Sometimes I forget that the world as I see it is not the world in reality. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that not everyone on this swirling blue planet feels what I feel. At times it seems as if everyone out there, all across the vastness of the continents, must be aware of “American Exceptionalism” and the “American Dream”. Surrounded as I am by political ads, political discussions and all of the other detritus of the American election season, at times it is literally impossible for me to understand that not every human being alive is debating the choice between Obama and Romney.
Luckily for me, my life is filled with interesting people from diverse backgrounds. Luckily for me, I sometimes run smack into the reality of the wide world around me, and I am forced to see that my little sphere of experience is not actually the whole thing.
Let me share two experiences from the past week that have opened my eyes to the wider horizons.
The first is the chance I have had to read about events in the Arab world through the eyes of a woman from Tunisia. I knew Anissa way back in 1973 when I was 17, and she a mature 18 years old. Her family hosted me for three months through the American Field Service Program. I lived with Anissa and her family in the ancient city of Kairouan, where I visited the 3,000 year old medina, saw the mosques and heard the haunting call to prayer. I learned, through that experience, that families are just families, and that an Islamic Dad and an Italian American one had a whole lot in common when it came to raising teen aged daughters. I learned that “food is love” in North Africa, too, and that mothers everywhere worry about the length of their daughters’ skirts and the boys who come to call on theose daughters.
I lost track of Anissa after a few years, and it was only about a year ago that I found her again through the miracle of Facebook. Now I am able to read her status updates and to follow events as they unfold in Tunis, in this historic year after the Arab Spring. Through her updates and photos, I am able to watch as Tunisians struggle to find their democratic voices, to reject religious extremism and to move away from a dictatorship and into a more open and secure society.
Here is a photo that Anissa posted tonight, from Tunis, showing a huge demonstration against violence.
And here is her new cover photo, showing hands linked in solidarity around the Tunisian flag.
These images serve to remind me that “binders full of women” and “you didn’t build that” and who wants to raise stupid taxes on whom aren’t really big issues in the life of a country. Which rich white guy to vote for isn’t really a huge historical decision, you know?
These people are engaging in true democratic reform. Voting in Tunisia really means something right now.
And here is my other story, a very different one, but a story that nevertheless serves to remind me that our safe little American world is not the world that most people know.
I was away for three days with our fifth graders last week. We were at a wonderful camp in the mountains of New Hampshire, and we enjoyed all of the beauty that nature has to offer on a New England fall day. At one point, I had taken a two hour hike up to a mountain ridge where I stood with the children looking down on the valley below. We all gathered together, and the camp counselor got us to call out in unison, “Tongo!” and then we waited to hear if some of the campers below would call back to us. We stood for about a minute, but no return call came up. Instead, we heard the sound of distant construction from the lakefront down below us.
“Did you hear anything?”, our camp leader asked. One of my students, a little boy who grew up in Pakistan and came to us this year from Peshawar, raised his hand.
“I didn’t hear them yell back”, he said, “All I heard were those bombs.”
The other kids laughed a little, but I stood still in shock.
From the top of a ledge in peaceful, sunny New Hampshire, on a day filled with golden light and a warm autumn breeze, this child heard a sound, and calmly took it to be the sounds of war.
The world is a bigger place than most of us realize as we go through our self-focused lives.
I’m glad that sometimes I can see that world through the eyes of others.