Sunday, June 24, 2012

Things to know

In 20 short days, I will be boarding a plane that will be taking me toward Buffalo, NY so I can spend a week at Chautauqua Institution before heading back to the Midwest.   As this realization has started to sink in I have had to come to terms with the fact that this part of my YAGM journey is coming to an end faster than I would like to admit. Over the past several days I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the fact that returning to the states means being semi-prepared to talk about this experience, share my stories and answer questions. 
As I have been thinking about what I will share with you when I return, I have also spent a lot of time thinking about the things that I need people to know as I return home to provide a basic starting point for sharing the stories of the past 11 months.  At this point I have identified the top 10 things that you should know:

1.     Please don’t ask me how my trip was.  This year was more than a “trip” and I was not just “visiting” the Holy Land.   I have spent the past 11 months working here, building a community, becoming a part of a family, developing routines and creating a sense of normal.  This was my life for a year and this place will forever be a place I will call home, so please do not minimize this experience by referring to it as “trip”, “vacation” or “holiday.”
2.     I spent a majority of my time living and working with Palestinians and in Palestine.  I know that there is a fair amount of debate about what to call this area.  Is it the West Bank?  Occupied Palestinian Territories?  The Holy Land?   I will refer to it as Palestine, and the people I lived and worked with are Palestinians. 
3.     Just because I am an advocate for Palestine, doesn’t mean I deny Israel or am anti-Israel.   One of the downfalls in our language is the assumption that when we are “pro” something we must “anti” something else.  In this case, if I say I am pro-Palestine, there is often an assumption that I must be anti-Israeli.  I may not always agree with all of the Israeli’s governments policies, I am not denying their right to exist and live in peace, so long as it is just peace for all in this area.  So I guess if we need to put it in “pro” and “anti” terms- I am pro-Human rights and anti-oppression; I am pro-love and anti-hate; I am pro-dignity and anti-humiliation. 
4.     There are Christians here. They may be in the minority, but they are present and they are present in a HUGE way.   In fact, this is the land where Christianity was born, it was not brought here by Western missionaries.   Nor was this part of my mission here. I was here to walk with the people here-Jewish, Christian and Muslim-to hear the stories and learn from them.  For more information about Christians in the Holy Land, check out this recent 60 Minutessegment. 
5.     I have spent the past year attempting to function in Arabic and English.  As I attempted to learn Arabic and teach English, I have developed my own language somewhere in the middle, Arablish if you will, so some Arabic words have worked there way into my daily vocabulary.  If they happen to come up in a conversation I am having with you please stop me and ask me what they mean.  For a brief pre-lesson, you can check out this blog by my fellow YAGM Courtney.  The other thing that this means, is I am not used to being surrounded by English conversations, so I am easily distracted when I surrounded by people who are speaking English if they are not talking to me-I can only imagine how overwhelming this will be when I return to a place where everybody speaks English.
6.     There are things that have become normal this year, that weren’t before.  Aside from it becoming normal for me to try to bounce between Arabic and English, there are parts of daily life that have become normal here and as I return home, I am going to have to adjust to a different sense of normal.  These things are some everyday things like the fact that toilet paper does not get flushed but goes in a small wastebasket, double cheek kisses are the proper greeting and the currency is shekel (or I measure things in how many falafel sandwiches I could buy…).  Along with these things, things like having to cross checkpoints, encountering soldiers with guns and witnessing segregation having become a normal part of my life and my stories from here.  While these things have become normal for me, they weren’t at the beginning of the year, so I don’t expect it to always make sense to everybody.  If I make a comment or some part of a story doesn’t make sense, please ask questions and I will do my best to answer them.
7.     I have a lot of stories to share.  As I mentioned before, this place was home for a year and I have fallen in love with the location, the people and the culture and I want to share that love with you.  However, if you just ask me “How was your year?”  I will most likely be so overwhelmed with trying to figure out where to start, that I will give you a mono-syllabic answer or a blank stare. Ask me about the people, the food, the culture, my students, my work and I will be able to talk for hours. So ask me about it, but specific questions are going to be more conducive to talking about it and if you do that, I promise to do my best to not talk too much. 
8.     There will be questions I can’t answer.  In many ways, this year has been a year with more questions than answers.  I promise to do my best to answer any questions you have, but if I can’t answer a question, I ask that you respect that I am probably still struggling to find the answers to those questions.
9.     I am looking forward to returning “home” but I am not excited to be leaving this “home”. So the answer to the question “Are you excited to be going back to the States?” is more complicated than a “yes” or “no” answer.  These next few weeks are going to be a giant emotional roller-coaster ride as I come to terms with saying “see you later” to my family here and return to my family back home.  As I navigate this, I ask for some patience and understanding.  I will have highs and lows, but eventually I will balance out. 
10.  This year has changed me.  I have been pushed and challenged and grown a lot over the past year. I been witness to great pain and suffering, but in the midst of that I have experienced amazing hospitality, love and welcome. However, at the end of the day I am still a girl from small town Iowa but I have just spent a year of my life living here, having my eyes opened and changed.


  1. Even spending only a month in Israel/Palestine, I have struggled for years to try to describe the experience to friends and family. Thanks for sharing this, Alma, and I look forward to having a chance to hear more about your experiences. Safe travels...

  2. love it!! especially numbers 1 and 7, I can relate, I get asked "How was your trip?" like everyday (even though I'm going back!!) And w/regard to 9: I realized what a silly question that was as soon as I asked it!! haha. I think it just popped out because people had been asking me the same thing for so long.

  3. Asalamu Alaykom from Egypt,

    I hear you. Your list is spot-on. For me, I went back to the Midwest for a visit not to live since the family I've made here isn't's literal. The home I've made here is a very real place---with purchases of big heavy furniture that I can't fit in my suitcase. Yet, people in America still feel like the time here is not real. That's my take on it anyway. It's as if their life were moving through the years correctly and on coarse while I'm on a kind of holiday.

    Basically, what we feel when we move out of our comfort zones is such personal growth. It's hard for anyone else to really understand except others who have done the same. It's not their fault. It's just that they're limited in their experience. There is a wistfulness which remains when we head back to the U.S.

    For me, I decided that Egypt was my place. I don't always love every moment but I feel like I can improve who I am better here than elsewhere. Maybe you'll decide to become an ex-pat too and leave the U.S. for good. It's possible. Don't rule it out. Just plan for it gradually by doing the things which will pad your life here. It's not easy without many years of thoughtful planning.

    You can read what I've done on my blog. Look under the tag "Making Hijrah" to read about my transition to Egypt.

    Wishing you the best :)