Monday, December 5, 2011

عزيزي الأردن | Dear Jordan

I miss you.

I miss your warm weather and bright sunshine.

I miss your hills and beautiful wadis.

I miss the guy who was always herding his goats on the slope next to our hostel.

I miss my beautiful teachers at Qasid. I miss their spunk, sweetness and smiles--and their patience. Such incredible patience.

I miss how excited I'd get when a cab driver told me I spoke good Arabic, even though we both knew I was terrible!

I miss the adorableness that is Hanin and Nada.

I miss the guy who made my coffee every morning. I always ordered it medium sweet, but he always made it way too sugary! :-P

I miss the toothless Arab Christian mystical man who read my palm in his carpet shop in Madaba.

I miss Haneen and our dabkeh troupe. Except for those uber-hot afternoon rehearsals....

I miss Petra and Wadi Rum.

I miss all the camels.

I miss all the delicious fruit!

I miss the way every day felt like an adventure.

I even miss sneaking sips of water in corners during Ramadan (I know, I know. Totes haram.)

Probably shouldn't admit this, but I miss the cheap cigarettes.

Heck, I even miss the khalijiyyin! Sort of. ;)

Yes, Jordan, I miss you, and I hope I will be back soon. Inshallah. :)

Lots of love,


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Islamophobia and defending Muslims: Why it matters

Every now and then, I get asked why I, a non-Muslim, non-Arab American, am so vocal in my defense of Muslims and Arabs. So I guess I'll put it on the record. How did I, a corn-fed Midwestern girl, come to care so much about these often marginalized communities that I don't personally belong to? I'm more than happy to explain.

On September 11, 2001, I was only twelve years old, a seventh-grade student. Even then, I wondered if the growing perception of Muslims as being exclusively violent and destructive was missing the mark: at best, it seemed incomplete, and at worst, patently and insidiously false. I could not understand why the violent Muslim image that persisted in the public eye seemed to so contradict the Muslim community that always greeted people with the words "Peace be upon you." So when I started my undergraduate degree at an evangelical university, I resolved to study Islam for myself, to view different sides and try to understand the faith as its practitioners do. Along the way, I got involved with interfaith work, befriended many Muslims of various backgrounds and political stripes, and even learned to speak, read and write in Arabic.

I also became aware of the work being done by countless Muslim activists, work we never seem to hear about on the mainstream media: Muslims like Eboo Patel founding the Interfaith Youth Core to inspire dialogue and service, and to push for mutual respect between different faiths; or Rami Nashishibi, who founded the Inner City Muslim Action network to address the daunting needs of residents in the heart of Chicago's South Side; or Irshad Manji, a writer and professor inspired by her faith to challenge dangerous cultural trends that sometimes exist in Muslim communities though they have no root in Islam itself; or myriad bloggers and writers of the Arab Spring who are currently fighting for democratic ideals in their own countries. What I learned from my studies and from these amazing people cemented what I had intuited even at twelve years old: contrary to what I had been taught, the enemy of freedom and justice is not Islam, but ignorance, and that countless Muslims reflect this reality in their deeds as well as their words.

If you're reading this blog, you probably know that I spent last summer in Jordan with the U.S. State Department's Critical Language Scholarship program. I will be honest and say that, despite my widened perspective, I initially kept quiet about my Baha'i faith, fearing persecution. So maybe I'd grown to love and trust my Muslim neighbors at home, but I was a religious minority in a Middle Eastern country with Shariah on the books -- since I'd been raised in a country that fears such situations, I had no idea what to expect. Yet the openness and kindness of the society that embraced me was utterly beyond my expectations. I discovered Baha'i and Christian communities thriving amidst this conservative Muslim society. I myself was warmly embraced by Muslims, both liberal and conservative, just as I had been in the States. I was treated like family, and quite frankly, I felt ashamed that my expectations had at first been so low.

Upon my return to the States, I was again confronted with the popular myth that Islam is inherently evil, its followers inherently violent -- but this time, it was personal, an attack against members of my own adopted family. I realized that the people who had so generously opened their hearts and homes to me in the Middle East would, in all probability, be treated with disdain and suspicion were they to visit the USA, thanks to today's environment of ever-increasing Islamophobic sentiment. Frankly, I am embarrassed and horrified by this, because it utterly dishonors the American values I was raised on. I was taught to value freedom and to embrace diversity, because "all men [and women!] are created equal" and they should always be treated with respect and courtesy in spite of perceived differences.

Therefore it seems to me a basic courtesy to ensure that any criticism of a group of people is based in honest, balanced and diligent study of facts, and not in paranoia and half-truths. Islamophobes have created an industry in which they spread misinformation for profit. Scholars both Muslim and secular have widely refuted the claims made by Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Kamal Saleem and other Islamophobic speakers -- yet these individuals continue to draw in millions of dollars and widespread attention for the lies they spread. This is no small matter: When propagated, these stereotypes are extremely harmful not only to American Muslims, but to all Americans who believe in the constitutional right to practice their faith in safety.

The assertion that Muslims are bent on taking over the United States and instituting hardline Shariah law is based on misinformation, baseless paranoia and downright terrible "theology." It is absurd propaganda that certainly does not represent the real views of the overwhelming majority of kind, law-abiding American Muslims. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, public servants, community organizers, artists and musicians. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and our family -- not to mention our first line of defense in rooting out those individuals within the Muslim community who do become radicalized. We truly need to understand that the enemy is ignorance, not Islam.

This is not to romanticize the Muslim community; I respect them more than to do that. There are some issues that exist within Muslim societies that I take serious issue with--but conflating a cultural problem with that culture's religion is a mistake that too many people make. For example, the practice of "honor" killing that sometimes occurs in Muslim societies is something that I find utterly horrifying -- but so do most Muslims, who will be the first to tell you that it is not condoned in either the Qur'an or the Sunnah, and instead has its root in cultural practices that predate Islam. I am also deeply troubled by discrimination against the Baha'i community in some Muslim countries, particularly in Iran, but then, so are the wonderful folks at the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights. To blame these trends on Islam itself, as do those in the Islamophobia circuit, is dangerously simplistic and outright ridiculous. We know better, for example, than to judge all Christians on the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church or Anders Breivik, because we can recognize that their actions do not truly represent biblical teaching. We know better than to blame Jesus for European colonialism and "heretic"-burning, even though some of its worst perpetrators claimed to be devout Christians. Why in the world would we not grant the same grace to our Muslim neighbors?

The Qur'an stresses peacefulness, justice, and respect to human rights and dignity, and these virtues are upheld by the vast majority of the world's over 1 billion Muslims. They need us to support them as allies, not to be constantly alienated by those who seek to demonize their entire religious community based on its worst elements. It says in the Qur'an quite plainly that, if anyone takes a life except in self-defense, it is as if they have murdered all of humanity. Those "Islamic" terrorists who commit crimes against innocent people (and more often than not, against innocent Muslims) are, in reality, violating the standards of their own professed religion. The countless Muslims who are inspired by their faith to contribute positively to our shared society need our support and for their voices to be heard. It is our privilege, as well as responsibility, for all of us to ensure that our neighbors are respected.

