Travelling Mercies: Facing Gender and Race in the Middle East

An Excerpt From Judith Milay’s Blog: Travelling Mercy


My experience in Jordan thus far has been wonderful. I am true to my words when I say Jordanians are indeed hospitable people. They are warm and inviting, constantly “Welcoming” us to their country. They are curious to know about what I am studying, my family and things that we in the West would consider personal, Jordanian are willing to ask and share. With that said. What I am about to share is my own lived experience as a woman of colour in my three weeks in Jordan. Sadly, my experience is very different, simply because I am black.

To those who continue the argument, ‘I see no colour,’ “Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice.” (Adichie) Many of us are uncomfortable to talk about race. White people are afraid to talk about it, because they don’t want to be perceived as racist, and black people are tired of talking about it because well we are just tired. I am realizing that I do need to talk about it. Because sadly, we live in a broken world, we mistreat each other, hurt each other, often times unintentionally, or we are ignorant on the subject because we are far removed from it. This blog is to help people understand that, the reason I work so hard, try to be best, because at the end of the day, my skin tone speaks louder than any Masters, Ph.D.’s I might hold. (Yes I know, I shouldn’t feel this way, however, the reality is there is much work be done).

Just like in the West, although we may deny it, there are social, economic and racial hierarchies that exist. I was a bit naïve coming here in the Middle East to think that race would not be an issue. This is due to the long historical interaction between the Arabs and Africans, especially before and during the Slave Trade. Also, most Middle Eastern countries are in the continent of Africa, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt just to name a few.

Although some Middle Eastern countries were able to escape European colonialism, the idea of Eurocentric still lingers in the thoughts of some of the people I have encountered. Not all Jordanian think this way. It is important I highlight this because I’ve met amazing people who value me and respect me. However, at times, I find that those who are “white” will always be respected more than me.

Several times throughout the semester where we were in large groups interacting with Jordanians, I often got the sense that I was dismissed, overlooked.

I am an introvert, which in many ways has allowed me the opportunity to be observant. I began to notice, how Jordanians treated me, and two other students who are not white, differently. Often times we felt ignored. Being in Jordan, we are already living in a culture where as a woman; there are certain restrictions set in place. Being a women of colour makes the adaptation to this culture even more challenging. I see myself fighting against something that I cannot win against. I will never be white, nor do I want to be. I am happy in my gender, my skin tone as it reflects the creative genius of my Creator who took the time to craft me together in His secret place. And yet, I cannot escape this skin, I find when people meet Judy, all they see is black, and depending on their knowledge of black people (which is not much), that is how I am judged. That is how they determine if I deserve to be respected or ignored. The optimist in me tries to see the bigger picture, learning as much as I can. However, this past weekend, I was hit with racism in a way I was not expecting.

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We had a wonderful opportunity to visit Petra! What a beautiful, historical site. I would encourage everyone to visit Petra. As we were hiking up to the Treasury,(pictured in Indiana Jones, the Last Crusade), I kept hearing words like “Brown Sugar,” “Rastafarian,” and “Blacky” as a means of trying to get my attention to buy something, or take a donkey or camel up to the monastery. I personally lost it when I was called a word which I choose not repeat, due to long historical implications. I was shocked to hear these names be directed towards my other coloured friend and I. We tried our best to ignore many of these the men, however, it seemed that in some ways, they didn’t understand what they were saying except it was a way of them attracting our attention. I personally had enough and would speak up, telling them not use such term as it was hurtful. Once I explained to them what it means to me, many felt terrible and asked forgiveness, for sincerely they did not know. Others simply didn’t think it was a big deal and continued calling these names. (Sadly, they lost my business).IMG_6939

We did in fact meet a different Bedouin man, who we chatted on our way to the monastery, telling us, to ignore his fellow Bedouin friends; most are ignorant about black people. He proceeded to tell us about how his friend who was adopted in his village is black and he has great respect for black people.. After a long conversation learning about him and his family, he showed us the cave where he was born, he offered to let us ride his camel for free! Riding a camel is another adventure in itself, especially when the camels decides that it wants to go for a run. We took the donkey up to the monastery, a hidden gem from the treasury. We had traditional Jordanian tea with some Bedouins, and watched sun set over the Petra Valley. What an experience!

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Last week, Diplomats from U.S. embassy came and shared with us about U.S./Jordan relations. One they pointed out that U.S. government has invested billions of dollar towards education. Jordan has one of the highest literacy rates for a the Middle East, along with one of the highest educated rate of women. I guess my concern is, what are we educating people on? Education is not simply the enlightenment of the mind; rather it is the transformation of the human heart. If we can’t educate people on race, gender, and how to treat one another with dignity and respect, I personally think we’ve missed the mark.

We need to teach each other to see the beauty of all races. A rainbow isn’t a rainbow without all its vivid colours. The human race cannot survive when ignorance of race and gender is overlooked, simply because we have not experienced certain things that others experience. It is frustrating when colour is all people see when you are trying to learn and understand their customs. Unwanted staring, men shamelessly taking pictures of my friend and I, because perhaps they have never seen a black person. Whatever the reason, this should not be. This is the result of racial hierarchy we have crafted through history.

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I am not angry or bitter, rather I am frustrated, these experiences only add to my learning. We have a wonderful support system with our program directors. I feel loved and cared for I am having a wonderful time serving Syrian refugees, learning Arabic, and mastering the art of hailing a taxi. This isn’t taking away from my experience, rather adding to my experience. I am culturally aware of the class system that is not just on monetary value, rather colour as well. I am going to use this as an opportunity to learn as much when the opportunity presents itself; I hope I’ll be able to share my perspective on race with those I encounter. I know God wants me to be here, for such a time like this, there is purpose in my pain.

I simply wanted to share these stories to challenge the way we see the issue of race and gender. I am reminded, “the harvest is plentiful, and workers are few.” My only conviction is how will we respond to this statement? And what role do we play in the human narrative?

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Three weeks in, while some people are getting homesick, I, on the other hand, am dealing with issues of how to navigate the issue of race within the Middle Eastern context. Lived experience speaks volumes to the human heart.

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

As I continue to travel. I hope to show traveling mercies to all I encounter because I am not perfect, I have hurt people in past, and will hurt people in future, due to my own ignorance and pain. After all, I too am human. The same way God extends grace and forgiveness to me, I too in return must extend grace and forgiveness to those who wrongfully hurt me intentionally or unintentionally. That is why I am changing the blog to travelling mercy.

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In šāʾAllāh, till next time!

Judith

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