Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

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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.

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Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

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I have been fortunate to have Tasnime work as my teaching assistant for the after school program I teach for ClubAnglais at the Canadian School of Tunis for four months. She graciously agreed to share her perspective on Tunisia for this blog.

Q: Thank you, Tasnime, for agreeing to share your perspective on Tunisia with us! Can you give a little background as to who you are?

A: My name is Tasnime Hamdi and I am 22 years old. I’m a medical student at the Medicine School of Tunis and I live in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Q: How would you describe Tunisia to someone who had never visited before?

A: Cosmopolitan, traditional, and modern are the first three words to come to mind when I think of how to describe Tunisia to a foreigner.

Tunisia is cosmopolitan because Tunisians are ethnically diverse due to the rich history of Carthaginians, Romans, Turks, Spanish, and Arabs settling in Tunisia among the indigenous peoples called Amazigh. In addition to diverse physical appearances, Tunisia’s history manifests itself in our language. The Tunisian dialect is not just Arabic but includes terms from the languages of all the groups that have settled here. The result is a beautiful, mixed language with a North African spirit.

Tunisia is traditional because we continue to practice Tunisian customs in our daily life. This includes eating traditional Tunisian food, warmly greeting our friends and family with kisses, and using old proverbs in our speech. Tunisia is modern because our country has done a lot to advance women’s rights and expand women’s power in society. There are many laws that ensure equality between men and women and protect women from all types of violence and harassment. Tunisia is also the only Muslim-majority country that bans polygamy. Apart from legal protections, Tunisian women are leaders in many fields like medicine and politics. Tunisia actually has more female than male college graduates.

Q: Many people in the United States know Tunisia as the only country to successfully democratize after the Arab Spring. Are you optimistic for Tunisia’s future as a democracy? What challenges do you think Tunisia still faces to thrive as a democracy?

A: I am very optimistic for Tunisia's future as a democracy because there are many Tunisians devoted to this cause. Corruption and terrorism, however, threaten Tunisia’s future as a democracy. Corruption in all forms is a huge threat not only to democracy but also our economic and social prosperity. Our military forces have done a lot to control the threat of terrorism, but since terrorist attacks in the past were often in retaliation to elections or laws, the threat can slow political progress.

Q: In your opinion, what are Tunisia’s greatest strengths as a country?

A: I believe that Tunisia’s greatest strength is its youth. Tunisians under 30 years old account for more than 60% of all citizens. They are full of energy and potential. They are greatly equipped to make Tunisia a more advanced country. Added to that, Tunisia has an advantageous geographical location, rich history, fertile land, and brainpower. If employed properly, these strengths have the power to advance Tunisia.

Q: As a medical student, can you speak a little about Tunisia’s healthcare system? What are one or two reforms you would like to see?

A: The good thing about the healthcare system in Tunisia is that it's public and almost free for all citizens. However, many reforms are needed. The quality of medical care is insufficient due to the Ministry of Health’s limited budget. Doctors and medical staff work in poor conditions and lack proper equipment. They are overburdened with patients which affects their quality of care. Medical students and residents are also fighting for reforms in the education system.

Q: Just for fun, what is your favorite Tunisian food?

My favorite Tunisian food is definitely mlewi. It is is a Tunisian bread. I think that mlewi with harissa and tuna is the manifestation of heaven in food form.

Thank you, Tasnime!

Fellows' Reflections: Maddie Fisher

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One of the joys and the challenges of being a fellow in a new position is stepping into a loosely defined role. Even now that I have been at Eastern Mediterranean International School (EMIS) for a couple of months, it takes a while to describe what my job as a MENAR fellow here is like on a typical day. I sum up the various roles I take on by explaining my work falls into two main categories — teaching language and supporting the school's mission to create peace and sustainability in the Middle East. What I did not expect is just how much overlap there is between teaching English and mediating dialogues about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