Also, this:

"Can't nobody be free unless we're all free. There's no 'me' and no 'you,' just 'us.'"

Monday, October 24, 2011

On olive trees, and hope

Recently, my mother and I watched a documentary called With God on Our Side, a critical look at Christian Zionism and its leadership and theology. As usual, I ended the documentary in tears, while my mother, an evangelical Christian, looked at me and said "I feel so helpless. I feel like my faith is being hijacked to serve a political agenda." To this I replied, "Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?" It's true that Islam is too often manipulated to support hateful purposes--but as in this case, Christianity often suffers from the same affliction.

Indeed, much of the current uncritical support for the policies of the Israeli government comes from professed Christian elements in U.S. society who have swallowed the narrative that this is an ancient conflict whose only solution is "to bless Israel" -- whatever that means. Even more bizarre, it is the Christian Zionist belief that the second coming of Christ will only come after the re-establishment of a political Israel -- whatever that means. Indeed there are so many holes in their logic that it's hard for me to understand how it's managed to have so much sway in U.S. policy.

And the result of such uncritical support is a continued Israeli occupation in the less than one quarter of historic Palestine that still remains ostensibly under Palestinian control, stealing land, building walls and preventing the return of the world's largest refugee population. "They" insist this is a "security" measure. I suppose if you genuinely believed that every single Palestinian is a potential terrorist, that fallacy would hold some water. Yet though some have resisted the occupation of their lands using regrettable and violent tactics, the vast majority of Palestinians are trying, simply and steadfastly, to go on existing in spite of a hostile foreign government that wants them exiled or dead. No matter how you want to spin it, the U.N. and countless human rights organizations have called the occupation out for what it is: dehumanizing and illegal. It has nothing to do with race or religion--it is simply unethical to allow this kind of situation to continue without protest.

There are days when I wonder why I even care so much about this, seeing as how I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian. But ultimately that makes no difference, because in the end we are all just people. I know that I am blessed to live in a situation where all my needs are more than accounted for. I have never had to feel the sting of terrorism or the constant dehumanization of living under occupation. I have never had to watch a relative die because they could not get through a checkpoint in time to receive the medical treatment they needed. I have never wept with my arms wrapped tight around the skeletons of my olive trees after a settler attack, the trees that represent my identity as well as my livelihood. I have never had to cope with blackouts, dry water pipes, or being utterly cut off from the world. Though my own government has committed some of the worst human atrocities in history, I have never been taken for a terrorist simply because of my national identity. But no one should have to experience these things. I know that as a young woman who is blessed to be educated and free, I have the responsibility and privilege of advocating for those who deserve no less than the same peace and opportunities for which I am so grateful.

A Palestinian woman weeps for her olive trees after they were stripped in an attack by extremist Jewish settlers.

And as intrenchable as it often seems, the movement to recognize the rights of all people involved in the conflict is indeed growing and moving in a positive direction. Just this week, a prominent Washington Post writer with a decades-long career actually dared to question US aid to Israel in an op-ed; that would have been journalistic suicide even a few years ago. And while the US government still adapts AIPAC policy without question, more and more individual citizens are learning about the reality of the occupation. Most importantly, more and more people are challenging the myth that criticism of Israeli political policy is akin to antisemitism, including many young American Jews, who are more likely now than ever to differ from their parents' traditional views and understanding of Israel. People are seeing more and more that uncritically supporting Israel is ultimately not being a very good friend to them, and that the Israeli government's policies are not only destroying Palestinian livelihoods, but also marring millennia of Jewish heritage and putting their own citizens in very real danger. Simply put, the occupation ultimately benefits no one. It is out of love for Jews as much as Arabs that I believe Israel should respect international law and pursue a very real peace process--instead of the cover for increased settlement building, more land-grabbing, and continued occupation that it has been until now. I believe a better future is possible.

The Torah emphasizes ethical humanity, especially towards the "other" and the "strangers in your land." So it rightly begs the question as to why this situation has been allowed to escalate to the point that it has, especially in light of all the evidence of Jews living in peaceful coexistence alongside Palestinians for centuries while they were being massacred in Europe and Russia. I see nothing "pro-semitic" about coming to the conclusion that that the only way for Jews can be safe is by segregating them from the rest of the world, as if they cannot prosper freely or integrate into society. It doesn't help anyone to respond to one humanitarian atrocity by creating another one, and thus I agree with the growing number of Jews and Israelis who believe that to pursue peace and reconciliation in the Jews' (as well as Palestinians') historic homeland honors the legacy of those who perished in the Holocaust far better than an indefinite occupation ever could.

The extreme Zionist vision of an ethnically pure Israel is at odds with human rights, with international law, and even with Israel's own political policy of secularism, and despite Israel's attempts to manipulate its demographics in order to maintain a Jewish majority, it is clear that Israel cannot indefinitely remain both a Jewish state and a democracy. And why does it need to? Why must Jews "return" to a Palestine that has been rid of its other indigenous populations? Why can't the land be shared?

These are two peoples inextricably bound to the same land, and since settlements, the refugee crisis and the issue of Jerusalem have basically rendered partition impossible, it seems like they are going to have to learn to share. It's easy to despair, but I have hope that once both sides truly realize that their mutual prosperity lies in reconciliation, things will improve. I am thankful for the many examples in history where truth and reconciliation won out over sectarian conflict and cyclical violence. In the meantime, the best I feel I can do is continue to educate people and advocate for peace to the best of my ability. This problem is obviously way too big for one person to solve, but we can all at least try to support those affected while striving to be part of the solution. I love the people on both sides far too much not at least to try.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Road signs

I've been doing some thinking about the title of my blog. "Bridges" has always been meant to convey the idea of building connections that span barriers between groups of people, be they real or imagined -- connections across races, nationalities, genders, religions, social classes, and so on. I believe in this philosophy because I believe with all my heart in the unity of mankind, and that ultimately we are all part of the same human family, and that we therefore have the privilege of caring about each other and the responsibility to bridge over our superficial differences.

But the more I try to build these bridges, the more I come to the same discovery -- often, the common ground that I and many others seek to create actually already exists. Thus, it occurs to me that a more appropriate term is "intersections," perhaps uncharted, but very real and tangible nonetheless. "Bridges" implies a single, defined link between two distinct dichotomies, whereas intersections come in all forms: they may cross at a point and turn in different directions, they may run more or less parallel, they may merge completely, or they may form circles. I think this is a much better metaphor for the kind of unity I witness on a day-to-day basis, the unpredictable interconnectedness of the human experience. And isn't it beautiful that we were created by Someone who had all this in mind?

