I’d love to say I remember that first day we landed in Saudi, but truth be told I don’t remember much of what I saw.
The clutter of distance can’t erase from my senses the sound, smell and feel of it, though.
Stepping off that huge plane into the hot dry air is beyond description. Smelling a nauseating swirl of incense and perfumes and body odor. Hearing the angry sounding brusque dialect spouted off as fast as an auctioneer in the second hour of an estate sale.
I was definitely not in Alabama anymore. Those same foreign senses became familiar (and even home to me) as the new became a part of me.
I’d spent the first 12 years of my life in a small town of less than a thousand people, never having flown on a commercial flight (my dad and a friend had taken me up in a little plane once but that was all of the wheels off the ground experience I had), or traveled much more than our annual trip to Augusta and Aiken to visit my dad’s family.
We’d certainly never been out of the country. Hell, we didn’t venture outside the radius of a good Southern accent, much less a foreign language.
But almost everything I know and believe with conviction about tolerance, I learned from moving overseas and living in a Muslim country that couldn’t have been more different from my own than if Dr. Seuss himself had penned the contrasting elements.
There is an expression from the Bible about living in the world and not of the world that I’ve had many a debate over.
Do you go with your friend to the bar and risk being seen by a church friend walking in or out so that you’re meeting him in his comfort zone, or do you avoid contact with people that go to bars because they could drag you down into their lifestyle?
In the world, but not of it.
I have an adventurer’s spirit, and I’ve always been inclined to jump into the deep end at the drop of the invitation because I want to experience and taste and see and smell and feel and hear whatever that thing is that you want to share with me.
I get all down in the “of the world” so I can relate when empathy is my greatest tool and there isn’t time to learn about it—someone has to know about it.
Someone who knows what it tastes and sounds and smells and feels like. And, selfishly, I just enjoy it. Somehow those experiences come back around when compassion and a substantive relating are needed.
I can share a few words from my past and see that light shine a little brighter in my storyteller’s eyes because they know I get it. I’m walking with them and we’ll find a way out.
My silent mantra has always centered around tolerance, even for those religions and cultures that practice intolerance.
Who am I to tell you to change, to deviate from tradition, to look more like me because I believe my way is the only way (a stereotypical Western viewpoint)? Women couldn’t drive in Saudi, and it never occurred to me to question that law. We simply adapted and let Daddy drive us wherever we needed to go.
Once we got used to it, it was our new normal. I wore an abayah over my clothes and veil over my hair when we went to the markets on weekends to shop for black market cassette tapes, yellow and rose gold jewelry and fresh fruit flown in from all around the world.
I ate shawarmas from the street carts, a taste I can think of and my mouth still waters all these decades later. I would never have pushed the boundaries on traditional dress; my parents raised me to respect the traditions of the country we were guests in, and that was never a stretch for me.
There were plenty of Westerners and Europeans who balked and bitched and insulted the Saudi ways of life. It seemed such a shame to me to have this great opportunity to share in, and get down into, that world, to soak it into the skin and mind and heart, and instead choose to tread above the lines, looking down and shouting ignorant superficial observations without ever learning anything from them.
I think we generally fail as a society to get down to “the real” when we talk about conflicts around the world.
When we see bombings and uprisings and changes of regime in foreign countries, we look at the pictures of destruction and blood, viewing it much the way we do movies—an encapsulated window of time and place.
I find a sad parallel between the movie version of destruction and chaos and the depth of what the average person thinks beyond what they see in the news story.
We don’t think about the everyday things.
If you couldn’t go to work today, what would happen to your salary? If your workplace was blown to smithereens, who do you report to? So, if you can’t get to work because it evaporated in a cloud of concrete dust, how will you earn enough money to support your family? If your grocery store is abandoned, where will you buy food if you manage to get your hands on enough money? Where will you go to buy toilet paper? Hell, where do you go to buy tampons?
Those pictures also don’t look like anything familiar to most people, and we fail to sympathize with images we don’t relate to. Those don’t look like our homes. Our streets don’t look like that. The fashions are different and the people on those video clips are speaking a language we don’t understand.
There is a disconnect between our people, and that cuts off the pull of our heartstrings to plug in and connect. They are not like us.
I see the same thing with cultures and beliefs outside our own.
If you and I have ever debated religion, chances are you know I believe the root of nearly all sin is pride. When it comes to the unfamiliar, fear seems to snuggle right up to that pride and exponentially exacerbate the ugly that can creep out of human nature (yeah, I know the negative exists, I just don’t like to linger there).
When it comes to faith, I’ve tried to expose my daughter, Hannah, to absolutely everything and let her come to her own conclusions (which I expect to continue to evolve for the rest of her natural life).
In my heart, I’d love for her to find the love for the Lord that I have, but I have faith that she will find her way there.
Hopefully she will see Him in me and it will feel like home to her. But I also want for her to explore everything, and take the best of what she learns from each, molding an amalgamation of goodness that lightens and also warms her heart and soul.
I never want for her to turn away from the opportunity to learn out of fear and pride.
I pray that she is never so right in her own mind that she fails to grasp the takeaway that’s in front of her. I hope she never considers a different way of life a threat to her simply because it looks or sounds different on the outside.
Now, I am not ignoring the fundamental belief of most faiths that their way is the only way to heaven or the blessed afterlife or next life or whatever they subscribe to.
I know most religions teach that there is a duty to bring everyone they can reach into the fold. And them being right makes everyone else wrong.
It just does.
It’s a truth that I am very uncomfortable with, mainly because of that whole pride thing, so I follow the path of harmony I feel He set for me, and pray that my walk is enough for others to want to find out what brings me this joy.
I am so grateful to my parents for taking me out into the world and exposing me to so many places and cultures and religions and lifestyles and freedoms.
Sometimes, I think it makes me a little vulnerable, because I have some degree of empathy for so very many things. But part of that is just me, the way I was designed, and what I’ve chosen to get all down in to the marrow of.
That unquenchable thirst for new and different and unfamiliar so that I can celebrate one more thing with a new group of people I didn’t relate to until I walked a little in their life.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for taking me on that first wild adventure.
Author: Cristy Courtney
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Travis May
Photos: Courtesy of the Author, sciencefreak/pixabay