Meenu participated in the Arabic summer program in Jordan in 2016.

A few months ago, I submitted a writing piece to the PTA Reflections Arts Contest in the Literature category. The theme for 2016-2017 was "What is Your Story?" What better story to submit than my summer in Jordan with NSLI-Y? It went on to place 2nd in the state (AL) and was featured in the Madison County Record, our local paper. Here it is below:

Olivia’s phone blares with the signature iPhone alarm sound. I blearily open my eyes, squinting as the rays of bright sun peeks through the blinds, hitting my face and bathing it in a warm glow. Olivia and I greet each other, and I quietly open the door and tiptoe to the kitchen. I grab a carton of sliced black olives, whole red tomatoes, two eggs, two green chilies, and a bowl of baba ganoush from the fridge. From the freezer, I grab two rounds of pita bread. Carefully, I light the stove with a yellow lighter, and set the pan on the flame. I pour olive oil into the pan and crack both the eggs into the sizzling oil. After I cover the pan, I shift my focus to the veggies. I dice the tomatoes and thinly slice the green chilies. Now, the part that I dread: defrosting the pita on the flame. I always burn it, but the charred flavor adds a smokiness to the tantalizing breakfast. Now, I assemble. Placing the charred (or burnt) pita on the plate, I smear a spoonful of baba ganoush onto it, add the fried egg, and sprinkle the veggies on top, saving the chilies for last.

image of jordanian food on a table

As I work quietly, I find my mind wandering from the movement of my hands to the ingredients themselves. Although the ingredients are totally different from one another, and they taste fine by themselves, bringing them together not only highlights each ingredient’s individuality but also how well they work together. Like people, these ingredients shine best when brought together in culminating harmony. The tanginess of the tomato is balanced by the spice of the chili, as the perspective of a scientist is broadened by an English professor, or an adult’s viewpoint is altered by a small child, or the interfaith community working together, instead of against one another.

Olivia has already made our coffee, and we dine on a table in the living room, covered with a polka dotted white tablecloth. The soft morning light provides perfect lighting for my usual picture of our breakfast. After quickly scarfing down the charred, not burnt, pita wrap, I quickly change from my pajamas into clothes and brush my teeth. Olivia and I quietly tiptoe out of the apartment building and race down two flights of stairs. We wait in front of the apartment building on its tile floor.

Suddenly, racing down a hill, a bright yellow bus comes hurtling toward us. The bus breaks to a stop, and Sayid’s smiling face invites us in. The doors swing open, and Olivia and I greet him, Katharina, and Phoebe with a chirpy “Sabah al khayir!” (Good morning!) I sit down and immediately slide open the window, pushing back the thick curtain. I stick my head out the window, feeling the wind whip my hair around. The now glaring sun coerces me into putting my sunglasses on, and I proceed in watching the bustling city life of Amman, Jordan. My fellow students begin to pour into the bus, as Sayid picks Ben, Andrew, Omar, Scott, Mae, and Gabbi. We all sleepily greet each other at first, then shift to eagerly sharing what all happened with our host families last night.

Although some say bigger is better, sometimes, the simplest things in life are the most beautiful, yet they can also be the most under appreciated. Watching the sunlight wash over a building or a mother hold hands with her child can have immeasurable beauty, albeit quotidian, scenes in life. It is important to treasure each moment, no matter how minute.

meenu taking a selfie with her nsli-y host family and a peer

Finally, Sayid pulls up to Qasid, our school, and we all bid him a “Ma salama!” (Goodbye!) I trudge up the stairs, and make my way to my classroom. I greet the friendly security guard with an amicable “Sabah al khayir!” As eight AM approaches, my classmates begin to trickle in. Ally, Ben, Gabbi, Rachel, Scott, and I will converse before class started.

Ustadha (Teacher) Heba walks in and asks this class how everyone’s weekend went, in Arabic. We chime in, one at a time, and those who use new vocab get a nod of approval. Class continues, and Ustadha Huda introduces a new vocab concept, immediately met with groans of disapproval and confusion. After a few activities, we persevere and continue on. After a break, Ustadha Huda’s arrival is prefaced with a rhythmic rapping on the door. “Marhaba shebab!” (hello young people!) she exclaims, and class begins, filled with a chorus of raucous laughter as Ustadha Huda’s teaching style never fails to amuse.

The importance of culture/language exchange must be impressed on every one. Discussing cultures with other world citizens does two things: allows bonding over similarities and facilitates learning and appreciating differences. It creates understanding and empathy between two parties, something our world needs more of.

As the end of class approaches, my stomach begins to rumble and my eyes flit to the clock more frequently. As soon as class is dismissed, I urge Ally to follow me, and I seem to fly down the steps, motivated by hunger. On the way, our friend Alec joins us. We leave Qasid and I basically run across the pedestrian bridge towards the falafel shop. As we frequent this lunch spot every day, our faces have become familiar to the employees. I impatiently wait during the lunchtime rush as Ally regards my state of hanger (hunger and anger) with both amusement and slight fear. Ally and Alec are relieved once the falafel sandwich makes its way into my hands. I victoriously munch on the best falafel in the world, but alas, the moment is short-lived, as I always finish it with the utmost speed.

After the delicious lunch, Alec, Ally, and I leisurely make our way back to Qasid. We part ways as I board Sayid’s bus while Alec and Ally board Sayif’s bus. Instantly, I crash on the bus and after an hour or so, someone will jolt me awake, notifying we have reached home.

Olivia and I dismount the bus and look up to the second floor, where three cherubic faces smile down on us, as they await us impatiently. I smile and wave up at Rand, Usama, and Hashim. Olivia and I quickly trot up the stairs, greeted at the door by our host siblings. I go to my room and sling my bag on the floor and go to greet the rest of the family.

No matter how tired or depressed one is, a smile received from another can instantly lift a person’s mood. With a simple upward turn of the lips, someone’s whole day can be changed.

meenu's mom prepared a meal of chicken and rice; it is pictured on a red tablecloth

Mama Rania is in the kitchen, cooking a delicious meal. Cousin Zaina is in the living room, playing with Hashim, Usama, and Rand. Olivia goes to play with the kids, and I join Rania in the kitchen. I tell her what we did in class today, and she tells me what she is cooking. Today, it is tomato rice, chicken, and salad. She points to each dish, using her hands plus a combination of Arabic and English to explain how she made everything. I’ll ask her what certain food items are in Arabic. As she responds, I boil water for my daily tea. Rania cracks a joke about how much of it I drink every day.

Olivia and I move to the dining table to begin our homework. We race through it as quickly as possible, the prize in sight: playing with the three kiddos. After a long day, we begin to get ready for bed, usually far earlier than the rest of our host family. Olivia and I chat about our day and fall asleep while talking about how amazing our host family is.

As our eyes begin to drift off, our faces swaddled in the moonlight, sheltered by a blanket of twinkling stars, I begin to think about how different I am from my host family. I am American; they are Jordanian. I am Hindu; they are Muslim. My ancestors are from India; their ancestors are from Palestine. I am dark-skinned; they are light-skinned.

We have these differences that pit us against each other… Yet they have welcomed me into their home with wide arms and uninhibited acceptance. I have found in Jordan a family that is culturally different, but humanly the same. Their limited means did not stop them from putting out for us all that they had in a very drastic sense of sorority, beyond the inscrutable boundaries of nationality, history, religion, and culture.

At the crux of it all, we are human. In a divisive time where at every turn people seek to find evidence for division, we must instead unify over our shared human compassions: love, empathy, and understanding.