As I've been blessed to make friends here in Amman this summer, a thought has occurred to me. A lot of people say that there couldn't possibly be a God because there are so many problems and so much evil in the world. But hasn't it occurred to any of them that, on the other hand, there simply must be a God if so much good still exists? Even when things seem utterly, evilly hopeless, we still try to fix them. Even when people are needy, we step up to help. Even in the midst of corrupted and immovable systems, we still think freely and strive to make a difference. That, in and of itself, is evidence of a loving and merciful God. It behooves us to remember it once in awhile.

So here's to diversity, here's to color, here's to creative unity in human kinship. I raise my coffee mug to life, to love and friendship, to playing it by ear, to this crazy world of ours, and, most especially, to discovering those beautiful intersections.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

محيطات الرمال -- Sand oceans

This weekend, I had the amazing fortune to travel to Little Petra and Wadi Rum, in the southern part of Jordan. We left via bus from ACOR at around 5 p.m. to begin the roughly 4-hour drive to the camp. And while we had intended to arrive at our destination sometime between 8:30 and 9 p.m., after a few rest stops, that proved to be somewhat overambitious.

Instead, at about 10 p.m., we turned off the main highway onto a desert road winding into rock formations that most closely resembled something out of Salvador Dali's imagination, smooth and abstractly formed, pocked with little caves lit up by tiny flickering luminaries. A short distance into the desert, we arrived at a Bedouin camp, complete with a large tent and a firepit surrounded by cushions. There, we were greeted by a friendly middle-aged gentleman sporting a camouflage jumpsuit, a red-and-white keffiyeh, and one of the most impressive moustaches I have ever seen! He welcomed us to the site and gave us a sneak peak of our dinner--a mix of vegetables, chicken and lamb that had been slow-cooking in a traditional underground oven for several hours.

After dinner he sat near the fire and began singing traditional songs, in a voice that was glorious and full--not unlike his moustache! I introduced myself as "Warda" (my Arabic name, which means "rose"), after which he insisted on referring to me in English as "Desert Flower." He made me sing something, and my mind was drawing a blank, so I sang a song by The Cure that had been stuck in my head. The combination of traditional Bedouin song and 80s synth-rock was very me, at least. :)

Later, the majority of the group decided to go on a nighttime trek around the site, but I decided to stay back and enjoy the now-quiet camp. I shared an apple-flavored arghile with my friend Tenly and our new friend Abdullah, one of the other Bedouins working at the camp. Aboud, one of the CLS speaking partners (who loves Pink Floyd), played "Hey You" on his cell phone speakers, and we sang along. We sat around the fire and smoked arghile until two a.m., before finally tucking in to catch some sleep under the stars.

The next day, our guides took us in four-wheelers around the nearby terrain. We explored Little Petra, which as the name suggests is a smaller collection of Nabatean ruins outside of "big" Petra. We also trucked up to a point high up in the desert where we made tea and enjoyed the view.

Later we returned for lunch, packed up, and left. A misunderstanding about money dampened the mood somewhat, especially for the speaking partner who went to bat for us, but in spite of that, about half of us decided to press on to Wadi Rum instead of head straight back to Amman. Wadi Rum was two hours further south from Petra -- in other words, very, very south of Amman -- and we discovered soon after arrival that it was well worth the extra trip. The weather was HOT, still well over 100 degrees, even in the late afternoon.

We had originally intended to explore on foot, but we were not expecting the sheer expansiveness of the desert, so after re-assessing the situation, we figured we'd cover a lot more ground if we just hired a four-wheeler to take us around instead. Speeding around the sand dunes in the open air like that, stopping now and then to dip my toes into sand oceans was.... magical. I'm not quite sure how to describe the feeling. Limitless? Perhaps. Let's say that if Walt Whitman was there, I think he would have "sounded his barbaric yawp." It was like that. :)

The evening ended with a rock scramble up one of Wadi Rum's many high, jagged mountains. We climbed all the way to the top of a peak and watched the sun disappear behind the hills.

Oh, and did I tell you how we ran out of gas on the way back out of the desert after the sun went down? Apparently our guide was too busy doing donuts in the sand to notice how low the meter was. But as is always the case here in Jordan, you are never more than a cell phone call away from the kindness of (relative) strangers. After a short wait (during which we made sand angels and debated whether or not we ever wanted to leave), we were back on the road towards Amman.

It was a wonderful adventure all in all, and well worth the 6-hour drive home. Actually, I think Wadi Rum might just be my favorite place in Jordan.

It was that magical. :)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

أصدقاء جدد -- New friends

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
- Mother Teresa

During my time here in Amman, I've had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time tutoring English with Iraqi refugees living here. This essentially means that I go with a small group to someone's apartment in the city, where we meet with Iraqis of all ages and backgrounds, with varying levels of English ability, who come to learn and practice.

So last night, after we arrived and greeted everyone, I was placed with a guy who looked about my age and had one of the biggest smiles I've ever seen. I was initially a little self-conscious about whether or not I'd be able to actually teach him anything, especially since the only Iraqi Arabic I know is "sho ko ma ko?" ("what's up?"). But the second he opened his mouth, I knew we weren't going to have any issues. His name was Hussein and his English was awesome! We small-talked for awhile, about our families, our interests, sports, the weather, etc., and I taught him some American slang. He told me about his job as a tailor in Amman, how he studies English in his apartment for hours after work (it showed), and about another friend of his from Chicago, a Fulbright fellow who had been helping him with the language.

The mood in the room was informal, upbeat and welcoming, which is typical here in Jordan, where hospitality is the national sport. At some point we got on the subject of music - Hussein confessed to me that he is a huge Kelly Clarkson fan, who I also love, so we had a laugh about our mutual fandom and then he took out his phone and started playing some in the background while we continued to chat. As "Just Walk Away" faded out, I noticed his smile fade a bit. He looked down, took a deep breath, looked back up, and simply said, "You know, we are really suffering here." He told me about his parents and his sixteen siblings, all but two of which are still in Baghdad, and how hard he works just to send home money. He told me about the everyday injustices he faces as a refugee. Working 16-hour days in the shop just trying to scrape together enough to live and send something home is something I cannot even wrap my mind around. And not everyone in Jordan is always kind to refugees, even if most of the country is made up of them.

Now smiling again, he said, "I want to change my life." He told me he was applying to a program for relocation in the U.S., and that's why he was working so hard on his English. I smiled back. I mean, how could I not? This guy is amazing. But hell if I knew what I could say that could possibly seem encouraging coming from me. I was born and raised in the very system that did this to him, to his family, to his country. What could I possibly say that would mean anything? I was only 13 when the war started. But I am still acutely aware of my position here as an American. I am aware of the kind of people who run my country, and I feel guilty as hell about it. I'd trade a Bush or a Cheney for a Hussein any day - but even if he does make it to the States, I'm also scared for him. The U.S.A. isn't exactly a land of milk and honey when you're a brown immigrant with a Muslim-sounding name, no matter the size of your smile, or how great your love of Kelly Clarkson.

So what do you say from your own heart in this situation? How do you call back to your own humanity when directly confronted with the human cost of your privilege?

