When I was in college all of my friends were from somewhere else, and I don’t mean somewhere in the US. Most of my circle were from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Those of us few Americans were but bit players in the group – our experience of life being so vanilla. Mostly Brady Bunch sprinkled with Gilligan’s Island – uninteresting. Even to me.
But it wasn’t just that we were a melting pot of people from different cultures. It was a group of people, sometimes, from multiple sides of the same, often active, on-going war at the time. Some of them had been fighters against each other in that war.
I had very close friends who were Palestinian, but were essentially refugees who were born or grew up in Lebanon and Syria. And I had friends who were Maronite Christians – part of the Falange (far-right) – who were responsible for making war upon them. I also had friends who grew up in Israel or Jordan or Libya, and others who were from either Shiite or Sunni religious groups. And we would have coffee every day around the same table for hours.
‘How could this happen?’ You may well ask. Well, it’s no mystery to me. Being so far from home they all spoke the same language. And culture trumps all. They understood the rules of engagement from the subtleties of that culture. And the FOOOD! Oh, the best food. I learned to cook like a native and we ate like kings in an eastern Mediterranean fortress. But there was more.
The US is a country formed on the idea of individualism. Even now, that is different than nearly the entirety of the rest of the world. Community and pulling together has meant survival since the beginning of human history. Us against the sabor-tooth tiger. All of us against the tribe next door who is picking all the nuts from the trees or harvesting all the fish from the river. Tribalism. It might ensure survival in the short term but it’s always bad for the long term.
Individualism rose in the US with the perfect convergence. When millions of people left the homes they knew in countries across an ocean, converged on a country where they didn’t speak the language or understand the customs. They landed in urban ghettos filled with others from the general countries they were from. Then many of them – the most adventurous – kept going and moved across the continent, even further from those rough collections of their countrymen. Severing ties even further.
This quest for more required different skills, like self reliance rather than depending on the group for survival. It was the genesis of the nuclear family. And then new technology continued to help this new way of viewing the world – individuals driving cars to work, living in suburbs, staying in your singular house and watching TV. All of these are more solitary pursuits. Tribes are not required.
So when my friends showed up from around the world, they could leave the groups back home – where their tribes, prejudices and old grievances could stay, maybe waiting for them. In the US, they could just be themselves. And they found it liberating! People who would have been looking at each other through a rifle sight, had they stayed back home, were suddenly laughing over a shared joke and a coffee. Over the course of their college careers they often debated politics. But mostly, they found they ended up agreeing with each other.
By my senior year, I went to weddings of Christians Palestinians marrying Sunni Jordanian Muslims. Since most religions preach love, I naively believed love could conquer all.
So this little group of us – ragtag participants from across the world – spent nearly 4 years together. And here is what I learned:
- Baba Ganooj is the best food ever invented. Drink it. Eat it. Doesn’t matter.
- Coffee cures a host of ills. If people could just sit down over a pot of Turkish coffee, so much of the world’s issues could be worked through.
- People are people and they all want the same thing – Peace and prosperity for themselves and their families.
- It’s not generally people who create conflict – it’s the power hungry. Those with an insatiable appetite for mo’ money, usually.
- Tribalism is a dangerous thing – Us v. Them is insidious when we dehumanize ‘the other’.
- Individualism has a BIG down side. While it promotes independent thought, it can inhibit our ability to work together on crucial, collective problems. An ‘I’ve got mine, so screw everyone else’ mentality, that pure capitalism is so very good at.
‘What the HELL, Kelli? Why are you even thinking about this on a Tuesday morning at the end of October?! What triggered this?! Go get another coffee and just calm down!!’
Well, I started reading a new book this morning, Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Just reading the introduction got me flashing back to my college days and all the parallels with conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa . It’s the story of Spain since the 19th century and beyond. Filled with war, political conflicts, massive cultural shifts and terrorism.
I’m an hour in and already so much of it seems like a movie I’ve seen before. But Spain is a different egg altogether, so I’m looking forward to learning all about it in greater detail. And it also got me thinking about spawning a new project – so stay tuned for that. Don’t worry, I won’t be trying to solve all the worlds problems with this new idea. But hopefully I can help myself, and maybe a few others, gain a little more understanding. We shall see as I let it ruminate. Not bad for 11am on the last Tuesday in October.