(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Being Atticus Finch (the only way I know how)

It's been a while since I last wrote here, a good few things have happened.  My harshest critic (me) has finally and begrudgingly stated that I've gotten a lot better at Arabic.  I've had entire conversations that last more than five minutes and contain only a minimum of charades.  Not to be smug about it or anything, but I'm pretty proud of myself.  I still have to force myself out there, but there are several of the Syrians on the hall who I count as real friends now, and I'm to the level of pillow fights and silly faces.  Strange, that it took me getting over verbal communication to make it to being comfortable with nonverbal communication.  Recently, a friend from American University was in town with his mom.  Speaking with them, I realized that even outside of language, I've learned so much here that I didn't know before.  My ideas about Syria have changed completely, now that I know how diverse it is.  If you want a nice spiel from me on religious and ethnic diversity and amazing tolerance in Syria, just let me know.

Probably the most notable thing in my recent past, though, was the group trip to Damascus, Quneitra, and Ma'aloula.  Damascus was...well...the big city.  The buildings were taller, the taxi drivers less friendly, the foreigners more numerous.  I discovered that I have city loyalty to Aleppo.  To Damascus' credit, though, it boasts both Indian and Chinese food, neither of which can be found in Aleppo.  And the Ummayad Mosque, which we girls entered in hasty hijab and borrowed abayyas, was splendid in the most sincere use of the word.  (Pictures someday when the Internet connection is stronger, I promise.)

The most emotional portion of the trip, though, took place in Quneitra, capital of the Golan region of Syria.  You've probably heard of the Golan, or Golan Heights, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  According to those leading our tour, after the end of the war and right before handing a part of the land back to the Syrians, Israeli soldiers razed the city of Quneitra.  Syria decided to rebuild the city nearby, saying that they would leave the old Quneitra as a memorial because it remained in danger of Israeli invasion once more.  We walked solemnly through a hospital reduced to rubble, a church barren of anything more than its pock-marked walls, and a cemetery dedicated to those who died in the wars.  We saw many families with small children having what looked like picnics among the ruins...they looked like picnics because they were.  Every Friday (the holy day of the weekend) families from the old Quneitra, many of whom now live in Damascus, are permitted to go take a meal or just sit together in what was their yard.

Before the cemetery, we visited the UN checkpoint and border beyond which you can see the rich fields of the part of the Golan occupied by Israel.  One of my professors here has a pet peeve about people referring to the area as "the Golan Heights"; he thinks this sounds rocky and barren.  Maybe he has a point, because it's anything but.  Apparently, the very best apples in the Middle East come from the Golan, and the farmland is among the most fertile in Syria.  Many farming families were split apart by the demarcation, resulting in the infamous "Screaming Valley" across which family and friends shout their news to one another via bullhorn.  (More things I had no idea about before coming.)  Standing at the border, one of the Syrian girls with whom I am closest-- the one who cared for me, hardly knowing me, when I was sick and miserable, with whom I had my first real Arabic conversations, who feeds me whenever the opportunity arises-- started crying.  I and one of my American friends made a hug ball with her and gave her tissues, and then we walked together to the bus.

By the time we got to the cemetery, we were all at least a little emotionally drained.  One of the Americans, however, began arguing politics with a Syrian chaperon amidst the tombstones (among which there were several crosses), resulting in some things being said which were perhaps not appropriate to the solemn, respectful setting.  Another American in the program became upset by this and so I ended up snuggling with her, too. 

All this made me think.  Obviously, being in Quneitra and quite literally faced with the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict was food for thought and will be for a long time to come.  But while I am sometimes the facilitator of communication, I have never been a natural solver of conflict.  Deepest apologies to my School of International Service at American University, which seems to want all of us to be policy "wonks" and fix the world's problems that way.  Honestly, the Arab-Israeli conflict(s) is/are too big for me to handle on my own, probably ever.  (Even just that sentence was tough!)  I thought it was interesting that what I ended up doing in Quneitra for both a Syrian and an American is what I seem to do best by nature: holding someone until they can deal with the world again. 

A friend recently related to me the metaphor of Gandhi and Atticus Finch.  Some people change the world like Gandhi, by knowing and mobilizing many people for institutional change.  Other people change the world by knowing fewer people, maybe only one small community, but meaning everything to them: Atticus Finch.  Not a perfect analogy, but good enough for my purposes.  I think the world needs both.  "Gandhi" people are more well-known, and so being one seems a higher goal, but I also think it's kind of a waste of time and energy to struggle to be what you're not.  So I'll support the people who work at the highest level for peace and justice, but I'll also try to recognize the worth of the gifts of the Attici (would that be the plural of "Atticus"?).  As I said before in the linguistic context, I am my own harshest critic, but I will also go on giving whatever I have to the people in my sphere.  And sometimes hopefully maybe insha'allah-- that will be good enough.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, sweetie. You really touched my heart with this one. I was reading aloud to Daddy, and had to stop.
    I'm so proud of you.
    I love you so.