Now I am just angry, because now, it's even more personal. Because in these parts, apathy is a privilege possessed only by the blind or heartless. Because I can't stay quiet, I can't turn the other way and pretend I didn't see or hear. Human beings, my friends, are being treated worse than animals because of foreign governments, outside greed and hateful ignorance. It is every level of injustice that I can even imagine, and then some. It is right there in front of me, and it is not going away. So I am fucking livid. I am so mad that I'm afraid my head might explode. I should be.

And beyond that, I find myself feeling helpless, unable to truly understand and maybe unable to really do something about it. It's not as if I didn't know about any of this beforehand, but it's definitely a testament to the power of relationships that it now affects me so much more intensely than it did before. It's sad how little statistics impact us, how we fail to see the humanity behind them. How comfortable we are, how hard it is for us to know the truth of war, and how quickly we forget (or outright ignore) what "collateral damage" really means.

You probably know too that it's all too easy to despair, and a lot more difficult to actually do something to improve the situation. So I am making a conscious effort to channel it into something better. What exactly? God knows. Hope? I'm not quite there yet. I cannot genuinely feel hope about it right now. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way. But I'm trying, because there is still good left, and you see it in good people. Hussein could teach me a thing or two or ten about hope. Big, beautiful, illogical, indefatigable hope.

What amazes me most is that, in spite of everything, he still insisted on wearing that big smile.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

زيارة مادبا -- Madaba visit

This weekend, my friend Emily and I decided to adventure off to the town of Madaba, Jordan, about 30 km southwest of Amman. Though our original intention was to take the bus, a 3.5 JD cab ride ended up taking us to the wrong station. We asked a taxi driver at the station where to find the bus to Madaba, and between our broken Arabic and his broken English, we ascertained that he would take us all the way to Madaba for about 10 JD. In hindsight, I probably could've bargained him down to 8, but I was grateful for the help and not in the mood to haggle. Plus, it was nice having the taxi all to ourselves, windows down, feeling the warm wind rush through as we sped past the farms and villas outside Amman.

Madaba's a small town, so we just had our driver drop us off in the center of town and figured we'd make our own way from there. The tiny city is best known for its mosaics, of which there are TONS -- mostly from the Byzantine era in the 6th century AD. It also has a small but thriving Christian community (about 10% of the local population), mostly Catholics and Greek Orthodox, who have built some seriously beautiful churches. For example, Emily and I started our Madaba adventure at St. George's Greek Orthodox church, which boasts an exquisite, ancient mosaic floor map of the Dead Sea and surrounding areas of Jordan and Palestine. This was also where one of the locals laughed at me when I asked how much tickets inside cost in the local dialect. Apparently blonde American chicks speaking Jordanian amiyya aren't that common or something?

After wandering around the church and into the crypt for a bit, we started off towards the south. Passing by a souvenir shop, I saw some scarves that caught my fancy. As I was browsing, the shop owner approached me, an extremely kind-looking woman in a black hijab and abaya, and started showing me the selection of colors. I asked her "'iddeish?" ("How much?") and she replied, "dinarein" (2 JD). I realised I only had a 50 JD bill with me, which I was intending to break at lunchtime. When I informed her of this, she started insisting that I take the scarf with me anyway, and come back to pay her once I had change. Jordanian hospitality (and trust) truly never fails to amaze.

But after digging in my purse, I located enough spare change to cover the cost, so with my new scarf in tow, we continued towards the Madaba Archaeological Park. This is essentially an archaeological dig, left in its original location, with walking platforms around the mosaics so visitors can enjoy them. It cost only 2 JD to get in -- and we were definitely not expecting that to include a complete guided tour from the supervisor at the site, an extremely nice man named Amjad, but that's exactly what we got. He was so excited that we were Arabic students that he even gave the entire tour in both English and Arabic, which was amazingly helpful. We saw a fabulously mosaiced private residence, a 2nd-century Roman road, still beautifully intact, and even a piece of King Herod's palace from the 1st century B.C. Also, the word for "mosaic," which is fuseifusa' (فسيفساء), is now my favorite Arabic word ever.

Later, we ate lunch in this ambient and wonderfully air-conditioned restaurant near the Park. The owner asked where we were from in impeccable English -- and when I replied "Chicago," he looked at me in total disbelief and said "you're kidding me!" Apparently he just moved back to Jordan from there only seven months ago. When I asked where in the city he had been living, he told me Lawrence and Elston. That's only blocks away from North Park and my old stomping grounds! The tiny town of Madaba was definitely not the sort of place I'd have ever expected to find someone from Albany Park, but once again, this world finds fun ways to prove to me how small it really is. :)

After stuffing our faces full of fattoush salad, chicken marinated with balsamic vinegar, hummus, bread and fresh juice (mine was strawberry, Emily's was lemon-mint), we ventured further off into the city to look for the Madaba museum. After getting slightly lost, we found the museum, and an extremely eccentric jokester of a tour guide named Tariq. He spoke very little English, so he gave us the tour in Arabic. He was congenial, slightly creepy, and extremely fond of taking artistic photographs of us on Emily's camera. We were thoroughly entertained, if slightly confused. Let's suffice it to say that it was one of the most random and goofily memorable two-hour museum tours of my life.

After the museum, we decided to check out some of the souvenir shops still open on one of the main roads. Emily was looking for carpets, so we chanced upon a little shop, owned and operated by a nice, if slightly gruff gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair and excellent laugh lines. He patiently led us through his impressive selection of carpets -- and naturally, we gravitated towards the exorbitantly expensive silk Persian ones before settling on very nice, if more rustic, Bedouin ones. I also found a lovely traditional necklace made of silver and local precious stones, which he kindly sold to me for about 15 JD, as well as a gorgeous antique Bedouin dagger, also 15 JD.

As we completed our purchases, he insisted on making us tea and we made conversation. Despite missing his two front teeth, he spoke in beautiful and enthusiastic English. I was starting to sense an incredibly spiritual presence, and my suspicions were confirmed when he started sharing with us some of his thoughts on life. He told us about how he had never been able to marry, having been struck by financial hardship every time he had saved enough to afford it. He also told us about his faith, and the strength he received from the Holy Spirit to overcome obstacles. He then proceeded to read me like an open book, offer advice and pray over us. I love spiritual people, so I sat open as a water jar while he pontificated about life and kept insisting "don't blame me, this is all Jesus." As if we hadn't already met enough fascinating people in Madaba.

So after a day of beautiful weather, mosaics galore, incredibly kind people, crazy tour guides, and of course our tea time with the toothless Arab Christian mystical man, we decided it was high time to head back to Amman. I somehow managed to completely own our cab ride back with bargaining skills I didn't even know existed -- prompting the cab driver to charge us 3 JD less and still tell me "btehhki arabiyy kweis!" ("you speak Arabic well!").

