The Seduction of a Sunset
I saw an extraordinary sunset my first Saturday back in Colorado. I was sitting at a long table with 40 other Americans on a farm for a delightful farm-to-table dinner, and I wasn’t freaking out. I was rather at peace. Maybe it was the jet-lag or maybe the wine or maybe, just maybe, I was at peace. Regardless, I showed no signs of culture shock.
What makes this extraordinary for me is that the previous Saturday I was in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. It was my last day in the camp before I traveled. I said many goodbyes that day; I was exhausted from the heat, sleep-deprived, and emotionally strung-out from all the above. The bus ride back to Amman was over two hours in 100-degree heat. I remember enjoying the scenery of my last bus ride from the camp to Amman -- parts of that drive are stunning. But I was also overheated, tired, and pretty much DONE with Jordanian public transportation. Once we got off the bus, I looked down at my dress that was stained with my sweat, not just along my stomach but in patches up and down my dress. A young American volunteer with me said, “Gross, Suzann!” Gross indeed. We headed directly to consume a fruit cocktail in order to lift our spirits and cool down our bodies.
Two very different Saturdays. Can you see how it might do my head in? I really enjoyed that farm dinner, maybe because it was a foodie-farm-to-table delight. But more so, I enjoyed the conversations I had with complete strangers. It was peaceful and quiet on the farm, free of the Amman noise. People had come to relax and eat a fabulous meal. There was no talk of politics. No one was irritated. I sat with lawyers and doctors and should have been completely out of my element. But, surprisingly, I wasn’t. They were interesting people; some I connected to over our travels, some on our home of Colorado. Some took interest in my work with Palestinian refugees. I recounted the story above about my last bus ride and ended with, “Look at me now, dinning with you fine people.”
The only constants of those two Saturdays was the heat (over 100 in Jordan & 95 in Colorado), the trickle of sweat down my back, people surrounding me, and a sunset. Colorado has beautiful sunsets. I almost forgot how beautiful Colorado is since I had been gone for months. Part of it is because Jordan has spectacular sunsets. I have seen some beauties over the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum (think Lawrence of Arabia desert), and even over a refugee camp. Lebanon also has stunning sunsets over the Mediterranean Sea. They all have captivated me. Each place has a hold on my heart.
But, it is more than a sunset.
I’ve seen the same sun rise in the Middle East. I have seen the same sun set in the Middle East. The same sun I see in American-- we are all under the same sun. We all are neighbors, all bearing the image of God. We all experience life—joy, pain, love, heartbreak, suffering. The contexts might be vastly different, but our humanity is the same. It’s up to me to recognize that in the person in front of me. Regardless if it’s an American or Palestinian or even a German. This is what I was thinking about as I was eating a fabulous meal, sweating, and watching the sun go down over Colorado—our commonality.
While the cultures of the Middle East and America might be different, we are very much the same. We all love to share a meal together. We all love our children. We all want the best for our families. We all want freedom. We all want opportunities. We all love. We all want life in its fullest. Again, this looks different according to culture.
In the Middle East, many families eat meals on a blanket or tablecloth on the floor. You use bread instead of silverware. There are no individual plates; you all eat out of the same plates and bowls of food, using the delicious pita bread to scoop out your morsels. It’s very communal and seems more intimate to me. I love to eat like this. I also love to sit at a table with silverware and an individual plate because I am in fact, an American.
What I really long for is to see the beauty.
Traveling in and out of the Middle East is a privilege. The work I do is a privilege. It’s a privilege to go in and out of different cultures and to relate to a multitude of different people. But, there are many downsides to weaving in and out of cultures as well. I am all too aware of the ugliness I see around the world, including my own country. I must deal with my own anger when seeing the injustice and the lack of supply for basic human needs and human rights for Palestinian refugees. The frustration of working in the camps as an American is overwhelming. The despair I feel that things will never change for them consumes me sometimes. And while I have spent much time in camps, giving up much to serve there, I am not a refugee. I will never fully understand what it means to have refugee status. I have citizenship. With citizenship comes opportunity. I am convinced that this is what the difference is between us--opportunities. I am convinced this is really what could change their lives, what could change their refugee status—the opportunity to work legally, to receive an education, adequate healthcare, basic human rights, and a home. A real home, not living in exile for decades in a refugee camp that was meant to be temporary.
In all the injustice and suffering of our lives, there is beauty. Beauty of the culture and traditions. Beauty of hospitality. Beauty of the human beings striving for something more. For me, this extends to all of us on this wondrous planet--there is so much beauty in our lives. There is so much we miss in others because we focus on what is different or what we don’t understand or what we fear. This is a tragedy to me.
What if I were focused on how different I was than the other Americans at the dinner? I have been there before, in culture shock longing to be somewhere else and immediately making assumptions about the people around me. Think of how much I would have missed that night. What if I sat there and compared them to my friends in the Middle East instead of being present and curious?
A few days before at passport control, a TSA agent asked me where I had been while out of the country. I told him Lebanon and Jordan. He replied with, “Why in the world would you go there?” Here’s where I had a choice, should I be sarcastic and defensive because he offended me or should I try to connect with him? I told him that I work with refugees and then made a joke. He laughed and said, “Thank you for having a sense of humor. I really appreciate it.” What would I have missed about him as a human being if I reacted out of being offended, or fear of what he would think of me, or out of self-protection? There is part of me that understands why an American would wonder why another American would go to the Middle East. And there is part of me that wonders why another American would wonder because the Middle East is AWESOME. But, do you see how it was within my heart to engage or shut down? I’m not saying it’s easy. I must continually remind myself that the person in front of me is a fellow human being and is also fighting battles I know nothing about. So, to be kind -- which takes a lot of patience and awareness -- instead of just reacting.
Living cross-culturally has helped me greatly. I have repeatedly learned that there is nothing scary about engaging someone different--different race, different religion, different nationality. I have the opportunity to learn and to engage someone, maybe someone I never thought I could. I have to tell you, it’s my greatest passion and privilege to do so. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and gives me such joy-- to engage and serve people so different than myself. Who maybe aren’t so different after all.
In this great, diverse country of America, who do you need to engage with curiosity and respect?
We all stop and stand in awe of a sunset,
Seduced by its beauty.
Look for the beauty
In each other.