Chapter XVII: Back to Normal

My Apartment, Student Village


The time had come and I was finally packing. Tomorrow, I would be on a flight to New York, where my parents would be waiting, and tonight I was the last one left in the apartment. Well, me and the stray cat I had invited in.

It was like in the beginning when I had been the only one here, except my spirits were high and I had a busy night ahead of me, ridding the apartment of all signs of former occupants in order to avoid strict fines. Unfortunately, my roommates had left without taking pots and pans, food, cookware, and a considerable amount of other miscellaneous items. Lauren had sent a text to the group (though it was clearly directed at me), that everything left should be thrown out. Even the pots and pans? I had inquired. Yes, she insisted, everything had to go. And so I turned on some Boston and got to work, recklessly throwing everything in sight into trash bags and then out into the dumpster, back and forth, until it was all gone. Then I scrubbed and swept the place into the early hours of the morning, pausing occasionally to pet my new cat who was glad to be out of the rain and making himself quite at home.

In the morning I awoke with the cat unabashedly atop me. I warily pushed him off and got to my final stages of packing. A few minutes in, I noticed my Turkish lamps were gone. My heart sank. They had been in a trash bag…. I had thrown them out with the trash. I ran down to the dumpster to find what I feared to be true: it had already been cleared.

I reluctantly returned to packing and suddenly found myself sniffling like a toddler over a lost toy. I never cried, but for some reason it was easy to cry over this; maybe because it was harder to cry over other things, and for this there was no one else to care or blame but myself. Though I knew in my heart that I was crying for everything; that this place, the times I had here, those lamps and what they represented, all this was a burden pressing down on me. Perhaps now that I knew it would soon be lifted, I was finally allowing myself to feel its weight. Yet I also knew that I would feel naked without it - that it had changed me profoundly and made me at once hardier and more fragile. How does one really say goodbye to a place and a time and a feeling? The people I had met here - they would remain here, in this time, forever in my mind. Even Tyrone, from whom I had drifted apart since Christmas. And especially Stav, who was trapped here in every way, who wouldn’t let me free him.... Maybe, someday, there would come a time in which I would yearn for this one. Regardless, thinking of these last four months would forever strike a pang in my heart. I pulled myself together from my little episode and continued my task. The flight and my parents will not wait, I told myself. However, I felt heavy and achy and thoroughly miserable. A few hours later, I had made it into the taxi and was headed for the airport. I was almost home free. I watched the now familiar landscape roll by and made my peace with it. A text lit up my phone. It was from Lauren. This can’t be good, I thought. Sure enough: Did you throw away the plastic bag with clothes on Mike’s door? it read. Dammit. Yes, I had thrown away everything, like she’d told me…. It had a ‘do not throw away’ sign over it. How the Hell did I miss that? I should have just said ‘yes,’ - it was only some cheap clothes in a plastic bag after all, but it was Lauren asking. So, I lied a little. I don’t remember doing that, I replied, thinking she wouldn’t prod, but she did. I committed to my stupid lie. I stifled my nauseating feelings of guilt by chalking it up as just another woe I would leave in Jerusalem. God, I needed to get out of here. I was no longer feeling sentimental - I was running away.

Unfortunately, Israeli customs had other plans. They had found a ‘residue’ on my bags. There a long, thorough search and an in-private body scan for additional explosive substances on my person. I watched as they examined each of my many items carefully and swabbed them for residue. I saw one of them leafing through my ‘What is Islam?’ pamphlet and knew it would not increase the chances of making my flight. “I don’t need that,” I told the lady. “Some guy just gave it to me in the street.” (Which was true.)

“It’s alright, ma’am, it’s a free country. We do not discriminate.” Her smile was steel. I sat back down miserably and watched them examine the contents of my backpack: every single piece of crumpled up paper, tube of lipgloss, and crappy pen that I had crammed inside in my rush to leave. Finally, just as I began to lose all hope, I was handed a cardboard box filled with my belongings. “We apologize we cannot give you your bags at this time,” said the lady.

