are multitudes of culture groups from Filipinos to Peruvians displaying dance and song of their homelands. This is interesting because this has nothing and everything to do with American independence; hence, why I am confused about my own culture and tradition within my homeland. Perhaps part of American culture is the fact that we are all different, I don’t know. I will save this conversation for another time, and move onto the idea of whether or not it is right to be obsessed with differences among our neighbors, friends, and strangers.
While it is painful for me to consider a world in which we did not celebrate our ancestral heritage and gather around in various cultural celebrations, perhaps the key to peace in this world is just that situation. Perhaps in order to fully acknowledge that we are all human beings with the same base needs and desires, we must forget that we have different backgrounds, different skin colors, different understandings of language and environment. Instead of celebrating what the past has endowed upon us in the form of food, music, song, and language, we parade down the street with the achievements we ourselves have created, those that come from an anticipation of the future. While I was watching the 4th of July parade, I consciously looked at everything from the context of it being different: I looked at the Chinese drummers and observed simply that they were Chinese drummers. When the Latino dancers trotted by I recognized them as Latino dancers. I gave them a label, because that is how we as a society are trained to think: in labels. We organize things into different piles and drawers. This is problematic.
We had an Ashoka Fellow visit today; her name is Caroline Casey and she has an organization that promotes the rights of people with disabilities. She is legally blind. One of the things she said that really stood out for me today —-
Labels are for jam jars, not for people.
That statement could not be more true. When we allow ourselves to think in the context of labels and differences, something bad happens. This thing called racism happens. Labeling people, focusing on how they are different, how we ourselves are different, perpetuates racism. It perpetuates stereotypes. And it perpetuates hatred. By allowing each other to claim our differences, we create victims. By telling a minority, “we want you at our school because of the color of your skin” you perpetuate racism. In France, I learned recently, it is against the law to ask anyone their race/ethnicity. I’m not saying France is void of racism nor do I disregard the variety of problems that come along with this, but I do think it’s an interesting way to approach society and create one solid national identity. Because when you victimize someone, and give them the opportunity to recognize they have been oppressed and how unfair their life is etcetcetcetcetc, the only thing that happens is a psychological knot forms within their head, and they start to believe they are indeed a victim. Without making any argument at all about whether Sotomayor is the right candidate for the Supreme Court seat, I think it is worth observing how critical her ethnicity has been to the heat of the discussion around her confirmation. I understand diversity, but doesn’t choosing her because she is a woman and Latina only inflame her own percepetion of herself, and the stereotype that millions place upon her? Isn’t the most important part of a Supreme Court Justice the caliber of the decisions she makes on the bench, not the country her parents were born in?
The word victim is very interesting. I’m working with a Fellow candidate now whose organization has created a network of support for conflict survivors, and he has fought the U.N., the private sector, and the governments of the world to make disability rights a human rights issue. When he was 20, he took his junior year abroad in Israel, and on a weekend camping trip in an unmarked minefield and lost his leg on a landmine. Let me tell you: you say the word victim to this guy, and he may just rip off his other leg and beat you over the head with it. His main goal, same with Caroline’s, is to eliminate this word, victim, from our language. Instead, he sees a world full of survivors; people who have been dealt shitty cards, but take what they got and make more than the most of it. His organization’s mission is based on these five steps:
1. Face Facts—about suffering and loss
2. Choose Life—living for the future, not in the past
3. Reach Out—by connecting to others who have “been there”
4. Get Moving—by setting goals and taking action for a healthy recovery
5. Give Back—with gratitude by contributing to your community and the world.
This is in the context of a physically disabled person, but disabilities can come in all forms; and we ALL have disabilities no matter how many limbs we have or do not have, what color our skin is, or anything else.
And there’s the point. One I have made before I think, but one that has been made so incredibly clear this summer. We are all just people. Just human beings. Nothing else.
