Last Words

In order to earn our 6 credit hours for the summer course, we had to write a final assignment titled “Last Words” using the seven keylines that make up our class. It is an essay and extremely long, but I thought I would post it anyway. My personal favorite is the last one, so you can just skip to that if you like.

1. What, as humans, do we know?
As humans, we know that everything we know, everything we learn, is based off of our experiences, which is why each person’s knowledge is individually unique to that person because no two people have had the same exact experiences in life. Because our knowledge is based off of constantly-evolving life experiences, our knowledge is constantly changing and growing as we learn and experience more and more.

Everything that we learn and absorb is a result of the knowledge those around us have. We take in bits and fragments of what we learn from all those around us and formulate it to fit our own knowledge of the world and the experiences that we go through. All of this absorbed knowledge affects our lens and how we see the world.

In Morocco, we were given some free time to explore the medina in Rabat. While walking around, Eli decided to try on a shirt from one of the vendors. It ended up being a very dramatic ordeal as there was a matching pair of pants that he somehow put on over the pants that he was wearing. The whole event was very entertaining for those of us watching and between having some of our first time on our own to explore, combined with the excitement of meeting a really cool guy from Senegal, we got caught up in the moment.

Later as we walked through the medina streets, Eli realized he didn’t have his sunglasses with him and suddenly remembered that the vendor had taken them off the shirt he was wearing as he tried the new shirt on. We made our way back through the medina to the vendor and found him at his shop. Eli confronted him, saying he had lost his glasses and thought they might be there. The guy shuffled some stuff around and looked under a few shirts but didn’t seem to make much of an effort. Eli offered to pay for them and the guy seemed offended. We ended up making no progress and eventually left feeling cheated and sad.

Later that night at the hotel, Kristine found the sunglasses in her bag. We were shocked and ran to tell Eli. He immediately felt horrible and we all felt guilty at having essentially accused the man of stealing the glasses and then lying about it to us.

We realized that there was nothing else we could do and had to move on. We didn’t have time to find the man the next day because we were leaving Rabat, and we didn’t even know what we would say if we did find him. All we could do was learn from that experience and take our new-found piece of knowledge and fit it into our puzzle of understanding how the world works.

2. How does (local) Tradition relate to (global) Modernity?
Local tradition relates to global modernity in that fact that they are very intertwined when closely examined. As seen when visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, local traditional practices and values can be affected by and do affect global modern customs.

The Blue Mosque is one of the most well-known and popular mosques in the city and has thousands of tourists visit everyday. What makes the Blue Mosque so interesting to me, aside from the fact that it is an enormous building decorated with tons of innate details and designs, is the fact that it is still an active mosque for Muslim worshippers who go there to pray and worship.

In order to get in the mosque, everyone has to take their shoes off, men have to wear long pants, and women have to cover their heads and shoulders. Inside the main room, there is a section that is fenced off that only worshippers may go to, and all others are asked to stay on the other side. While there are these rules that allow for all who enter to respect the culture and the faith of those who use the mosque, I found it interesting that tourists were allowed inside at all.

Walking around the inside of the mosque, I found it weird that there were hundreds of
people crammed in there, taking pictures, talking and making noise, and gawking at the beauty of the building, while there were others who were there to use the building for its original purpose, which is to pray and worship. Despite the things we did to get inside the mosque in an effort to “be respectful” I felt that we were being extremely disrespectful by even being there with a purpose other than what it was intended for.

I think that it is also very important to note why we have to cover our heads and take our shoes off. People who go inside to look around should at least understand the reasons for what they are doing.

Those visiting and touring the mosque, and all areas, should understand and know about the culture into which they are intruding, rather than simply barging in, taking up space, and documenting personal actions such as prayer and worship.

The Blue Mosque provides a great picture of the entire city of Istanbul in one location- East meeting West. Global modernity meeting local tradition. Multiple cultures, religions, experiences, and people are merging in one place and can either clash or blend together.

