Nine years ago, I boarded a flight to Egypt to start my teaching career. I was straight out of university, had never been on a plane, and was full of the “unrealistic” type of optimism that causes people to be skeptical. I don’t think anyone believed I would survive my two year contract in Cairo and I definitely don’t think they’d expect me to be living happily in the desert years later.
To be fair, my ability (or presumed inability?) to thrive in the Middle East wasn’t just assessed by my character, but rather how my character would be taken advantage of in this place, assumed scary. Stereotypes about the Muslim world were buzzing in my ears, along with discussions of human rights and women’s rights. There was never a conversation that went, “WOW! The people there are so nice! “ or “WAIT TIL YOU TRY THE HUMMUS! OMG!!!” Nope, it was always about the safety. Would I be okay there?
Little did we all know, the very thing that people doubted in me as a “survivor” makes me feel right at home in this foreign place. My friendly face and inherent kindness were matched instantly by the Egyptian people and I soon learned that this wonderful warmth and hospitality were traits of the region, confirmed during my visits to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine. After relocating to Kuwait, I’ve been lucky to experience the same charm in Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Of course, seven years in Kuwait speaks volumes of the love I hold for the Kuwaiti people.
It has been nine years since I boarded my first flight to the Middle East. I have many former students studying in America and many more applying to study there this fall. It surprises me that, with these inevitable departures, I am having the same thoughts that were once expressed to me. It’s not about the people. It’s not about the food. It’s about safety. It’s about human rights. It’s about women’s rights. It’s…..will my students be okay there?
Thankfully, I live life as an “unrealistic” optimist. What I will say instead is that there are some really, really nice people in the United States. I don’t know much about their hummus, but they sure know how to make a burger! And if you’re able to go to a football game, please let me know what their incredible school spirit feels like in person! If optimism crushed stereotypes nine years ago, it can stop any new ones from spreading too.
Let’s all be a little “unrealistic” here and hope for what’s good and what’s kind.
Also, hug an American. I know a few that need one.