I love traveling. I visited various countries alone or in the company of my best friend. I did not feel any fear before visiting the United Kingdom or Italy or Jordan, many countries were on my list but the only country I dreaded visiting was the United States. I tried to avoid visiting America as much as I can out of fear of being treated differently for being a Muslim Arab woman. But I decided to apply to Shafik Gabr fellowship which had a goal of bridging the gap of communication between the east & west. I witnessed this gap of misunderstanding not only through the statements of officials and politicians round the world, but also it was reflected in the western media. I've read many stories portraying all Muslims as evil people and read many misleading articles about my dear country Egypt, either by generalizing the uncommon or by telling only one side of the story. I was frustrated and I wanted to do something but I did not know what till I saw the ad for this fellowship, so I applied. I wanted to know the other side and let the other side know me.
The first phase of the fellowship took place in Egypt October 2015, where 9 Americans & one British were invited for 2 weeks stay to visit Cairo, Alexandria & Luxor. Every Egyptian shared a room with an American to allow for as much communication and interaction as possible. Together we visited the pyramids, explored temples, suffered Cairo crazy traffic, shared food and rooms but most importantly shared thoughts. I encouraged each one of my fellows to ask me about anything, because I did not want them to fly back home with any question in their minds unanswered. I got lots of questions, many about the political situation in Egypt, the challenges we are facing and why Egyptians had to rise and make a second revolution in 30 June 2013 to get rid of the very person they elected after they felt their country was being hijacked by Islamists. I got questions about my religion, my society, my studies and my relations and I was happy to answer. I also asked many questions to my American fellows - who are now my friends - and they gladly answered.
But when it was the time for the second phase of the program which was visiting USA, I felt shaken. I've read many stories about the treatment of Arabs or Muslims in the airport or in other places inside the US, or on an airplane like that last story I saw was about a Muslim woman who was denied unopened soda can during a flight because it was feared she would use it as a weapon! (I saw this as a part of Jon Stewart episode, so I was crying and laughing at the same time). So being Egyptian Arab Muslim woman & "gulp" wearing a hejab, I was sure that by reaching USA airport I will be humiliated, or that somebody in the street will attack me either physically or verbally. I was scared to the extent that the night before traveling I was considering canceling my participation but then I thought "I fear them & they fear me, then what?". I had to move on.
When I arrived at JFK airport, my fingerprint for some reason did not show my information to the officer so he asked me to follow him to another room. I totally freaked out, I quickly texted my brother in Egypt telling him what happened in case I disappear and then be subjected to heavy interrogation (Yea I watch many American movies). After waiting for about 15 minutes an officer called my name and simply said "you can go". I stood still for awhile to make sure I heard that right then I rushed to join my Egyptian colleagues who were waiting for me outside. A good start I thought, but will it continue?
We visited New York, Atlanta & DC, and I made sure whenever I am in the street that someone from the group was there around. Even when I decided to check a store in Times square, I did that in such a hurry out of fear of any unpleasant encounters. My frequent question to my American fellows was "Is it safe to go there?". My fear made me expect the worse in every situation. I went with the group to a restaurant in Atlanta with a band singing blues live. I liked the songs and the atmosphere a lot, but then I noticed a woman looking at me and speaking to the person beside her. I sensed she was speaking about me, till she made that gesture with her hand which referred to my head scarf. When she noticed that I saw her, she got up and headed to my table. For a moment my heart bounced "OMG OMG". But then she whispered to me: "Do not think I was staring, I just think you look pretty."
I looked different in the place and it was inevitable that people will look, but because I was worried I only had negative expectations to how people will perceive me.
To my surprise my expectations failed me, and my fears did not materialize. We visited statue of liberty, Metropolitan museum, Lincoln memorial, the National Mall and many different places. I found no discrimination against me from the people I've met. I am happy that I overcame my fear and that I participated in this fellowship because by having interaction with real Americans we both now understand each others more and we both discovered that we have the same enemy, radical terrorists who threaten me as well as them and all people who have different opinions or beliefs. Now whenever I read something in the headlines about America, I have real people to ask. Likewise, My American friends have now real people to ask whenever they hear or see anything about my beloved country in the news.
My friends in Egypt are arguing that I was lucky or that being a part of a group eliminated the chances of somebody verbally attacking me. This could be right, but also it could be wrong. I know very well that there is a lot of hatred and fear on both sides of the world but that's exactly why more people to people interaction is required, a need to understand before we jump to brutal judgments.
I am planning a second visit to USA in the future. Only this time it will be purely dedicated to visiting touristic places with a special visit to the happiest place on earth, Disney Land. I will also test my friends' argument and see if my experience would change if I were alone. The fear of the "other" inhibits me no more. Instead, I have an insatiable desire to build more bridges of understanding and love.