What I remember most is what he didn’t say.
“You should feel flattered by their attention.”
“Others have experienced far worse.”
“You were wearing bright colors– that’s why you got harassed.”
Some form of each of these statements had been made to me in the past. But the day after this post, I told this visitor about how my serenity– and my lesson on Lord Byron’s poetry– had been interrupted by a group of male university students heckling me from the hallway, and he simply said: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
He and two other men from Massachusetts had come to the Middle East, to visit my coworkers and to see our community center. His compassionate response was soothing. So was my housemate’s recommendation, that I snap a cell phone picture of the perpetrators, and either show it to campus security or to “guys I know who will make sure NOTHING happens again.”
A situation like this didn’t happen often. But things that made me feel vulnerable did. After ten months here, I was feeling stranger than when I first arrived. I was temporarily staying in other peoples’ spaces, feeling awkward about my ability to speak Arabic, and lacking a feeling of connectedness. Despite my long sleeves in 100 degree heat, my large collection of scarves, and my long hair being held in a permanent ponytail, I stuck out wherever I went. I was lonely. I was an alien. I was an ajnabia (Arabic for “foreign woman”… I was also the only one working at the university at that time).
And the deeper questions, as I looked at the countries and people around me: How could I ask Him to protect me from some simple sexual harassment when thousands were dying in nearby wars? How could I expect Him to meet me in the vulnerability of feeling lonely, when others were experiencing the deeper vulnerability of losing jobs, homes, and family members?
I leaned over a sink full of dishes that day, remembering that there was no promise of avoiding suffering… remembering my Syrian student’s description of the dead bodies in his neighborhood… remembering my solo walk up the university stairs, stared at by dozens of guys with cigarettes and no subtlety. Asking, wondering: Where is my defender?
The Boston visitors had come primarily to see the center. But two of them heard that E. E. Cummings was next in my class’s series on love poetry. They wanted to hear me try to explain him; they asked if they could attend. So when I went up the university stairs the next time, on my left was a New England carpenter, a head taller than most of the students; on my right was a new grandfather, with a quick smile and a ready camera on his cell phone.
I had two defenders.
During class, the carpenter listened attentively to our discussion on Cummings’ poem somewhere I have never traveled,gladly beyond. The grandfather jumped up every time he heard any disturbance in the hall that might be harassers, kindly smiling as he attempted to snap their pictures.
They rushed away every time.
The Boston visitors left later that week. The semester was half over; we started a new unit on nature poetry, and I asked my students to list words that described the outdoors. “Beautiful.” “Changing.” “Powerful.” “Fierce.”
The troublemakers returned to point and harass through the window in the classroom door. This time I went myself and opened it.
You cannot bother this class, I said without smiling.
“I don’t English,” one of them answered, backing away.
The hallway quieted, I returned to my class. Students exchanged glances. I don’t think they could see my hands shaking. I told you at the beginning of the semester that poetry is about the soul. This is not a normal class; here we talk about our souls. And I am not going to let anyone disturb us.
Over the next several classes, I sent a few more would-be harassers away with stern English; soon they interrupted us far less often. I was no longer intimidated.
I didn’t notice one day when they returned.
One of my students rose. “May I go get security?” You can, I answered, surprised at her initiative and assertiveness. But do you want me to just send them away like usual?
I know that not all injustice can be stopped this side of heaven. I know that suffering is still occurring, in countries and cities and individuals. And I know that situations will continually arise, leaving us exposed, vulnerable. But somehow the knowledge that my Defender sent two men from Massachusetts to the Middle East to escort me to class, when I needed it– makes a big difference.
It’s not the whole story. But it’s a glimpse of its culmination.
My student declined my offer of help; she wanted to speak up herself. The next semester, we simply covered the window with paper.
And we were taken care of.