Sweat rolled down my back as I began my walk from the bus stop to the elementary school where I would be volunteering for the next 10 months. It was the end of summer and despite the stifling heat, I felt a nervous chill overtake my body. On the bus ride from the city, I already noted some major differences in my surroundings. For the first time since I was in middle school, boys and girls, or now, rather men and women, were sitting segregated by gender, gazes out to the desert landscape. It’s an unspoken rule but a look says everything.
When I stepped off the bus – again – more of the same. Girls walked in giggling groups down the street while the boys whispered together in clumps. And there I was, the only woman with her hair uncovered. The first day of many more days to come, where I would constantly feel the gaze of others, surveying me as “the other.” Distinctly one of the first times I would recognize and feel the privilege I have, whether I like it or not, or whether I want it or not, that I was born with.
Since my awareness of this issue, of people discriminating against people, I have supported my friends of minority- backgrounds and sought to unite with love over hate. As soon as I got my driver’s license I put a COEXIST sticker on my car – the one where the letters are different religious icons. But a sticker doesn’t change people.
Growing up as a Jew in the southern United States I was fortunate not to have experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. Through stories and history did I learn not only of the pain and suffering of my cultural people, but of the global people as humanity. However, I didn’t know the feeling like you know the feeling of a stomachache, until last fall.
A month or so into the school year, I remember having an exceptionally satisfying day teaching, and I think I may even have had a date that evening to look forward to. My students had listened and communicated in our groups, lessening the language barriers between us. All smiles and laughs carried us through the sticky morning. Phrases of English, Hebrew and Arabic mixed among us openly. With the afternoon sun beating upon me, I ended my day and headed toward the bus stop. Teenage chattering filled my ears as I approached the high school … and then the voices rose in volume and changed languages. Violent bursts of Hebrew made it to my ears. I understood I was the target of a group of rowdy boys within a rock’s throw – you know that old idiom? Well, it happens to be true. Within a couple seconds as I passed the group, I felt the impact of a rock, hurled at me simultaneously with their harsh words. I kept my pace and continued walking. The only thing to change was my expression, hidden by a pair of sunglasses.
It occurred to me later in the week after talking with a friend about the incident, that my sunglasses were a different kind of barrier, a very Western barrier. As an American, sunglasses have been a staple of my life since I found a pair that didn’t give me a headache. I always thought about them in terms of eye protection, something that helped me see without squinting. All that is true, but as with all things, there’s another side. Sunglasses keep the person wearing them masked and hidden, in a completely different way than wearing a hijab. At least with the latter, the woman’s eyes are still visible. Two women can make eye contact with each other, can make a human connection, a soul connection. Yet sunglasses turn us into a mirror, or like an insect, reflecting the image of the world around us back to the person or persons surrounding.
Who’s to say why those boys chose me as their target – because I look different from them? Because based on how I look they made assumptions that may or may not be true? Because kids throw rocks and I happened to walk by? Because boys like to pick on girls? I can’t answer that question but I can say since that day, I’ve made an effort not to wear sunglasses when I’m with the Bedouins, despite how much it hurts my eyes. I’ve made an effort to be as honest and open instead of putting up a wall, with my sunglasses.