It was one of the rare moments when I actually felt accomplished, confident that I had in fact learned some Arabic since coming here, a feeling which was definitely a welcome break from the frustrating process of language immersion. In fact, my day in Madaba may have been one of my favorite days this entire summer. I think I'll have to go back for another visit before I leave. :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

البتراء -- The rose-red city

They seem no work of Man's creative hand,
Where Labour wrought as wayward Fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime,—
A rose-red city—'half as old as time!'

-- John William Burgon

It was populated as early as 1550 B.C. and has since showed up in the Bible, the accounts of Josephus, and of course Indiana Jones--among other things! So you can imagine my excitement when I found out I'd be visiting the otherworldly-beautiful ancient city of Petra, located in southern Jordan. I could try and tell you in words that my high expectations were not disappointed, but I'll never manage. Let's just suffice it to say that you should make a point to visit it for yourself someday. :)

We left for Petra on Thursday after classes, and wasted little time in making the 4-hour drive to our campsite. On the way, we stopped at a tourist trap souvenir place, where I definitely did not buy anything, instead befriending some local kids riding their bikes in the parking lot along with a few other friends from my program. As we were chatting, one of the kids kept talking about the necklace I was wearing, a $5 Forever 21 impulse buy in the shape of an elephant, and asking where it was from.

I knew already that in Jordan's ever-generous culture, it's not uncommon for someone to simply give away a possession if another person shows unusual interest in it, so I was not surprised when my new 7-year-old friend asked, "a3tinni?" (give it to me?). I don't know why exactly, but I did. I guess I figured that if a cheap necklace could make my new friend's day, then it was the least I could do. Sure enough, he immediately placed it around his neck, tucked it into his soccer jersey, and grinned like it was Christmas morning. It was adorable.

Shortly thereafter, we departed to trek the rest of the way to our hotel in Wadi Musa. Something about looking out the window onto those winding roads and seemingly endless stretches of desert was the closest I've felt to limitless in a long time. Later, when we neared even closer to Petra, we stopped at an outcrop overlooking the valley of Wadi Musa to watch the sun set, twice its normal size, dripping like an overripe plum behind the mountains, and bringing to mind Walt Whitman's immortal words "I am large; I contain multitudes."

After we arrived at our hotel, the extremely Swiss and extremely fancy Moevenpick, I unpacked my stuff, enjoyed a scrumptious buffet dinner (like I said, extremely fancy) and explored the area nearby. The town near Petra has festivals with live music every Thursday and Friday night, so I ventured out for a bit to hear some of the tunes before heading up to the hotel's rooftop cafe to have a drink and smoke some arghile with a few friends from the program before finally calling it a night.

The next morning began our Petra blitz. After packing for the day and grabbing some breakfast, our group set off towards the site entrance. Immediately we were descended upon by myriad salesmen hawking postcards and pony rides--but I was a little too distracted by the amazing rock formations to pay very much attention.

Once inside Petra, we wandered through the Siq, a narrow passage cut deep into the salmon-colored sandstone by thousands of years of water erosion. Petra is prone to flash floods, which have helped to carve its unique landscape and once provided water and income for Petra's ancient inhabitants. This path ultimately opens into a wide clearing, where we catch our first glimpse of the breathtaking Nabataean treasury, surrounded by camels and Bedouin merchants.

The path continues in many directions, since Petra is more of a landscape than a specific site. This particular day, we started the hike towards the Monastery, another one of Petra's largest ancient structures. After climbing nearly 1000 stairs carved into the hill and scrambling over a few rock faces, we finally made it to the site--and although the 100+ degree heat certainly did not make our job very easy, it was absolutely worth it.

The rest of my day was spent enjoying the mountain overlooks, chatting with some Bedouin guys in a cafe, and playing with these adorable kittens that seemed to be running around everywhere. A two-hour trek back out of molten hot Petra was then followed promptly by the most refreshing shower of my entire life, a nap, and a feast of musakhan, tabbouleh, baba ghannouj and more live music in town. Life just sucks sometimes, right?

I spent most of the next day chilling in town and hanging out by the pool. I really enjoyed venturing into some of the shops to meet some of the merchants and practice my Arabic. The folks around those parts are certainly used to white tourists, but after observing some of my fellow Petra visitors, I could tell that they don't often see white tourists who speak Arabic. And seeing as how most foreign tourists tend to assume that everyone will just adapt to them instead of the other way around, I got the sense that even my meager attempts to speak their language and assimilate to their culture were appreciated. One of the shop owners insisted on giving me tea, told me repeatedly that I looked like a queen, and offered to find me a nice Jordanian husband if I ever decided to stay. Jordanians are just that generous, I s'pose. :P

So that's the scoop on Petra. Again, I can try my hardest to convey the sheer grandeur of the place, but I will undoubtedly fail. So if anything, may my experiences help inspire you to visit for yourself. Yalla! :)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hot days and hafles

I'm now in the throes of my third week of classes, and already I'm wishing that I could stay longer. The more Arabic I learn, the more frustrated I get at how little I know, and the more I want to stay here long enough to become seriously fluent. It's funny how life works that way!

Which is not to say that I haven't been doing things other than studying. Actually, I'm happy to report that I've been able to get out in some capacity most every day. Saturday, for example, I was feeling extra American, so I went out to City Mall to indulge in a little shopping and Starbucks. There are about 10 Starbucks locations in Amman, and they look exactly the same as the ones at home. (If anything, the Jordanian ones are bigger, and come with more comfy chairs.) The one I went to didn't have any of the fancy syrups--coconut, pumpkin, and the like--so I ordered a mocha frappucino. To be completely honest, though, I think I prefer Arabic coffee....

I also shopped around a bit, though most of the stores at City Mall were rather expensive. Really, the best places to shop around here are the vintage souqs and the areas further downtown that sell more traditional clothing. Perhaps if I have some stipend left over at summer's end, I'll go splurge on something fancy--but for now, I just bought a flowy new t-shirt from Mango. It goes well with my long skirts, to which I am now addicted. Breezy, comfy, and elegant for the win.

On Sunday night, after a long day of class and dabkeh dancing, I had the amazing opportunity to see singer-songwriter Souad Massi perform with her band in the Odeon Theatre in downtown Amman, as part of the Al-Balad music festival that started last week. I was already a fan of hers before coming to Amman, so you can imagine I was way excited for the chance to see her perform live. The Odeon theatre is an old Roman amphitheater from many centuries ago, so the seats were fairly far from the stage in a big arc. As the concert started, I found myself wishing we could get closer to the stage and start dancing--and I was not disappointed. After opening with a set of mostly ballads, she insisted everyone come right up to the stage, and to make a long story short, I was about 10 feet away from her for the majority of the performance. She played my favorite songs "Ilham" and "Khalouni," along with a bunch of other great tunes.

The lady herself! Fantastic voice and so much musical talent.

During the concert we had a dance circle with a bunch of students from the University of Jordan, who (by the way) were very unsubtle flirts, to hilarious effect. Watching them scheme amongst each other about how to put the moves on a bunch of American ladies was extremely entertaining. (My favorite bad pick-up line of the night was directed at my friend Rachel--"You want to practice your Arabic. I want to practice my English. I have free time...."--but I think she let him down easy.)

