Echad, shtayim, shalosh, arba…”
The foreign sounds of counting came from the deck of a dhow, a traditional Arab sailboat, cruising through a harbor filled with open sky, twinkling city lights, and water glistening with oil.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself on the third night of my seventeenth Passover drifting lazily around the Persian Gulf near Doha, Qatar. This, in addition to becoming the inadvertent Hebrew teacher to a duo of Qatari girls.
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Last spring I got the opportunity to spend a week in the small country that sits nestled east of Saudi Arabia and a hop, skip, and jump south of Iran. Thanks to the generosity of Qatar Foundation International, 35 high school students studying Arabic were granted full scholarships to experience Qatari culture. OneWorld Now!, a local leadership program I am involved with, selected 15 Arabic-language students to travel to this country.
I expected to feel lost in the middle of a nationwide crowd of abayas, but I surprised myself with my enjoyment in trying a scarf for a day and anticipating the melodious call to prayer. Though pleased as I was with my comfort within the majority, I decided not to make my Jewish faith public. I knew the Qataris would have been polite, but I expected formality would be the extent of our relationship after my “divine revelation” — I could count on cordiality and nothing more.
At an extravagant Middle Eastern meal shared with local teenagers in Doha, a basket steaming with pita bread was placed under my poor Semitic nose. This ordinary evening for the Muslim residents of Qatar coincided with the second night of Passover, a holiday where Jews abstain from all bread. Sara, a Qatari student, inquired, “Why aren’t you eating?” I skirted the question and concocted a lame cover-up. Curious, she asked about our religions. I muttered what I conceived as the dirty J-word.
“That’s so cool!” enthused Nourah. I heard correctly; Nourah was dying to learn “Jewish,” as she called Israel’s language, and immediately initiated lessons. She and her friend, Aisha, became my diligent scholars, even asking if they could send me money for a Hebrew keyboard. The night ended with a hearty “Shalom!” that left me reeling. For all my progressive ways, I had been too cynical to believe Arabs would accept a Jew. I assumed prejudice would triumph.
The next night, I shared matzah with a cute tween, Tala. Palestinian by blood, she expressed interest in learning Judaism’s traditions. I was delighted until she confided her shame in her heritage. My heart broke. While I was honored to become her first Jewish acquaintance, this role came with the knowledge that she hadn’t accepted the heavy role she was born with. If I could facilitate more interactions like this, I wondered, could Jews and Arabs finally see that we don’t need to stand on separate sides?
On the plane homeward, I pondered this idea: Through meetings based on similarities, we could eventually erase the differences. My expectations of a Middle Eastern country were completely upended, and I wanted future Jewish kids to experience the respect and desire for understanding with which I was met.Perhaps one day I can pioneer an exchange program that takes Jewish kids to Arab countries to discover how much stronger our bonds as youth unite us than our political differences divide us.
Qatar taught me that no matter where you go, to bring a bit of your culture with you, through language, food, and sharing ideas. Ignore assumptions and dive in headfirst.
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