Chapter II: The Holy Land

Davidson College, North Carolina

January 2015


“You can go anywhere in the world you want to go.” The statement had great potential, though it was given a lackluster delivery by the bespectacled, twenty-something abroad counselor sitting across from me. Nonetheless, it was exactly what I’d been waiting to hear for a year and a half, and one of the main reasons I had tried so hard to get into this elite liberal arts college in the first place. The Davidson College abroad program, as promised, offered the chance to travel anywhere your heart desired - affordably - and it was finally my time to take advantage.

Yet, when faced with the moment in which I had to choose, I was suddenly overwhelmed. I wasn’t used to this kind of freedom. Indeed, my background was quite different from most of the students at Davidson, many of whom came from prominent legacy families and spent summer vacations in Europe. I grew up in a cattle town called Copperopolis, located in the rural California foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I spent my summers vying for tips and marinating in a kiddie pool on the front lawn.

Therefore, when faced with the question of where I would go abroad, there were a number of voices in my head who had an opinion. “Go to Europe!” my parents said, because that was where they would have gone if they had had the opportunity. Undoubtedly, I would return home safe and sound and more cultured. “Don’t go to Europe!” my more adventurous friends said. “You can go there when you’re old! Go somewhere you can only go now - like Mongolia!” I imagined myself riding a yak with an eagle perched on my arm. Then, I imagined myself sipping wine (legally!) at an outdoor cafe on a cobblestone street. Both options seemed attractive.

“It may help to determine why you want to go abroad and what it is you want to achieve,” the counselor stated, yanking me out of my head. “What language are you currently taking?” she asked.

“Arabic,” I replied. Why, exactly, I was taking Arabic, even I, myself, did not fully understand. All I remembered was elatedly scanning the course list the summer before my freshman year, declaring, “Look, they offer Russian! And Arabic!”

“You think you could learn Arabic?” my mom had asked, with matched excitement.

“Let’s find out!”

And here I was, three intensive semesters later, with a hard-won intermediate level of fluency. “Do you want to go somewhere where you can practice your Arabic?” the counselor suggested.

“Yeah... I guess that would make sense,” I agreed. I was wary of what this would entail, but also relieved to narrow it down a bit.

“Well, there are fewer places in the Middle East that you are authorized to go,” she began, leafing through a pamphlet full of enticing pictures. “But there is Jordan, which is probably the best place to study the language.”

My roommate had gone to Amman, Jordan for an Arabic program, and had told me upon her return, flat out, never to go. And there were other female classmates, mostly blondes like me, who came back with tales of relentless catcalling on the streets. There was even a sexual assault in a cab...

“Um,” I replied hesitantly, “I’ve heard Jordan isn’t - great for girls...I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable living there.”

“Who told you that?” she asked, rather crisply. I hoped what I’d said didn’t make me sound ignorant. “It was fine when I went,” she said pointedly. Her Patagonia fleece and make-up-free face suggested that she was that type who had been everywhere. “But that’s fine,” she concluded. I felt my cheeks redden as she flipped through her pamphlet a little rougher this time, until arriving at a picture of a silvery stone mosque. “Istanbul is one of my favorite cities,” she said. “They don’t speak Arabic there, obviously, but you could still go to a school that offers it.”

“Wow, that does look gorgeous,” I remarked. But if I was going to go to the Middle East, I wanted to be immersed in Arabic, not just learn it in class like I did already.

“Another option is Jerusalem,” she offered. “Also an amazing city. They have a great immersion program at Hebrew University, and you can get real-life practice with the Palestinian population.”

She showed me the picture. It seemed to be from another time: an Old World market lining a crooked, white stone street, perhaps one that Jesus had walked; then another picture of Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall, casting prayers into its cracks; then another featuring the Dome of the Rock, dazzling in green, blue, and gold.

“Is it better for girls there?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Jerusalem. The Holy Land. “Well, I guess that’s where I’ll go.”