September 29, 2003

Getting a new soul

Alta Schwartz is outreach coordinator for the Institute of Comparative and International Studies and the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.

I am quite fond of the saying, “Learn a new language, get a new soul.” If you carry this expression to its fullest potential, international travel and experiencing a different culture should be included as well. This summer, I got a new soul—in spades.

Thanks to a staff travel grant from the Institute for Compara-tive and International Studies (ICIS) and some extra vacation time, I managed to spend two weeks in Egypt and two weeks on a delegation to Israel/Palestine and Jordan. Despite my long involvement with Middle East issues, I wanted to spend more time in the region.

The virtues of travel and study abroad are numerous, including both practical and intangible benefits to the individual traveler and to society. But how, you might ask, can an American passport save the world? According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 17 percent of Americans hold current passports. A poll taken last spring by the Travel Industry Association of America indicated that 71 percent of Americans would not consider traveling abroad; of those, 31 percent cited the war and the uncertain economy as their primary reasons to remain inside U.S. borders.

These numbers are greatly troubling. The number of American citizens who travel abroad can have an impact on how our nation sees the world and, as important, how the world sees us. It is understandable that the tragedy of Sept. 11, perceived international anti-American sentiment and an increasingly complex international environment would cause Americans to withdraw. International events and our foreign policy now focus on the Middle East and South Asia, regions with which most Americans are unfamiliar.

It would be a lie to say I had no misgivings about my own journey to the Middle East. Truthfully, I experienced many moments of paralyzing fear. It had been almost two decades since I spent more than three weeks abroad, since my undergraduate summer study abroad experience in Spain. Now I was about to be transported far beyond my comfort zone, as my Hebrew and Arabic proficiency leaves much to be desired. I put off my decision until the very last day. On the day of the registration deadline, there was a terrible suicide bombing in Israel. My resolution wavered.

In the end, I placed my faith in those who encouraged me to take the trip. Several of the Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies (MESAS) and staff at ICIS spent considerable time with me and even made arrangements for my lodging and airport transportation in Egypt, my first destination. The second half of my trip, to Israel/Palestine and Jordan, was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith organization dedicated to the nonviolent resolution of world conflicts.

Arrangements made and bags packed, off I went. This was the first trip to Egypt for me and my husband, who accompanied me on the first part of my journey. For me, one of the most lasting impressions of Cairo, a city of more than 17 million people, is of constant, seamless, flowing movement. Cairenes have perfected the amazing ability to drive, bike or walk within millimeters of each other without creating a major catastrophe. It reminds me of the way a school of fish swims, with no obvious logic or direction.

In Egypt, antiquity and modernity coexist. I felt the strength of this society, which can trace its roots to pharaonic times. However, I feel this country is on the verge of a modern renaissance. Egyptians, while staunchly proud of their past, are searching for their future.

Many of the Cairenes we met, from a well-heeled engineer to recent college graduates, wanted a more Western standard of living. Yet, the quest for modernity sometimes clashes with pride and preservation of the past. This can be seen in the “restoration” of certain antiquities, such as the Citadel in Alexandria, where “improvements” to significant historical sites contaminate, even hide, their historical integrity. Some Egyptians also attempt to conceal new archaeological discoveries so that the Ministry of Antiquities won’t confiscate their property—and/or so that they can sell their discoveries.

Many people ask me if there is anti-American sentiment in the Middle East; my answer is yes and no. Everywhere I went, Middle Easterners expressed displeasure with our foreign policy but an appreciation for Americans and some American culture. They were very interested in the details of how we live: How fast do we drive? How many people have a computer? This low-level diplomacy is a great way to build bridges. When we travel abroad, we are all ambassadors.

From Cairo, I flew to Jordan to join the FOR delegation. (To read the reports from our delegation, please visit We 11 Americans from various faiths and backgrounds met in Amman, crossed the border into Israel and into another reality. At the crossing we waited four and a half hours, which was not unusual. (What was unusual was running into Susan Henry Crowe, dean of the Chapel, who happened to be there with a different delegation.)

This land is amazing, in every possible sense of the word. Here, history and religion blur. I saw ancient olive trees imprisoned by the security fence, places of death and violence, and immense sadness. Israel/Palestine is like an open wound, healing and reopening over and over.

I also experienced examples of the human spirit at its best, where people swallowed their deeply personal pain in the effort to create a beautiful future for their children. We spoke with an Israeli father who, despite having lost his 14-year-old daughter to a suicide bombing, participates with other bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents to call for peace between the two peoples. I also met with a Palestinian family in Gaza who, despite the fact that their orange groves were confiscated by an Israeli settlement and that for the past two years Israeli soldiers have occupied their home each night, believes that they must speak with their settler neighbors in order to make peace.

As dismal as the situation sounds, my visit allowed me to uncover a deeper truth. It is a myth that there are no partners for the peace process, that there is no one to talk to on the “other side.” Rubbish. While it’s true that there is great anger, bitterness and pain amongst both peoples, we heard from both Israeli and Palestinian communities that they are willing, even eager, to talk about real peace. Recent polls confirm that the majority of both communities, weary of bitterness and war, agree with the exchange of land for peace as the solution to the conflict.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a perfect example of why American involvement is so important. Last week, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords, I heard President Jimmy Carter explain that this agreement has endured because of the relentless involvement of an American president. Since the decisions our government makes are informed by American public opinion, having an informed people is imperative to the health of our nation and the benefit of the world.

After the amazing experience I have just had, I am passionate about the necessity for as many Americans as possible to see the world for themselves, to get outside their comfort zones. Emory, in keeping with its mission to increase international awareness at and of our university, agrees with the value of traveling abroad. In celebration of International Education Week, next week’s edition of the Emory Report will feature the announcement of an exciting new opportunity designed to encourage our students, faculty and staff to “get new souls.”