By Margaret Kahn
“Echad, shtayim, shalosh, arba…”
The counting wasn’t the sound emanating from a synagogue’s kindergarten classroom. It came from the deck of a dhow, a traditional Arab sailboat, cruising through a harbor filled with open sky, twinkling city lights, and water glistening with oil.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself on the fifth night of my 17th Passover drifting lazily around the Persian Gulf near Doha, Qatar. This, in addition to becoming the inadvertent Hebrew teacher to a duo of Qatari girls.
Last month I got the opportunity to spend a week in the small country that sits nestled east of Saudi Arabia and a hop, skip, and jump south of Iran. Thanks to the generosity of Qatar Foundation International, 35 high school students studying Arabic were granted full scholarships to experience Qatari culture. OneWorld Now!, a local leadership program I am involved with, selected 15 Arabic-language students to travel to this country.
It took some time to fully understand that I was truly in the Middle East, in a country where 80 percent of the population is Muslim. I asked one of our hosts whether the traditional Qatari garments I had grown to love were religious or cultural. His answer, that in Qatar there is no strong difference between the two, seemed to define the relationship with Islam.
I expected to feel lost in the middle of a nationwide crowd of abayas, but I surprised myself with my enjoyment in trying an (unrequired) scarf for a day and anticipating the melodious call to prayer. Avoiding chametz was challenging, but gave me a deeper understanding for the meaning behind the fast. It didn’t hurt that Shira, QFI’s young programs officer, kept us two Pesach observers fully stocked with macaroons and grape juice for impromptu seders.
Pleased as I was with my comfort within the majority, I decided not to make my religion public. I knew the Qataris would have been polite, but I expected formality would be the extent of our relationship after my “divine revelation” — I could count on cordiality and nothing more.
At an extravagant dinner with students from the Qatar Independent Secondary School for Girls, a basket steaming with the aroma of freshly baked pita bread was placed under my poor Semitic nose. I began my ritual of whining about how I missed wheat. Sara, a Qatari student, overheard and inquired, “Why aren’t you eating?”
I skirted the question and blunderingly concocted a lame cover-up. Curiously, she asked us what our religions were.
I felt as transparent as an obvious afikomen hiding spot. I had no choice. I inhaled deeply and took the plunge, muttering what I conceived as the dirty J-word.
“That’s so cool!” enthused Nourah. I heard correctly; Nourah was dying to learn “Jewish,” as she called Israel’s language, and immediately initiated lessons, which currently continue through Skype and Hebrew Facebook statuses. She and her friend Aisha became my diligent scholars, even asking to if they could send me money for a Hebrew keyboard.
The night that ended with a hearty “Shalom!” left me reeling. For all my progressive ways, I had been too cynical to believe Arabs would accept a Jew. I’m ashamed that while I knew of their strong value of hospitality, I assumed prejudice would triumph. How glad I am to admit my utter mistakenness.
The next night, I shared matzoh with a cute tween, Tala. Palestinian by blood, she expressed interest in learning Judaism’s traditions. I was delighted until she confided her shame in her heritage. My heart broke. As I fervently beseeched her to be proud of her past, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. While I was honored to become her first Jewish acquaintance, having done so came with the knowledge that she hadn’t accepted the heavy role she was born with. If I could facilitate more interactions like this, I wondered, could Jews and Arabs finally see that we don’t need to stand on separate sides?
On the plane homeward, I pondered this idea: Through meetings based on similarities, we could eventually erase the differences. My expectations of a Middle Eastern country were completely upended, and I wanted future Jewish kids to experience the respect and desire for understanding with which I was met.
Exchange programs have given me so much, and perhaps one day I can pioneer one that takes Jewish kids to Arab countries to discover how much stronger our bonds as youth unite us than our political differences divide us. Through person-to-person contact, our generation can put out the fires fanned by the media and perpetuated by history.
Qatar taught me that no matter where you go, to bring a bit of your culture with you, through language, food, and simply sharing ideas. Ignore assumptions and dive in headfirst. Just make sure to keep some matzoh in your purse.