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 soulin
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 wont confiscate
their propertyand/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 www.forusa.org)
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 its 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 weeks 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.