Bridging cultures, one person at a time

When I read the New York Times piece on Khizr and Ghazala Khan and their exceptional family, I couldn’t help gasping at all the connections between my life and those of these unassuming people who found themselves in the media spotlight after their speech at the Democratic National Convention. The University of Virginia. Law school. Living in Germany. Fabric stores. Dubai. Lahore, Pakistan.

I certainly don’t mean that I’ve lead some sort of parallel life with this family, or experienced the same things that they have, because that could not be farther from the truth. And I don’t need to go through how each of these little details are woven into the fabric of my own life here, because that’s not what this essay is about. But I do know that I’d have a lot to chat about with the Khans if I ever met them!

I don’t believe it’s necessary to have a wholly similar life experience with someone to find a common bond.

And that’s the crux of it: just by reading their story, I felt a closeness to this family that is also part of a culture, religion and background very different from my own, and whom I most likely will never meet. And I imagine that thousands of others who read the stories of this family that permeated the media last week also found a connection with the Khans in some aspect of their story. Perhaps it was a shared admiration for Thomas Jefferson, a military family, the loss of a son or daughter – so many details of this family have been laid bare that the list of possibilities is lengthy. I don’t believe it’s necessary to have a wholly similar life experience with someone to find a common bond.

The question is, did this family’s heartbreaking and inspirational story change the hearts of any who may have harbored prejudices against Muslims before reading it? I can only hope the answer is “yes.”

As much as we may romanticize, we can’t have a personal relationship with an entire culture.

There’s a reason this type of storytelling is important. Relationships are about individuals. As much as we may romanticize, we can’t have a personal relationship with an entire culture. So, how do we ease inter-cultural “relations” – something that is absolutely imperative today? It has to begin with real, actual people.

Amnesty International Poland put together a brilliant experiment based on the work of American psychologist, Arthur Aron, in which Syrian and Somalian refugees have four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact with European citizens. Aron had initially developed the experiment as part of a study on how romantic intimacy is created between two people, and the Amnesty exercise showed that this also may apply to fraternal intimacy. I urge you to watch the video put out by Amnesty – it’s almost impossible not to be moved.

From the overwhelmingly positive results of Amnesty’s experiment, it seems like one of the strongest ways to combat fear and misunderstanding across cultures is to compel people to take the time to get to know, on a deep, personal level, individuals from different backgrounds, traditions and beliefs than their own.

How can we spread intimate familiarity on a large scale? 

But given that, in reality, most people won’t have the chance to participate in an experiment like Amnesty’s, the question remains: how can we spread intimate familiarity on a large scale?

This is where the Khans, and the press who have respectfully told this Gold Star family’s story, have done a wonderful thing. By turning some uninformed stereotypes on their heads, and even more importantly, by opening up their lives to the American public, bit by bit they may have been able to soften some hearts and ease some misguided fears.

Let's not stop there. Let's call on the press to continue to tell the stories of real Muslims – and of citizens of all ethnicities, cultures and ways of life, in America and abroad. We need to be inundated, as we were with the Khans for a week (preferably without the associated circumstances), with stories of people from all walks of life who live good lives, overcoming obstacles and making a positive difference in other's lives. Human stories that people can relate to.

Once the fear of difference that’s taken hold in too many parts of our world is weakened, even by a little, perhaps the real, fruitful, necessary dialogue can begin.


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Author’s note: I don’t pretend to be an expert on inter-cultural relations or on world cultures in any sense. But I do have a lifelong interest in learning about different cultures, which has been brought to the forefront of my mind for all the wrong reasons over the past year. When I use the term “culture”, I’m using it in a very loose sense encompassing ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation – anything that unites a group of people. I’d love to use this space to begin a dialogue in the most positive of ways, if that’s possible, to figure out how best we can bridge the cultural divides in our society, while respecting our differences. I welcome comments and positive suggestions.

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