That being said, it's occurred to me several times since arriving that I get cat-called a lot less here than I do in Albany Park. Being blonde over here makes you a somewhat exotic commodity, so I'm used to getting stared at here and there (by everyone, not just men), but real harassment here seems basically non-existent. Nowhere is perfect, but contrary to common Western belief, the culture here is generally respectful of women. In fact, I wonder whether or not the U.S. could learn a thing or two. Just a thought.

Yesterday, the chef who makes us dinner five nights a week at Al Bateel hotel made us American food for 4th of July. There were hamburgers, hot dogs (beef of course, since pork is a big no-no here), cole slaw, and French fries, among other things--finished off with apple pie. Granted, the hot dogs came in Arab-style sandwich bread instead of hot dog buns, and the cole slaw had a spice in it that I'm positive is not available in most American supermarkets, but the effort and enthusiasm behind the meal was such a kind gesture. Jordanian hospitality is legend for good reason, and it never fails to make me smile. :)

But alas, my homework is calling. 'Til next time, ma salaama!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

هذا البلد الجميل -- This beautiful country

I awoke this morning with the realization that today is my third Saturday in Amman. It is truly amazing how fast the time has flown! It's now only six more weeks until I'm back in the States, which seems absolutely crazy to me because I feel so at home here in this beautiful country. I never cease to be struck by Jordan's unique combination of old and new. The sight of Bedouin nomads riding camels next to hotels and office buildings and herds of goats grazing next to homes and restaurants continues to intrigue me, though it no longer surprises me. I know I'm going to miss this place.

Speaking of things I'm going to miss, can we talk about the food for a minute please? Getting used to all this deliciousness has definitely been a bit of an adjustment for my digestive system--like the bout of food poisoning I had last weekend that quickly taught me to completely avoid any restaurant not frequented by the locals--but I really, really can't complain. The best restaurants here serve up plenty of fresh-baked flatbread, sometimes in lieu of utensils and plates, along with mint teas, elaborately spiced stews, cucumber and tomato salads, delectable lamb and chicken dishes, and of course the ubiquitous hummus and baba ghannouj. My absolute favorite food here so far is a Palestinian dish called musakhan, which has chicken, onions and sumac baked onto flatbread brushed with olive oil. It's kind of like an Arabic pizza, and oh-so-delicious. I'm also a huge fan of the juices here, which are widely available in many flavors like mango-orange, apple-pineapple, and my personal favorite, lemon-mint. I think it goes without saying that I'm going to have some working out to do when I get back....but that can wait. :-)

The crew tucks into a Yemeni feast at Mota3m Sana'a, which serves up the best ful mudammas I've ever tasted in my life! (Note the lack of plates and cutlery--we kick it family-style here, flatbread only. I imagine Atkins is rolling in his grave.)

Classes at Qasid are going great. I absolutely adore my teachers, who are equal parts spunky, strict and extremely patient. One day of classes here is essentially the equivalent of a week's worth of study at home, so the intensiveness of the program can really get to us sometimes. Arabic is so rich and so complex, it's kind of a linguistic Hydra: cut off the head of one confusing grammatical rule, and three more grow in its place. This makes for an endless supply of new things to learn, but it also makes it pretty much impossible to gauge how much you're actually learning. My strategy for now is just to get as good as I can at what I already know of the language, which may not be very much in the grand scheme of things, but it's better than trying to paint a huge canvas with tools I don't yet know how to use. Even if my speaking skills are still less than fabulous, I'm pleased with how much I can understand in conversation. That's a start, and inshallah, with time and perseverance, I think the rest will come. Inshallah.

Have I mentioned that Jordan is absolutely beautiful? Mashallah.

Yesterday, a bunch of us trekked down to the Dead Sea to take a load off after these past few weeks of intensive studies. Day-passes to a fancy resort cost about 35JD, so we took advantage of the opportunity to chill out, catch some sun and soak. Floating around in the salty water, slathering myself in mineral mud and napping away the afternoon under a tiki umbrella was definitely a welcome break from homework and brain-melting language immersion. Generally I'm not big on touristy places, but it was very nice nonetheless--and even if the spa treatments and food were obnoxiously overpriced, the mud was still free. I think I understand now why cosmetics companies are obsessed with Dead Sea minerals, because with the exception of a little sunburn, my skin feels amazing!

Clear sky, hot sun, salty water, free mud. Bliss.

Later in the afternoon, a few of us dropped into the hotel gift shop to look around. As expected, the merchandise was absurdly expensive, but we made some new friends--two extremely kind brothers from Jerusalem, who worked at the resort and were surprised to learn that we spoke some Arabic. We chatted about Middle Eastern history and mused about the beauty of the phrase "alhamdulillah" while sampling Dead Sea lotions. I also learned the Arabic word for "checkpoint."

By far, the loveliest part of the day was at sunset time. The sun was no longer beating down, but the residual heat was still coming up from the ground, a pleasant warmth. Against the hazy crimson light of the early evening, we sat on the deck overlooking the beach, smoked arghile and watched the sun set over Palestine on the other side of the sea. I thought back to my new friends in the gift shop, and wondered how it must feel to work within sight of the home they are not allowed to return to. As we were leaving, I said a little prayer for peace and willed it across the water.

All that being said--writing this blog post is enabling my inner procrastinator like nobody's business, so I should probably wrap it up and get started on my homework. So much to do, so many things to see, so little time! Much love from Amman, and ma salaama!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

قي عمان -- In Amman

Marhaba ya shabaab! Shoo fi ma fi?

It's the end of my second full day in beautiful Amman, Jordan, and I already feel at home. That is to say, I feel way more comfortable than I probably should, considering I don't yet know my way around and I only know a little bit of Jordanian and Palestinian amiyya (colloquial) dialect. Still, the city is so lovely, the sun so warm, and the people so nice that I don't feel nearly as nervous or out-of-place as I expected I would.

We arrived in Amman at around 8:30 p.m. local time. Our itinerary promised us that we'd be met at the gate by a rep from Petra Moon Tours (?), who would help us purchase our visas. Sure enough, there he was, giving each of us 20 dinar to put inside our passports, which he then collected and cut through the line towards the visa desk to run the paperwork. I spent the next 20 minutes or so feeling very sleepy, not to mention very very paranoid because my passport was not on my person--since I now have a bit of a passport-possessiveness complex after losing my first one, a stressful mistake that set me back $250.

But alhamdulillah, thanks God, our visa guy came back and started sending us through the border control and customs. These types of things normally make me nervous, but the officer told me he liked my blue eyes and didn't ask any scary questions, so it ended up being fairly painless. After waiting for the rest of the group and our bus, it was off to ACOR! Driving through Amman for that first time felt so surreal. I was so utterly jet-lagged, and everything was lit up so beautifully, it almost felt like I was in some kind of Arab Disneyland, rather than another country.

