Saturday, May 15, 2010

“Can I have your business card?”

As I peeked out of the small window, I wondered what the weather was like on the German coastline. The sky affirmed my speculations about what time of the day it was; it was certainly my most favorite. The sky looked tranquil, exhibiting light shades of grey and golden white in the horizon, signaling the approach of sunlight. I wish I could be down there to feel that soft breeze and smell the fresh air that carries with it a few drops of dew, I thought to myself. It’s funny, how this time of the day is probably the same everywhere in the world regardless of what time of the year it is. It’s always so beautiful and so promising, like a reenactment of the saying that goes: “after the darkness comes light.” I wish I could stay on this plane forever and witness the same scene repeat itself around the globe. I then looked at my copy of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” and thought that my observation could be used to prove his theory about Globalization.

           Although I did not have time to read the book during my eternal flight, thanks to a garrulous German nationalist who kept me ‘company’ by giving me an 8-hour history lesson, I learned that two of the main driving forces behind globalization are considered to be media and the spread of soft culture, like education, food and movies. I had learned that a few days earlier in a political science class, where we also discussed America’s “hegemony” (such a scary term) and it’s effort to fight those who resemble a “backlash against Globalization” (quoted from Friedman’s book, which we were required to read for the same class) through increasing security measures in airports and elsewhere. Why was an American teacher at the American University in Cairo telling me this?
A few weeks earlier, I was notified of my acceptance to the National Council on US-Arab Relations’ internship program in Washington, D.C. Excitement filled my friends and me as we collectively read the e-mail, but it all evaporated as we went back to studying in the dorms lobby. I was so busy with my final exams that I had no time to think about the internship, or to even send an email to my internship supervisors in DC confirming my acceptance of their acceptance.
I was on a plane to America one day before my internship started. I flew from Cairo to Frankfurt, and then from Frankfurt to DC. During my two flights, I finally had some time to think about what was lying ahead. It all came to me out of the sudden. While my thoughts were racing to the future, I was starting to feel nervous: my plans were not going to work because I was going to be detained at the airport. The Lufthansa representative in Cairo’s busy airport, once he finished inspecting my suspicious Palestinian passport, said that I couldn’t travel because I didn’t have a transit visa that would allow me to spend four hours in Frankfurt’s airport. He failed to understand that I was not intending on leaving the airport (my Palestinian passport taught me better) and that I did not need a transit visa to stay in the airport. He finally gave in to the power of easy logic and let me check-in. 
I went to high school in the same city that issued my passport, in the Palestinian city of Gaza. The name of my school was, however, the American International School in Gaza. Despite the fact that the school today is nothing but a huge pile of rubble and dust because the Israelis bombed it last year, it was once a beautiful school that stood overlooking the Mediterranean. From the year 2000 until 2006, I was one of its 170 students, who were taught by 25 teachers, a group of Palestinians, Canadians, and a majority of Americans. The school was based on an American system, and we were taught using American textbooks. We learned American history as much as we learned Palestinian history; we memorized the capitals of the 50 states while memorizing verses from the Quran; we celebrated American Thanksgiving a week after celebrating Palestine’s independence day. We organized donation campaigns for Mukhayyam Jenin after the Israeli massacre in 2003, and our school was an all time favorite target for the Israeli army, giving us countless days off school.
America was nothing but a history subject for me when I was in high school, despite the fact that the school was very different from other schools in Gaza, and that people around me never failed to point that out. Some of the elders in the family would constantly ask my parents to remove my siblings and I from the school, because they thought that we were being brainwashed by American culture and that we forgot everything about our religion, country and language. My parents always defended their decision to keep us in the school, but they kept us under close surveillance when it came to learning about history and politics, making sure that we were not swayed by the American point of view.
And we weren’t. In fact, my parents needed not worry, because one of the school’s main policies was to avoid talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the first place. It’s not like we were missing out on much; after all, we were living the conflict itself. However, when we as students came to basic realizations like concluding that America is a supporter of Israel, no one forced us to believe otherwise. We were taught about freedom of thought, speech and expression. It was easy for us to comprehend all these concepts being taught at the American school by American teacher, only we didn’t see the significance of a teacher’s nationality. 
