This itself did not lead me to Islam, but it primed my heart. Before all of this, I was pretty arrogant, but slowly through these experiences my heart softened and my mind expanded. My perceptions and understanding shifted and matured. I decided that I did not want to allow myself to feel that just by being American I am somehow better than anyone else.
During my stay in Australia, an Israeli who was leaving to go back home for some time owned the apartment I sublet. Prior to that, my knowledge of the conflict in the Middle East was murky. I had heard about it in relation to the 9/11 attacks; that it was possibly a motivating factor in the seemingly new world disorder, but I knew virtually nothing else. Through my new landlord, I garnered enough information to fuel insatiable curiosity. What I was hearing seemed peculiar, like reading a book with pages torn out. I needed to fill in the blanks, so I began reading. I checked out book after book on the Middle East and the enduring conflict that was supposedly at the heart of so much unrest.
Upon returning home to NY and seeking out more information, I felt that books weren’t enough, so I began attending lectures on the topic. I experienced conflicting stories. Contradictory views. It was black and white, polarized. I began seeking out lectures and classes on this topic in the hope that I would be able to satisfy my longing for understanding.
One night, I attended a lecture in Manhattan. After the talk, a man stood up in front of the small audience. He announced that himself and others were soon traveling to the Middle East for humanitarian initiatives. When I heard him speak, everything clicked. I knew I had to go. I had to. I made the decision right there on the spot. I was going to the Middle East into one of the most unpredictable, explosive places on Earth. I would finally find out for myself and see with my own eyes one of the root causes of my own country’s untenable vulnerability.
It was after I was all set to go that I announced my decision to my family, who were utterly floored by my clearly poor choice to enter a troubled region. They begged me not to go, but my resolve was unwavering. It was as if I was programmed, unflinching, unfeeling. My drive overrode my compassion for my own family and their concern for me. The worry of my mother was surmounted by my thirst to know the truth. Looking back now I can’t believe the way I disregarded their wishes like some kind of heartless robot.
We didn’t speak for days. They must have been in turmoil, not knowing what to do as the days and hours ticked by and my departure neared and neared. The silence was broken as I sat in the airport terminal awaiting my flight. Literally minutes before boarding, my cell phone rang. It was my family. They didn’t want me leaving (and maybe never coming back!) without saying goodbye. And so, I said goodbye and boarded my flight all alone, into the heart of the Middle East conflict.
After my group arrived to Jerusalem, we met with Christian organizations and priests with whom we coordinated our efforts. Each of us would be sent to different areas in occupied territories to help provide food and other humanitarian assistance.
One of the first places where I interacted with the locals was a Christian school not far from Jerusalem. The staff and children were so kind and welcoming. I began taking pictures of the children and noticed one Muslim girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, wearing hijab. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to take her picture because I didn’t know the meaning of her dress. She smiled sweetly and allowed me to snap a photo.