I’ve been here for four months.
If I didn’t have some time to kill I’d simply call ‘here’ the Middle East. But since I’ve clearly got time on my hands…The border doesn’t open for another two hours and for now I’m sitting here in the desert, outside the gate, scribbling this on a piece of paper, with no one in sight but the sun that’s about to rise over the mountaintops. So, I’ve got a little time to explain that calling ‘here’ the Middle East simply doesn’t suffice.
But back to the start: Four months ago I was packing up my backpack and boarding a plane with a one-way ticket to Turkey. I had just graduated from college. I had some questions I wanted to answer, some things I hoped to accomplish; mostly I had no clue what to expect. But I had instincts telling me to go, so I listened. And there I was, a blonde, twenty-two year old gal from the States alone in what I then would have called the Middle East.
The first friends I made were—if I was in a rush I’d say they were refugees. But again, since I’ve got some time, I’ll explain that they not too long ago called Syria home, were forced to flee, found slightly more solid ground in Turkey, were homeless there, eventually weren’t, and when I met them they were preparing to make the long and uncertain journey to Europe. They taught me how to play backgammon. They tried to teach me how to cook. They told me I smiled too much. Mostly they told me stories. Stories that were heartbreaking and difficult to understand, but stories full of strength and courage and dignity.
So there I was, living in a part of Istanbul where you simply don’t hear English. But what you do hear is music. So that’s where I started, in the streets. Trying to wrap my brain around this colorful, chaotic place by focusing in on the music around me. The musicians making that music became my friends. They taught me how to speak Turkish, unintentionally because that’s all they spoke. They taught me about the struggles of the people around us and the opportunities not quite in reaching distance. They asked me why I asked ‘why’ so much.
And there I was, taking it one moment at a time, trying to soak in as much as I could. I learned of the conflict in Israel, so I went there. I learned of the refugee camps in Palestine, so I visited those. I learned of the nomadic Bedouin people of Jordan, so I found them. I accidentally found myself in a kibbutz on the border of Lebanon. I rode camels under the stars. I met a man who never knew his birthday, or his age for that matter. I followed the seas: the white one, the red one, the dead one. I found realness in those places. A tension that creates an intensity that forces honesty, with yourself and with others. For me, those environments created a desire and immediacy for awareness, for understanding, for empathy.
I met an old woman in Jerusalem once. She told me I was dangerous, but she said it with a smile. Because I lean in when many would lean out, she said. But I don’t recall a time I was scared. I chose to take people and places for who and what they were, and by doing so I felt safe. Sure, I got some bumps and bruises – I’m noticing a new one on my kneecap right now – but people were there to dust me off. Strangers, new friends, some that became dear friends, people I never would have met if I hadn’t gone and followed instincts that I couldn’t quite articulate.
So here I am. The soldiers are arriving to open the border and looking at me like I’m lost. I’m not, and I am, but probably not in the way that they’re thinking, so I’ll wrap this up and explain why calling ‘here’ the Middle East simply doesn’t suffice.
I’ve realized that the portrayal of this part of the world is often quite monochromatic. That the picture it paints misses so many colors. It misses a lot of beauty, a lot of diversity. Often it misses that there are humans here. None all bad, none all good – because that’s how us humans are – but most fantastically passionate and many tremendously inspiring. I’ve found that this section of the globe is more like a patchwork quilt. Within it, each country is unique. Within them, each city is unique. Within those, each person is unique. At the core of conflicts spanning borders and generations are hearts and minds, all with their own reasoning. I’ve found that nothing can be generalized. Some terrible things are happening here but wonderful things are happening here too, every day. I’ve heard stories of destruction, separation, judgment; others of adaptability, selflessness, and acceptance. I’ve been harassed; I’ve been welcomed. I’ve been threatened; I’ve been embraced. I’ve witnessed intolerance; I’ve also met some of the most open-minded individuals I’ve ever had the opportunity of knowing. Amongst the chaos there is peace. Within the rubble there is art.
So I can’t really call where I’ve been these past four months ‘the Middle East.’ I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I’ve gone where I’ve gone, and I’ve met who I’ve met. I’m here. And all I can really say about here is my story. I’ve learned to approach new experiences without bringing a narrative already written out. For if you bring with you a head full of expectations or heart weighed down with fear, surely you’ll only see what you expected to find. Instead, let a place define itself: the same goes for people. Stories are shaped by what you give, and if what you give is an openness to contradictions, a willingness to be wrong, an insatiable curiosity, and an eagerness to learn, you can bet that story will be one worth telling.
So here I am, and now I’ve learned of something new. A place where the sea is black and people migrate each summer up to crumbling villages in the highlands where their ancestors have journeyed for hundreds of years–to be as close as they know to touching the sun. So that’s where I’m headed now. We’ll see where it points me next.