I was recently introduced to someone visiting the United States for the first time from Africa. He asked another friend, also from Africa, how he deals with white people. I really struggled with this one. How do you deal with white people? I’m still chewing on this, and it angers me almost to the point of tears whenever I think about it; I could barely get my breakfast down that morning. Do I have a specific way of dealing with black people? Asians? Hispanics? This guy would come back to us every night during his stay in D.C., complaining about how racist everyone was towards him, how many dirty looks he got, how people were visibly afraid of the “big scary African man.” Fucking bullshit. I’m sorry, pardon my French. But please. You know what the African population of D.C. is? In 2005, there were 115,000 African immigrants in the Washington metropolitan area, making up over 10% of the immigrant population, a number which has most likely inflated over the past 4 years. There are 300,000 Ethiopians alone, not to mention the thousands of others belonging to different African communities. While D.C. can be considered probably one of the more racist cities in America, there is no way he was being treated as terribly as he described. He wanted to see things in this way, so he did. He was looking for racism, so he found it. When we want to see the worst in people we can. When we think we need to “deal with people” in a certain way, then we will create ways to “deal,” whatever that means. I acknowledge that racism exists in the world. And I have empathy for those who have to struggle with the marginalization that has been fed upon minorities over so many thousands of years. But every white person in D.C. does not give every African a dirty look. And every African doesn’t struggle with the difficulty of interacting with every white person they pass on the street. It just doesn’t happen.
There’s a documentary I watched called “Paperclips.” Watch it. I’ll warn you I spent the better half of a Sunday in tears and viciously depressed, but watch it. It shows the danger of stereotyping and ignorance, how we isolate ourselves in the face of danger and challenges, blaming those who are most far removed. For example, many conflicts in Africa which seem to have large ethnic components actually can be traced back to the issue of resource scarcity: if there’s not enough food for the region, you do whatever it takes to feed your own tribe. More importantly though, it reflects the FACT that those characteristics of people can be so easily overcome with a small show of effort. Hatred is so prevalent in this world for no reason at all, and I saw it up close when this boy asked a friend how to deal with white people. Mere ignorance, the mere need to blame someone else for our own shortcomings, feeds this circle of stereotyping, racism, hatred. It just doesn’t need to be there. I, we, the world needs to learn how to take responsibility for ourselves, focus on the here-and-now, not the then-and-there.
I’m not sure what my point is, aside from the fact that there is nothing different about me, the Queen of England, or the guy who drives my cab, that is unless I want there to be. There is no excuse for intolerance or racism in this world. Absolutely none. I’d like to respond to what KK wrote in her comment on this post; I am as guilty as the next person of perpetuating stereotypes out loud or in my head. The other day I was walking through D.C. alone on my way to meet someone, and as I walked through different neighborhoods, I noticed the demographic quickly begin to change. Suddenly I was in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and shortly after that, a Hispanic one. I felt my body tense up as I walked though these areas, incredibly aware of the fact that I was white and a woman. But even as I was walking I was consciously recognizing the disappointment I felt in myself for stereotyping in the way I was, whether justified or not. It is very difficult seperate oneself from these stereotypes when they are so ingrained in your head. But it is important, and I was reminded of this by my friend Ben today, that it is about embracing what is unique and special about each culture and each individual within the framework that we are all the same and are motivated by the desire for happiness, love, and peace.
Moving on…my life in D.C. is coming to a close. Strange though, because it feels as though I have finally started my own little life, all by my lonesome. It’s dreadful to think that this is all so temporary, and that in a matter of weeks I will be starting all over again. But nevertheless, I have taken so much from this experience, which I will share more deeply in my next post. For now, here are some of the things I have been doing and seeing here in D.C.:
Today was similar to drinking a few cups of Nyquil and washing it down with Swedish fish. (Just to clarify the analogy for those with differing taste buds: Nyquil = the worst —- Swedish Fish = the best).
At this moment, after spending most of the day in tears, I feel so exhaustingly drained of emotion, yet simultaneously so invigorated and certain of myself, in a boggling way.
