22 August 2007

if you don't understand something, then it's best to be afraid.

Seven months and I'm not certain I'm any closer to some notion of truth than I was when I stood in the OIA security line hoping no one asked about my Arabic dictionary. But I do understand a little more, albeit only slightly, but I think that's more than most people will ever attempt. I don't like everything about Jordan, but I don't fear it and I don't think it's hopeless to think that the conflict in the Middle East might one day be history and not news.

I'm less idealistic than I was seven months ago, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I have a more balanced view of the conflicts and social problems in the Arab world and a better understanding of my place here. I'm not going to save the region unless someone on the inside thinks my voice is worth hearing. Those people DO exist, contrary to popular belief - King Abdullah being a prominent example - but there aren't enough yet. There are artists and journalists and teachers pushing boundaries, but there are others reinforcing stereotypes and building walls. Just as we Americans insist on our own individuality, so too do the Jordanians I've known. Some are like Amjad, my radical Islam professor, who insist they're not tolerant like others, but most are just trying to live their lives and leave something better for their children.

I may not know what's best for Jordan and its neighbors, but I think, as an outsider, I can see what's not working. Criticize the evils of American sexual liberation and materialism all you want, but I haven't met a single person here who wouldn't drop everything for the opportunity to stand on American soil, even just for a few days. Call me an imperialist, but that makes me proud to say "ana amreekiya" when asked.

So are we better off forbidding all that might be taken to an extreme or trusting people to make their own decisions? I believe I am better off today for the mistakes I've made on my own terms. Sure, I've humiliated myself and regretted some things, but I'm still here and stronger for the lessons. This is where the hippie cultural relativist in me dies - some things are wrong and I believe social oppression is one of them. I hate the men here who have fondled me in the street, asked to watch me have sex, and repeatedly propositioned me, and I hate the aspects of their culture and faith that have taught them that (their) women are objects to be preserved, isolated, and controlled, while infidel women are merely slightly more interactive versions of a blow-up doll.

Stereotypes are true for a reason, and I can count on one hand the number of Jordanian men who have treated me as a person. I'm not certain Ben Hill Griffin Stadium could accommodate all the ones who haven't. If you think that I've "asked for it" by virtue of my dress, actions, or demeanor, then please don't speak to me again. There is very little a person can do (genocide being one exception) that justifies their dehumanization, and I don't think a skirt makes that list.

Although sexual apartheid has dominated my experience in Jordan, there are other problems here, and yes, I believe many of them stem from Islam, but that's not any different than my view of Christianity in the US or Judaism in Israel, so don't even start on the Islamophobia charges. I think all three "faiths" are equally problematic and all the good that can potentially be done in the name of god is far outweighed by the atrocities committed for the same cause. Very little you can say will ever budge me from that view - oppression, the squelching of potentially life-saving knowledge, human rights violations, genocide, and yes, terrorism, are killing us and we're too caught up in what the other side believes to notice. But interestingly enough, I came here believing Christianity was the root of all evil, but I've come to respect the role it played in facilitating the medieval split between church and state that enabled the modern notion of individual liberty that I hold so dear. Don't get me wrong, I won't be converting anytime soon, but Christianity had a place in creating the world I love. Had being the operative word.

So what's the solution?

I'm not purporting to know, but Einstein said that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I don't care what you do, just try something different. We'll fail, probably more often than we succeed, but I'd rather go down trying than not. And if you chose not to try, then I believe you lose the right to criticize those who do. So stand up and do something, or stay there content in your silence.

Where does this leave me? I'm more excited than ever about Ethiopia, but I am also excited about coming back in two (maybe three?) years and serving my country (as a civilian!). I've disagreed with my beloved country's policy in the Middle East before, and chances are, I will continue to. That's what I love - I can do that without fear of imprisonment, death, or even employment discrimination. But, I've realized the often-precarious position in which the US finds itself in the Middle East, and I'm confident things are only going to change with the backing (financial, implicit, or blatant) of the world's most powerful nation. And I'm proud to say I want to be a part of that, whether on the grassroots ground as a Peace Corps volunteer living what I believe are the best aspects of American values or as an analyst inside some agency with a reputation based more on its public failures than its private victories. Either one is fine by me, and I imagine I'll experience both before I retire.

So, it seems I'm an "orientalist," a kaffir (infidel), a liberal, an Islamaphobe, and an American. I'll wear all those badges with pride, especially that last one.

A parting thought:

Your class, your caste, your country, your sect, your name, or your tribe
There's people always dying trying to keep them alive.
...The bible's blind, the torah's deaf, the quran is mute -
If you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth.
-c. oberst

No comments: