The point of this blog has never been to make a political statement. It's never been a platform to promote my views or solicit support for a culture, an ideology, a movement or a people. It's never been anything more than a sounding board for me to work through the good, the bad and the ugly I deal with on any given day. And hopefully to come out with a greater understanding, acceptance and appreciation of my life in the Middle East.
I purposely steer clear of contentious debates.
Partly because there are much wiser people in this big wide world who are arguing their causes on all sides. If politicians, activists, and victims haven't solved the world's woes, how in the world could I ever hope to?
Partly because I want this blog to give me and others a little hope. And sometimes after watching the news or listening to people lecture from their soapbox, it almost feels like no hope is left.
But mostly I stay silent out of fear, selfish fear. Fear that committing something to writing actually makes it real. Fear that voicing my beliefs will expose me. Fear that putting words to fears will make me vulnerable. Fear that writing about atrocities being committed in Syria, and Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere will hurt too much. Fear that my words are weightless anyways, misinformed by a panoply of radicals on all continents who bombard us with their perception of right and wrong; misinformed by a multitude of media outlets that contradict each other depending on where their home office sits, on their perception of events, on what spin will generate the highest ratings. Fear that the agony I feel will be mowed down and made to seem misguided or outright wrong by people who hold far different views and who can express them much more eloquently than I.
So on paper, on this blog, I mostly remain silent. Silent and afraid.
But in a recent post, I talked about fear and how it's held me back, how it's stopped me from truly appreciating what I'm capable of, how it erases possibilities, how it stunts growth.
And that post got me thinking about what I fear most in my writing. I'm sad to say I'm not yet mature, wizened, or enlightened enough to face all my writing fears, but my reflection gave me at least enough strength to tackle today's post on 'voice'*.
That of a young Palestinian girl I met 6 years ago on a day-trip to Mount Nebo in Jordan.
I don't know her name; I never took the time to ask. But I will never, ever forget her voice. It rang out so loud and clear as she shouted out to us; the voice of a lone little girl looking for acceptance, looking for a smile, looking for her chance to shine.
My chest tightens whenever I think of her enthusiastic, smiling voice. And I wonder where she is today. I pray her voice still rings loud and clear.
But let's go back to the beginning.
In 2008, we decided to take a trip to Jordan. After 16 months in the Middle East, I still considered myself a relatively inexperienced expat (still do after almost 8 years), and didn't quite know what to expect. A Jordanian fellow at work told us to wrangle fearlessly with the drivers at the Ammam airport for a decent taxi fare to the Dead Sea. He assured me that his Jordanian brothers would eventually lower their price if we maintained that ''Omar'' had guaranteed us fair prices and great hospitality in his homeland. I seem to recall that we got a good deal.
It was a beautiful vacation, and we did all the touristy things one would be expected to do while visiting Jordan. We floated in the Dead Sea, we slathered ourselves with its shore's healing mud, we visited Petra, we toured Jesus' baptismal site on the River Jordan, and finally, we made it to Mount Nebo, where it's said Moses gazed upon the Holy Land.
We were so well received everywhere we went, and our hosts and guides did everything to make us feel safe and comfortable. Even when we slowed for check points on the road to Petra, with armed soldiers sitting atop tanks, machine guns strung over their shoulders as they asked us to produce identification, our guides reassured us that all was well - nothing untoward - just a routine check.
On our tour of the Baptismal site, when a sonic boom shook the ground and rattled our core, our guide assured us that it was nothing more than practice fire, no reason to be alarmed - continue on, there's much more to see, down to the banks of the River Jordan we go ...
On the day we visited Mount Nebo, our guide for the day left us to explore a bit on our own. As we gazed over the Promised Land, we were filled with awe. It seemed every step of our journey had driven us to silence ... every bit of Jordan we visited was so majestic, so significant, it seemed that speaking out loud would diminish us even more, render us more minuscule and trite than we already were in the face of the history and the beauty that surrounded us.
But as we made our way around the Byzantine chapel, we were suddenly engulfed by excited chatter. As I held my Kiddo close and turned to see what all the commotion was about, I found myself suddenly flanked by a bevy of young girls, ranging from about ages 12 to 16. My surprise quickly gave way to fear, as these young girls, most in hijabs, circled tightly around us, reaching out to touch my daughter and me, babbling briskly and loudly in English and what I presumed to be Arabic.
I tried to back away quickly, away from the groping hands and foreign tongues. My eyes desperately shot out to Smilin' Vic, who I saw standing behind the group, speaking to a woman also wearing a hijab. He smiled reassuringly my way, and mouthed 'it's ok'. He made his way slowly through the throng of young girls, and told me that the woman he'd been speaking to was accompanying these young girls on a tour of the historic site.
