This is a talk I gave at “Experience TAMUQ,” a recruiting event aimed at helping potential applicants learn what university life is really like.

Howdy! I’m Amy Hodges – my students call me Dr. Amy – and I’ve been teaching first-year students for twelve years. In addition to watching many, many students come into my classroom and four years later walk across the graduation stage, I have done research on how first-year students transition into university.

What I love about this research and what I love about teaching is that each student has a special journey from secondary school, to university, and to whatever lies beyond. But when I thought about sharing the bigger picture with you – what REALLY happens to students when they choose to come to university – I tried to find some common truths from the research and from what I’ve heard from my own students at TAMUQ.

First, I want to be completely honest. When you choose to come to university, you’re choosing to take a risk. You’re choosing to walk into a new place, with new people, to learn new things. The scholar Ellen Cushman says that “very few places in society act, feel, and sound like universities.” Coming to university is both a very scary and very exciting thing to do.

The good news is that everyone – including professors like me – are choosing to take risks right along with you. Taking risks is how scientists discover new knowledge and how engineers design new worlds. And universities like TAMUQ create support systems, like the ones my colleagues will tell you about in the next few minutes, so that it’s safe to take a risk and learn from what happens.

Second, when you choose to come to university, you’re choosing to explore new perspectives on who you are. That is, many students think that you come to university to learn more about your area of specialization, like engineering, which is true. But what they often don’t expect is that they learn a lot about their own abilities: their ability to be a leader, an expert, a friend, a poet, an adult.

I’m biased, but at its best, the American university system helps students discover this self-knowledge. The scholar Mike Rose says that “a good education helps us make sense of the world and find our way in it.” When you choose to come to a university like TAMUQ, you choose to take classes (like my first-year writing class!) and join clubs and meet friends that make you see yourself in a different light.

I hope that if you decide to come to university – be it TAMUQ or elsewhere – that you enjoy taking these risks and learning new things about yourself. And if you don’t – because even at TAMUQ every day is not sunshine and happiness and A pluses – I hope you know you’re not alone. As a university community we are committed to making sure you don’t regret this choice.

This essay was originally a Facebook post I made after the Executive Order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. 

Some of you have asked me if I’ve been impacted by the recent “Muslim ban” executive order, which bans nationals from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya from entering the US – even legal immigrants who have obtained green cards or visas, even those who contribute every day to Americans’ safety, happiness, education, health, and hope. My answer is probably a lot like yours, people who live in small- to middling-size town America: no, it doesn’t impact me. But here’s who it does impact.

It impacts many of my students, who can no longer visit the main campus, where they participate in cross-cultural Study Abroad, enriching both their own perspectives and the perspectives of the students in College Station. It impacts many who can no longer dream of going to the US and working for technology companies who are innovating in the field of engineering. It impacts many who believed in the myth that America is post-racial and a land of opportunity for all.

It impacts many of my colleagues, one of whom cannot visit her children and grandchildren in the US – and they can’t come visit her here in Doha because they won’t be allowed back home. Another can’t carry out his research that contributes to the efficiency of oil rigs, because the companies he works with in the US can’t fly him in to take advantage of his years of expertise.

It impacts many of my American friends, who are now concerned that this is only the first step. I was once questioned in a Tel Aviv airport for my associations with Muslims, and it wasn’t a fun experience. (Word to the wise: I gave their security people a bunch of “alternative facts” about my life. If I’m in a database somewhere, my dataset is contributing a lot of baloney to their profiles of terrorists.) Many of my friends now wonder, “Are they coming for me next? Will I endure extra screening? Will I be allowed into my own country? Just how far will this go?”

It impacts everyone I know in Qatar, because it feeds a culture of fear. And in that way, the “Muslim ban” has probably impacted you and me. The white nationalists who surround our National Dictator fear Muslims because they “aren’t like us,” a fear which is apparently justification enough to terrorize a group of people. If you’re not part of that group, then you’re in fear of what this country has become when its racism is worn on its sleeve, or maybe you’re afraid for the future, the world that your children will inherit. Me, I don’t get off on fear, but maybe that’s just my white female overpaid expat privilege talking.

So if you support the “Muslim ban,” you’re impacting all these people – pretty much everyone I know. Maybe you don’t have a single Muslim in your town, but I’ve got close to two million of them. They matter to me, so if I matter to you, you’ll think twice, three times, four times – as many as it takes – about your support for such an ethnocentric policy. If I don’t matter to you, well that’s too bad. I’m a pretty amazing person, and so are my Yemeni, Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Somalian, Sudanese, and Libyan friends, acquaintances, and fellow human beings.

 

This is a long blog post about my recent trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. I still have trouble articulating what I saw, how I felt about what happened, and what all of this means.

When I first moved to Qatar, I wrote about my feeling that it was important to listen and to learn. Now I think I have found my voice.

1. My tour guide, my brother, and I go to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. We walk towards the mosque and through a tunnel ending in one of those metal rotating doors used in prisons. At the checkpoint before we are allowed to enter the mosque, people are removing coats and handing purses over to the Israeli guards. My brother removes his coat to hand to the guard, and I get ready to give him my purse.

