Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Sound of Silence


A few minutes ago, after a short afternoon nap, I stepped outside the door of my apartment in the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah. It was several minutes after sunset, and the city was almost dead silent.

The normal rush of cars and buses that usually zoom past our apartment on their way to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, and other West Bank destinations were noticeably absent. The joyous shouts of children playing outside our window had disappeared. The sounds of city construction had halted momentarily. And even the wind seemed to be respecting the silence of the moment, for there was no rustle of tree leaves.

Even in the most isolated places, it’s rare to be able to sit and experience true, pure, unadulterated silence. But here, for several minutes, there was no sound in the air. In a world that seems to never stop, it was a moment of tranquil ecstasy.

Except for the birds. The birds were signing! They angered me in a way that animals never have before! How could these birds be so disrespectful of my moment of peace? An unexplainable rage bubbled inside of me. I wanted to curse the birds, yell at them for refusing to acknowledge everything else’s deference to silence. But they paid me no mind; they were never aware that their joy could taint such a blissful silence.

Frustrated at the birds’ blatant disregard for my wishes, I retired inside to make myself a cup of tea.


This is Ramadan in Ramallah. The silence was the sound of a fast being broken. It was the sound of Muslim families returning to their homes after a day of no eating and no drinking to eat an Iftar dinner and break their fasts together.

Ramadan is a time for family, prayer, religious observance, charity, and self-reflection. This holiest month of the Islamic calendar is a time to slow down from the bustle of everyday life to focus on the things that should be more important to us humans.

Throughout the month of Ramadan, for about an hour every day, this silence repeats. For me, it is the external manifestation of what Ramadan represents. For just a few moments every evening, if you pause and listen carefully, and cup your hand to your ear, you can hear the true heartbeat of Ramallah – family, hospitality, charity, and peace.

That is, of course, if the birds aren’t singing.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

In keeping with the Bedouin theme...

Aisha's comments about the Bedouin lifestyle are a perfect segway into my post, and for that I would like to start off by thanking her. That said, I have just had what so far has been the best week of my life. Last week I stayed with a Bedouin family in the south of Jordan near the Saudi border. For a day by day description, please see my other blog, but here I would like to talk about something that a few of the readers here know about almost too much. Ethics and Excellence.

Last year, I spent a whole semester with 24 of my close friends trying to dissect these two topics. Never reaching a joint and resolute conclusion on the topic, it has left me coming back to the topic from time to time trying to figure out its true meaning. After this past week, I feel like I am one step closer to feeling resolved on the issue.

In Bedouin society there is an idea know as المسان. Al-Misaan is derived from المسن or elderly. However, the Bedouin use it to describe the ideal qualities of a man. Behind this idea is years of war and conflict, so obviously the ideal man includes the ability to fight. Also within this context is desert life. Therefore, Al-Misaan is preferable to a man who can survive the elements. In a sense, المسان is the Bedouin version of the Renaissance man.

However, the most fundamental part of Al-Misaan as described to me by my house father is the idea of never forfeiting on your principles. This philosophy states that one should rather die than do something he considers wrong. It also talks about treating strangers and friends all alike, with a compassion and hospitality that the desert from which they came surely did not grant to them. Al-Sheraf, honor, was the most important part of all. Everything one does must uphold his personal honor as well as that of the tribe. In every aspect of life one is a representative of others and as such should act accordingly.

Now, this philosophy, like so many others, has its flaws. The most obvious of which is its patriarchal nature that does not mention females at all. However, I feel that this should not take away from its fundamental message. The individual should first rely upon his self and then upon others. Everything one does must be backed by a desire for perfection, yet that desire should not corrupt the principles and compassion that is within everyone. In essence, Al-Misaan simplifies the question of ethics and excellence by blending them into one topic. Therefore, the two are indivisible; you can not have one without the other.