Our first few full days basically consisted of a few hours of orientation, some amiyya classes, and exploring this absolutely gorgeous city. Amman is one of the oldest continuously populated cities in the world, so it still bears the footprints of many historical empires--Greek, Umayyad, Ottoman. Roman ruins still sprawl out next door to exquisite mosques, tiny shops nestled in-between. City streets housing hookah lounges, falafel stands and ultra-modern coffee shops detour into bustling traditional souqs full of carpets, street food, intricate jewelry, and nostalgic carvings and paintings of the land that was once called Palestine--the ancestral home of 50-70% of Jordanian residents. Once again, my heart sank to remember the millions of refugees who are still denied their right to return home, the millions more whose olive trees and houses have already been wiped off the map, and how much dispossession and grief has resulted from the struggle over a land that took our plane all of five minutes to fly over.

The rest of my Friday was spent exploring the hills of Amman on foot. Did I mention that it's really hilly? My legs are still sore. Inshallah, God willing, the terrain will help me work off all the falafel and kabab that I'll undoubtedly stuff my face with this summer.

Eventually we made our way to a hookah lounge, where I ordered baba ghanouj and an arghile (known in the West as "hookah," of course) with lemon-mint shisha. The crowdedness of wust al-balad, the downtown area, creates such an amazing energy--as does the remarkable diversity of the area. Gucci hijabis, foreigners, niqabi women, guys that look straight out of Jersey Shore, elegant ladies in embroidered thoths, men in long robes and kufiyyas on their heads, me--and hipsters! Lots of them! Who knew that Amman had such a thriving hipster scene? (Our observation of this quickly led to the invention of the word الحبستر -- even if transliteration is like, sooo mainstream.)

Our last stop was at an absolutely amazing concert in Souq Jara by the band المربّع (El-Morabba3). Jordanian alt-rock that sounded like Sigur Ros, Fairuz and 90s rock thrown into a blender with a little mint and lemon. I was legitimately impressed within the first few numbers--then, as if they weren't already cool enough, the bass player became the lead singer, the lead singer turned into the doumbek player, they brought out a fantastic guest singer, and the electric guitarist whipped out a violin bow and started coaxing out elaborate microtonal scales, and my jaw was on the ground. All this with the backdrop of an Amman sunset and the ruins of the citadel of Hercules on the horizon. Jus sayin.

Today was slightly less exciting, but I was able to stuff my face with homemade Arabic food and get some much-needed shopping done. My speaking partner, Mais, took a group of us to Carrefour (think Walmart, only French in origin and Arabicized), where I was able to grab some school supplies. This subsequently led to my first encounter with a Jordanian who speaks no English--our cab driver, who not surprisingly was somewhat confused by our unusual directions to go to Jordan University Street and turn right after Eat 'n' Go. Figuring out the rest was another humbling experience for beginners in a difficult language--but somehow we made it work. :)

Tomorrow begins my first classes at Qasid Institute, so I'd better get some sleep! For now, ma salaama!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Out of B-14

It's my last night in the U.S.A. for a little while. Seems appropriate that I would spend it in its capitol.

I left Chicago right on schedule at 10 a.m., June 13, 2011, not a cloud in the sky. A smooth flight, a metro ride, and a walk several blocks had me at my hotel near Washington Circle.

During the next few hours I checked in, explored, found some lunch, had my first meeting, met a bunch of people, got coffee, and generally basked in how nice it felt to be back in a city again after several weeks of mostly suburbs.

After my CLS responsibilities were done for the day, my friend Kent was nice enough to show me around Washington, and I promised a homecooked Indian meal in return. We ate on his apartment rooftop, turned towards the view of Capitol Hill. It might just be me, but this city seems to have a different vibe from any other city I've been to. Perhaps it's a consequence of having so much control (and money!) concentrated in such a tight nucleus. It's no wonder people are seduced by the idea of attaining Washington power. The energy, the pull of it is tangible, heavy in the air. This is a city that worships policies above gods. If your policy wins, they'll even build you your own temple.

First impressions of the CLS program can be summed up in a word: awesome. The people are just lovely. Pretty much everyone seems super easygoing, genuine and excited to learn. I like the diversity of personalities and disciplines I've seen so far. I like gatherings of travelers and "language people," where I feel as though I'm among kindred spirits. Looking forward to spending the next few months in big and beautiful Amman with this big and beautiful community.

Today during orientation I was able to meet many wonderful people from the Department of State, as well as the Middle East Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace. One of the things I found most encouraging was their own stories about their career paths. For example, our keynote speaker talked about how, during her undergraduate years, she had no idea what she wanted to do, knowing only of her interest in languages and foreign policy. (Sound familiar?) Her career has since led her from the CIA to the Dept. of Defense to the Dept. of State--so it was encouraging to know that I don't need to feel as if I'm behind the curve for not having a detailed itinerary of the rest of my life. It will definitely be interesting to see what opportunities might open up as a result of this program.

But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I'm just ecstatic that tomorrow is the day I finally depart! I think it's safe to say that, while turning in my CLS application last November 15th, I never pictured myself actually sitting here, preparing myself to fly 7,000 miles away from home for what I don't doubt will be the most intellectually and emotionally rigorous experience of my entire life. And I couldn't be more excited!

It's only the beginning. :)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

An American in Amman

Only a few days left before the biggest adventure of my life ... so far! I'll be traveling as a U.S. government exchange scholar with the Department of State's Critical Language Scholarship program. They're sending me to the Middle East for two reasons: one, for me to learn Arabic by being immersed in an intensive language institute; and two, to be a cultural ambassador of sorts for my own country--a grassroots sort of diplomat, if you will. :)

I've had a lot of interesting reactions from people when I tell them about my upcoming trip. Either they just don't really get why I want to go, or they assume I'm going to get kidnapped. Some family members and friends have only thinly veiled their disdain for the region and their distrust of its occupants. I don't necessarily blame them, because if one's only source of information is western media, then it's hardly surprising that one would have this impression that the Middle East is populated solely by barbarians. How interesting it is that a service meant to inform people's perceptions of the world becomes nothing more than a shady business that distorts them.

I say, all the more reason why it's so important to get out there, to meet the people and see the place for oneself before jumping to conclusions. I wish that more of my fellow Americans would make a concerted effort to get to know the Middle East, instead of casting it off as some amorphous entity defined only by danger and terrorism. I wish more Americans could look at this region and people the way I do, to embrace those cultural differences that do exist while still embracing its beauty, its history, and especially its people. At least based on my impressions of my friends from the region, there's a lot more to it than meets our limited eye. I guess I'll just have to see for myself!