So to preface the day, for those who are still unclear on what it is that Ashoka does, let me summarize: As our CEO Bill Drayton says, you can give a man to fish and he’ll have a meal. You can teach a man to fish, and he may never go hungry. But social entrepreneurs are not content until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. The heart of Ashoka is the network of Fellows that we elect. Our Fellows represent leading social entrepreneurs in their fields, people who are not only addressing certain problems in the world, but are actively and creatively pursuing ways to change the system in a way that roots out the issue’s source and creates an effective, sustainable change.
Since I work in the D.C. office, most of my job involves reading and writing about future fellows and the work they are doing, which is wonderful because it gives me a small window into others’ motivations for change the ways they pursue that chase. However, I think today I really felt the essence of Ashoka as deeply and fully as I think is possible (at least I hope so, for my emotional sake.)
We had a prospective candidate visit today to speak to me and another Ashoka colleague about his life and current work, which involves the problem of urban violence. However, before he began looking at violence as a systemic problem, he spent over a decade working throughout Africa and across other continents as a highly specialized doctor attempting to eradicate infectious diseases. He was at the top of his class – top of the world – a doctor with the potential to make a 3924803498520092304 figure-salary (I exaggerate for effect) and with the inflating reputation as one of the most skilled and prominent professionals in his field. Nevertheless, without any funding or friends, he left the United States and worked in one of the most desperate and horror-filled countries on the African continent. Because of his dedication to his work and the people he touched, his marriage fell apart, he saw the absolute worst of humanity, submitted himself to, well, hell. And by hell I mean hell. Perhaps you have reached to those depths at some point in your life, perhaps you have not. This particular individual has in a very profound way.
Listening to his journey invoked within me the familiar feeling that swells regularly depending on my mood and situation. Today I felt as though it almost burst. As he went on about his struggles and his achievements in regions of the world that are absolutely desperate for something, anything, thing, I felt that irrepressible being within me rear its not-so-ugly head, that being that makes me certain of where I should be and what I should be doing.
I feel so called, so called, to go where people need help the most, where people need humanity the most.
Specifically, I feel called to those African countries and regions that, as the candidate I spoke with today described, live in a different time. Not a different place, but a different time. They have been forgotten, left behind, abandoned. And why? We’ll get back to this.
I listened to him talk about how difficult his work was, the hardships he endured abroad, the relationships he lost along the way. So I asked him,
Did you do the right thing?
He looked at me, and all of a sudden he was changed. He began to cry, and something appeared in his eyes that I have never witnessed before in my life. It was something that reduced me not only to tears for the rest of the day, but to a deep inner conflict which I imagine will continue throughout the next few years, if not the rest of my life. I saw in his eyes, suddenly, this reflection of pain, of desperation, longing, of the horrors he had witnessed and the death that had surrounded his soul. I cannot articulate in any translatable way what this moment looked or felt like, I apologize. But for the three us in the room it was an incredibly powerful moment, and one that I am so so thankful for.
With these weary eyes, he could not give me an answer. He knew I was asking that question for myself, for my own life. And that was an answer he could not have. He did relate, though, how insurmountably difficult his experiences had been, how scared he had felt at times, how many tears he had shed, how much of himself he had lost, and
how many lives he had saved.
In a life like this, he said,
you will die many times. You will be born many times over, but the birth canal will be very painful. Very painful.
Despite the tears and the eyes and the tales of past, what scared me the most was this moment with this candidate reinforced to an new level, my own resolve and need —– need —— to do this. To save lives that few others are willing to save. To go against all the norms and expectations. This is scary stuff. He was looking into my eyes and speaking into me, literally; I pictured in my heart and mind myself in his memory, and that was powerful. Really really powerful.
What am I supposed to do? I listen to someone who as bluntly and clearly as possible tells me how awful and difficult and life-changing/ending those experiences were, yet at the same time impresses upon me the fact that
it was indeed the right thing do.
