Originally published in 2007
A young Palestinian mother sat down beside me on a bus bound the Mount of Olives. In her arms was a beautiful little boy, around age two, with large brown eyes and little curls that brushed his cheeks. He reached out to me several times as we wound our way up the Mount, and gave me a sly little smile each time his tiny fingers grabbed my shirt.
He rested his head on his mother’s shoulder and looked at me without his smile. His round eyes seemed to hold all the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people that he was born into. We exchanged a long, knowing glance for several moments, I was thinking of how difficult his life was going to be growing up under occupation in a land with no hope for peace and he seemed to understand my thoughts. With a little sigh and another stare he seemed to say; “yes, I know my path is long and difficult and I know there is little hope for my future.”
While I was simply projecting my sentiments onto a young toddler, I’ll never forget his face and that look of knowing he possessed. The look of sorrowful understanding that only a child born into the pain and suffering of a people can know. I’ve seen the same look on the faces of toddlers in a Nepalese orphanage, of street children working in the landfills of Kathmandu, of Indian children living in a beggars camp in the Himalayans, on the faces of Tibetan toddlers living in orphanages separated from their parents in China and on the faces of children living in the public housing units in downtown Durham, N.C.
Such a look of pain, understanding and resignation should not be inherently present in the eyes of a toddler who cognitively does not know his role in this world yet.
My departure from Israel took the form of an overnight bus filled with young Jewish adults heading to the Red Sea resort of Eilat. The bus was filled with teenage laughter and iPod music, soldiers in uniform heading for vacation and the occasional western tourist. Our bus arrived at 4am in a destination very similar to Atlantic City; neon saturated streets, all night bars and cafes and drunken young adults staggering about scantily dressed and looking for mates. Quite a shock from the conservative young adults of Jerusalem, dressed modestly and reading from the Torah at a coffee shop while gossiping with friends.
After a brief wait for the border to open, I was allowed to cross into Jordan. I was shocked at the ease of leaving the country, when compared to the seven hour ordeal of entry. A Jewish couple also crossed into Jordan for a day of vacation and asked if I’d like to share a cab. We walked to the Jordanian side of the crossing and I could tell they were a little nervous. The young man admitted this was his first time entering Jordan. Eilat is 2 miles by car from Jordan and a mile or less by boat. The couple lived in Eilat and had never crossed the other side. Odd.
The Jordanian border crossing was a welcoming site. The guards were taking their time opening everything and as is custom in Muslim countries, the pace of activities is much slower then elsewhere. The guards were having their morning coffee and chatting in a room as they told us to wait a few moments until the coffee was done.
Crossing at Eilat warrants a free visa with a one month extension, with no questions or interrogations. The man happily stamped my passport and smiled at me.
“Like the sun!” he exclaimed as he pointed to the blue visa stamp in my passport, which bared the resemblance of the sun. Jordanians possess a strong sense of nationalism and this can be seen even in the tiniest of actions. Such a stamp has never been so welcome in my recently weathered passport.
And welcome is just what I felt. As our cab drove towards Aqaba, I saw the enormous Jordanian flag flying over the shore and felt a warm sense of relief. Jordan is a very comfortable country and the people are so affectionate and pleasant, even towards Americans. They may give a little ribbing about Bush, but they enjoy American people. While eating lunch with my driver and his friends at the Dead Sea, one friend said he loved Americans because they are so open and so happy, unlike the Europeans. I am always amazed at the misconceptions that we in America have of most people living in the Middle East.
Upon returning to the hotel in Madaba, where I began my journey three weeks ago, I was greeted with a warm smile and handshake from the receptionist. The next morning as I sat in the lobby waiting for my favorite driver to take me to the Dead Sea for a little float, the receptionist asked me to join her at her house for dinner that evening. I accepted and she gave me a warm smile and said she just cooked a big meal yesterday and that I will enjoy her family.
Later that afternoon, we walked through the streets of Madaba towards her home. We chatted and were shocked to find out that we were the same age, born only a few weeks apart. I told her how refreshing it was to be welcomed into stranger’s homes for coffee and dinner. This was not the first invitation I received on this journey and it never failed to amaze me the hospitality of the Arabic people.
As we walked, we talked about how in America the people have a distance between themselves and that, while in my own country, I have never received an invitation from a stranger to join them for coffee in their home. I asked if she had ever been to America and she replied, “No, I will only go to Syria, not America.” When asked why, she gave an interesting answer. She said that America was too fast paced. That people worked too hard with too much stress and often times missed out on the enjoyable aspects of life. She feared that Jordan may become the same fast paced landscape one day and she doesn’t want her children to live that way.
She has a point. I’m guilty of neglecting the finer things in life, the things that bring joy and relaxation because I’m too busy for such an indulgence. In fact, the past two years have been such a whirlwind, that I’m ready to find an island all to myself and hide from the world for a year, and I’m only finishing my undergraduate degree. I can only imagine what has been missed by those who have been grinding away on careers at break-neck speed for decades.
Yes, we need to support ourselves and we should seek employment that allows us to do so while finding enjoyment from our jobs and our professions, but when I visit other countries and see how happy people are with so much less than Americans, I have to question our motivations.
Life can be a simple endeavor, we can seek enjoyment from things other than our professions and we can also derive pleasure from our professions while enjoying our personal lives. Yet, often we choose not to do both. When did we sacrifice the self for advancement of careers and what will happen when we reach the end of that career and we see all that we might have left in its wake?
An interesting point of contemplation as I return to America and debate my own career path and the desire to start a family; can the two co-exist, particularly when part of my career requires extensive travel, to at times, undesirable places?
Or better yet, should the two co-exist? Should one seek both family and career, knowing that one will be sacrificed in the end? And what happens when that career is also, and always has been, your passion? Is there room for both the passion and the family? And is that a fair environment to bring a child into, knowing that young children can not, nor should they, understand the parent’s passion for a profession? A never-ending debate- which I am beginning to believe has no solution, only a warranted compromise.