At EMIS we have 190 students who come from cities all over Israel-Palestine and countries all over the world. With the exception of a handful of native English speaking students, everyone is adapting to learning not only how to do math in English, but also how to express their complex ideas and reflections in their second or third language. As we began planning our Conflict Mediation program, I talked with the staff about barriers to dialogue that the school has faced in previous years. A common issue for the students is not having the most precise vocabulary to convey complex ideas about conflict. We throw around a lot of common media words without knowing what they really mean. For example, a student was overheard saying, "I can't eat this apple because it's biased" in the dining hall, without understanding that "biased" is not a word they can use for anything that they do not like. It is challenging when we have a group of fifteen students who speak five different native languages all trying to not only express their own ideas in English but also to understand opposing viewpoints when the exact meaning and connotation of their thoughts gets lost in translation. As someone with a background in linguistics, I believe strongly in the power of words and the importance of choosing our vocabulary with care all the time, especially when we are having difficult dialogues.

I am grateful to have a complicated job description. When we engage in intense conversations at EMIS, our students face language, cultural, and ideological barriers. In my diverse roles I am able to help students strengthen their English skills so that they can share their stories with increased confidence that the words they use mean what they intend and that intent is understood by others. Finding common ground is hard enough when you have a common native tongue and even more so when there is a language limitation. I am encouraged that time spent in English classes not only helps the students pass their International Baccalaureate exams, but also that this increased knowledge of syntax and diction in English empowers them with the skills they need, so that the focus of dialogue is on getting to know the person behind the words.

Fellows' Reflections: Jordan Lee

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I was born and raised in the United States of America, to parents who were born and raised in the United States, who were both born to parents who were also born and raised in the United States. 

That may not be particularly noteworthy to you, but it is a confounder to many people I have met in Qatar. Whether I’m introducing myself to taxi drivers, students at Qatar University (QU), or other expats, people respond variously with confused looks, shock or outright disbelief when I first tell them where I’m from.

This experience isn’t new. When I was in India, Morocco, and Israel, people were routinely shocked to learn that I was born and raised in the U.S. and on one occasion challenged me to speak American English to support my claim.

During my gap year in Ecuador, news that I was from the United States was met with similar surprise. I lived in a small, rural town, and the first time I told members of the community that I was from the U.S., they responded with uproarious laughter. They were sure that I was kidding and was actually from the coastal part of Ecuador (where the majority of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorians live). To be fair, they had reason to be surprised. As I mentioned, it was a small town, so to get a visitor from another country, let alone someone living there for nearly a year, was rare. Also, I was effectively fluent in Spanish by this point and had nearly eliminated my American accent.

But the context in Qatar is very different. I am not fluent in Arabic, Doha is a sizable city with a considerable population of Americans, and my physical features are noticeably different from those of the various African populations that live in Qatar.

And yet, the surprise persists. Whether I’m speaking to someone from Senegal or Bangladesh or even California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing a look of incredulity when I mention that I am from the United States. 

I often respond to the surprise by asking where people think I’m from, and the most common response is Sudan. This response wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it only came up when I introduced myself in Arabic. After all, Sudan is an Arabic-speaking country, and Qatar hosts a significant Sudanese population. Pair that with the facts that relatively few U.S. citizens in Qatar are black or can speak Arabic (let alone both), and the speculation that an Arabic-speaking black man is from Sudan is not unreasonable. But regardless of the language I’m speaking, Sudan is the leading guess. In fact, four Sudanese students at QU have independently (and repeatedly) told me that I look distinctly Sudanese. As far as I know, I don’t have any Sudanese ancestry, but much of my heritage remains a mystery, so maybe they’re onto something. 

After Sudan, the next most common guesses of my country of origin are Kenya and Nigeria. Latin America even comes up every now and then. And even after I’ve assured people that I am a native U.S. citizen, I often get a follow-up question, “But what is your heritage?” When I respond, “I’m actually not sure, since my family has been in the U.S. for a long time,” I only generate more surprise.

I’m not angry or frustrated about this common reaction to news of my nationality. Nor do I perceive it as racist or insensitive or believe that it stems from a considered belief that Americans can’t be black. Rather, I’ve concluded that a black man is simply not representative of the America commonly envisioned by many people outside of the U.S. But I don’t resent having to prove my U.S. origins. To the contrary, I find some satisfaction in changing perceptions of what it means to be an American from the United States of America.