Tag Archives: Ramsey

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

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Drunken Drivers, Engagements, & Other Misunderstandings

He honked the horn of the bus.  I ignored him, and opened the trunk of my car.

He smirked, gestured, and beeped a second time.

I hoped he wasn’t trying to get my attention.  For women in this part of the world, it’s not unusual to receive some level of rudeness from random guys; but this bus driver was with the Young Leaders group that day.

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Team building games w/ Young Leaders, by the sea

Three busloads of teenage boys, five local teachers, and I had come to the beach that morning for a field trip.  The students were finishing the last of their “team building” games, just a few minutes behind schedule.  Earlier that morning, they had combed the beach for sea glass, which women who are employed at the community center would later transform into jewelry.

I packed the glass in the trunk of my car, and the bus driver beeped again.  “Hurry up!” he yelled in Arabic.  “We’re waiting.  Let’s get going!”  His abruptness led the thought to flash across my mind: Is he intoxicated?

Out loud, I apologized, and told him I would get the boys moving onto the buses.  Given that drinking was against his religion, it was 11:00 a.m., and he was a bus driver, I dismissed my previous thought as preposterous.  I told Ramsey, one of our Young Leaders teachers, that our bus driver wanted us to hurry up.  The boys got into the buses while Ramsey went to see what the rush was about.

He came back to talk to me, keeping his voice low.  “He’s drunk.”

I thought I heard wrong.  I asked him to repeat himself.

“He’s drunk.  Either that, or he’s wearing this bad-smelling cologne that’s common in his home city.”

We needed to figure out, quickly, if this guy was under the influence, endangering students– in which case my instinct was to pull him out of the bus, leave him in the blazing sun on the beach, and replace him behind the wheel with one of our trusted teachers– or if he just had little social aptitude and a poor choice of cologne.

What to do, with so much at stake?  And with so much, from hometown colognes to cultural methods of confrontation, beyond my knowledge?

We came up with a plan, but all I could think about on the drive home was, How do I make sure this vulnerable scenario never. happens. again?

Last week, my best friend from this city, Sammi, was telling me again what she hoped God would provide in her future husband, though she had no current candidates.  She is helping me with my Arabic, and our “studying” often turns into conversations about heart and soul stuff.

The following day a family who had heard of her came to visit– unexpectedly.  By the end of the evening, they had asked her to marry their son.  The two met that night and signed the marriage contract the next morning.

I understand that this story is normal in this country.  I have met many ladies here who began their marriages this way. And when they talk about their relationships, my limited Arabic is enough to understand that a few are delighted, and others are depressed. I have even had well-meaning friends try to set me up like this, with my blind date Mohammad

But on a deeper level, when I saw my close friend Sammi, joining her hands and connecting her life with this almost-stranger, I knew I didn’t understand.

When we lead, when we love, or even when we simply talk, or connect with one another, the risk is present: of not understanding.  Or, what is an even less appealing option to some of us: of not being understood.

Sometimes the stakes are low.  I recently tried to ask one Young Leaders teacher, in Arabic, Do you know how to cook?  It came out, Do you know how to get engaged?   

Sometimes the stakes are higher.  A bus full of students.  A friend who needs support even if I can’t understand the road she is traveling.

When the stakes are raised, but the guarantee that I will understand and be understood is not there, my tendency is to reduce risk factors as much as I possibly can, and try to increase safety.  I put my hands in fighting stance, or attempt to put distance between what I love and what I feel is a threat.

But, in fight or in flight, many times I’m also guarded against good things.  Deepening relationships.  New experiences.  Trust.

After Sammi told me her news, I went to Dana, my wise friend from this city, for help in wrapping my mind around their quick commitment.  What’s the best way for me to support her?  I asked.  Dana asked if there would be an engagement party.

Next week.

She smiled, knowingly.  The best way, though I don’t fully understand what happened previously or know will take place in the future, to be fully present and engaged?

“Just dance.  Just show up, and dance.”

***Song to this story is Counting On, by John Mark McMillan.