It seems like every time I tell a friend or family member that I will be studying abroad in Israel for the Fall, they don't understand why I would have any desire to go there, let alone live there. And, partially, I don't blame them. They see what their television or phone screen chooses to show them: a war-torn, barren desert rampant with crazed terrorists and terrorists-to-be. But these headlines neglect to depict the bigger picture. They forget to include the enchanting emptiness of the desert or the colorful clutter and languages of the souks. They forget to include the people.
And yet, we often let these headlines frame our judgement on a region that we don't know anything about and have never actually experienced. Many of us simply accept the narrative that others feed to us and are fine with that. It's easy to do- we then don't have to go to the trouble of meeting people ourselves and gathering our own information and challenging our paradigm.
This is all to say that our current political situation and relations with the Middle East are actually all the more reason to travel there. With a growing lack of understanding between Arabic and Western people, I believe the best way to build this understanding is by showing up. Showing who you are and asking questions and seeking to understand a different way of life. Maybe you'll see that some clichés are true or maybe that some are not so true. Maybe you'll see that your peers' judgement was correct or maybe not so correct. But no matter what, you're making a connection.
You're putting a face and a family to a headline, something you can relate to and understand. Egypt is no longer its government structure or its ancient pyramids -- it's the people you've met along the way. The Middle East is no longer a blurry photo of a terrorist on the news, but a cook with a collection of vintage vases and lanterns or hotel owner who accidentally tripped on the stairs and bruised his rib. We have the opportunity to actually see the people.
And it works both ways... the United States is no longer Trump's America or McDonalds, but a collection of diverse human people just trying to love well and do good. These stereotypes don't have to dictate the way we perceive other people and the resentment that these stereotypes carry doesn't have to be there.
We choose to base our stereotypes on what separates us from others. They're Muslims, we're Christians. They're darker-skinned, we're lighter-skinned. They, we. But what would happen if we chose to look at the similarities? How would our relationship with others change if we saw others first as humans, parents, children, teachers, artists, lovers? Maybe at some point along the way, we'll realize we have more in common with each other than we do differences. Maybe we'll realize that the parts of us that we have in common matter more. But this doesn't happen without being present, physically and mentally.
We've tried a politics of capital gains and stepping on others' toes, maybe its time to start a more human form of politics - a politics of civilian diplomacy. By traveling to another country, whether you intend to or not, you're representing a piece of your country. We have the power to make a good impression and facilitate a greater universal compassion. But it will take more than a bunch of lawyers in government buildings. It requires individuals seeking an honest connection with other individuals and developing a mutual respect.
So why now? Well, why not now? It's easy to put things off for a better time. "I'll travel when it's more politically stable" or "I start practicing yoga when I can touch my toes" or "I'll learn a new language when I have more time." There will always be an excuse to delay somewhere you've been wanting to go or something you've been wanting to try, not necessarily because there is a better time but because it's easier to stick with the status quo.
To place yourself in a new and potentially uncomfortable situation, like traveling to a lesser-travelled area, is often super daunting and the mind would love to keep you in a space of sheltered routine. So our task is to mindfully decide when we should override this self-protection mechanism and just go for it. There's no time like the present, especially when the present gives us such a huge opportunity to mend broken connections.
So yes, this is also why I chose to study abroad in the Middle East. Not because I am from here, or have extensively studied it in my university classes, but because it's the corner of the world I know the least about. I'm here to learn and absorb and meet people and be really uncomfortable for a bit. I've been in Israel for about 5 days now just kind of soaking it all in before the hectic-ness of my program starts and holy heck I'm scared. I've had my fair share of freakouts, wondering if I made a huge mistake dedicating myself to this place for five months but I think that's the good stuff. I'm ready to be uncomfortable and just see what comes up.