This is the troubling thing about how I feel. There is nothing I can do about that not-so-ugly being rearing up within. If you have a calling to something, then you will know. I feel powerless to it because I honestly truly will not be able to rest until I have wrestled that creature face-to-face, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul. That’s it.
Today was an important day for me, because I think I finally understood in many ways the depth of the sacrifice that I am preparing to make, both emotionally and psychologically, as well as in regards to my family, friends and connections. But the point is that I have to do it. I have to do it in Africa. I just have to.
It’s not an obsession or a phase. It is something that is as much a part of my soul and my being as the blood that streams through my veins. I cannot be dissuaded or stopped because I have no more control than anyone else.
I cannot exist here in this world, free and happy and rich with life, when another world exists, another time exists, that is the opposite. Our parents tell us to eat our broccoli, finish our dinner, because there are “starving children in Africa.” Yes, but what does that really mean?
It means that we have created a society in which we don’t have to fundamentally examine that “other world.” By momentarily acknowledging starving children and finishing our meals, we excuse ourselves from any responsibility. Those children, that other world does not exist in our own, and they do not exist as true human beings in our minds, perhaps in mythical form, but not in reality. In his preface to “The Wretched of the Earth,” Sartre writes how we have become men at others’ expense. He says how “[our] passiveness serves no other purpose but to put [us] on the side of the oppressors.” sAt Newseum this past weekend in Washington D.C., I spend a good amount of time in the Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit, which included some deeply moving and strenuously heavy images. For example, an image of a crouching child, a skeleton of a child, and a vulture in the background, just waiting for this child to die. Think about how many people look at that photograph every day, are moved by it, and then move on. That image is not real to us. It means nothing. It resonates to the senses, but where else?
As a good friend pointed out to me tonight, one of the most profound things he has taken from his few years here in the United States is that (and I hope he won’t mind me repeating this), all people are exactly the same. There is nothing that distinguishes anybody from anybody else, except a particular visage or habit. And it’s true. We are all exactly EXACTLY the same. There is nothing inferior about anyone else.
The candidate today said, and this is reflected clearly in his work, is there are not good people and bad people, only good behaviors and bad behaviors. As a doctor, he does not distinguish people as good or bad when he treats them, there are only people. There is nothing fundamentally more significant or superior about anybody on this earth. We are all the same.
So why do we forget? Why do we create myths and abandon reality? Why do we eat in the name of a starving other? What is the next step? If the world really believed everyone was exactly the same, there would be no starvation, no violence, no hatred. Because that starving child in Africa we mentioned at the dinner table, well he would be your brother. That factory worker in Singapore, she’s your mother. But we don’t think like that. Not now. Maybe someday.
“And the day when our human race has full matured, it will not define itself as the sum of the inhabitatnts of the globe, but as the infinite unity of their reciprocities.” – Sartre.
Today I was affirmed in a painful, tearful, and yet sweet way. I know what my next step is and I welcome it with steady anticipation. I don’t expect approval or excitement from many who love me, nor do I blame them. But perhaps one day I will be able to articulate this in a way that they can understand it, and in that way, can ride some inner wild beast of their own.
As I sat listening to Neil Macfarquhar speak about politics in the Middle East in Politics and Prose bookstore earlier tonight, I couldn’t get the whole King Abdul Order of the Merit business out of my head. I looked around the bookstore to a crowd of AmericanAfricanAsianPersianIraqiGermanEveryone and I just thought, how on earth can we continue to judge when we all sit here as clear equals. Morgan’s comment on yesterday’s blog post really strengthened my own convictions about cultural sensitivity in the American media especially. Really, there is just no excuse for that kind of article. None.
However, I think I may be a tad bit invigorated by a number of buzzing thoughts and interactions scurrying across my life this week. Let me share—
1) My current reading materials, all of which are deeply concerned with the problems of the world and the long oppressed who have struggled desperately for freedoms:
Hefty, depressing, invigorating, progressive, heavy, but all inspiring. (I know it’s crazy to read 140583039 books at one time, but that’s just the way I page…I figure you need have a lot of voices in your head at one time to create your own opinions.) I recommend each and all of these books, which I am a good part of the way through most, and am on my second time around for a few of them. There’s some really interesting verbage going on in a lot of these works.