“Americans?” he asks, and we hand him our passports. He glances at them and nods. “Do you have any weapons or sharp objects?” When we say no, he tells us to go on through. John tries to hand the guard his coat, but he waves us on impatiently. He then pats down our Palestinian tour guide’s coat, feeling around deep down in the pockets before he’ll let Yamen through.

2. After we see the mosque and the tombs, we walk outside to a market street. There’s only about five or six shops open – some touristy trinket places, a small cafe that advertises juice and coffee, and several boarded-up doors sprinkled throughout. Storefronts are even more deserted down the street, where the only signs of life are a cautious orange cat and two Israeli guards with AK-47s at their waist. “There used to be a wall here,” Yamen says, indicating a line between the sidewalk and the street. The wall separated Palestinians on their way from the mosque and Israelis on their way to the synagogue on the other side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Now both groups can walk on the street, but Palestinians have to turn left at the next block so that they don’t go near the Jewish settlements at the top of the hill. That’s why the guards are there.

Yamen encourages John and I to walk down the empty street in order to see the settlements better. He stops at the end of the block, since he won’t be allowed to go past the guards, and John and I continue past abandoned buildings. The guards ask to see our passports and then wave us on. We only take a couple of steps before one calls me back. His face is obscured by a scarf covering the lower half of his face, but his freckly skin and fair hair remind me of someone in his early twenties – my students’ age when I taught in the US.

“Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing towards Yamen, who is leaning against a wall and texting on his phone.

3. Yamen, John, and I walk back towards our car, and we take a shortcut through an alleyway that also serves as a souq – an Arab marketplace that feels familiar to me after my time in Qatar. Instead of a tented or stone ceiling, the alleyway has chainlink fencing hung from the tops of shops. This makeshift cover sags in places from the trash that has been thrown in it by Jewish settlers who live above the souq. A nearby shopkeeper shows us where a settler threw an egg and damaged his display of pashminas. He tells us that sometimes, the settlers rain down what he euphemistically calls “dirty water.”

“Muslim, Christian, Jew – we are all human! Why do they treat humans like dogs, with this trash on us every day? All we want is to be treated like a human, like a brother.” The shopkeeper points out an Israeli guard on the top of the next building, sitting in a camouflaged structure. “They see how we are treated, and they do nothing.” I ask him about his family, and he spends the next ten minutes singing the praises of his two sons – one is an engineer who sends money back home to support the family, and the other is in school getting top grades.

4. The next morning, John and I meet Yaniv, our Israeli guide for the day. As we walk through the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem/Al Quds, Yaniv points out police officers in civilian dress. I wouldn’t have spotted them otherwise, but they look very much like cops in the US – burly guys with clubs and pistols hanging from their belts. We pass one guard holding an ID card while a woman in a hijab answers his questions.

As we go through the tunnel that will lead us to the Western Wall and divides the Muslim quarter of the old city from the Jewish quarter, we put our backpacks and purses on an X-ray machine. No one asks for our passports, and we stride through a metal detector as the guards stand by, chatting in Hebrew. All of us – John, Yaniv, and I – are treated equally.

5. I am asking Yaniv about how he came to learn all the things that he knows about the history of Jerusalem, given that he was taught the state-sanctioned version of events growing up. Really, I am wondering how he managed and continues to manage what must be a difficult internal conflict between the ideologies he was taught in this culture and the realities he understands about how his people treat Israelis. I want to know when he realized what his country was doing to its residents. Did he serve his three-year mandatory stint in the Israeli army while recognizing the injustices he and his fellow soldiers were doing to Palestinians? Does he share his political knowledge with his friends and family, such as his stance that current Israeli archeological digs are a tool for the state to justify its existence?

I suspect that these questions are maybe a bit too personal for a guy I just met 45 minutes ago, so I’m asking more about his sources of information, given that I am starting to understand the Western bias in reporting on this region of the world. Like Yamen, he relies on local media, and he appears to be incredibly well-read on scholarly sources in history, archeaology, and geopolitics, among other things. Ignorance, he says, is one of the main reasons Israeli policies continue to discriminate against Palestinians, and he doesn’t feel like the violence (“a symptom of the problem”) will go away until Israelis realize what’s going on and change their policies. “And what if someone tells an Israeli about these sources and shows them what life is like for Palestinians?” I ask.

He says, “if you’re an outsider, you’re called an anti-Semite and that’s the end of that.” But what if you’re an insider, I wonder. Yaniv gives me a sad smile but doesn’t hesitate. “Then you’re a self-hating Jew.”

6. We’re almost to the airport in Tel Aviv. I’m sad to be leaving – I feel like I learned a lot and want to learn more – but I’m honestly a little overwhelmed by what I’ve experienced and the sadness and anger I’ve felt about the injustices I’ve seen. Our driver Rami is better than any GPS; he knows the names and history of all the villages we pass. That used to be Arab, this is an Israeli settlement within city boundaries but that Arab village next to it is not in the city boundaries, here is where a famous battle occurred in 1967 – he keeps a running commentary as I keep trying to make sense of all I’ve seen. When we reach the entrance to the airport, he tells us to be ready for the guards to stop the car. “They will ask where you’ve been in Israel,” he says. “You can tell the truth – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, yes. Hebron? Ehhh …” From what I saw in Hebron, I gather that it’s not very touristy and that I, a white American woman, would not have been there if I hadn’t been Up To No Good, aka listening to the stories of people living under occupation.

