In 2016 I had the opportunity to travel to United Arab Emirates to teach creative writing workshops at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. I remember when the invitation was made, I was apprehensive. In truth, I looked for a good reason not to go. I thought of all the places in the world that I had wished for years and years to visit and recognized that UAE was not among them.
But I accepted the invitation, with the encouragement of people I trust, and ignoring the voices of people who were fearful; among them, my own. I swallowed my fear of flying, of going someplace new by myself, of the unknown. I learned a single, simple phrase in Arabic that means “Peace be unto you”, took a deep breath and went. After all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a big adventure, and while I am not, as a rule, an adventurer, it was too good to pass up.
I had no idea how that decision would shake up my world. But shake it, it did. It shook out everything I thought I “knew” about a culture. It shook me out of my comfort zone. It dropped me, a tall, blue-eyed, English-speaking American woman into a sea of people who I could not understand. It shook into me a taste of of what it is to be in the minority.
It taught me to listen carefully, to speak carefully. It taught me to look carefully too, and to see. Because in listening carefully I learned to hear meaning, not just words. In speaking carefully, I was conscious of needing to convey meaning without lapsing into habitual phrasing that could be misinterpreted. Word choice. Yes. As a writer, I know about that. I found myself having deeper conversations than what I expected I would. Some of them have stayed with me, as fresh as if they occurred yesterday.
In looking carefully, I saw. I saw the ways that we, by which I mean the people of the world, are truly all the same in many, if not most, ways. I saw daddies with children on their shoulders. I saw children laughing with delight over bits of beauty. I saw eyes widen in wonder when a new understanding was realized. I saw little ones crying over dropped ice cream. I saw mothers drying their tears. I saw people from a dozen different countries all together in one place being friends. I saw that what seems “exotic” and “strange” from here, looks simply like regular life there. I saw that none of the “warnings” I’d received from my fearful friends had any substance at all.
I saw myself with new eyes, too. I saw myself braver. More capable. I saw that perhaps I would have more to teach people when I returned home than I taught in the workshops I led.
Imagine my excitement when, in January, I received an invitation to do it all again! It took no time at all for me to respond with “YES!” I asked no opinions. I simply felt the still-warm joy from my experience in 2016 and all the ways it stretched me into a wider-thinking person wash over me.
Today is Monday. I fly on Thursday. The next two days will go by both at a snail’s pace and at lightning speed. I packed my bag a week ago. This time, I know what I’m in for, and already I can almost feel the heat of the desert, hear the call to prayer from the Mosques, see the wide smiles and colorful clothing, taste the deep spices, and smell the jasmine in the evening.
I am so fortunate. So blessed. So lucky. So excited. And so ready. As-Salaam-Alaikum.