We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
The following is a guest blog from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Lindsay Michael. She is currently volunteering with Project Hope in the Palestinian Territories. To find an opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations©.
Every Saturday to Wednesday, I am accompanied by local volunteers to each of my five classes. We willingly spend a great deal of time outside of our teaching hours dispelling stereotypes on both sides and brainstorming ways to convey our newfound awareness to the respective communities about which we care so deeply.
The first day I met Saja, I was standing near a huge jasmine bush watching the neighborhood boys play a game similar to “Cowboys and Indians” called “Soldiers and Civilians.” She walked up to me stiffly with her arm stretched out. Clearly, the aberrant practice of greeting someone of the same sex, with anything other than kisses, is used solely to accommodate the international volunteers from the U.S.
I reached out my hand to shake hers and asked, “Saja?”
She nodded and said, “Yes, and you’re Lindsay from America, right? Hmmm. Wow, that’s funny You don’t look American…well, maybe South American.”
I stepped back giving myself a once-over and said, “And you? You’re from Nablus, but you don’t look Palestinian. Are you sure you’re not Irish with your red eyebrows and freckles?”
She explained to me that she had three sisters, all with different shades of hair and skin tones. “My oldest sister also has red hair and is even whiter than me. Both of my younger sisters have brown skin. One has blonde hair, and the other is a brunette. In Arabic, we say my mother has a garden with many different flowers.”
We laughed on the way to class and discussed common misconceptions people have of us, and the frustration and hurt we occasionally experience due to the careless use of stereotypes. What does an American look like? How does a Palestinian look? In all honesty, it would be quite an impossible task to answer these questions, but I am confident knowing that by the time I return home, both Saja and I will be able to describe how it feels, for at least some people, to be American or Palestinian.
My Arabic classes remind me of what it feels like to be a student again and how challenging learning a new language can be. The slightest variation in pronunciation can cause an outburst of laughter, or in less desirable situations, you end up finding yourself offering a slew of alternate examples, in an attempt to clarify yourself. It can be a humbling experience, either way. One such conversation I had with the father of a student over dinner went as follows:
With better English than my Arabic and typical Palestinian hospitality, Abu Mazin greeted me warmly, “Welcomes in Palestine. Where from you?”
I enthusiastically replied, “ I’m from the U.S.” as I tore off a toasted edge of homemade bread and submerged it in the fresh olive oil and onto the plate of Za’tar (dried thyme, salt, sumac, and sesame seeds).
I popped the simple deliciousness into my mouth, and Abu Mazin very matter-of-factly responded, “So you are terrorist from Ahmreeka?”
Choking from shock inhalation at his response, I sputtered out, “No, no. Terrorist? No, I’m not an American terrorist. I’m just a teacher.”
He looked confused and said, “But you say from Ahmreeka and you like teach, No?”
Unsure of how to contest and in a complete state of mass confusion, I scanned the indifferent faces of family members. I’ve always been under the impression that education was held in high esteem among Palestinians. Does this man who has welcomed me into his home think I’m a terrorist, because I’m a teacher – or is it because I’m American?
I’m sure it was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like hours before my student took over the rapidly dissolving introduction between Abu Mazin and me. My student spoke in Arabic to his father and turned to me with a look one might have, had they unearthed the secrets of the universe. Through uncontrolled giggles he said, “Excuse my father. He has strong accent. My father ask if you are tourist from America.”
The room erupted in merriment at the expense of my misunderstanding. He put his hand on my shoulder and with a gentle smile said, “Don’t care about it, Lindsay. You’re clearly not terrorist or tourist. You are Palestinian today and for as long as you are here!”
I knew at that moment, this would be a memory retold countless times by whomever felt the need for a good laugh.