One of the most vivid images I have of September 11th, 2001, is a TV screenshot of people in the Middle East celebrating the successful terrorist attacks on American soil. I was too young at the time to comprehend the intricacies of bin Laden’s network, the crimes America had committed to warrant this attack, or the way international relations had just shifted forever. But with the clarity that only a pure young heart can possess, I was dumbfounded by the hatred fuming through America that day.
When I tell people I study Arabic, they always ask me why, or what I hope to do with the language, expecting to hear a well thought-out answer about the CIA or something. I shrug my shoulders, and all I can muster is that, for me, language is the key to culture, muftaah a-saqafa. How else can I sit with Ahmed, a traditional Egyptian man, discussing love and politics, only to have him tell me that he never thought he would be capable of liking an American? How else could I have lived for months with Muslim girls whose conceptions of America once revolved around only Twilight and fashion? How else could I have animatedly discussed Israel & Palestine with my revolutionary friend in Tahrir Square the other night, only to walk away still friends afterward? My ability to show these Egyptians America’s true values of diversity, family, service, and compassion - and not just plundering capitalism and tyrannical foreign policy - is derived from my capacity to communicate with them. Each word we share in the course of our exchange vanquishes ignorance and wariness, both of which lead to hate. If I never again use Arabic in my professional or personal life, I will be satisfied knowing I used this treasured key, language, to unlock our commonalities.
This is what we, as Americans and global citizens, must strive to do in order to prevent another act of hatred like 9/11. We can no longer afford to see only the other, and I mean that in terms of both our wallets and our souls. Whether it’s through language, traveling, teaching, eating, praying, laughing, or writing, I ask that you dedicate yourself to overcoming the boundaries between America and other cultures. I know many of you already do this in your daily work, and I am in constant admiration of you.
I was planning to write on my proximity to the protests at the Israeli Embassy the other night, but I refuse to have my spirit trodden upon by that sad event today. Today, I want to hold my head high, as an American and as one of the world’s children. I want to reflect on the sorrow, yes, but also on the gratitude I carry for what I have been given: I have so many people to love, and I have the ability, the key, to make this world a better place.