An eastern collision with my western heart

To the beautiful Middle Eastern country that stole my heart,

When I first set foot on you land, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect, or what I had gotten myself into. I’d heard many heartbreaking stories and weathered many well-meant warnings about traveling to you, and while nervous about what my time with you held, I tried not to let the comments of those who had never set foot within your borders scare me away from my dream of experiencing your corner of the world.

The best way to describe my experience with you was that it was an eastern collision with my western heart. And I mean that in every way.

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Though what I experienced during the far too short five weeks I spent living and studying Arabic within your borders can never be summed up in a few simple paragraphs, I invite and embrace every opportunity of talking about my incredible journey within your borders and dispelling incorrect stereotypes about your people.

The kindness and hospitality I was shown within your borders was a stark contrast to most of what I had previously experienced in the U.S. The first day on campus after Arabic class, one of my American friends and I were in the cafeteria trying desperately to figure out how to order, where to order, how to use your money, what food was even being served….we stood stupidly for five or ten minutes people watching, hoping to figure it out….and we met a wonderful girl, gentle, kind, well-versed in English, who helped us. As we fumbled through figuring out which coins represented the amount to be paid, she paid the difference without even thinking twice. I was surprised by this immediate, giving nature to a complete stranger, and I soon learned that many of your country are like that–that Arab hospitality is unmatched.

Other examples: while souvenir shopping one evening in your downtown, the shop owner made the 7 of us Americans tea as we shopped. The falafel shop across from my dorm that we went to almost daily would always give me many many more falafels then I ordered without extra charge, sometimes even giving me double or triple my order and tell me khalas–that they were giving me my order free of charge. Strangers we met while souvenir shopping invited us out for dinner and conversation. And I quickly learned that these things were not the exception–they were the norm. They happened often, and it is things such as these that make the Middle East superiorly known for its hospitality and generosity. And it is one of the many reasons my heart so quickly fell in love with you.

And while I enjoyed the beauty found within your borders and within your people, I also witnessed some of the darkness of your land. I knew coming into your country that I would not have every freedom that I did back home (though I would be granted much more freedom as an American woman than an average local woman would possess). And while I knew those things going into my travels, I quickly learned how much freedom I take for granted back home. Though I didn’t have to wear a hijab or abaya, I did need to wear more clothing than required back home to avoid extra unwanted attention. I was not supposed to dance in public, be loud in public, look a non-relative male in the eye (though being the American I am, I failed at that many times), have wet hair in public…We girls had a 9 pm curfew (the guys didn’t have any curfew), and the dorm mom locked the front door at 9 pm sharp (so that if you came back late you were unable to enter). You weren’t supposed to meet any guy alone in public, or it could be assumed that you were having intimate relations with him. I knew most of these things coming into the trip, but living under these rules coming from the freedoms granted in western culture took some getting used to.

While I had to adjust to some of the local customs and was frequently irritated by catcalls, I overall felt safe within your borders and walked freely without harm. I had heard of abuses toward local women and believed that it happened to some, though I never thought I would personally see that in your country, especially because you are known as a freer country compared to most surrounding nations. But when I did see it happen, it changed my life forever.

I still remember the scene vividly…and I think I always will. I remember the woman’s blood-curdling screams as she was very publicly beaten. I remember the disgrace of the men removing her hijab in public. And I remember the 20-something men onlookers who did nothing. And I remember being frozen in shock by the horror of the scene unfolding before me. I cannot describe to you all the full range of emotions I experienced as the situation continued to unfold–fear, anger, heartbreak, horror, helplessness….but I can tell you that that is one of the moments that forever changed my life.

Looking back on it, I am ashamed I did not jump in during that moment and do something…anything. It is one of a few moments of life I wish I could go back on and redo…

While I look back at your country with some of the fondest memories of my life, I am also brokenhearted by the abuse and overall attitude towards local women. I pray that the heart of the oppressors within you change. I pray that the cultural perspective on women changes. I pray for freedom of women from oppression of any kind in your lands. And I hope to one day return and be part of that changing. But I also recognize that change must come from within your own people.

My five weeks within your borders broadened and shaped my life. The hospitality and kindness I was shown there, by locals and those I traveled with, have impacted me in a way that words won’t ever fully capture. I felt a collision of the eastern world impact my heart and change my life forever. And that collision has set me on a path that I hope will cause me to one day return to your land to help bring about change.

But until that day, I cherish my memories from you, and I look forward with anticipation to the day when your world once again collides with mine.

With love from an ocean away,

-Mackenzie Ryan


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