She'd explained to him that their excitement was largely due to the freedom they were feeling on this day. You see, these young girls, Christian and Muslim, were all here on an outing from the UN Palestinian refugee camp they called home. Seeing as how it's difficult for your average first-world teenage girl to contain emotions on any given day, it stands to reason that this group of young girls on a rare outing was bursting at the seams with excitement.
Smilin' Vic retreated then, and the young girls moved forward once again. I stood there for a good thirty minutes as they touched my hair and Kiddo's, as they marvelled at how light it was and how fair our skin was. They gently touched Kiddo's soft fatty arms, the result of loads of sunscreen and tons of pampering and never wanting for food or shelter. Every last one of the girls held Kiddo and got a picture taken with her.
They giggled, and coddled, and kissed, and squealed. They tickled Kiddo. They covered her in kisses and smothered her with their hugs. They leaned in shyly to hug me, asked me my name, asked me where I was from (is it true that it's really cold in Canada?).
Smilin' Vic took pictures, and this thrilled them to no end, as they pushed and shoved to make it to the centre of the frame. And they smiled. The whole time. Despite the fact that this was just a single blip of freedom, just a moment of escape. They smiled.
Eventually the novelty wore off, and they started to break off into groups and move on to explore more of the site. We gathered our things and set off to head back to the retreat of our 5-star hotel, oddly deflated by that privilege when we knew that few if any of these girls would ever in their lifetime experience such a pampered getaway.
And then one voice rang out ...
A single voice.
''Sir, please take my picture Sir. I'm Christian, please take my picture.''
A little girl, perhaps 12 or 13, holding up between her thumb and index finger a tiny gold cross that hung from a chain under her hijab. A coming together of different worlds, a clashing of cultures, a religious spectrum, a world of promise - all of this hidden behind a wide smile, reverberating in this tiny voice before us.
''I'm Christian, please take my picture, Sir.''
One tiny little voice. Perhaps thinking that she would hold more value for us if she stated her religion. Perhaps wanting to shout out to the world that she was Christian. Perhaps just wanting to be heard, or thinking we would better identify with her beliefs than we would with her. Or perhaps, like so many of us, just wanting to hear the sound of her own voice in the crowd.
Whatever her reasons, we heard her. Smilin' Vic very gladly took her picture. And we have never since been able to 'un-hear' her.
That single voice.
Not because of what she said. Simply because of the innocence with which she sought to be seen, to be heard. Simply because her voice rang out.
I often think about that little girl, about all those little girls. I think about their collective enthusiasm, their frenzied excitement, their happy chatter. And I have no doubt that many of their voices will have changed six years later. Surely some will have become pained, perhaps bitter; hopefully some will have become stronger; sadly, some will have been forever silenced.
And all around the world, views continue to differ on the fate of these little girls' voices. Some will argue that the voice of one is the price to pay to erase the tyranny of many. I disagree. With all my heart and soul, I disagree. What is wrong with humanity, that we think by silencing promise we will negate 'evil'?
I don't have answers, only questions. There's no conclusion to my story really. Only more questions, more confusion, more sorrow. And prayers. Lots of prayers. That the one voice that rang out continues to do so. That it continues to ring out loud and clear. That one day it will truly be heard across nations and cultures and religions for what it conveys ... not for what it says.
I pray that the radical voices, no matter what religion or nationality, will be silenced. That no more innocent children will lose their lives for the sake of a cause or a kingdom. That the world will open its eyes and recognise only the voices it once silenced; those of countless children being traumatised and battered in Syria, in Palestine, in Iraq and elsewhere.
As a mom, as a woman, as an expat in the Middle East, I hear a lot and it makes me fear a lot. But I am determined to fight my fears, and open my heart, and always reconsider my perspective. So that I don't miss the smiles and the wonder and the beauty. I am determined to always listen.
Because that voice, the one behind that little girl who smiled, the one that rang out, it didn't need to tell us anything. That voice helped us 'see' the little girl who smiled, acknowledge she existed, remember her. That voice was crying out for her to matter. It wanted her to somehow leave a mark.
She did ...
*Voice (extracted from the Encyclopedia Britannica, under an article on the importance of voice in philosophical feminism): 2. Independence and self-determination for women can be achieved only by “speaking in one’s own voice”—i.e., only by thinking and acting in ways that genuinely reflect one’s perspectives, experiences, feelings, and concerns as an individual.