The last week or so has been trying. The car I drive to work wouldn’t start on Saturday so I’ve been taking the bus and scrambling for rides during the many hours in which Luzerne County Transit Authority—much like Lancaster’s bus system—does not run. It’s frustrating to face these challenges in a place where I have only one friend, though Tim has been immensely helpful and I’m grateful to him. I know the social stigma attached to getting government help for basic needs (a.k.a. welfare) is strong, but my recent anxiety made me realize how bad I feel asking for help from people I don’t know. (Trying to get a ride home from my new co-workers, for example). Is that just me or is it a larger societal taboo?
Anyway, though the sparse LCTA schedule means I have to leave an hour or two early to catch the number 18, “Shopper’s Delight” (yes, that’s really what the route is called) to the bookstore where I work, I am glad to know public transportation routes. And my experience on the 18 bus yesterday even made me glad that the car remained at the garage.
About a minute into our bus ride, a guy two seats away from me began speaking on his cell phone. After catching a few words, I whispered to Mitch, “he’s speaking Arabic!!!!” Perhaps accustomed to me gushing excitement over pharyngealization, he just nodded. Once Mitch left the bus to go to the grocery store, I tapped the Arabic speaker on the shoulder and asked, “tehki arabee?” (“do you speak Arabic?”). Of course he said yes, and a mutually excited conversation commenced.
I learned that my fellow bus rider was a 27-year-old MBA student named Mohammed. He had a down-to-earth demeanor and expressed a combination of delight and surprise upon learning I’d lived in Palestine. His family is originally from Hebron (al-Khalil in Arabic) but he grew up in Jordan and has never been to Palestine. It always highlights the injustice of the Israeli occupation to me when I, who has no cultural heritage in Palestine, am able to tell Palestinians who have never been there about their homeland.
When I said that the country is not like what you see on the news, Mohammed replied “you know about that?” After a year and a half of studying in Wilkes-Barre, I don’t think he’d met an American who was aware of the real situation lived by Palestinians under occupation, colonization, and apartheid. He had plenty of questions for me (a nice turning of the tables!) and was impressed that I have shared what I know about the West Bank through photo exhibits and talking to high school classes. That gave me a strong reminder to start finding avenues for such work in NEPA. We spoke only a little in Arabic, but we did exchange contact information with a promise that he’d help me practice Arabic.
Many things about my life would be different if I hadn’t started learning about Palestine at a college internship in 2007, but it’s pretty incredible to think that just four years ago I wouldn’t have recognized Arabic being spoken next to me, had no reason to speak to a stranger on the bus, and just continued about my life as I already knew it while a whole realm of existence I didn’t know about operated by my side.
I may not have mastered Arabic in the last four years but I do have an entirely new social language with which to communicate. Living abroad opens up dozens of worlds to enter while you are there, but the ways that learning about a new culture changes how you navigate your native culture may be the most beautiful.