I like the Middle East*. I like being the only white girl in the room to speak Arabic, though when I meet other polyglot Westerners abroad I appreciate that too. I like the challenges to my perception of what gender, politics, and culture mean. I like feeling brave.
I’ve been thinking about that last one a lot.
It’s not that Jordan and Beirut are dangerous. As I discussed with my cab driver tonight, I think many cities in the Middle East are as safe if not safer than big cities in the United States. They might be harder to navigate or more tightly knit, but I don’t land in a foreign city and raise my defensive hackles for the duration.
But I still feel brave when I walk into the Saudi-perfume scented terminal at Dulles where my flight will leave from in an hour. I feel unique and interesting. I like the look of surprise on people’s faces when I tell them I’m going to the Middle East on a trip (it feels weird to say “vacation” because, in my experience, you don’t wear suits on vacation). I like how much more I’ve been thinking in Arabic and muttering to myself in Arabic this past week.
I like traveling to places other people think are dangerous.
I feel apart when I travel. It’s some of the same feeling as when I’m writing–that I’m “of the world but not in it“–but it’s closer to the wild feeling I get when I pop in my headphones on a late night walk home after choir, stalking up Connecticut Street with Florence + the Machine blasting out the domestic noise of traffic and closing businesses:
When I walk with music loud enough that I can’t hear the sound of my own footsteps, I feel like I’m in a story, like I’m watching a story, like I’m writing a story. I feel like thinks are wild and in that wildness is the possibility of freedom.
It’s not a feeling I want forever. I like the luscious comfiness of cuddling in Matthew’s lap and the relaxed tetchiness of my evening workouts with a friend who I can stretch and spin my day into revealing and cleansing stories. I like knowing where home is and having a door with a lock that I shut and which no one else can come in. I like walking into work and having friends, people to chat with and tease and be teased by. I like sitting by myself in my room, with nothing between me and hours of reading but my own sleepiness. I like making a difference with my work and at 24 I’m in one of the best places in the world to do just that.
But sometimes I like to run away, to unknow how the world works and be unknown to those who I surround myself with. Maybe it started with moving between houses when I was a kid, maybe it was the first time I left my homeland when I went to England on a middle school trip, or when I went to Qatar in college with a group or Egypt alone last year. But there’s something in me that needs feeding, and travel does it for me.
So I’ll get up when they call my row, swing on my Timbuktu bag and enjoy being someplace where nobody knows my name, at least until I meet my family at the other end.
*One of the things I don’t like about people who make this region their profession is the wankery about naming things. Yes, “Middle of what?” and “East of what?” can only be answered within the context of Western colonialism and imperialism. Maybe “Near East” might be better, but the still: “Near what?” and “East of what?” beg to be asked. Same problem with “Western Asia.” (Not even getting into the issue of lumping 2 billion people into one nebulous “Asia”). “Arab region” is certainly more open than “Arab World,” but there are dozens of different kinds of people, many of whom don’t identify as Arab in the “Arab region.” So I stick with the most well-understood term, though it has problems growing out of its problems, because when push comes to tackle, I’d rather be understood than right.
“Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars… and if you have eyes you will be able to see that the whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy. Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance. Look at the flowers – for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.”–Osho