Aqaba was the final destination of our five-day foray South– a resort town carefully positioned at the northernmost point of the aptly named Gulf of Aqaba, a splinter of ocean that juts off from the Red Sea at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, in doing so creating a natural divide between the nations of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This is the edge of Jordan, as far South as you can venture while still remaining within the country’s borders, and as with all other places in this part of the world weighted by its own unique history– among other events, it was the site of one of the largest battles of the Arab Revolt, being a principle strategic city during King Hussein’s campaign against the Ottomans during the First World War.
We came here for the same reason that many others come to Aqaba today: to relax and reenergize from our expeditions in the South, to sit on the beach of a resort and, if only for a day, bask a little in luxury and privilege. We felt that we had deserved it– three weeks of intensive arabic and four days of constant hiking and traveling through the South had stretched many of us to our mental (and to some, physical) limits, and we needed nothing more than a day to simply enjoy and let pass slowly away by the sea.
We found ourselves on a boat close to evening, watching the sun dip slowly towards the mountains on the Egyptian side of the Gulf, snorkeling above long-ruined ships, and enjoying barbecued chicken and vegetables when we heard about Orlando. The day grew darker from there– though the sunset was still beautiful, the reefs still spectacular, there was a shadow over the entire event, a constant reminder in the back of your mind that something horrible had happened back home, even if at the time we didn’t know the magnitude of the event.
It wasn’t until much later in the night, upon returning to our hotel and launching ourselves onto the wifi-networks to hurriedly check BBC and CNN did we fully understand what had happened. 50 dead– the worst mass shooting in American history, and the worst terror attack since 9/11. We had seen Paris happen on the news, listened on the radio to the events in Brussels and Istanbul and Beirut, but this hit home. This was our home, our people, and just like Sandy Hook, or Virginia Tech, or 9/11, or any other mass atrocity that occurred on U.S soil, it struck a special, intimate place with all of us– all the more so because we were far away, unable to be in our home country and to help it through its healing and recovery.
There was something else, too: the man who committed this crime was a Muslim. He was also a homophobe, an instigator of domestic abuse, a narcissist obsessed with his own importance– but we knew what would stand out the most was his religion. In an age of Trump, of far-right nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, we knew this would be the defining fact, the thing that would divide Americans at the very time that they need to be brought together in solidarity against hate, against extremism, against violence.
Which compels me to write this:
I can’t give an answer to stopping gun violence. It is an epidemic that is unique to my country, a country I love dearly, despite its faults and its failings. But I know the answer isn’t what we see on the news: I know it isn’t Trump, it isn’t facing hatred with hatred, it isn’t excluding others from the promise of inclusion and tolerance and liberty that my country represents.
I know what it is to be afraid. And I know that Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Paris and Brussels all are reasons to be afraid. But, if there is anything to learn from what I’ve tried so hard to share with all of you through this blog, it is that these people- Jordanians, Iraqis, Syrians, Arabs, Muslims– are not to be feared.
They are loving, welcoming, hospitable and kind. Like in the South, my home, religion is incredibly important to them, but in a way that is beautiful, wholesome, tolerant and compassionate, not the extremism we see from this so-called Islamic State. They are cab drivers, construction workers, teachers, farmers, politicians, bankers…they are fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles and sons and daughters.
The people of the Middle East are more like Americans than Trump is telling you. They believe in dignity, in kindness, in love and in helping one’s neighbor– all values that we, as Americans, also hold dear. And, though they may not agree with our government, they hold no hatred for Americans– not a single Jordanian, or Palestinian, or Iraqi or Syrian I have met here has done anything but welcome us with open arms to their country upon hearing our own nationality.
Whenever you hear Trump, or any other politician speaking hatred and intolerance in our country, think of what I’ve said here, what I’ve spent so much time trying to show all of you through this blog. These are not your enemies, and they do not see you as enemies themselves. These are good people, people who are no threat despite what some may do in some perverted shadow of their religion. If anything, they deserve to be welcomed into our own country with the same openness and compassion that they extend to us in theirs.
I am frustrated, my friends and family. I am frustrated because, for all people like me who come to the Middle East, to try to understand those who live here and to accept them for who they are, there are other voices- louder voices, more powerful voices- who preach ideas that only serve to divide us, and in doing so weaken us, not just as Americans but as an International Community of human beings.
Yet I hope that some of what I have said here has gotten through. That some of my thoughts shared with you through these travels can shed a little bit of light on this part of the world that is so vastly misunderstood, and in doing so perhaps lessen- if only in a small way- the impact that those very divisive voices have on my country.
This is how I end my time in Jordan. Thankful, for the experiences and opportunities I have been given. Frustrated, for how little it seems my own words can change a national phenomenon of hate and intolerance. And Hopeful, hopeful that this will not be the future of my country, that we, as Americans, will prove to be more open, that we will be more understanding, that we will be more tolerant.
That we will show the world that we can be better than we are now.