"Weren't you afraid?"
These are the two responses I'm met with when people hear I've lived in the Middle East and North Africa. Same questions now as when I returned from Morocco in 2002. And I give the same, emphatic answer: "No! Never."
As an American of European descent, I guess I'm not appropriately terrified of the Arab world.
I'm still trying to craft a truly effective "elevator speech" to explain how I feel about the MENA and her people. I want to sit people down, make them tea, and tell them stories, but I usually never have the chance. And, too often I know they're not really listening to my response anyway. You can physically see them loose focus, interest, when the stereotypes aren't confirmed.
When I say I enjoy living in the region and have so much respect and love for the people there, it's not denying there aren't critical issues to be dealt with: of poverty, gender, lack of rights and freedoms, corruption and mismanagement, unemployment, education systems in dire need of reform, class conflict, labyrinthine bureaucracies, environmental issues...The list is long.
But then there are the possibilities, which too many people just don't seem to see. And the main source of possibility for me comes from the people, people like we're seeing take to the streets in Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. People my age or younger, especially: friends, colleagues, students. A huge part of society with few choices and few outlets, who know they deserve better than they're getting. The energy, ideas, humor, creativity, grace and determination shared with me over the years has been at times remarkable. Not to say any of it was unexpected or that it doesn't exist elsewhere in the world, but it's been wonderful to have a chair pulled up to the table, to be welcomed and made a part of the conversation.
I can only hope to be afforded the opportunity to get back there soon and continue working with the people - not for, never in place of - to improve lives and communities. To be able to do so would be an honor.
Sitting here in Geneva, watching the scenes unfold this week, I hope the energy, camaraderie, grit, and community evidenced in Egypt will help convey a bit of what keeps drawing me back to the region and counter the fears and myths that cloud the thinking of too many.
I hope for the best, for a better future, for a day when my own country will redefine "stability" in their foreign policy lexicon, when friends in the region won't have to wave me out of public buildings before we talk about certain subjects, when peaceful demonstrations are not set upon by an army of thugs, when people can express themselves freely...
Power to the people.