Sure enough, Rami, a Palestinian, is pulled over at the gate, and the guard looks at our passports. “You went to Jerusalem?” he asks, and I nod without adding any further information. On the other side of us, an Arab husband and wife are brought into the guard building for further questioning. They are wheeling a suitcase and dodging all the Israeli cars whizzing by.

7. Inside the airport, we join what we thought was a line for the ticket counter, but airport staff are checking everyone’s passport and flight information before they’ll let them through. When John hands our passports to the staff member, he zeroes in on the two Qatar residency permits in my passport, as well as the large sticker in Arabic identifying me as an employee of a university in Qatar.

He starts asking questions. What is the relationship between you two? Where are you from? When did you enter Israel? Where did you go in Israel? Where did you stay?

Do you have any other siblings? What’s her name? What are your parents’ names? How do you pronounce your family name? What’s the origin of that name? Do you speak Hebrew?

He waves at a supervisor, and she comes over to continue the questioning. What’s this sticker on the back of your passport for? Where do you work in Qatar? What do you do there? What do you teach? What are the nationalities of the students who attend this university? Where are your colleagues from? Where do you live in Qatar? What are the nationalities of the people living in this building? What’s the name of one of your colleagues?

Do you know any locals? (I ask for clarification for what she means by “locals,” and she tells me she means Arabs.) What are the names of your local friends? How often do you meet?

The Arab husband and wife from earlier pass us in the line; the airport staff have been trying to find them so that they won’t be late for their flight.

Where are you two going once you’ve left Israel? What will you be doing there? Why did you take the job in Qatar? Couldn’t you get a job in America? How long have you worked there? When are you going back to Qatar? Are you planning on living there for a long time? Congratulations on the new job in Singapore, when are you leaving Qatar? Did you meet anyone here in Israel? Were you with a tour?

In over twenty minutes of questioning, I’m trying to keep my answers short and I’m trying really, really, REALLY hard not to be a smart ass. I realize that these questions are not about terrorism; if you think I’m up to no good, go ahead and scan my bag. I think this is about my sympathies with Arabs, my associations with the beautiful and wonderful and diverse ethnic group I’ve come to know more intimately in the past year and a half. I think that this is about the story I’m going to go back and tell other Americans about what Israel is really like. It’s about intimidating me and silencing me because they don’t want me to share that story with you.

I didn’t go to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in order to get in touch with my own cultural roots of Christianity and its ties to the other Abrahamic religions. I came because I wanted to know more about the realities in this part of the world and about the everyday life of the people who inhabit this land.

So I’m not sharing these stories because I want you to know more about me or I want you to think of me as some kind of great noble crusader. I want you to hear these stories because the people who live here can’t share them. Or they have been trying and the Western media makes it into a different kind of story or you won’t listen because it doesn’t fit into what you thought you knew of the world.

I want to tell you about a world that looks deceivingly like our own, but this is a world in which it is acceptable to shoot rubber bullets at Arab children playing in the street, it is acceptable to make people live in a delapidated, “temporary” refugee camp that has been in existence since 1948, it is acceptable to declare martial law in Arab areas so that you can move Israeli settlers into that area and claim it for yourself (also violating international law in the process), it is acceptable to deny some of your population electricity and water and sewage treatment and social services and yet provide another portion of the population with first-world style amenities for the same needs.

This is a world that we are responsible for. I used to think that both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, were equally culpable for the conflict. After all, that’s all I ever heard on the American news. These Palestinians died because these others kidnapped Israelis, those Israelis were shot because these others were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel guilty about the ignorance I spread when I held that belief, and I will feel guilty if you, my readers, come away from this blog post not understanding the depth and the power of the injustice, oppression, discrimination, bigotry, racism, and human rights violations I saw being conducted against Palestinian Arabs on an everyday basis. I will feel guilty if I can’t, in some small way, do something to change that reality.

Stories like the ones I listened to in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories disrupt that narrative I tell myself: that this is a world where all of us have the choice to go where we wish, to do what we like, to live in peace and harmony, to laugh, cry, love, protest, argue, and develop our minds and our consciences with other people. I hope that the stories I’ve written here are one small step towards making that world a reality.

This trip hurt my heart because I know we are all capable of justice. I have been privileged to experience equal treatment from people of many different religions and cultural backgrounds, Judaism and Muslim included. It is easy for me to live my life not understanding nor caring about the thousands of invisible markers that allow me to walk through checkpoints all around the world. This trip showed me the importance of the stories of the oppressed who do not have these invisible markers, how they speak despite the world telling them that they are worthless, how they refuse to be silenced by an authoritarian government, and my role in sharing those stories with others.