3. What are the key issues in the debate over international development?

International development is a major topic of discussion in many governmental, non-profit, and other organizations. As someone who has two majors, both with a concentration in International/Global Development, I have endured a lot of debate and put a lot of thought into what “development” means. I am no where close to coming up with a final definition or statement of what a “developed” or “nondeveloped” place might be, and in fact I actually hate to use the terms “developed country” or “developing country” because I think that they add a huge sense of arrogance and ignorance to the person using those terms but for the sake of this assignment I will use them to avoid confusion.

Our group discussion about the debate of key issues in international development helped me
to organize my thoughts a bit. I think that one of the single most important things to remember and think about when talking about international development is that development does not mean charity and it does not mean going to a community with the mindset that you are their savior bringing them modernity on a plate.

We stayed in a traditional village in Polonaruwa, Sri Lanka for several days and got to see and
learn about the customs and way of life for the people living there. One thing that surprised a lot of people was the fact that many homes in the village were indeed homes with cement walls and floors, electricity, tvs, and computers. I think the shock that we experienced from that stem from pre-conceived notions that come from the word “village.” When we hear that word, I think most of us think about a village in the sense of what one might see in the movie Pocahontas, or something similar, where every home is made of sticks and mud, there is no electricity or running water, and people defecate in the woods. Our village was nothing like that and had a great deal of “develop” or western influence, as our home even had a western toilet, as opposed to the traditional squat-toilet found most places.

We went to the village to participate in Shramadana work, meaning that we worked side by side together through service while learning from one another. Google may have a more detailed description of what it means but that’s essentially what it meant to us. We did not go to the village to bring salvation or much-needed assistance to a helpless group of people that could not survive without us. In fact, it seemed to me that they didn’t need us at all. Yes, we helped them cement a floor and plaster and paint the walls in the preschool. Was our presence there necessary to complete those tasks? Absolutely not. They are not helpless by any means of the words and they certainly could have and would have gotten the preschool finished on their own. But work gets done faster with more hand helping and that’s what happened.

What we learned from this is that development tends to be more successful through direct interaction as opposed to monetary donations. Working directly with the people of the village allowed us to experience not only their lifestyles, but who they are as people. We built extremely strong relationships with them after only three days and were devastated when the time came for us to go.
Not only did we help get the preschool done faster, but we built bridges of trust, love, and compassion for one another. Development of a community must be formed on the basis of individual development and the development of relationships between people before anything can be physically constructed.

So, back to the issues of the debate. Direct interaction vs. monetary donations is important. As part of that interaction, helping to implement long-term sustainable solutions that give them what they need is vital to helping at all. If only short-term quick-fix projects are introduced, you might as well go in with a wrecking ball. Do not give a village a water-treatment tank that is only going to last for three years and afterwards will take thousands of dollars to maintain and upkeep. That does absolutely nothing but cause more strain on the community than if they were to continue with their original methods.

The first issue I mentioned, doing what is actually needed as opposed to what you think is needed, ties all of the other issues together. Go to a community. Talk to the people. Get to know them, learn from them, create a relationship with them. Ask them what they need. Do not assume you have all the answers to their problems and know exactly what to do to “fix” them. Even more importantly, probably the most important of all, is do not assume they need anything. Just because a community lives differently from you does not mean that they need to be developed.

As a bit of a summary, international development comes with a lot of pre-conceived notions about the “other.” That other can be the community you are going to, or it can be you. Both sides have previously formed thoughts about the other side and all you can do is go and knock those stereotypes down to create a level base for developing whatever needs to be developed, whether that means building a school or building a connection between two cultures.

4. What happens to Governance in the era of Globalization in terms of sovereignty, collaboration, human rights, and other such civil issues?

In the era of globalization, previously held ideas of sovereignty, collaboration, human rights, and other civil issues may find themselves drastically changed because they rely on governance so much.