My experience at AIS made it easy for me to transfer to AUC after graduating from the former. Like AIS, the institution was American and the instructors were mostly Americans. The only difference is that at AUC, there was more space for discussing politics, including heated ones like the Palestinian Israel conflict, especially because I was studying Political Science. American teachers were critical of America, Egyptian teachers were critical of Egypt, and other random teachers were critical of everyone. Here, my eyes were open to America. It wasn’t just part of a history lesson or the name of my school, and not just the main supporter of Israel. It was something that I had to learn more about 
By the time I became a student at AUC, things in America had already changed. In 2006, the US had already launched two major offensives and was being administered by Bush for four more years. In all, things were not looking good. America’s popularity was sliding down the ramp, and people had reasons to be frustrated and deeply opposed to its policies. I was one of these people, for I have had enough of America’s blind support for Israel, something that I actually experienced in my every day life rather than something I heard over the news. I was also frustrated with America’s way of handling things (or not) in Iraq, and to me, Bush was nothing but a mad neo-conservative whose only concern was Israel and America’s hegemony, the same word that my teacher used in class.
As I said before, I did not have time to think about my internship after I was accepted because I was busy with my final exams. Then why the hell was I going?! On the plane I asked myself why I was going to spend the next ten weeks of my life in the country that supports the very reason of my struggle? Why did my dad want me to do it? True, I was going to work at the Palestine Center, but how “Palestinian” was that place going to be? Was I ready for the crusades of Zionists and Israel lovers whose haven was Washington DC? Or was it the love of travel; was travel humiliation my new opium? Was the humiliation I received while crossing my country’s own border not good enough? What if I was going to be strip-searched, put in a small room for long hours, and eventually be detained and sent back to Cairo? There was no way I was going to be able to go back to Palestine and I resented the idea of taking summer courses. If my American teacher said it, it must be true. What better target for airport security than an 18-year-old Palestinian Muslim whose passport was issued in Gaza?
Oh well, it was too late now. The plane finally landed. After politely accepting the German guy’s shiny business card, I left the plane with my green Palestinian passport in my right hand, feeling a river of pride run through my veins as I felt my heart swell with the love for Palestine. Nothing will shatter my confidence and pride, I thought to myself, if this really is America, the country that was built by and for immigrants, then it should live up to its standards. As I entered the airport, I stood in the line and waited for my turn like all “non-US citizens”. At least five plasma screens were showing pictures of the diversity of life in America; one of the pictures showed two Muslim young women smiling next to a mosque. I read a scene of hypocrisy in that picture, and pictured the same garrulous German guy trying to forcibly fake a smile. 
When it was finally my turn, the guy at the passport desk called on me and started the long-awaited conversation. “What are you going to do in DC?” to which I answered “internship” and explained where and what my internship was. “Great. Where will you be living?” “At the George Washington University dorms,” I replied. “When does your internship end and when will you be leaving?” “It finishes on the 8th of August and I will be leaving the following day. ” “OK, here’s your passport, enjoy your stay!” I stood there gazing at him, was that it?! Khalas?? His eyebrows jumped up and he smiled at me, a “goodbye!” smile. I grabbed my passport, and sped off towards the luggage not believing what had just happened (or not happened).
 My passport was processed in a blink of an eye, and so was my storming out of the airport and arrival at the dorms. At that point, a funny feeling erupted in my stomach as I imagined my brain saying, “I told you so!” Then again, a few hours earlier my brain was telling me something completely different. I figured it must be the penetration of logic, telling me that what people and the media say does not always apply, if ever. Looking back at the airport, it seemed like the guy sitting behind the desk certainly lived up to his country’s standards, and that the scenes that were displayed on the plasma screens might have actually been representative, and who knows, maybe the German can actually smile. After all, he did show a sign of friendship when he gave me his business card, although I have yet to understand what exactly I was supposed to do with it.
