Fulbright Scholars: Sharing the World Through Storytelling

Fulbrighters prove that storytelling is very much alive -- in the wilderness and the city, in medinas and souks and villages, among the cats and storks, in the world's tallest buildings, in the slums and labor camps, on artificial islands lined with McMansions, in the sandstorms of the desert.
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This past spring I was in a place called Chellah, in the hills on the outskirts of the city of Rabat, overlooking the Bou Regreg River, which opens out into the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. Chellah is the site of an ancient Roman port town called Sala Colonia, founded in about the year 40. The Romans abandoned the city less than 100 years later and then, sometime in the 14th century, a Moroccan sultan built on top of it. He built a mosque and a huge minaret, a school and royal tombs.

But what you actually notice first about Chellah are its inhabitants. Hundreds of cats wander the paths and lie in the shade. And then there's the air force: huge storks perched in gigantic nests of sticks and branches that they weave together on the top of the minaret and telephone poles and the Roman columns. It's a site Dr. Seuss or Tim Burton or the writers of One Thousand and One Nights might have conjured up. It's definitely a place for storytelling.

I'll never forget walking down the 2,000-year-old decumanus maximus, which is always the main east-west road in any ancient Roman city, because I was listening to a brilliant, funny, and charismatic young Fulbrighter who was telling me about her research on the struggle for women to enter the political process in Bahrain. Her name was Kelly Dalla Tezza. Two days later she died in a car accident. She was a remarkable person, as was Bassel Al Shahade, a Syrian Fulbrighter who studied at Syracuse University. He also died this spring, in the struggle against the dictatorship in Syria.

I mention Kelly and Bassel here, as I recently mentioned them to a group of U.S. students and scholars preparing to depart for North Africa, not to darken any occasion of celebration and thrill as Fulbrighters around the world prepare for their remarkable journeys, joyful stories, and experiences that I hope they will carry far into old age. I only mention them as a request: to undertake the Fulbright scholarship with the same passion, intellect, personal warmth, modesty, and curiosity that Kelly and Bassel had, because their spirit, above almost all else, is the spirit of Fulbright.

It is the same spirit the young novelist Ana Menendez had on her Fulbright to Egypt in the fall of 2008. Ana was there when President Obama was elected, and she tells wonderful stories of the surprise and excitement people throughout the Middle East had in response to that event. You will all certainly have stories to tell of reactions to these elections: both the American and Egyptian elections -- and the wave of change throughout this Arab summer and fall.

Ana Menendez recently sent me a note on Facebook. She wrote that with Fulbright:

I don't like to talk about "making a difference" because it's such a cliché and so paternalistic. But what I feel I did do was offer a complication to people's somewhat simplistic view of what America is. (That I was a woman, with a Hispanic surname who also looked like them further complicated matters!)

And in return they did the same for me.

I always think of Camus when I travel. When you keep the individual in mind, it is very hard to fall sway to prejudice and abstract ideology.

Keeping the individual in mind. That is why I am dwelling on the idea of telling stories -- the sad and the joyful -- and the importance in keeping, sharing, and telling your stories, your encounters with people. Telling stories is an essential part of what Fulbright is and does.

As the great American poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." And while I haven't yet "slipped the surly bonds of earth," the universe I have explored -- from Mexico to Indonesia, from Norway to Nepal -- has seemed connected by the force field of stories and the complicated, beautiful, troubled, and inspired lives of people who tell them.

Stories are made, stories are told every day, in the wilderness and in the city. Sometimes, they are just told differently. Sometimes -- in our time -- stories are made new.

Recently I've been reading a story by a Brooklyn writer, E.A. Marciano, who uses Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot, and YouTube. And I don't mean he just writes about them. He actually employs all these platforms in telling the story. Marciano's different characters, with their different styles of speech and visual expression and plotlines, are developed in different social media. As he's said, "Twitter is rapid, spontaneous, and fragmented"; Tumblr is for thinking in pictures; and "Blogspot is for raw, aggressive rants." YouTube? Well, he says, "I mean, who isn't making videos these days? It's an incredible force that allows for the widest range of weird and awesome."

"The widest range of weird and awesome." That seems like a pretty good description of what I think the Fulbright experience is.

It's not necessarily easy to tell good stories, of course. As Ira Glass of This American Life has said, "Great stories happen to those who can tell them."

Fulbrighters are at a huge advantage by having great material. And we want them to share that experience with us -- and the world. It's not only important for helping people to understand the program (and encouraging them to apply); it's important for the very idea of understanding -- for people to understand each other, other countries, other languages, maybe even themselves a little better. Fulbright wasn't founded in 1946 to send people on vacation; it was founded to bridge communities, to build ties, to share knowledge, to solve some of our pressing global challenges, and to work for peace.

In the rush of technology and a 24/7 cycle of information in virtually every space available, it remains as important as ever to tell stories and remain engaged. As Emily Dickinson, one of America's greatest conjurers of the weird and the awesome, admitted, "To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." Maybe that's why she wrote short poems.

But you can't always do 140 characters. I encourage Fulbrighters to take a picture on your phone. Post to Facebook. Do haiku. Whether you use social media, mail us a postcard, write essays, or send a PowerPoint presentation, we want to hear what you're doing, what you've done.

Keep in mind what another Fulbrighter, Rachel Smith, told me: "Fulbright is not about changing the world. It is about sharing the world." Whatever your field, whatever your work and research and study, Fulbright is, essentially, a shared world of stories -- of the thousands of students and scholars who have come before you, connected to you and all the Fulbrighters who will come after, and connected to all the colleagues and friends and even passing strangers you will meet in the countries where you'll be living.

All those experiences, voices, pains, frustrations, discoveries, triumph. All those stories...

Fulbrighter Lauren Bohn, who was in Egypt in 2011, has written very beautifully about this idea: "Egypt's story has at times seemed like an existential struggle between the future and the past." But, "while photogenic revolutionaries grabbed the world's attention, the country teems with a varied 80-some million people all their stories." And all these stories matter, Bohn writes. Because the future is still being fought over, "the voices of different people tell us why 'revolution' is relative and why, like in any story, sometimes the most difficult part to conceive is the end."

Fulbrighters prove that storytelling is very much alive -- in the wilderness and the city, in medinas and souks and villages, among the cats and storks, up in the world's tallest buildings, out in the slums and labor camps, on artificial islands lined with McMansions, along the fragile coast, in the sandstorms of the desert.

They tell us about the worlds they find and the worlds they share in making.

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