When we were in Morocco, we attended a conference on the topics of citizenship and social/political/economic issues in today’s Arab societies, held at the Nederlands Instituut Marokko. One example of issues in governance that was presented at the conference was how the rule of the government resulted in the February 20 Movements in Morocco.

From the conference we learned that the laws of Morocco often leave the citizens in question of whether they are even considered citizens and if they have been given the duties and rights that comes with proper citizenship. The duties are given to the majority of the people, those who are oppressed, and rights are given to a few privileged people. The people have been oppressed by the law and therefore have a fear of discussing politics. The law was used to frighten and imprison people and squelch the movements that occurred in February. As with politics, the economy has been shaped to serve the ruling families of Morocco.

The movements brought about in February were designed to represent the majority of the people, the oppressed, and they are bringing a new concept to citizenship. The motto of the national hymn, “God, nation, the King” is more realistically thought of as “King, King, King”and represents that the people have no real freedom of faith because the King is the commander of the faithful and according to the constitution, they must obey him, even if he is corrupt. The February 20 movements were bringing about not the idea of long live the King, but long live the people. The new idea is that “the citizen is the man of the arena,” and those who were formally oppressed will be given the voice they want to express their needs.

Globalization and the spread of ideas around the world has resulted in events exactly like the February 20 Movements in which the government and ruling ideas have been challenged by the people because they know and deserve better. Ideas, power, and resources are moving around the world differently than they did any number of years ago. This causes people to want more representation, more freedom, and less oppression because of the awareness they now have of other types of economical, institutional, and ideological power. If the government were to give them the freedom they want, that would result in a loss of power for the government and therefore a loss of control, which terrifies those in charge.

5. What are the effects of living in the digital era of almost universal continuous connection to flows of information of so many kinds?

Access to new ideas and cultures can influence the thought process and the priorities of people. This access is obtained quicker and easier through the use of digital technology- phones, computers, television, and internet. This constant access to information has penetrated cultures and communities, transforming the way societies interact and operate, internally and with outside influences as well.

Most of the time, this type of spread and continuity of information through technology is beneficial as it allows previously unreached communities to access information that will allow them to keep up with national and global current events that can help them cultivate their own communities through learned ideas.

While digital media has proven to be a mostly-beneficial aspect to today’s societies, one must be sure to look at the use of digital technology in an analytical aspect, as more often than not, it will portray an event, situation, idea, or history in a very biased or skewed lens.

We were able to see a very concrete example of this when we were in Istanbul. During our free time one evening, we decided to take the tram to the other side of the city and see the Galata Tower, Taksim Square, and Gezi Park. While we were walking around the tower, some members of our group befriended the owner of a local music store and got to talking with him. One thing led to another and eventually our new friend ended up leading our entire group of fourteen people through the crowded streets of downtown Istanbul to a local authentically Turkish restaurant for dinner. It was cheap, genuine, and delicious- definitely the only meal with that featured all of those qualities during our stay there.

After dinner, our friend, Bulent, took us to see Taksim Square and Gezi Park. Our experience there ended up being so much more valuable to us than if we had gone on our own because Bulent turned out to be a rich source of information concerning the protests that had taken place there only a year before.

The Gezi Park Protests took place in May 2013 and originated because people were upset over the fact that the government was planning on destroying Gezi Park and building something much less precious, such as a parking garage, in its place. Protests were organized and took place in Taksim Square, which borders the park. The protests quickly escalated into anti-government protests and rallies for more political freedom in general, rather than specifically concerning the park.

While visiting the park, Bulent explained to us that the protests were nothing like what the news and media stations portrayed them to be. As people living in the U.S., the general consensus was that everyone in Turkey was extremely angry and riots were taking place fueled by feelings to overthrow the government. Bulent clarified the situation to us, informing us that most of the people involved in the protests were young people and that the feelings brought up in the protests were not representative of the entire Turkish population and in fact were only shared by a small percentage of the people.

