For years I have used CNN.com as a coping mechanism (no, I do not read FoxNews yet, but a few more months of BBC and I might require some fair and balanced reporting). More often than not people think it is a strange habit to rush to the computer when I’m in need of emotional support. The reason that I have developed this habit is that no matter what is wrong with my day or my life there are millions of people living with a lot more pain than I have. By focusing on the relative irrelevance of my problems on a macro-scale, I am able to see them as solvable as opposed to devastating. Interestingly, the past couple of months have taught me to do the opposite when it comes to ethnic conflict.
Both Northern Ireland and the Middle East share a culture of friendly hospitality and a past of ethnic conflict. For me this highlights the important difference between focusing on the macro and the micro in situations of political strife. My CNN.com reports present the ideological conflicts manifested in ethnic violence. Yet, my travels show that in the same societies that threaten my ethnicities with violence, the treatment I receive as a person who is an American Jew is not reflective of the treatment people allegedly believe Americans and Jews deserve.
After a few short weeks in Belfast (and a lovely Thanksgiving weekend in Dublin, thank you to Paul and his wife for their hospitality) I left for the United Arab Emirates on the Emirati-American Leadership Exchange followed by a ten day trip to Tunisia. The Exchange is sponsored by the Emirates Foundation and the Crowned Prince of Abu Dhabi to help educate young leaders about the UAE. They funded ten days of travel and meetings to learn about the changes the UAE is undergoing and see not only what the United States can offer the small gulf state but also what we can learn from them. There were eighteen American students (fellow Mitchell Scot Miller among them) and ten Emirati students who traveled with us and served as guides and friends for our time in the UAE. I could spend the entire journal entry describing the vast innovation, development and economic diversification that I saw through our travels, but rather I want to focus on the treatment we received while we were there and its relevance to my research in Belfast.
Many people raise eyebrows at my love for traveling through the Arab world, being a young American Jewish woman. They often question my safety and wonder about the way I will be treated given the political challenges that come with, what I have affectionately termed, my triple threat status (Jew, American and woman). From a macro standpoint, they are right to be concerned. Newspapers across the Arab world report on Israel as an entity to be destroyed and dialogue about issues of Iraq and Jewish influence on American politics are disturbing, often scary. While there is truth in this vision of the Middle East, it is the micro lens that sheds light on the possibility for peace.
In three weeks I spent in the UAE and Tunisia I was treated with nothing but kindness and hospitality. The people I met bent over backwards to ensure that I was happy and safe. In the UAE, the Emirati students were not appalled by my religion but intrigued by it (one even asking for a copy of the Torah). I and the other Jews on the trip were bombarded with questions of dietary laws and religious observances which, rather than highlighting differences, in most cases revealed the vast similarities with Islam and Arab culture. From the language, to holidays, to eating, Jews and Muslims have more that unites us than divides us.
In Tunisia, for the first few days I was traveling alone. My Arabic is rusty at best and the Tunisian dialect was not helping my recollection. Yet, everywhere I went, people not only told me where to go but physically took me to where I needed to be. Most of the people who helped me were men. Not the ones walking by me on the street asking me to marry them, or engage in other activities…but elderly gentlemen who genuinely wanted to make sure I was okay. As soon as I started speaking in Arabic a smile would cross their face and they would say Marhaba (Welcome) and ask me if I liked Tunis (and in the market they would tell me my bargaining skills were very Arab, highlighting another reputation Arabs and Jews share). In one instance I could not find a bus station and asked at another bus station where to go. One of the drivers insisted that he take me to the bus station I needed to find. I told him I would be fine and he could just tell me where to go. No, no he insisted that I get on his bus (full of passengers) and drove off his route to show me the bus station. Then pulled to the side of the road, stopped the bus, and flagged another bus going back to the station to stop and take me back so I would not have to walk. Not only was he going above and beyond to help me, but not a single passenger complained. Imagine if a metropolitan bus driver in America stopped the bus to show some lost girl how to get home…
At Queens University I am studying Ethnic Conflict. My textbooks and thesis offer solutions to the theoretical challenges presented in the academic discourse on the issue. But when I stop watching the news and reading books to interact with people the situation is not as clear. Hospitality is at the core of Arab culture. In all of my travels and interactions in the Middle East I have been treated with generosity and kindness almost unprecedented in my American upbringing. Belfast shares this friendly, generous culture as well. I remember the first day Frank and I were wandering Belfast looking for an adapter for our computers. I saw a sign that said Northern Ireland Information and walked in to ask about adapters. All the people were very helpful, stopped their work and offered suggestions, making sure before we left that we knew where to go. It wasn’t until we left the building that Frank told me to look at the building again only to see it was the Northern Ireland Information on Small Claims. No one in the building had said I was in the wrong place or hesitated to help us, despite the fact it was in no way their obligation to do so.
While I will continue to write about ethnic conflict as an academic field and study the Middle East as a manifestation of ethnic conflict, this fellowship has allowed me to see beyond CNN.com. Living in Belfast and traveling in the Middle East is a constant reminder that sometimes interpersonal relationships and the everyday interactions I have are worth more than any news report. I now see that instead of focusing on the seemingly hopeless world problems for solutions for my own, I should look to my own experiences to better understand the world.