I’ve been slaving over my Fulbright application, and just had to throw out a rather lovely piece of writing because it wasn’t direct enough for this kind of application. Oh, well. At least you all can enjoy it:
“Why here?” the professor asked. Doha’s January sunlight was streaming through the glass wall of our classroom and offered me a flip answer. I could have said: “I’m no good at east coast winters,” and let it go. Looking into the faces of my new classmates (friendly and a little bored under a riot of colorful headscarves) I had a moment of inner clarity. I took a leap and started to explain why I’d chosen to live in the Middle East the Spring of my Junior year. I said:
On September 11th 2001, I watched the towers burn and fall. My mother cried over a lost friend. My Indian classmate was harassed in the supermarket. I read in my local paper that two covered Muslim women had been shot at in the San Francisco Bay Area. The reporter said the women were targeted because they were wearing modest Muslim skirts and headscarves.
The waves of rolling hate which tore the skin of my country terrified me, but shooting at women for their clothes was too much injustice for my 12-year-old mind to let pass. I wanted to stand with women who were proud of their faith. I went into my dress-up drawer and found a scarf. For four weeks I wore it; I wore it to Karate and my cousin’s baptism; a woman in a local Applebees showed me how to keep it from falling off my ears. My father said I was supporting woman-haters and terrorists. I felt like I was doing something small to sweep back those waves.
Back in my African history class in Qatar, I realized I was over-sharing. I hurried to answer the question: “Why here?” I said that when I learned Carnegie Mellon had a campus in the Middle East, I had to get there. I was one of the first of a group of students selected to be informal ambassadors between our campuses. I traveled there over the Spring Break of my Sophomore year, and helped run half-a-dozen events to bring the two campuses closer together.
I couldn’t stop learning about the region. I squirreled away tidbits like how Egyptian and Qatari women pin their veils; I enrolled in and loved my first Arabic class. But I needed more than tidbits. So I found subletters for my Pittsburgh lease, depleted my savings, and flew away from my fiance, to get to a country my professors pronounced “Gutter.” But I knew why I did it:
“I’m here because I need to know enough so that I will never be like the men who shot at veiled women in my area. I need to build a portfolio of experiences which will insulate me from that hate. I need to learn to stop that hate from ever rolling through again.” Everyone was quiet. I’d talked too much, as I tend to. The professor nodded and quietly moved on to the syllabus.
In Qatar I filled that portfolio with memories: swapping thread-spinning techniques with a Bedouin woman in the souq, sharing fears with my students in my self-defense class, and learning blue Arabic sports slang while playing for the Women’s Basketball team. I blogged about these experiences, to help insulate other people. On a bus ride from Dubai to Muscat, where the sand turned pink two hours from Dubai, I realized I had fallen in love.
Back in Pittsburgh after a summer in Washington DC, I kept learning. When my Mom helped manage the U.S. Department of State’s TechWomen mentoring program in summer 2011, I made friends with incredible technical women from the Middle East and North Africa in Silicon Valley for a month. I am helping build a course to teach study abroad students basic Arabic and cultural skills for the Gulf. I started an “Arabic-Only!” dinner group at Carnegie Mellon for students who miss the sounds of Arabic, mixing students and native-speakers.
I filed each experience in my internal portfolio labeled “How I’m different from the men who opened fire on Muslim women in my neighborhood.” I feel insulated from the ignorance-fueled hatred which drove them but now I need to know more. I need to do my part to prevent those waves from overwhelming American tolerance again. I can do this by serving Arabic-speaking populations in the United States and the Middle East. But first, I need to be proficient in Arabic.
PS: If you’re curious, I’m applying to spend a year studying Arabic in Egypt.
“Language is the dress of thought.”–Samuel Johnson