From: Christina Hallam
To: Adnan Sidani
I wanted to tell you Adnan how much I have loved doing these dispatches. I know at the end you have had a hard time getting to the internet. Believe me, I know how that feels. I think my family went a few weeks with no word from me when the internet went out in my town in India.
But thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me: for being honest in your thoughts and words while challenging mine. It has been an absolute delight! I wish you the best in the rest of your time at college and into the rest of you life.
I will begin this last prompt talking about my past as I so often have. It starts in Kansas which is smack dab in the middle of the United States where I grew up.
I remember in middle school I had a friend whose family was Iranian. Her name was Paradise and most people called her by that name. After the first time I heard the actual pronunciation of her name I refused to call her paradise. Her name was Par-deece. I was an odd-ball then who didn’t fit into most crowds. I thought I was punk and refused to wear pink. Being that we went to school in Kansas at a 95% white school, Paradise stood out too. We were both odd-balls so it seemed natural that we developed a strong friendship. However, I never quite saw her differentness: she wasn’t preppy so I thought she was “cool.” I don’t mean to say that I didn’t understand and “us” and “them” dynamic: I very much did. However, I did not understand it in a traditional sense. The “us” was me and any other loner I became friends with. The “them” became the preppy, popular kids. These were arbitrary lines that often fell along the lines of music taste.
Over the course of just one year we became extremely close friends. She invited me over for her birthday celebration. It was the first time that I had been the only white person at a gathering. The party was mostly filled with family: aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and the aunts, uncles, and cousins you aren’t really related to. That whole night I remember being absolutely astounded by how welcoming her family had been. Every single person in that house treated me like I was a part of their family. The food which they piled on my plate was unlike any I had had before (or since) and blew my taste buds away. When my dad came to pick me up, her father insisted that he come in for some cake. My father ended up staying for another hour and a half talking with Paradise’s father. Their hospitality they showed to me that one night has stayed with me to this very day.
Sadly, a year after we had formed a friendship, I moved to Michigan. In Michigan where I went to high school I began to realize how unusual our friendship was. I went to a semi-diverse but still mainly white high school. I met many students with Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Hispanic heritages. It was completely new to me but I soon learned that these groups did not always mix. Yes, we all had friends with these groups but people with similar heritages tended to stay together. It was also in high school that I learned stereotypes I had been unaware of before. For instance, the only two Jewish people I knew in middle school were both white-blond haired and blue eyed. I made a few blunders before I learned what the rest of the world’s stereotype for Jewish people was.
It was also in high school that I learned who the other was. In an International Issues class the teacher worked to break down assumptions of Arabs caused by the terrorist attacks. It was then that I realized that most people would have put my friend Paradise in the “other” category. She was from a country where “those people” were from (even if not directly, we still don’t have friendly relations with Iran). It had never occurred to me to see her as an “other”, she was simply my friend. Only when I look back now do I see how she stood out from everybody.
It seems odd to me looking back now about how my peers had to teach me about stereotypes about the other. Previously the only two stereotypes I knew were really preppy/jocks and goth/punk/emo. I can point out the specific time that other ingrained in me that Japanese and Indians were supposed to be really smart. It was also then that they ingrained in me that the black students didn’t try as hard in class. My high school tried to explain to an “other” that I had never thought of or really been exposed to before.
Then I entered college. Albion college works towards a diverse campus (how well the achieve that is another issue). Once again, as people came together I had to learn certain stereotypes that others worked with. However, college allowed for more constructive avenues. I quickly joined an interfaith organization and attended as many intercultural events as I saw advertised. If there was an “other” I wanted to understand it. What I found, from Ethnic Studies classes, Women’s Studies classes, Anthropology classes was simply that the idea of an “other” is socially constructed. In my middle school years I was naive about the other. In high school I learned as cultural understanding of the other. In college I have been invested in an academic understanding of where the other comes from. And the more I seek, the more I find human beings that have similar concerns to me. I even traveled to India to find that the people there are just people with daily concerns who work to get by.
All of this is to explain why I still don’t understand, emotionally, the other. Intellectually, I can analyses it and point out where it is present. It is a privilege I have been given. Many people have to live their lives being considered the other. But with this privilege, I must do something with it or it has been wasted privilege. I work now to understand why this is; why there is an “other” and what is the “other.” And no, we are very much discouraged from looking and befriending the other. It is hard to bomb someone you know and understand. It is hard to go to war when you look someone in the eyes. But it is easy to go to war with a concept. A “war on terror” is easier than a war on a group of people. This is often a problem I have with eco-terrorists: they go to battle with “corporations” without understanding that corporations are made up of people. What often and sadly results is that neither side fully understands each other and have made each other out to be something they are not. The scary part is how can there be an “us”, will there be an “us”, with not “them”? This is the same as me and the other. Often we define ourselves by the existence of the other. People often are afraid, I believe, of what the us, the me, becomes when you break down the other.
To close off I will bring this back in: how to get rid of the other. Stories. Our world from the beginning of what we know has been shaped by stories. I believe in their power to move mountains and hearts. Stories can break down the other or build it up. Either way, stories become a part of us when we hear them. Put stories out there and take ownership of their ideas. I have seen the power in testimonies in the faith I grew up in. I believe that it can work here. If both sides could just listen to the other’s stories, raw emotions and anger and all, just maybe we could break down the “other”. That is what we are doing here. We tell stories and put them out there. We have an obligation now to keep telling them until the “other” is gone. This is not to erase diversity, but to understand different cultures and ways at looking at the world. Fear often comes from the unknown, the dark places in our brains. Even if it is just a candle, let us illuminate the wonders of each other’s cultures whether it be the logger and the tree hugger or the American and the Arab. When understanding is found, solutions will soon follow.
