I am not a particularly interesting person; however, I am a person who is interested in many things: different languages, cultures, genres of music and literature, the list goes on. I have a burning curiosity that has led me to meeting people from all over the world who have shared with me their incredible stories. I have spoken with U.S. diplomats, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, Turkish ambassadors, and Georgian and Armenian civil societies. From discussing tensions between Russia and the Baltics with my Lithuanian and Estonian hosts, and to learning about the various ethno-religious groups in the Middle East with my friends from Syria and Iraq, my curiosity knows no bounds.
As a citizen of the United States, I am someone who has started to become highly aware of my environment. The recent spike in my country’s shooting epidemic has, unfortunately, forced me to become much more observant in public places. When I see someone acting different in a movie theater or nightclub my radar automatically goes up. It is a sad reality, but one that I must reluctantly accept.
Recently I experienced a moment where my unstoppable train of curiosity was confronted with the burden of heightened awareness. It was the weekend after ISIS had claimed responsibility for killing over 100 innocent French civilians in Paris, France. I was already on high alert everywhere I went. The seemingly nonstop reporting of terrorist attacks by American news media has conditioned me and others to not only fear those who act differently, but those who look and speak differently as well. On this particular Saturday night I was attending a local concert to see my best friend’s band perform. As I was sitting down by the bar two men walked up behind me and began talking in what was either Arabic or Farsi, I could not tell. I have been exposed to Arabic, but not well enough to know if they were speaking it. This was when an opportunity arose. I thought to myself, “I have two options.” I could sit behind them and be uncomfortable, thinking that these men are planning an attack and be frightened of them, or I could introduce myself to them, find out who they are, and share with them my stories about the Middle East, and be curious to hear theirs.
I calmly turned around and asked them,
“Excuse me. I hate to bother you, but I am curious as to what language you’re speaking. Is it Farsi or Arabic?”
One replied, “We’re speaking Arabic. We are from Lebanon. Does that bother you?”
“Not at all. It’s just that I can never tell the difference between the two and I would love to be able to. I understand that Arabic is a difficult language because there are so many different dialects. My friends from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq tell me this.”
The conversation flowed in a friendly manner, and I discovered that these two men were Maronite Christians from Lebanon. I have become familiar with this religious sect through my reading, and the people with whom I speak often who are from that region.
It wouldn’t have mattered if they were Muslims from Syria, or Muslims from Iran. What is important is if I had not asked them the question in the first place, discomfort and fear could have possibly prevailed. Human beings naturally fear what they do not understand. Just because I am someone who stays aware of his surroundings does not mean I need to succumb to xenophobic and racist behavior. It’s not enough to tell people to “get educated” or to “read books,” to combat xenophobia and racism. There needs to be a genuine desire to learn about people who are different for us to understand and appreciate different points of view. If we stay ignorant and maintain that, “They are different from us, and always will be,” we perpetuate misunderstanding, mistrust, and fear. If we are curious, we will understand, accept, and embrace other realities. So be curious, it will smash the walls we put up in our heads and will open doors to a more prosperous and fascinating worldview.
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