Last month I subbed for a couple weeks at a Head Start site in Middletown, which is about ten miles southeast of Harrisburg. Middletown is where the “Harrisburg” airport is located, so plane-spotting was common on the playground. The children would shout “airplane! airplane!” and most of them would look mesmerized or run in the same direction as the plane.
As I watched this my mind tracked back to another playground–a concrete play area outside Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus. This playground didn’t have a jungle gym or swingset but the space to run around was in itself a blessing for the kids I worked with. (For more on that, see my post about Balata refugee camp.) At that playground we occasionally saw aircraft in the skies, but it wasn’t a sunny day treat. It was the sight of an Israeli jet, and the noise of it ripping through the sound barrier in a space where Palestinians are not allowed to fly anything but kites. The kids in my class did not jump or point; they just an observed another element of military occupation.
The connection between these two playground experiences is not a simple contrast of how bad things are in an Other place and how fortunate we are not to be born there. Like the children of Nablus, the kids I work with at Head Start face more struggles than any 4-year-old (or 40-year-old) should. The point is that after living in Palestine, the signifiers of every daily life are different.
This always happens when returning from another culture: you connect half or more of the things you think about to the place you just were. It’s easy to become the annoying person who talks about Germany or India or Russia too much. But when the connections are not just to another culture but to a level of human experience (living in a conflict zone) that most people around you can’t relate to, it’s hard to say anything.