While this posting is a quite shallow description of a conversation that lasted over two hours, I would rather not drone on about what all was said that night. However I would love to hear feedback from anyone interested, and would love just as much to hear if anyone has heard of a similar thing with other Bedouin.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Shifting Gears

I had intended to share my South American summer from the perspective of a Muslim-Egyptian-American woman. Attempts at a themed reflection during my travels resulted in an awkwardly superimposed, self-conscious analysis. Such a weighty string of modifiers certainly counters the free spirited nomadic way!

Instead, I chose to send crude ‘snapshots’ of my time in Peru. For the sake of continuity from my previous posts, I’m dedicating this entry to a few thoughts from my summer before beginning more frequent updates from my current setting in Cairo.

The research frame of my summer was enlightening. Many of us enter international experiences in the public sector with a sleeves-rolled up, elbows out, reformist attitude. I like to think that with the number of Tar Heels out trotting the globe, many with a mission to ‘save the world,’ the adventures leave a lasting impression on our deeper ideologies.

It took me months to work through my time in Egypt last summer. I settled with the understanding that the world did not need ‘saving’ but rather more earnest efforts at listening. This time around I started the journey with palms out in a neutral stance and abandoned an instilled dependency on the scientific method for a shameless subjectivity.

In the simplicity of my approach, I found it easier to transcend the method itself and to relish the experience. The dualistic battle between form and substance plays out in my course schedule this semester. On a whim, I enrolled in a Metaphysics course only to find that my Physics class falls directly afterwards.

Simultaneous to my experiential absorption this summer, I imparted a continuous impression on my surroundings. I wore my image to a place where it is grossly unfamiliar. The extroversion of Peruvian culture means that when people stared they stared hard, unabashedly and extendedly. Stares latched onto me, swiveling necks a full 360 degrees. I bear the responsibility for causing many a head on collision between onlookers and fellow pedestrians, light posts, street signs, garbage cans…

The stares weren’t hostile, for the most part. It was only in the trendy shopping district by the Larcomar cliffs that I incited decidedly disapproving gawks and lung puncturing elbow pokes. My 17 year old brother was more jarred by the intrusiveness than I was. In an unprecedented move one evening, Mohammad presented me with a blatant compliment. “Aisha, there’s some trait about you that I really admire but I don’t know the word for it”.

I expected a classic shot at my frogger-style street crossing or yet another crack at my lame jokes, but for once Mohammad surprised me with a serious tone. “People stare at you ALL the time, and you never say anything. If it were me I’d get so mad.” It was a rare and touching sibling moment; out of sincerity deeper than empathy Mohammad took personal offense for my discomfort.

I think the trait Mohammad alluded to is part tolerance, part stubbornness, and part indignant self-affirmation. My hijab experience bears face-value recognition – I am assertively expressive of my identity every moment of public life.

But Mohammad wasn’t with me during daily trips, when my hijab opened up delightfully curious conversation and invited unconventional friendships. In Peru the taxi drivers were bold enough to make prodding conversation, the street vendors playful enough to toss back comments with my change, and the waiters attentive enough to carry a continuous conversation with service.

Occasionally I was mistaken for a nun, “Una monjita!” Though I imagine the Catholic Church wouldn’t look too fondly on my collection of brightly colored and fringed hijabs. Perhaps out of overcompensating self-assertion, I loved waving down to upturned faces while paragliding over the coast, feeling the wind in my hijab as I tumbled down dunes on a sandboard, and unfurling my red hijab to stake my presence on a mountain summit.

In time, even Mohammad found a way to cope with the stares that wasn’t my passive indifference nor his initially aggressive scowls and growls. He would return every stare with an exaggerated grin and call out “Hola, Amigo”.

What a contrast it was to transition from being a novelty in Peru to blending in as a common and monotonous image since my arrival here in Cairo. I prefer the clean slate of the unfamiliar when I have free reign to define my identity.

City life has put a damper on the nomad thing, so for now it’s only in my mind that I’m wandering; on the street I’m back to pursuing a purpose.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

why are there no new posts?

Please keep posting!!