I lay in my hostel bunkbed, listening to the girl across from me, wanting to both soak in every word, and put my hands over my ears at the same time.
The girl was raised in Australia, but had Syrian origins, including family who still resided in the war-torn country. She visited them nearly every year, although recently her visits had become more infrequent, for obvious reasons. This year she had gone again, despite the bombs dropped from jets sporting various flags, aimed at different groups according to the beliefs of the owners of those bombs.
My interest was piqued when she mentioned that she had just come from Syria where she had been to visit family. Eager to have a conversation outside of the usual “where are you from, how long are you traveling for” traveler formula, I asked her about Syria. I had never met anyone with Syrian origins before and I was keen on getting her perspective. However, I had heard one story, or at least one version of multiple stories for so long that it soon became clear to me that what I wanted to hear wasn’t her perspective. I wanted her to agree with me.
The thing was, I hadn’t even imagined that she wouldn’t say the things that I had heard from numerous talking heads on dozens of news stations for years. These stories were so ingrained into me, I hadn’t even imagined that there was another story.
But there was, and I heard it from this Syrian-Australian woman that night. As she talked, I felt like I was looking at the negatives of a reel of film, or listening to a record backwards. Things I had believed to be true started looking twisted and had all the wrong colors and sounds. The slap-on-the-wrist guilt I had tentatively accorded to my country for bungling foreign relations issues in the past swelled in size and weight until it had its own gravitational pull on other previously-held beliefs. Honestly, this story made me feel sick to my stomach.
I suddenly felt an outrageous sense of righteousness and an overwhelming need to defend my country that I’ve rarely experienced before. It was a sudden and harsh reflex to something foreign, like when the body rejects an organ transplant.
But at the same time, this new gravitational orbit was pulling in old beliefs and swallowing them whole. I felt sick not only because I was attempting to reject this new information, but because I was trying to assimilate it simultaneously. As I started feeling the new shape of this other story, I also felt helpless at the hands of a nation that only tells one story.
But I realized later, after I had recovered, that the story she told me was complementary to the story I already knew. It had a similar plotline and facts, but it was told by authors with different experiences than my own. Each word she laid down only worked to give substance and dimension to a previously one-dimensional story.
At the end of our conversation, I conceded that the only way to really know the truth is to go there and see it for yourself. Again, a reverted back to the only story I knew; one of violence and intolerance. I mused out loud that I would fear for my safety as an American in the Middle East, to which the woman responded,
“They would welcome you with open arms. These are a people who understand what it means to be judged by the politics and the stereotypes of their nation.” Is this not something we can all relate to?
This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story.