As mentioned earlier, my internship in DC was with the National Council US-Arab Relations, which in turn placed me with the Palestine Center at the Jerusalem Fund in DC. I was a full-time intern at the Palestine Center, while at the same time we met with foreign policy makers and representatives in DC through the Council. Through my involvement in these two programs, I was exposed to a lot of American and non-American people, and very few people who shared a similar background or experiences with me. Countless conversations and memorable encounters took place, and some stood to prove the inaccuracy of my thoughts as I was on the plane.
For one, I was never confronted by that crusade I thought about while I was on the plane. Was I mistaken to have these thoughts in the first place? When I think about it today, I see that I was too naïve to have had these thoughts. Wasn’t I taught, alongside everything about America, that not everything that the media says is true? Did I just want to ‘go with the flow,’ and be scared of America’s airport security, just like everyone else (those who might have had actual reasons for worrying?)
Of the things that my American school taught me, I had the liberty to exercise at least my freedoms of thought and speech in America, and people around always wanted to hear. I realized, after countless conversations and debates that people in America rarely heard the story from a person who actually lives under occupation. Like me, they fed on the media, which was never objective, let alone representative of the Palestinian side of the issue. When I tried to do my part by telling people what life was like, and why they should re-consider their pro-Israel, pro-occupation thoughts, I was fascinated to see how people could change. Even though comparing the Palestinian cause to airport security in terms of media portrayal is like comparing apples to oranges, I’m sure that if I had talked to someone who made the same journey, my pre thoughts would have been different. But no one took the initiative, and my American teacher only made it worse. 
I decided to take the initiative. At that point, it all made sense. I understood why my dad asked me to apply in the first place, and I was able to answer the question, “what the hell am I doing here?” I realized that it was an opportunity that gave me responsibility that I carried on my shoulders, and that I had to represent a different face of Palestine, one that would make my country proud. 
Today, I look back at summer 2008 and think of it as an experience that was equal in importance to my years of study at AUC. I learned that a person can not criticize others and expect that the criticisms are going to solve the problem; something has to be done. It’s easy for us as Palestinians and Arabs to sit at home and blame America for the continuity of the conflict, and we very much can, but that is not going to take us anywhere (look at past situations) unless we take the initiative to transform these criticisms into viable action that will help put an end to the criticism. But, no one is going to ask us to take the initiative, we should do it ourselves if we really care.
For this and more, I’ve decided to apply for graduate school in the US. I’ve been enrolled in American education institutions since Grade 7, and I believe that there is a lot for me to learn from an institution that is based in the US. I visited Georgetown while I was in DC for the second time (I went back a few months later for a Model Arab League conference), and the Hogwarts-like buildings and the greenery of the place fascinated me, and I intend on applying for the Master’s in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution there. Besides the education, I see Georgetown, DC, and the US as a venue where I can advocate for a cause I deeply believe in. I will offer my own shiny business card, and live to prove to the world that Palestinians are more than capable of presenting themselves and the noble cause they present.

(written in December 2009)


  1. Like the title, so am printing the blog now to read after work, i'll share my thoughts with you afterwards.

  2. You write very well; your writing is very vivid and clear. Reading this post made me feel a little better about the situation in the world, in Gaza and in the USA.

    I hope that you are able to come here to do your graduate work. I think that you are a person with great potential.

  3. Yasmine... When you come back to your grad study at Georgetown you will find some flavor of bigotry and racism, don't be so optimistic that what you know about America is for the most part stereotypes, there is racism and bigotry in this country, unfortunately.

  4. Dear Jay,

    Thank you for your support! I'm looking at different opportunities in the US and I hope to start my MA in Creative Writing there next year, inshalla.

    All the best!

  5. Anonymous,

    Unfortunately, what you said is entirely applicable to the situation in the US and elsewhere. I do not expect a majestic reception with my national anthem being played in the airport, but I expect myself to be fully equipped for any acts of racism and bigotry :)

  6. Hi great post. Hope you can come here to do their postgraduate studies. I think it is a person with great potential.

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