My affinity for the Middle East and its culture is something on which I reflect often. Why, of all the places and countries I have visited, is this the region that gives me the feeling of putting on slippers at the end of a long, hard day? It is at once comfortably familiar while, at the same time, much like reacquainting with an old friend whose traits have become foreign to me. A friend I met on my Saudi journey, who also shares this affection for the Middle East, commented that he has always loved places where cultures collide. I, too, am drawn to intersections–as well as those places where crossroads are rendered impossible.
When I open my spice cabinet at home, I can close my eyes and be transported to the labyrinthine streets of the Middle Eastern souq. Winding stone paths with intricate wooden doors and lattice shutters are filled with colorful fabric, spices, perfumes, and jewelry–and, in the case of Doha’s Souq Waqif, falcons and small birds. Many of these souqs originated as trading posts along the Silk Road, or some other trade route where goods and ideas were exchanged.
As with many places in the world, yet more than any other place I have traveled, there are complex nuances within Middle Eastern culture. Questions of gender, politics, and religion–delicate topics in the most open and democratic systems–are ever-present in the minds of citizens making daily decisions. Interacting with wide degrees of cultural norms within the same culture gives me a new appreciation for the dance that people have mastered to negotiate the boundaries among them. I stand in line at the coffee shop behind a woman with long dark hair and a short sleeve dress, who stands behind a woman in jeans and a t-shirt wearing hijab, who stands behind a woman wearing an abaya and niqab (full face covering). Each of them holds a child by the hand. The intersection presents a choice that we cannot yet predict. And, in time, will it even matter?
It was here, at the iEARN 2013 conference in Doha, Qatar that a global junction was created, bringing over five hundred people from over fifty countries together to talk about how to share ideas and culture–all while cultures merged, exchanged, collided, reconciled, and learned from each other. As lives intersect, people are confronted with both fears and validations. Many of the educators involved with iEARN have been on a long, straight, and lonely road for a quite some time. They are looking for interaction to exchange ideas and any encouragement they receive inspires them to push past the fear.
Yet, by far, the most valuable intersection I experienced on our Doha trip was the one between educators and students. I have traveled internationally with students numerous times and am well aware of its benefits. However, attending an education conference with students, who are also presenters, tore down a boundary that traditional education has maintained for centuries. At iEARN, teachers and students presented together, students presented to rooms of peers and teachers, and teachers presented to colleagues and students. The presence of students at a conference about education makes intuitive sense, yet it is rarely done. We learned, ate, toured, shopped, and danced together. Watching my students seamlessly integrate themselves with people from all over the wold was a very moving experience. As I witnessed their sensitivity towards others and displays of compassionate solidarity, I learned a lot about them, myself, and the hopeful future ahead of us all.
We have now passed through this last intersection and continue on our journeys. Just like the souq, we took many turns, negotiated agreements, and gave a little something in exchange for something better. It is now time to reflect on the choices we made, the interactions we shared, and when we may have another opportunity to mingle again at the crossroads.