Musings Whilst in Deep Culture Shock

“Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” ~Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Walking home from work on my last day behind these school girls. They held hands the entire time. This is how I think of the Middle East. 

Walking home from work on my last day behind these school girls. They held hands the entire time. This is how I think of the Middle East. 

Warning: The following rant was written under jet lag, and in extreme culture shock. Proceed with caution.

No one here calls me Habibti. That pretty much sums up my reentry to America. Habibti means “my love” or “my dear” and everyone in Jordan called me by it -- the women at the gym, the taxi drivers, friends, and complete strangers—let’s just say I heard it a lot. Repeatedly. Daily. Possibly minute by minute.

After being in Denver for approximately 30 hours, I decided to take my jet-lagged body to the gym, trying to get it on a schedule. I entered the gym bleary-eyed and the first thing I noticed was men. There are men here. I thought to myself, that’s different after going to an all women’s gym for the past 5 months. At that point, my eyes were like saucers scanning over the new lay of the land. The very next thing I noticed was the women. Tall and light skinned, everyone looked like me. That again felt weird. AND they didn’t smile at me, ask me where I was from, nor did they call me habibti.

I found the ellipticals and started to go to town. I looked up to see Fox News on one screen and CNN on the other. This is the precise moment that I can pinpoint the beginning of my culture shock-the beginning of the end. The news story on Fox News was about the school that had the pledge of allegiance read in Arabic.

I let out a small gasp and decided to turn my head to the screen with CNN. The news story was a poll of Americans on if they thought ISIS was a direct threat to Americans in the U.S.

I let out another gasp. I decided right then and there I had to look down, and that from this point on I was forbidden from watching “news” in America. If you’ll humor me, I’d like to explain how offensive these stories seemed to me “fresh off the boat” from the Middle East. First of all, I was struck by the fear and hatred shoved aggressively by the news: Arabic = bad. Arabic = Arabs.  Arabs-Muslims. Muslims=Terrorism. Terrorism=ISIS. I kept thinking, “Why are people so afraid in America?”

The day before, I was speaking Arabic. I was arguing with an official in Arabic at the airport in Amman over the amount of money I was being fined because of overstaying my visa. At one point he stopped, started to laugh, and told me I spoke Arabic well. The week before, I ended four months of Arabic classes. Two weeks before, a friend of mine, a Palestinian Christian, sang a beautiful Orthodox worship song in Arabic on our way home from a party. I speak Arabic, for the most part badly. But I do speak it and I do understand it. For the past ten years, I have had a love/hate relationship with Arabic. It is a beautiful language -- complicated and painfully hard to learn. So after being immersed in Arabic, I see its beauty. I know how tied Arabic is to the culture. I feel the key to learning Arabic is learning the culture and visa versa. And I feel I’m a better person for learning it. Because nothing has been more satisfying in my life than connecting with another person in their native language of Arabic. To be able to have a heart-to-heart conversation in another language is a privilege and takes much work.

Did you know that many English words come from Arabic? Say “sofa” right now…you just spoke Arabic. And our numbers come from Arabic numerals; without them, we would still be using Roman Numerals. We, as English speakers, owe the Arabic language a debt of gratitude.

So, imagine just how confused I was with the story about the furor over the Pledge being read in Arabic. Why is this a thing? Students catcalled and voiced angry denunciations in several classrooms and online while the Pledge was being read. Did you know that as a result the students didn’t hear the Pledge of Allegiance in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, or French? The school canceled their multicultural plan.[1] My fear and my heartbreak is that we as Americans stay small; we don’t learn about other cultures because of our fear. Our fear leads us to vilify others who are different, our fellow human beings.

I just came from the Middle East. Lebanon and Jordan to be exact. Those two countries are bordering Syria, hosting over 2.4 million Syrian refugees[2] (possibly much closer to 4 million), and have a serious threat of attacks from ISIS? But, please call them Daesh, that’s their name in Arabic and ISIS dislikes being called Daesh. And yet, it seems in my own country, which is incredibly removed from the entire conflict (like 35-hours of flights removed) there is much more fear of a Daesh attack. That is what the “news” is reporting. What might possibly happen to us, maybe, in the future, is speculation, not what is actually happening right now. Because right now, Syrians and Iraqis from all faiths are dying horrific deaths at the hands of Daesh. But, as removed from the situation as we are, we wonder if this situation will affect us instead of focusing on whom it is affecting. On who is actually dying. It feels like people in America are more afraid of Daesh than people in Jordan, a country that borders the conflict.

Part of my culture shock is the amount of fear I feel pushed at me in America. I find this alarming on several levels. I have to believe the environment that we find ourselves in forms us. Isn’t that true? Is fear forming me right now? The other part of fear is hate. Didn’t Shakespeare say, “In time we hate that which we often fear”? So what I fear, I often hate. I think those two are intrinsically tied together. Fear and hate. I think so much of what we see on the news leads us to hate. If we fear of Arabic, then it can lead us to hate those who speak Arabic. For no reason other than our fear and lack of knowledge of Arabic or Arabs or Arab culture or Muslims.

I’ve been thinking about hope for the past month or so. I’ve determined that hope is what I want forming me. Hope. Not fear, not anger, not bitterness, not resentment, not living in the past, or worrying about the future; the hope of the present moment. Where do I see hope in my life? Where do I see hope in other’s lives? Do people see hope in my life? Do I produce hope in others? Or fear? Or division? You know why I think I’ve landed on hope? Hope is intrinsically tied to love. I don’t believe you can have one without the other. I am fighting to believe that there is a hope and a Love big enough to hold me fast in the pain of going in and out of very different cultures. A hope and a Love big enough to hold my Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Syrians friends as tightly as that which extends to my American friends. All of us held together by that same hope and Love binding us as one.

But, what do I know? I’m in culture shock.