Borders and barriers. Boundaries and breakthroughs. Here she was, millions of miles (or maybe more, I was never good with numbers), away from home. She had left her home, her family, and here was in some Arab country. They looked at her like she didn’t belong with us. There we were, the others, the ones who had been colonized, captured, the ones who were called uncivilized throughout history and literature. There we were looking at her as though she was here to ridicule us, to judge us, to mock our traditions and culture. I heard some of the girls speaking in a language they knew she would never understand.
Her blonde hair stood out amidst the dark black haired girls, the brunettes, and naturally around the women cloaked in black. A striking contrast, uncomfortable to many. The men looked at her, their eyes darted straight to her legs. Fashionable. Like all the others, she was informed that she had to change her dress code a bit, alter her attire, make herself look professional and modest. What did that mean? It didn’t matter. She only wanted to work. She wanted to teach. To teach these students a bit about history, a bit about psychology, a bit about education, that was the initial goal. And here she was, nearly a decade later, unable to understand how the tables had turned. As the years went by, she had grown accustomed to being alone. Around her, everyone was either married or dead. The married ones feared for their husbands, they couldn’t believe a woman as beautiful as her wouldn’t sway their men. An affair was bound to happen, they thought, and prevention measures had to be taken. I noticed the stares. I overheard the married men make their remarks. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything when he said she looked good. Or did he? Would he have said it to an Arab woman? An Arab man, hypocritical and biased in his understanding of women. She wasn’t Arab, she wasn’t Muslim, she wasn’t married, and he was merely complimenting her. Wait until someone says the same thing to his sister or his daughter, I thought to myself.
But women aren’t always nice to other women either. Women are supposed to love and support other women, or so I was told in my Women’s Studies classes. Sisterhood is political. Sisterhood is a must. Black feminist. White feminist. Arab feminist. Third world feminist. They fight the fight against patriarchy, injustice, and they make the world a better place for each other.
But that’s in theory. In practice, things change. Like the others, I was used to sticking with my group. I was always an outsider, and my friends were minority groups, and I was content with being on my own. When I first noticed her, I looked at her as though she came from a different planet altogether. She wasn’t completely foreign to me, but I was curious about her intentions. I had met way too many privileged white people. I had met an academic who asked me if I knew how to use Google. So I kept my distance, I smiled at her from time to time, and stuttered when I spoke to her. Words seemed to escape and run back to her, it was as though they had decided that the language was hers, that it was not mine to toy with, and they snuggled better between her lips. My tongue was as twisted as a freshman learning French for the first time. And yet she didn’t seem to notice my anxiety. But I did. Anxiety was never a friend of mine. I was the most relaxed person, and yet here I was unsure how to behave in the presence of someone very foreign to me. There was an immediate meeting of souls and I was aware that language could not capture this transferable energy. She asked me for coffee, the first person to reach out to me. The others had never noticed my presence. I was the other, the Arab, the one who was different and invisible to them. They had formed a group, safe in the haven of the familiar, and inviting an alien out with them was not on the table. I began noticing that the world was divided even in the world of academia. Academia had different teams too. There were divisions and subdivisions. There was a cool table and a not-so-cool table. High school pseudo-politics had found yet another home. I wondered if people never change, and if adults are just meaner versions of children.
And yet here was a meeting of minds, an affair of cultures and a mingling of histories. I asked her how racist her great grandparents had been, and she laughed at the insinuation. They had, of course, been very racist, and very loyal to their people. My grandparents were the same in their xenophobia. As we began probing each other’s minds, I grew more fascinated with her ability to be so free of bias, prejudice, and racism. When I had previously felt like I was the object of an unpublished paper, I was now slowly being re-introduced to the ABCs of human connection. All of the isms went out the door: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism. We had nothing in common, I was of a different race, a different age, sexuality, ability/disability, and yet, surprise surprise – it had worked. It was a surprise to my friends and her friends, my colleagues and hers, and perhaps even more so, it was a creation of an alternative world. This was a place I wanted to be. There were words left unsaid, museums of minds left untrodden, dreams dangling between continents.
And so we collaborated. We researched, we analyzed, we found old textbooks that looked at societies, we tried to make sense of worlds of emotional war, we tried to break it down. What were they so afraid of? What was power all about? Was it a Western concept? Was it the East’s obsession with tradition, that tradition had to be upheld in the face of globalization? Was the West inherently racist? Was it white supremacy? What about Arab supremacy? What about lineage?
What was the tension in the air when we went for lunch with our colleagues? Bodies adjusted and re-adjusted, words cleansed and censored, ideas drafted endlessly, and none of us offered each other anything more than small talk. We didn’t like small talk. We couldn’t do small talk. She was a bit ahead of me in the Adult game, she knew human behavior more than I did and had been exposed to nonsense countless times. In a sense, she had become an Expert at man-made borders. When I was uncomfortable with the others, she reassured me that there was still someone who saw me for me, and as cliché as that sounds, I was grateful. Gratefulness is a word that seems to have lost its allure.
They invited me for Thanksgiving, and weren’t sure if I would join. Muslims don’t do Thanksgiving. But I could think of a few things I was thankful for. My people wondered why I would join a bunch of Thanks-givers.
She and I though, we crossed over to the other side. If I had hesitated, she had swam over to the deep end. But that’s who she was. She wasn’t afraid of depth, like Anais Nin once said, and she had a “great fear of shallow living.”
At the Airport, they separated us. GCC Nationals over here, all others over there. Stand in line, Don’t break the rule. See that red line on the floor? What, are you blind? I said, stick to your side.
Once we got to our destination, Airport security asked me to remove my shoes. The tall white man smiled at her approvingly, giving her the green light to keep moving. Walk on.