Bulent said that the majority of people within Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, are very peaceful and actually hate violence and protests. He also expressed his dissatisfaction with those who participated and thought that the kids involved were stupid. He very much stressed the point to us that those kids were the ones involved and that the media portrayed the entire situation inaccurately to the rest of the world.

The protests and our experiences with Bulent gave us first-hand knowledge on the fact that the digital world has a huge impact on how information spreads and can greatly influence the flux of ideas and events around the world. It can also greatly distort the meaning behinds these events and can distract from the original intent of the people.

6. What, finally, does it mean to Read Culture(s)?

To read a culture means to understand a culture. To understand a culture means to recognize that cultures differ in many different aspects based on location, population, history, religion, and others, and all of these aspects can influence the practices and traditions of a culture.

When reading a culture, understand the background of that culture and all components that have lead up to today’s current aspects of that culture. Once one understands and acknowledges that there will be differences amongst different people in different areas, even within the same country or state, then one will be more open and receptive to new ideas and learning from and about that new culture.

This was very obvious to us during our stay in the village in Polonaruwa. Julia and I were thrown into our homestay without being absolutely sure of our knowledge of more than about ten words in Sinhala between the two of us. We were forced to look at how our host families lived their lives: how they dressed, how they ate, how their homes were designed and decorated, how they used the resources they had to make their lives easier, and then take those observations and apply them to our experience there so as to better understand how we should behave and interact during our stay.

One particular thing that stuck out to me was that Amma would tilt her head from shoulder to shoulder during our conversations in a movement that means neither yes or no to us, but based on our culture might indicate confusion or not having a clear understanding of what was being said. We had to look past the movement and look at when she would do that action, usually at the end of a conversation, and read into in a way that helped us understand that it actually signifies more of a “yes” or the completion of an interaction between two people.

Another important aspect to take into consideration is the fact that we are not the only ones reading a new culture. Our host families looked at how we behaved and interacted with each other and with them and read our culture as well. That fact in turn made it important for us to read how they were reading our culture. If we noticed that they were reading some of our actions as rude or inappropriate, or simply had an inaccurate interpretation of what we did or said, we had to recognize that and reevaluate what we were doing to help them gain a better reading of our culture.

Sometimes the best way to read another culture is to completely remove yourself from your culture to allow yourself to view that new culture through different eyes with a very unbiased viewpoint. Reading a culture creates a new lens in which you see the people and allows you to take in ideas in a more enlightened process and therefore allows for better connections to be created.

7. How does one get the most out of the process of Research, Reflection, and Reformulation?

Reflection is a very critical aspect to living. Daily reflections at home, school, or abroad are vital to helping you deconstruct and evaluate not only your day, but how the events of that one day shape how you live your entire life.

Reflection on trips abroad like ours are especially helpful in that they help you to remember small details that when looking back on the trip a few days, weeks, or years from now, you can access those memories. While it is important to take time daily for personal reflection, I also believe that having structured group reflection time is necessary in helping you develop your thoughts. When having a conversation with several other people, you will often hear something and be reminded of a detail you may have missed or forgotten. You may also be introduced to analyzing an event or situation in a different way that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. Collaborative reflection allows you to formulate and reorganize your thoughts with the helpful input of others.

I appreciated the retreat at the end of the trip, and all the time we took to look back at our experiences over the past month and break down what they really meant to us. Because I think group reflection is so important, I think it would have been very beneficial to have it interspersed throughout the trip, rather than lumped in one chunk at the end. Not only would that have helped us to better remember events that happened in Morocco, which now seems like ages ago, but it could have been used as a form of support after some of our more emotional events, such as leaving the village in Polonaruwa.

I have told several people this, but because I was so extremely sick at the end of our stay in Morocco, I felt as though I didn’t get the closure I needed there before moving on to Istanbul. I missed the final discussion with Lotfi and the tearful goodbyes in the airport had as much to do with the sadness of leaving as it did with the excruciating pain and discomfort associated with simply being. I was shuffled onto a stuffy plane, then a stuffy bus, then a hotel room, and all of a sudden the next day I wake up in Istanbul and am expected to jump that huge transition on my own.