“I don’t even care,” I said flatly. “Just get me on that plane.”

New York, New York

January 2016


You do not know the full extent to which a place has changed you until you leave it. I didn’t realize it at first, when my family flew in to meet me in New York and we had a few days together before heading back to Davidson. My mom, dad, and brother all embraced me tightly, tears springing with joy. “I bear gifts from the Orient!” I declared, fighting back my own tears at the sight of them.

My mom swore that her hair had fallen out worrying about me, and as I recounted my experiences over the course of our three days together, I was careful to exclude some of the details for her sake.

I told them about Stav and Daniel and Elham and Anis, and all the places I had seen which they probably never would. Yet, there were so many things that were impossible to explain, like the Palestinian conflict. I had expected to come back with a definitive opinion, but I had none, other than that it was an insurmountable problem that fed off the worst in people. It was also impossible to describe the state of unremitting loneliness in which I had dwelled for the past four months, as a person cannot comprehend what it is to be perfectly alone in a foreign land, residing in the vivid, chaotic landscape of one’s own mind, without actually experiencing it themselves.

Towards the end of the trip, my mom goaded me to share what had happened in the hammam in Petra. I had alluded to it, but she said she needed to know. I recounted the incident with minimal detail, and was discomforted to find that I had a physical reaction to it: my breath grew short and my heart sped out of control. However, I don’t think my parents could tell, and I was surprised at their reaction. Though sympathetic, they also seemed relieved, as if they thought it could have been worse. “Are you going to write about that in your blog?” my mom asked. She had kept up with my posts religiously while I was gone.

“I don’t know...Maybe.” I said.

“Aren’t you worried that people might think you were - well - kind of stupid for getting into that situation?” she spoke gently, but it was clear that she was bothered by what she perceived to be reckless naiveté. My heart pounded harder still and I could feel the heat of rage building inside me. I was startled by how quickly it formed and struggled to push it down. I took deep breaths to slow my heart rate, but although I managed not to lash out at my parents, there was a steady funk of indignation that accompanied me for the remainder of the trip. At first, it was only aimed towards my mom and her inability to empathize with me, but I began to recognize that it was actually a gnawing dread that no one - not even my parents - would ever really know me again. I had felt too much, thought too much, had come to rely on myself too much. I was now far, far away from the people and places that had awakened my once rosy perspective to realities I previously knew of, but had not yet truly known. Racism, oppression, war, futility - these were just words with gloomy definitions before I witnessed their execution and heard their stories spoken from the mouths of good people. I was unable to separate myself and my loved ones from the darkness of these realities. I desperately wanted them to understand, but at the same time did not. And, once again, I was alone.





Davidson College, North Carolina

My first months back at Davidson were more difficult than I ever could have foreseen. Now back on the pastoral campus, surrounded by students who anticipated finals as a normal person would the apocalypse, I felt like a fish that had been plucked out of a coursing river and thrown into a stagnant pool. The stakes were infinitely lower, yet I felt like my body was behaving as it would in a war zone. I oscillated between hours spent alone in my room watching Netflix and all-nighters writing papers that I had been too anxious to start.

The parties full of familiar faces that I had yearned for while abroad now seemed like a terrible joke. “How was abroad?” they would ask.

“It was interesting,” was my standard reply. And I would see them the next night and they might ask again.

All my friends - they were just kids. They filled me in on all the gossip I’d missed; who was hooking up with whom, who bagged a prestigious internship, who did something crazy at a party. I found that feigned interest was becoming my main social mode, which was why I began avoiding interactions all together.

One night, my two best friends came knocking on my door to get me to come out with them. They yelled my name and pounded for a long time, and I sat on the floor, crying silently in the dark, wondering why it was that I couldn’t go with them, and why I couldn’t just be a normal kid again, like I so wanted to be.

Another night, as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, I got a message from Stav. It was the first I’d heard from him since the last time I saw him on Jaffa Street. “I miss you,” it said. “There’s no one like you here.”

