Beautiful Southern Lebanon, Sue Ann Harkey, 2006
Beautiful Southern Lebanon, Sue Ann Harkey, 2006

A few years ago, near my office at Marianopolis College in Montreal, a colleague called out and asked me to mediate in an argument he was having with a student about the Middle East. I was running late, so, with a burst of laughter, I spontaneously answered, “They are all crazy over there! That is all you need to know.”

Those words have haunted me ever since, both because of their flippancy and because I meant them. I did not have time to enter a discussion then, and I was—to an extent—just kidding. But I did believe, although I never admitted it, that everyone in the Middle East wascrazy, that it was that simple.

There is something deeply troubling about this view, and I’ve heard it voiced often. For many of us, the Middle East is a land of insanity. We watch the news and can barely wrap our minds around the images bombarding us. We hear of suicide bombers. We see sobbing Israelis searching the streets for the remains of those they have lost. We hear of the Palestinian water crisis while watching Israelis water their luscious mango trees. We see militant Palestinians chanting at the camera and Israeli soldiers, faces frozen, wielding their weapons. We see so many crying mothers, hardened fathers, children on the front lines. We see bombs falling in Lebanon. Again. It is no wonder most of us simplistically choose a side or cut ourselves off from it by concluding that they are all equally insane.

I’ve been thinking lately about a dear student of mine from a few years back. Ahmed (I’ve given him a pseudonym) was a Palestinian Muslim living in the Diaspora. He, too, was in pain, confused, enraged. He belonged to a community that was suffering, but he lived far from it. Guilt plagued him. He wanted to express his solidarity with his suffering brothers and sisters. He wanted to do so all the more because he was living here in comfort, far from the turmoil: his pain and anger were transparent. His wasn’t the kind of anger that seethes beneath the surface, but an open anger, an open confusion, an open quest for identity.

For some reason Ahmed sought me out. He took my religion courses and frequently visited my office. He knew of my Arabic-Jewish heritage, and he knew of my Buddhist practice and faith. He didn’t spare me his anger, however. During the wave of suicide bombings in 2002, for instance, he ran into to my office after an attack and asked in angry glee, “Did you see that? Wasn’t that great?”

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