So here's to stumbling through a language I still don't know very well, and learning lots, and academically getting my butt kicked, and new friends, and scholars and travelers, and Arabic coffee, and most of all to life. It's pretty big and beautiful when you open up to it. Ma'a salaama ya Chicago!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reflections of a non-Muslim on going "hijabi for a day"

On April 21, 2011, I donned hijab (the headscarf worn by many Muslim women) as a participant in International Scarves in Solidarity Day, an event organised both in response to legislation banning various forms of Islamic clothing, as well as in support of women's right to dress as they deem appropriate, whatever their faith or philosophy. These are a few reflections on a unique and eye-opening experience.

Recently, I made an observation. I had just stumbled across some of the hijabi fashion blogs on the internet, and was feeling a curious mix of admiration and jealousy. In the photos and articles, I saw some of the most outstandingly beautiful women ever--not "beautiful" in the fake, ostentatious way we usually see on TV and in magazines, but because of their unique air of intelligence, respectability and femininity. Of course, this impression did not come just from reading a few blogs, but from my relationships with my Muslim friends, who have yet to strike me as anything less than all-around awesome. And this realisation was really nothing special, but it had never struck me quite in the way it did that night, nor had it ever caused me to think as critically about my own reality.

Being a woman in today's culture makes for a lot of unwanted attention, and I say this from personal experience: like most women, I have endured years of cat-calls, obscene propositions, lewd comments, and demeaning stares from countless men. I always want to pull these men aside and tell them there's a lot more to me than the way I look, but there's very little I can actually do about it. Though I try to brush it off and not let it make me feel like a piece of meat, it still does. Thus, as I leafed through the blogs, I found myself feeling a little jealous that these women are part of a faith and community that allows and encourages them to dress themselves in a way that is beautiful and expressive, while also commanding the respect of others based on their true merits.

So naturally, when the opportunity to participate in International Scarves in Solidarity Day arose, I leaped at the chance to show my support for my Muslim friends--and (admittedly) the excuse to wear hijab for a day as a kind of personal/social experiment. On Thursday, April 21, around 9 a.m., I fished a colorful scarf out of my closet and started putting it on my head. Doing my best to approximate one of the hijab styles I had seen, I draped it around my hair, wrapped it under my chin, and pinned it in the back. It's hard to explain quite how I felt about it. I felt...good. Happy. Pretty. A Muslim friend once told me, "The real beauty of hijab is that everyone looks good in it." This comment gave me tremendous encouragement throughout the day.

Reactions to my headscarf generally ranged from nothing at all, to polite (if slightly bemused) curiosity, to tremendous appreciation. I enjoyed the random smiles and assalaamu aleikums I got from the Muslims I saw on the street, which I enthusiastically returned with wa aleikum assalaams (thank you, Arabic class!). I was extremely moved by the gratitude expressed to me by many of my Muslim friends, who were heartened by this bold display of support by a non-Muslim--an uncommon thing in this day and place. And I very nearly laughed out loud at the very visible confusion of the 7/11 clerk as he tried to make sense of the corn-fed, blue-eyed, collegiate hijabi he was selling Ben & Jerry's ice cream to.

Unfortunately, I also received a little taste of the Islamophobia that is so rampant in our society. Most of these instances are impossible to quantify, and can really only be felt: the scornful glances from people who would normally smile back at you on the sidewalk, the exasperated sighs and rude tones of voice. These are the kinds of petty things you can usually chalk up to something else, but that still serve to make you feel like an outsider, unwelcome. But when one of my classes was moved to a room in my university's seminary building that I couldn't find, I encountered one woman who was even more outwardly displeased to see me. When I stumbled upon a speaker giving some kind of sermon in our usual meeting place, she actually stopped him mid-sentence, sneered at me, and sarcastically asked, "What, you wanna hear him preach?"

I was already running quite late, so instead of answering her rhetorical question, I calmly asked where to find my class, and was sent on my way. I wish I'd had the time and place to actually engage her in a conversation, but it just wasn't in the cards that day. Still, my heart breaks for those fellow members of my human family who endure such rudeness and belittlement on a daily basis--or worse, who face actual threats to their well-being simply because of who they are or how they look.

It's moments like this that I really remember why I am so driven to do intercultural and interfaith work: because Muslims are our neighbors and our friends, and they deserve just as much respect as any of the rest of us. It's absolutely ridiculous that I should even feel the need to clarify this. But in a world with a multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry, I suppose that's just the sad reality. Throughout history, there's always some group facing some ignorant prejudice or unjustified hatred, or some identity that society doesn't like or understand, so it gets labeled as too "other" to be fully accepted. Today, statistically speaking, it happens to include Muslims, along with homosexuals and atheists--but tomorrow, it could just as easily be me. Thus, I feel a strong conviction to speak up against such baseless hatred wherever I see it, even if it's not directed at me.

But back to the hijab. It occurred to me at some point during my day as a hijabi that sometimes being free (and perhaps implicitly expected) to dress in ever-more-provocative Western styles can be just as oppressive of women as so many people say of the hijab. The irritation of never finding a cute dress that was actually a dress and not a top, the embarrassment of a poorly cut neckline causing a wardrobe malfunction, the weeks and months I used to starve myself for the sake of an unattainable standard...all these things suddenly seemed less burdensome as a temporary hijabi. There was a certain je ne sais quoi that I somehow felt I had achieved in the 30 seconds it took to "hijabify" myself. It's remarkable what an open mind, a few pins, and a simple piece of cloth can do.

At any rate, this small act of solidarity taught me something very important about hijab, something that some of my fellow non-Muslims would do well to remember: sometimes, hijab makes a woman feel more herself, not less. It's not just about being modest around men--because when it comes to sexual harassment, no short hemline, stiletto heel or decolleté top gives anyone an excuse to act like an animal. And it's not just about covering, because that implies that a human body is a shameful thing, and it's not. Any of the Muslim women I know will tell you that "hijab" means a lot more than simply "headscarf." It's not just about "modesty" in a superficial sense. It's deeper than that. It conveys a message that someone's physical appearance is second to their true identity, their convictions and ideas and feelings. It sends a signal that, not only do I expect to be listened to instead of looked at, but I will return that favor to anyone with whom I interact. In short, I felt I was, quite literally, wearing respect on my head: respect towards myself, towards God, and towards other people.

This is not to say that covering one's hair is the only way to show respect or dress modestly, or that women who wear hijab are never harassed or objectified. Nor am I asserting that people's interactions with one another would automatically become more genuine if they only covered their heads. But it seems ironic to me that something that can be so empowering and woman-affirming can also be so hated by those who claim to be feminist. How one chooses to present oneself is both highly complex and intensely personal; feminism is not a one-size garment, and ultimately has a lot more to do with what's going on inside her head, not on top of it. Whether she chooses a bikini, a burqa, or anything in between, what's most important is her own freedom to make that choice. Thus, women should feel as free to dress modestly, whatever their faith or philosophy, as they are to dress in any other way.

So even though I don't currently have plans to adopt the hijab as a regular style, I don't think I'll soon forget my first encounter with wearing it. No matter what, I know I will continue to admire and be inspired by the intellect, dignity and beauty of my hijabi sisters.