My Kind of Politics
by Wissam Jarjoui
The first day in my international orientation here at MIT. I was given a tag with my name and nationality on it. It read: "Wissam Jarjoui, from Jordan." But I'm not from Jordan; I'm from Jerusalem, and I am a Palestinian. Why did it say that I was from Jordan? Well, it's because my passport is Jordanian, since there's no Palestinian one, yet. Anyway, I crossed out "Jordan," and I wrote down "Israel" instead. Now, you may be wondering why I didn't write "Palestine"; one reason that I didn't is because I thought many more people would know where Israel is, even more than those who would have heard about Palestine.
Whenever I say "Palestine" as I meet people, they go "Oh! Wow!" as in "Holy crap! What got me into this?" and then their prejudice kicks in, and I can't communicate with them anymore.
Another reason I didn't write "Palestine" was the strong impact the word has on any foreigner I meet. Whenever I say "Palestine" as I meet people, they go "Oh! Wow!" as in "Holy crap! What got me into this?" and then their prejudice kicks in, and I can't communicate with them anymore. So I decided "Palestine" was too political a word, and I wrote down "Israel." But then people thought I was an Israeli, and to the people who already knew what I am, it seemed that I was denying my nationality. At that point I said the heck with it, and I wrote down "Palestine." And the exact thing I thought would happen happened. People were freaking out when they read my name tag. A lot of them have never met a Palestinian, and might have certain prejudices that I didn't want to form a boundary between me and them. Of course, after I get to know them they'll have a new concept of what is it like to be a Palestinian, but it is the very first impression I leave in people's minds that I'm always concerned about. And the way it went with having "Palestine" on my tag was not what I wanted.
Eventually, I crossed out "Palestine", and just before I was about to do something insane and write down "USSR," I did the right thing and wrote down "Jerusalem." And that was the best way to represent home. Not because I was less offended by people's reactions—as I wasn't offended in the first place—but because I don't want to give the wrong impression of myself. People would think that I'm a political animal, since I come from a very political region, while I'm not.
And that's the reason I despise politics. Politics only make more obstacles to reaching peace in my country. Also, all politicians always repeat the same statements, the same clichés. Always talking but never acting (and you wonder why many politicians graduate from Harvard). Hence, although I believe in what politicians say, I don't believe them, because of their lack of action. And just like politicians, when I talked to people who expected me to shed some light on my country's situation, I didn't have anything to support my argument of "reaching common ground by understanding the other side," so I always ended up adopting others' arguments and selling them. In other words, I'd bullshit my way through.
…so I always ended up adopting others' arguments and selling them. In other words, I'd bullshit my way through.
However, recently I've had an experience that will undoubtedly prove my point. An experience that when I talk about it, I see amazement in people's eyes, an amazement that I enjoy rather than feel uncomfortable with. Four years ago I was recruited as a student in the non-profit organization MEET (Middle-East Education Through Technology) that aims to teach Israeli and Palestinian youth basic programming and programming skills in a neutral environment. This program spans three summers and the two academic years in between. During the summers, the students meet for five weeks on a daily basis, for nine hours. And during the academic years the students meet weekly for two hours. For that whole period of time, the students are meeting and working together, despite the cultural gap. And what happens when you spend that much time with others? They become your family.
The key behind this program, I believe, is to show students that politics is not the only way out. The program concentrates on building relationships between the students in a non-political environment, and shows them that the only difference between their cultures is what they choose it to be. And I loved this concept. But I've only realized now, after being part of this program for four years, that this is how you take the future leaders of the region and teach them that the other side is as human as theirs. And I loved the transition that this program took us all through. It was very smooth, from teenagers, who not only have never heard of each other but also considered each other adversaries, to very close friends who now have the skills to lead and the resources to make an impact.
But I've only realized now, after being part of this program for four years, that this is how you take the future leaders of the region and teach them that the other side is as human as theirs.
The reason I love the transition is because you never feel what's happening until it's done. You're so focused on developing your technical skills, finishing your project and leading your team to success that you never realize the magnitude of what's happening here: the bridging of a huge gap between the two people. And when you graduate from this program and feel on top of the world, having mastered all the techniques that were taught to you by skilled MIT students, you look back and realize what was really important: your adversaries are now you best friends, and if it is possible for this group of people, then it's possible for everyone else. And now, to dignify their arguments, politicians can use MEET and similar programs.
In the very first summer that this program was conducted, one of my friends was interviewed on local TV. He said: "Consider our leaders nowadays; you think they know the other side? They don't know anything, but we grew up together, we see each other every day like brothers and sisters, so of course there will be a difference. We will always be able to consider the two sides, our side and their side, so of course there will be a difference." (It took me four years to figure out what he realized in a couple of weeks, so maybe the wrong person is at MIT.) This quote is all I have to say to any foreigner who asks about my country; it will send my message, and then some.