Dordt College News

A (somewhat) impossible task

May 18, 2011

"Could you write something about your experience in the Middle East this semester?”

I stare blankly at the email on the screen in front of me, before writing “I’d love to” and hitting send.

Almost immediately I begin to question what exactly I’ve gotten myself into. Write something? I could (and am currently) writing 10-page papers on my experiences of one week, let alone my entire semester. What do I write about? How do I condense everything I’ve seen, heard, and experienced without cheapening any of it?Multi-family dwellings like those in this Israeli settlement are common sights for students on the Middle East Studies Program. Following their early departure from Cairo after the January 25th Revolution, CCCU (Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) students are spending more of their semester in other Middle Eastern countries.

Should I write about my group, 28 students from Christian colleges across the U.S. forced together under what can only be described as “unusual circumstances”? None of us really knew what we were getting into when we stepped onto that flight destined for Cairo, but every one of us is unquestionably glad we came.

Maybe I should write about Egypt, a country that has been waiting decades for the basic rights the people deserve. The 18-day process that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation is being called the “January 25th Revolution”; to be able to say that I was in Cairo, on the edge of Tahrir Square, on January 25, is something I will cherish for a long time. After seeing thousands of protesters, walls of riot police, and feeling the burning sensation of tear gas, the quiet cornfields of Iowa seem like something from a distant dream.

Yet the revolution did not solely define my experience in Egypt, so perhaps I should write about what I will remember most: the people. How can I forget the pious Muslim taxi-driver who returned my lost wallet with every dollar and piece of ID untouched. Or the manager at the local internet cafe, who, although knowing only half the English words that us North Americans knew, was twice as funny. Time and time again, my preconceptions and misconceptions about Middle Eastern people were smashed in the most beautiful of ways. As I saw ordinary people of every creed and color take to the streets in protest, I felt an unmistakable bond with a country that had been my place of residence for all of three weeks.

Maybe I should talk about the culture shock I experienced after being relocated to Istanbul, Turkey. Unlike Egypt, the cold secularism left over from Kemal Atatürk’s legacy means religion is increasingly confined to the private sphere. Turkey is trying so desperately to be like the West, to be like us, but in doing so, they seem to be forfeiting a part of their country’s soul.

Maybe I could write about Israel, or Palestine, or the dividing wall between the two that I can see from my bedroom window.  Perhaps I should describe what it’s like to realize some questions may never have answers, some problems may never be solved. With each book, with each speaker, with each new opinion and argument things seem more complicated than before, and the people you condemn after one moving speech may be the same people you’re rooting for after another.

I wish I could write about everything, about subway rides and Turkish coffee in the park, about going on late-night falafel runs and waking up to the call to prayer. I wish I could write about the hypocrisy of U.S. policy, of authoritarian regimes and the protesters who stand up to them without a particular ideology or religion driving their actions. From riot police to Palestinian school kids, my experiences in the Middle East have been as diverse and resistant to generalization as the region itself.

Then again, if all else fails, I could just write about how hard it is for me to choose something to write about. But no, that would be cheap.


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