Not only was I unable to fully decompress everything that had happened in Morocco due to my occasional bits of unconsciousness, but I had to completely reorient myself to an entirely different setting. All I had to help me organize my thoughts was my personal journal, which even that became useless as my intense need to catch up on rest resulted in the neglect of personal daily reflections. Having structured group reflections would have allowed for me to gain a better sense of peace about leaving Morocco and may have even allowed for me to better enjoy my time in Istanbul.

As I made the transition into Turkish life, I realized that transition could never really be made in the amount of time that we were there. Entering the country in the state in which I did, I was destined to resent my time there. While I realize that I had some control over my emotions and actions and how I shaped my experiences, I also had a lot working against me which I simply did not have the energy to fight. I already hate cities. I tend to hate large crowds of rude, pushy people who outwardly do not seem to care about anything except knocking over whatever’s in their way. Those feelings of hate and discomfort, combined with the sickness and fatigue, resulted in me just wanting to go home. I had enough and I simply did not want to deal with it.

Looking back, I do not want to say that my time in Turkey was wasted. I learned a lot, I saw a lot, and I experienced a lot. I enjoyed our lectures, I loved the boat ride on the Bosphorus, and I could not get enough of the beautiful architecture found in the mosques or the fascination I had in discovering the differences between Turkish Islam and Moroccan Islam. I did learn from my time there and I appreciated the opportunities I was given.

Having structured group reflections between Morocco and Turkey would have allowed for me to gain a better sense of peace about leaving Morocco and may have even allowed for me to better enjoy my time in Istanbul.

The transition between Turkey and Sri Lanka was drastically different than the previously mentioned one, which immediately allowed me to enter the country on the right foot. I was healthy, I was happy (because I was finally leaving Istanbul), and I was ready for the next part of the adventure. That mindset stuck with me throughout the rest of the trip.

I have found that I am able to reflect, not only a lot, but deeply, during our day-long bus rides of traveling between cities. I am able to tune out the rest of the people on the bus and watch the world go by out the window, and it helps me think. I did a lot of thinking like this in Morocco as well, and it works for me.

During one particular bus ride, I was reflecting on our impending task of leaving Sri Lanka and having to return to the U.S. For many reasons, I didn’t want to leave and for very few did I want to return. Obviously I want to see my family again. I have had a few dreams about returning to Dulles and being reunited with them. As I was thinking about the idea of returning home, I wrote in my journal a few comforting facts to help make the idea of leaving a but easier.

The first was the fact that a very important person to me just returned home for a few weeks break from Afghanistan I realized that I would get to see him for the first time in a long time.

The second was that I will be leaving the country again in about three weeks to go to Mexico, on a trip that is very near and dear to my heart.

The third was that while I will miss the sixteen other people I have spent every waking minute of the past month with, I know it is not goodbye. We still have a whole semester of class to endure together and for that I’m thankful. If there was less certainty about our being reunited in the future, the upcoming goodbyes would be a thousand times more difficult.

This moment of personal reflection allowed me to really question my motives for coming on the trip, why I am so happy and really thrive in such a dramatically different environment from my own, and how I can continue to use that in my life after I return home.

Transitioning back home is going to be difficult. We have to learn to not be surrounded by 16 other people at any one moment. We have to learn to eat with utensils again and to use a western toilet versus the preferred squatting method. Most importantly we have to remember to reflect on our time abroad and how our experiences have taken who we are and what we know and reshaped them to fit our lives. We have to remember to take what we’ve learned and use it wherever we go. We have to remember the beautiful connections and authentic relationships we’ve made and we have to learn how to maintain those from great distances under different circumstances. As cheesy as it sounds, we have to remember who we are, where we’ve been and what we’ve done, and what we’re going to do next, because if we come back and do not think differently in some aspect, we should question our very motives for going.


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