I often have conversations with my family about what I’m doing in school and get the idea from them that they think what I’m accomplishing is “exceptional” in some way. I always have a rough time seeing this. I mean, I am daily surrounded by people doing the exact same things as me, often far exceeding my ability to do them. So no, I don’t see reading three books a week, while also writing four responses and grading fifty essays as anything but “normal.” It takes getting outside of your box to see a bigger picture.
While I understand this concept, I still get surprised every time someone remarks that I’m “so brave” for having gone to Lebanon. I can only interpret this phrase in one of two ways: one, that people really think it takes bravery to go to a place perceived to be unsafe, or two, that they really mean that I’m “such an idiot.” I honestly don’t think either are true, but then again, this might be like the school situation in general – maybe I’m just too far into my world to realize the bigger picture.
Does it take “bravery” to realize that much of the world is “unsafe” and to decide to be a citizen of it anyways? Most of the things that make “other places” unsafe is a lack of understanding of cultural practices. Not-knowing = fear = unsafe.
Were there parts of Beirut that felt less safe than others? Of course. Are some parts of South Baltimore less safe than Pasadena, MD? Um, yes. Do you make the mental choice when walking down the street to hold your purse on the not-street side of the sidewalk so it’s less likely to be snatched? You surely do. All major cities have these rules. Are there parts of Lebanon I had no business being in? Absolutely. Which is why I didn’t go.
Being brave in this instance really just means being a little bit savvy. I really believe that. But maybe, I only do because I really am “such an idiot.” I way over-packed for this trip to Lebanon, mostly because I wanted to be sure I had everything I needed for every situation we encountered. I had an hijab in my purse at all times, not because I was afraid, but because I understood that it was possible we might randomly stop at a mosque, and I probably would need something to cover my hair. This isn’t bravery—it’s common sense. Common sense that only goes from doing your research beforehand and getting to know the place you’re going.
Obviously, Syria is right next door to Lebanon, and going near a war zone is probably not the best idea if you have no reason (or no training) to be there. So we didn’t get near the northern border of Lebanon. And yes, the State Department does have a travel warning on Lebanon, (at the time I went) not because of problems in Lebanon itself but the possibility of problems in areas surrounding. There are travel warnings on many of the nations US citizens regularly travel to, Israel being one of the most common, so a travel warning isn’t an automatic decisionmaker.
In the end, it comes down to doing your research and weighing your options. Was it more likely that something “bad” would happen to me in Beirut than Blacksburg? Probably. Was it likely that something “bad” would happen to me at all in Lebanon? Less than you would think. The LRF and NCUSAR prepared us in the days and weeks before the trip on what to expect. Everyone on the trip had experience studying the Middle East prior to the trip. While in Lebanon, we had guides and hosts whose top priority was to keep us safe. If it was unsafe for us to be someplace, we didn’t go. For instance, there was initially a day trip planned to Tripoli. We decided mid-trip that this was an unsafe option, and we didn’t go.
I really don’t think going on this trip confirms my bravery in any way. This isn’t the word to describe it at all. I understand that most people who use this word to describe me are really saying something about themselves more than me – that they think it takes bravery to go to Lebanon. As part of my fellowship, it is my goal to dispel some of these fears – to explain to others why the experience of other people’s cultures and traditions is exciting, not something that requires bravery.