Whatcha know about me?
This week, Hannah, Mary Jo, and Mitch reflect on the top three misconceptions Palestinians have about Americans, as well as the top three misconceptions Americans have about Palestinians and Arab World more broadly, as they have discovered through their work at TYO. It is important to address this topic because lack of communication simply fuels a lack of understanding on both sides. Palestinian Misconceptions of Americans
1) American Women Dress Immodestly
From the words of one of Hannah’s students, Selwa, “Women in America only wear short skirts and tight shirts, just like the women on MTV no matter how cold it is outside. Nobody covers like women here.” When Hannah explained to Selwa that not only did many women dress much more modestly than the women portrayed on television, but also that there are even American women who wear hijab in the States. Selwa was shocked. Many of Selwa’s classmates did not even know Muslims lived in the the States, but they loved when Hannah explained the idea of America being a melting pot where many cultures and religions mixed together into one country. They expressed a desire for Palestine to be this way as well.
2) Americans Working in Palestine are Suspicious
While talking to Palestinian friends and volunteers at TYO about inter-cultural misconceptions, Mitch was surprised to discover that, according to those he spoke with, many Palestinians suspect Americans who work and live amongst them to have less than the best intentions. Coming from Egypt, a country rife with conspiracy theories concerning foreigners, Mitch knew that these misconceptions are not particular to Palestine and that they emphasize the necessity of increased inter-cultural communication in order disprove such notions. As the only American NGO in Nablus and one that introduces numbers of young Americans to Palestinians, TYO is at the forefront of this brand of cultural diplomacy. In placing people above politics and focusing directly on this community's needs, TYO is gradually strengthening the bond between Palestine and America and dispelling common misconceptions about Americans throughout the region and the world.
3) All Americans are Christians
In a country where secularism is as foreign as seeing a woman’s collarbone, it is easy to understand why Palestinians would see Americans a) as all sharing the same religion and b) that religion being Christianity. As Mary-Jo was discussing the daunting prospect of fasting through August for Ramadan with her An Najah University students, one said to her- “but your country fasts as well!” Seeing as the USA is one of the most overweight countries, it was laughable for Mary-Jo to imagine all Americans fasting for even one day together, never mind two weeks or more. It was even more striking, however, to imagine a USA where all people worshiped in a church, held Sunday as the holy day, and who studied the Bible in school. As for Mary-Jo's Najah students, she let them continue to wonder what religion she practices.
American Misconceptions of Palestinians
1) Refugees are the poorest population in the Middle East
Many Americans automatically associate the status of refugee with immense poverty. While Palestinian refugees certainly constitute a large portion of the disadvantaged population that TYO serves, we also have many children in our classes from the local neighborhood, Khallet al-Amood, as well as the Old City. As TYO’s recently published Community Needs Assessment clearly indicates, the most disadvantaged areas in Nablus, as in many communities throughout Palestine and the Middle East, include substantial portions outside of the refugee camps themselves. Many of TYO's students come from neighborhoods such as the Old City and Khallet al-Amood, from homes affected by similar water shortages, high unemployment rates, issues with domestic violence, and other challenges faced in the refugee camps. For this very reason, although TYO originally focused on the refugee camps, the organization has since expanded its reach to include other areas in Nablus clearly in need.
2) Palestinians and Israelis Live in Two Different Worlds
Seeing pictures of Israel's Separation Wall and hearing the often politically charged rhetoric coming from both Palestinians and Israelis, it is not surprising that many Americans believe that Israelis and Palestinians live in two different worlds and have little or no contact with each other. However, as Mitch has discovered while interning at TYO, this isn't always case. In addition to the approximately 1.45 million Palestinians citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank have sustained economic and social relations with Israelis. Although it is extremely difficult for Palestinians living in the West Bank to visit Israel, Mitch and the other interns have heard of some Palestinians who have obtained the necessary permits to visit for work reasons.
3) Palestinians don’t have infrastructure like schools, hospitals, social programs, etc.
Before Mary-Jo left on her journey to Nablus, family and friends back home were puzzled. They thought she was going somewhere without any infrastructure. As Mary-Jo was dining with a friend from Austria this week, he mentioned people were surprised to hear that he would be working in an internship with a Palestinian University. “They have universities there?” some people asked him. Despite the flood of misinformation that fills the internet (and the 5000 mile void between the USA and Palestine) Palestine has many universities and education is taken very seriously. Moreover, the Palestinian people, like all people, dream of travelling, learning, and exploring the world. They continue to desire to grow and change and improve the community around them.
After reviewing these common misconceptions Americans have about Palestinians, and Palestinians have about Americans, it becomes clear that only thorough cross-cultural communication, can we break down barriers and prevent misunderstandings on both sides. As the students in Hannah’s Art & Critical Thinking class identified, there are many similarities between Americans and Palestinians and we should collectively work to highlight and celebrate these commonalities, so that we can work for the better good.