This past week I have seen many of my firmly held assumptions come tumbling down. There have been some rather shaky stereotypes that have been knocked and my ideas renewed.
When we travel, as tourists, our impressions may add to rather than remove any pre conceived ideas we may have had. On the other hand we may add colour and shade to hunches we have about people, places, culture.
When you live in a place, sometimes we are in a bubble and what we learn is seen through a prism of other expats; conversations and combined observations mesh together to become a thick layer of learning. Our eyes are opened but do we really know? What do we know? How much do we know? Always more than those who never came, but is it enough?
Example: I tell people I lived in Africa for two years and their response varies from “ Was it dangerous?”, “ Were you scared?”, “ Did you get sick” to “ Did your school have walls?”. There is a preconceived idea that Africa is not much more than poverty and filth combined with elephants and lions. Africa as a notion is a collective lump of images made from Oxfam video appeals to National Geographic Specials. Africa as a continent with countries and cities, glass, steel, Japanese restaurants, fashion designers and literature professors is not the package most of us are sold.
Likewise the Middle East is often a collective and rather messy group of ideas centered around checkered tea cloth on the head men, deserts, camels, suppressed women, dogmatic ideas, fanatics, materialistic shrines of steel, ferraris, felafel, heat and black draped groups of women resembling a murder of crows.
And taking a little side trip to Dubai sandwiched between London and Bangkok will do little to dispel those ideas.
There are countries and cultures that I am drawn to. North American, Latin, Japanese, Italian, Moroccan to name some. But I have never been intrigued by the Middle East and in fact had been negative about it whenever Handsome brought up the idea of living here. We met in Egypt over 19 years ago and at that time he told me that he longed to live in the Middle East and was drawn to it for some inexplicable reason. He loved Arabic music and would play it and even fashion some dance to it in our Montreal living room on many occasions. Sometimes I joked that perhaps he was Arab in his past life. Five years ago he applied for a job in Qatar and journeyed there for an interview. I was most relieved when he did not get the job. I had the opposite reaction to him, shuddering when he mentioned wanting to live in the Middle East and hoping that the idea would pass. I wanted to visit beautiful Morocco and Petra in Jordan and see the stunning landscape of Lebanon but I had no desire to go further or explore the culture or, heaven no…live here!
And here we are.
I worried that I would have nothing to write about and that 3limes would dry up and sadly shrivel. But instead I find myself alert, wide awake to the rich and surprising culture before me. I was nervous that I would not like teaching in a Bahraini school, with no expats and their familiar Western culture to buffer me. I fretted over what the kids would be like and would I relate? Could I teach and penetrate such an unknown and “difficult” culture?
Was I ever wrong and am I ever happy to admit it.