“There’s no one like you here either,” I replied. “It feels empty.” I don’t think Stav understood what I meant. He couldn’t grasp how I could do anything but frolic carelessly through this peaceful land of academia, with its trimmed hedges and fraternity boys in pastels. I tried to explain to him that, even though it was all boring and mundane in comparison to his life, I was not bored. In truth, I was somehow afraid - afraid of everything. But it felt selfish and futile to seek his support, as his messages spoke of stabbings and bus bombings.

Something was really wrong with me and it was only getting worse. I would spend entire nights preparing for a presentation, but while giving it the next day, my chest would tighten like a vice and my vision would blur, and I would have to stop to catch my breath. I had never felt anything like that before, but it was happening more and more often. When I went to the doctor, I was told that my blood pressure was high, when it was normally notably low. I was losing control of my body, my strength, my abilities. My grades were slipping; I had little interest in anything, least of all school. Worst of all, I felt sorry for myself and I hated it. It was finally on a sleepless night, two thirds of the way through the semester, that I decided enough was enough: I needed to fix myself.

The next day, I paid my Egyptian professor a visit. I thought that, as a young woman who grew up in the Arab World, she would be better able to understand than anyone else on campus. I told her about the attacks that I was having in her class while giving presentations, and she told me that she had them, too. She said that they were anxiety attacks, and she would also get them sometimes when speaking to the class. It was strange to see this side of her. She was the bubbly, romantic professor who only wore pink. “Wow. I can’t tell at all in class,” I told her.

“I know. I can’t tell when you have them either,” she said with a wink. So, even though I could feel my chest tightening again as I did, I told her about the hammam in Jordan, and how I felt so helpless there. Like I was nothing, I said, and it terrified me that I could be nothing. I told her how I thought that girls like me should be given more information about avoiding situations like that before going abroad. She agreed. “When I lived in Cairo, I would never have gone to a hammam. But the women there just know these things...Maybe you should organize a talk for these girls, and that will help you feel better.”

“Yeah - that would be great.” Maybe it would help.

“But you know, there are things that you just can’t control,” she added, after a pause. “In Cairo, I would get touched by men on buses. Now, I hate being touched anywhere, by anyone.” She looked a bit sad. I shook my head in sympathy. “If you learned anything abroad, it should be that everyone has problems - though some are worse than others.” I nodded. “But we can still be happy.” She smiled and a painful lump grew in my throat. “Just remember, Dakota, you have a beautiful life.”

“Thank you... I will.”

And I did. I repeated it to myself every day, my slogan in climbing out of a pit of fear and self-pity. I discovered through research that I had mild Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and that the resting level of adrenaline produced by my body was probably higher than normal. So, I began with my body, regaining control of my breathing and heart rate through YouTube meditation tutorials. Sure enough, as I continued meditating, my anxiety attacks became more and more manageable until they were gone, and my blood pressure dropped.

I then shifted my focus to rejoining society. I forced myself to play along - to really listen to people until I began to care about what they were saying again. I constantly reminded myself that, even though this reality was so different from the one I had known last semester, it was still just as real. After a lot of conscious effort, I was able to appreciate its beauty without being crushed by the hulking truths that were now so integral to my being. The beauty, I found, was complementary to these truths and present in the fragility of young innocence.

***

It was on a balmy spring day, very close to summer, on which I learned that I had been granted a scholarship which would send me to an entrepreneurial academy in Nice, France for three weeks. I sat down at an outdoor table amongst the manicured flower beds and called my mom. “Guess what?!” I exclaimed, nearly bursting. I told her the news.

“I am so happy for you!!!” she squealed through the phone. “You’ve had a tough year and now you get to relax and have fun somewhere safe.”

“I feel like I’m finally getting the wine-and-cheesy abroad experience that everyone talks about,” I giggled. The pictures showed a sunbaked city on a yacht-filled Mediterranean bay - somewhere James Bond would spend his vacations. It was hard to believe.

“You are so lucky,” my mom gushed. It was her dream to go to France.

“I know.” I had never felt so fortunate. “I think I’ve finally got my mojo back.”