A young boy on a bicycle rode alongside our car. “There are more that way!” he shouted through the open window, gesturing across the street. He lives in the Erriadh neighborhood in Djerba, a small island off the coast of Tunisia. This neighborhood was selected as the location of Djerbahood, an open air museum established in June 2014. Over one hundred artists representing thirty nationalities painted murals on walls throughout the neighborhood. The result is delightful. Diverse styles and cultures swirl over white and brick walls, greeting visitors at every turn.
I thought about what it meant for that young boy to grow up with these beautiful paintings decorating his world. In our brief interaction, I saw how he appointed himself as a guide. I imagined much of his summer break spent riding around on his bike under the intense Mediterranean sun, interacting with strangers from all over the world who have come to see his neighborhood.
I visited Djerba at the end of my fellowship year in Tunisia. After saying goodbye to my students at ClubAnglais, I piled in a car early on a Monday morning at the end of June with three of my closest friends in Tunisia. On the long car ride there, I alternated between sleeping and monitoring the playlist, trying to enjoy this time with my friends and ignoring my impending departure.
Djerbahood, however, demanded my attention and reflection. This neighborhood is a living testament to the beauty of cross-cultural exchange. Artistic styles from around the world each tell a different story, yet enrich the overall message of the project. When people from different backgrounds come together and share experiences and customs, a similar phenomenon happens: our perspective and empathy grows. Fortunately, cross-cultural exchange is not limited to living abroad, although it is a fantastic way to experience it. It happens in coffee shops, classrooms, over lunch: anywhere people from different backgrounds gather and share their stories. The simple act of listening and seeking to understand can create profound change.
Now that I am back in the United States, I hope to follow the example of the boy on the bike. I want to be hospitable and welcoming to newcomers and embrace encounters with those different from me. We have a lot to learn from one another, if we just take a moment to engage.