From: Adnan Sidani
To: Christina Hallam
I just wanted to start off by again, apologizing for the delay, even though you’re clearly understanding of it, which I genuinely appreciate. I’ve officially gotten my internet connection installed, finally, and can continue our correspondences. In Lebanon, internet service providers are known to be the laziest, most lucrative and inefficient workers around. I think it goes without saying since yesterday marked about five weeks since we’ve contacted them to install our internet routes. Anyways, again I apologize. But I’d really just like to say that these dispatches have been as rewarding as it gets to me, and really weren’t what I thought they would be when I first signed up for this course. I’ve rarely met people who are as open-minded and thought-provoking as you are, and I can only feel grateful to hear that you thought I was any similar to that.
Your story regarding the other is one that is rich, since it’s filled with your personal experiences. I couldn’t really see what you described on TV as it would probably be considered taboo and frowned upon that any sort of racism, discrimination, or just racial groups being formed on the schoolyard exists. I’ve been reading American books, watching American TV shows, exploring the American culture for probably about eight years, and I can honestly tell you that I didn’t expect you to describe what you just did. On TV, you can always see how diverse the US is and how much it seems to be embraced over there. I never imagined the fact that groups with one unique racial background being formed on campus, and that’s a real eye-opener. I can’t say it’s not the same here though, but I thought it was our problem only.
Here, you probably can’t distinguish someone’s religious beliefs at first glance, you might need to ask them to speak or ask what their name is to identify what secular group they’re a part of. And it shouldn’t be surprising, with that being said, that groups just like the ones you described are formed according to the common religious belief, and secular group. But in Lebanon, it’s not just a social issue that comes in the way of the wellbeing of a campus, but it’s a ticking time bomb that once erupted, in May 2008, when those secular groups just simply took it to the streets of the capital, and let their guns settle their differences. It was the closest thing you’ll get to a civil war, since the actual Lebanese civil war in 1975, when Christians and Muslims battled it out. What was remarkable this time around, was the fact that it was a Muslim-Muslim conflict, which put Sunni Muslims and Shia’a Muslims on opposing ends of the street, and began a turf war. This was probably the hardest few days of my life, since I live in Hamra, known for its diverse population, so it was the center of the battlefield. Social norms were ripped to shreds, religious ones destroyed as well, and the Other was out to kill us. A similar tradition to the Civil War was applied, with armed men marching into houses and asking for ID. The thing about Lebanese ID, is that it displays your religious beliefs, for some odd reason, and that resulted in people getting killed and taken out of their houses. That part of my life was the most gruesome experience in which I felt like there was a genuine Other out there, and it wasn’t my choice to be their enemy, but they saw me as one.
On a larger scale though, this correspondence has not exactly revolutionized the way I think of the Other, since I never actually thought of anyone as an Other. It always frustrated me to feel like a lot of people here aren’t as well-informed as I’m fortunate to be, and regard the Other as a malicious creature. Extremists here see Americans as the Other who is an enemy, because of their political affiliation with Israel. Lebanon has suffered over the years because of conflicts with Israel, so some people kind of adopt the “The friend of my enemy is my enemy” policy regarding the United States. But rarely are the people I personally interact with who think that way. I consider people who have a xenophobic hatred towards the US as ignorant, since they shouldn’t generalize a whole population because of an action a government made that didn’t please them. Over the years, I’ve noticed that most of my education about the Other came from watching TV in all honesty, though I’d really like to say it was from my days at school, but I couldn’t. I’m fortunate enough to have been raised in a household where one of my parents is a Muslim and the other is Christian, and they’ve managed to get married at the time of the civil war (Which would’ve gotten them killed had anyone known) so tolerance was really an essential pillar in my coming of age. I always felt like there was no real Other, and I knew that not all people could relate to the thought of that and would agree with me. The first time I felt like I was personally the Other, was when I went to Los Angeles in 2009. Back then, I was so excited to visit a city that was already my favorite, although I’ve never even visited it or any city in the US for that matter. But it’s the moment I arrived at the airport when I felt like I was the Other and I was not welcome here. I think you know what I’m talking about… My family and I were picked up from the big line of people and taken to a secluded room, which was pretty embarrassing as we hadn’t realized why until a few minutes in. It was because we were Lebanese, and we posed a threat to the country we were visiting, and we had to answer questions like we were incarcerated and ever done anything unlawful. It’s at that moment that I realized that there is a wall between the East and the West, and that that wall wouldn’t be torn down like that of Berlin, since it was much larger, and would take decades in order to begin to eradicate. That made me feel pretty humiliated, and if there’s anything I’d change about the relationship between Arabs and Americans, it’s that they generalize millions of people from the opposing side just because of the opinion of a few. When that happens though, those few grow in numbers and in power.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from exploring other cultures, especially that of the US, since I take pride in the fact that I’m more informed, more intellectually and morally equipped than that, and I really enjoy reading Americans’ blogs, following them on Twitter, subscribing to them on YouTube, watching their movies and TV shows, and embracing their culture. Writing on the other hand, is more intimate than simply following them on social media, since I got a figuratively face to face interaction with an American who was more fascinating than TV shows, where I’m on the outside looking in, since I actually got to explore the thoughts and the identity of one week in week out. This has truly been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve engaged in, and I can only thank you for showing me sincerely who you are through these dispatches, and embracing my identity as the one I’ve tried to paint for you.