2) This awesome video my mom shared with me. Pretty much my dream.
3) I am absolutely positively over the moon inspired by the group of interns at Ashoka. We had intern orientation on Friday, and it is really just way way way radical./neato./far out./amazing./awesome./wicked./whatever word you want how passionate these kids are. First of all, they are all
BRILLIANT we’re talking cream of the crop here….like harvest the corn from the field and served it creamed…
now you get it
But it’s more than being smart; we were all in this one room together for the whole day, talking about who we were, where we came from, what brought us to Ashoka, what goals/projects we wanted to focus on during the summer, etc. etc. etc. I have to say though, we played this game, and it changed my life. I can’t wait to export it to another chapter in my life…I would have cried it was so emotional…but then again…I didn’t want to be the “one who cried” on the first day. I’m emotional enough as it is.
So the game went like this:
Think of an image that incites a feeling within you and translate that image and feeling into why you have been brought to this place to do these things.
For example (this is what I said):
I see a canyon. This canyon is so deep and so wide, deeper and wider than any canyon known in stories of mankind. On one side of the canyon is a child. This child holds a book. Next to the child stands his mother, who carries a cell phone and a day planner. Far across the distance of the canyon on the other side stands another child. Except this child holds an automatic weapon. Next to this child stands his mother; this woman carries a bucket of water on her head. In between these two pairs within the depths of the canyon is a history’s worth of hatred, violence, malice, death, harsh words, harsh actions, misunderstanding chains and shackles, religious warfare, planes flying into towers, and so on. These pairs of mother-son are so far away from each other that they cannot hear or speak to one another, they cannot cross this perilous canyon. This makes me feel desperately heartbroken and terribly saddened. While I feel discouraged and overwhelmed, I feel empowered by the fact that there are those who have made valiant journeys to build bridges across. I feel hopeful that we can recognize humanity on both sides of the canyon, and that perhaps we will be able to yell back and forth loud enough to hear and clearly understand what the other is trying to say. I am here at Ashoka, to build a bridge, to be a bridge. I wish to straddle this canyon, to be part of both sides, understand both sides, and help both sides cross and join hands.
Yes cliche. Yes quite figurative. But I’m a bit dramatic sometimes. Anyway, that was my image. And it is nothing compared to those of my fellow interns. Some shared true images of men/women/boys/girls they have known, who have endured great struggles or undertaken great ventures. Others shared images from their own past, work they had done with those less fortunate, odds they had fought or realizations they had come to through observance. Some identified current images such as Obama speaking to Cairo or the the very circle of people we sat among in that room. While it may seem over-the-top or cliche, it was really quite a beautiful thing to witness. So much passion and hope and love. Everyone’s images were rather heavy and alarming, their feelings deep and thought-provoking; however never once did someone say “I feel hopeful” or “I feel lost.” Rather it was the opposite. We had all been reinforced, empowered even, by the horrible things that exist in the world. Nobody is resigned. Nobody has given up. We are stronger for these images we see and these feelings we feel. And that’s prettydamncool if I do say so myself.
So with that –> I can begin the wonderful adventure of the Ashoka interns together in Washington D.C.!
4) What a great weekend. I won’t go into much detail, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. But here are the basics:
Dance Africa Festival and Marketplace + Smoothies-in-a-Pineapple + Brad’s Awesome Dance Skills
Next up: Drum Circle in Meridian Park + AcroYoga + Dancing to the Beat + Wonderfully Bohemian People = I finally found a place where I felt at home. It was so L.A. I can’t even tell you. KK…it wasn’t as good as our dear Venice Drum Circle…but almost! We did get some quality dance instruction by a wonderful little African woman passing on her moves!