Monday, May 7, 2012

Orange Blossom Summers: How a Summer Can Change You

By Sally Mouakkad

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." - St. Augustine
I remember a sense of freedom despite the uncertainty, that followed everyone around, tucked just beneath the surface. Walking around, I felt empowered by the feeling of
summer in an area of the world so distant from me (geographically, socially, politically, etc.), yet familiar in a strange way, like a place you see in a reoccurring dream where reality and imagination become blurred. The quiet breeze blowing through the narrow streets of the biblical land, would bring relief from the strong sun that encompassed the sky and embraced my skin, enriching its glow. I loved watching all the dust and leaves it would carry along its path. As the days went on, the wind blew more and more, indicating that the end of summer was near, and the time for my return to the States had arrived. Even after the time that had passed, I could still feel the same warmth of the sun on my skin and whenever the wind blows like it did those summers, blowing dust and ruffling my hair and depending on where I am, even igniting the scent of fresh orange blossoms, I’m taken back to Damascus.

The times spent traveling around the country were some of my favorite because I always learned so much about things ranging from history to local traditions. Despite all the bickering and arguments that broke out within the confines of cramped cars in the irresistible heat of summer, those moments helped me grow in more ways than I could have ever realized then. It was amazing to be able to walk around the ancient ruins of time, old baths and columns inscribed with signs from the past, and to hear stories of a powerful Queen that challenged the Roman Empire and conquered Egypt before her capture. Discovering this kind of “girl power” and history in this ancient land was something I hadn’t expected. After all, this is not the kind of world history that we typically learn about in school. I felt as though I had unveiled secrets of history that no one else knew or could understand and I wanted to learn more. I held on to these stories and lessons from time as though I was holding on to a handful of sand on the banks of the sea. As the warm waves of the Mediterranean swept over me, like time, it also threatened to take back the grains. I didn’t want to let them go and I was scared that as time passed me by, I would forget everything that I had discovered. I also didn’t want to forget the sense of awe you feel while hearing the call to prayer outside the great Umayyad Mosque, walking around an old altar once dedicated to the Greek and Roman god Apollo, or getting lost in the aroma and rush of the spice souk. This is partly what gave life to my interests in studying the Middle East and gave me an important foundation to truly understand the region and its people.

And who could forget those nights driving to the top of the mountain overlooking the capital? We usually packed a thermos filled with hot coffee or tea and then stopped by one of the many delicious shawerma shops in town, where for the equivalent of fifty American cents you can get the most (nearly sinfully) delicious lamb or chicken shawerma sandwiches (similar to gyros) you've ever tasted. The cars piled up all along the sides from the bottom of the mountain to the top (yes, the roads are paved). Families playing card games, couples enjoying dinner at one of the cafes, children playing different games, and people hanging around. Looking out you can see the entire city. My sisters and I would sit at the edge and count all the green lights scattered across the city, each representing a different mosque. Nestled between the green lights were crosses from churches that you can see from atop the mountain, a reminder of the rich history and diversity of the land.
Photography by: Sally Mouakkad
Through these summer travels, I also further developed the urgency within me to end injustices and inequalities, in addition to addressing environmental and other development challenges. Throughout my travels, I saw the energy and water issues the country faces. These valuable resources are rationed, especially water. The first time I turned on the faucet only to find there was no water, I didn’t understand what was going on or why the water was gone. I imagine it to be difficult for the people there to develop a "cup half full" perspective, when there isn't anything to fill the cup with in the first place. I also realized the development challenges that are faced in the rural areas, especially in terms of agriculture, with a bleak future that seems to be plagued with talks of "water wars." Then there were the refugees and street peddlers. After the US-Iraq War in 2003, more refugees escaped into the country. The country is host to over 1 million refugees as one of the top global recipients of refugees.1 Even though many citizens themselves struggle financially especially with job opportunities being hard to come by, immigrants and visitors, come from as far away as Eastern Europe to try to make ends meet by selling "Western" or American items they acquire from abroad, on the streets at night once all the shops close in some shopping districts. 

Amongst the challenges that even affected me as a visitor, was the unspoken reality of how life is so different there politically. People didn't really talk about domestic politics. It's not that they didn't care, it's just not something that the political climate allows for. Coming from the U.S. where civil society has the opportunity to play an active part in the American political sphere, it's hard not to be changed by these realizations. You can only imagine how the country's latest crisis has and will further exacerbate all these issues, negatively impacting the right to life and quality of life of the people. Realizing all of this and experiencing some similar situations in my other travels abroad has given me a background that my academic studies have supported, and motivated me to promote global prosperity and diplomacy, raise awareness about the realities of the ordinary citizen, work my hardest so that I don't take anything for granted, help promote the quality of life for people around the world, and use my education, skills, and strengths to help address the challenges affecting the access to vital resources like education, clean water, and clean energy sources.

This summer, I encourage you to learn about a place that you've never learned about or heard of before; discover its people, history, and traditions. If you can find the financial means and time to, I encourage you to travel abroad (Be safe! Make smart decisions!) and make your own discoveries. As for my orange blossom summers, I hope to smell their sweet fragrance again someday, when the land that nourishes them can as well.

Photography by: Sally Mouakkad

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful peice.

(I actually read it because some annoying dee-wee is ruining my conversation with the blogger before last, and I needed a distraction.)

It's unfortunate that travel isn't something that most people can do for the sake of bettering themselves..because you're absolutely right.

I can tell what a sense of joy and wonder you experienced as you discovered more and more about a place that was truly new and alien to you.

London can look just like Baltimore.

People vacation inside living post cards and then go home.

To "travel" involves certain dangers and greater involvement than most people ever experience.

This can be found in our day to day lives if we try hard enough...and we truly are interested.

I did a strange thing and went to a "block party" to see my friends band on cinco de mayo.

I'm not the "community" type. It was really a new thing to see a "community" outdoors, together in thier neighborhood having simple fun.

I stuck out like sore thumb...I'm not from a "community" of any kind.

It was new to me.

This is one way in which people can "travel."

A new world is sometimes around a few corners and sectioned off where there's no place to park, or hidden in over-heard conversations that don't make sense until you find out what new words mean...what they are.

I take small trips by myself all the time, to the zoo, the museum, an aquarium, drunk and stoned...walking through shopping malls, looking for anything, anyone.....mainly America.

Besides the stores, people's houses, and businesses, not much is left of the world.

This CAN break your heart if you're all alone.

That's part of traveling too.

Being lonely and far from home, knowing yourself through what's missing.

The romance of that kind of sadness is special in many ways..because its honest and human. We cry in those moments before we are changed.

Were there moments like this?

I've traveled a lot within my own America. New York, L.A., San francisco, Virginia, and Maryland, but not in that order.

-and each new place changed me and taught me a lot.

Whats the same are those strange little moments of wonder, excitement, and of course discovery.

I recognise the sensation from reading your peice..and I wish I could travel right now...but I'll tell you....that feeling of being awake late at night in a strange place without friends and comfort?

The strange releif...hearing a loved one's voice, getting an e-mail...Good god.

I miss everything so much.

I lost my world back in 2005 and I've been "traveling" since.

That's exactly the way it feels.

Everyone should travel if they can.

My friends and I used to pile in the car and take off headed West until we reached DAMASCUS, MD.

There's bound to be one in each state.

It's a safe place to start.

Thanks again.

That was nice to read.