I generally try to stay away from clichés, statements repeated so often that their meaning is pulverized and they are stripped of any relevance. However, the meshing of two groups of people together in a social experiment that seeks to encourage cultural understanding materialized into a tale of two journeys so intertwined, yet continents apart; literally and metaphorically crashing head-on in a way that bolts participants into their discomfort-zones.

I have made it a habit to try and set definitional boundaries to who I am and how I relate to the surrounding environment. It eases the way in which I can grapple with notions of identity and representation. Yet the thing with those labels, with those personal parameters is that because of their self-imposed nature, they are often fragile, fluid and easily swayed by the ebb and flow of something more substantial. That is largely what the Exchange was, a challenge in which I would test out the extent to which I am comfortable in my own skin and the degree at which I feel I have constructed an identity that has no cracks. Alas, in that endeavor, it seems I have failed miserably. Which is not a cause for depression or pity, one’s identity is a living, breathing, aging, evolving organ. If it is truly comprehensive then it will confidently address the challenges brought on to it by other more critical and intelligent minds, the fact that we recognize the fluidity of our conceptions is indeed a cause for celebration. We are yet to reach that impenetrable level of insufferable self-indulgence. That we have scaled beyond the rigidity of self-imposed limitations means that we have acknowledged the mutability of our own existence, the dynamic nature of being. Being in all of its varieties, an existence that is sometimes governed by a series of random events that demand, and not only invite, some serious introspective self-reflection.

It takes not a minor level of arrogance to presume that I have reached in my personal evolution a stage whereby my core beliefs are unshakable. Indeed, the fact remains that they are shakable, and for them to reach a point of maturity necessary in such core beliefs they need to be challenged, time and time again, they need to be visited and revisited, constructed and deconstructed, battered intellectually and otherwise, to the point where they have the solid foundations I desire of my core beliefs; fucking concrete and steel.

Much of what came my way were inquisitive probes that sought clarification from someone who spoke “the language”, not in a linguistic sense, but I suppose in a more universal, dare I say it: Western, “someone who gets it” sense. Though I am yet to definitively ascertain what it was that I “got”, the whole thing had the air of someone reaching out to someone with more cultural familiarity or political sensitivity and overall cynicism. For many I did not represent that Oriental Arab in all his glory, but a poster-boy for globalization, a product of the assault on national identity and civilizational borders driven by the engines of cultural imperialism and in a more positive sense (subjectively speaking), exportation. I recognize my cultural deformities yet to be summarily dismissed as not part of the host culture was a shock. It smacked of colonialism and Orientalist representation (I am really trying for this not to turn into a tribute to Said). What was shocking was the ease by which some of these kids recognized that, not the fact that their recognition was spot-on. It meant that in my most sincere of interactions I am indeed unrepresentative of what is presented as indigenously and organically Arab. Part of me will passionately argue that what is presented as Arab is in fact unrepresentative of the Arab, yet that is an anthropological nightmare I wish to spare both of us. It was fascinating though, in my permanent quest for a discernible identity I have discovered through passing comments that I am perceived as someone who lacks definable roots in the nation I call home. I really am yet to ascribe to that a value judgment, it takes a while, so bear with me.

Anyhow, the Exchange was not the packaged, surgical pretty little thing it was cracked up to be. It was intense, emotional, and political and it made my heart, brain and other such central bodily organs hurt and sometimes ache. Maybe I am just impressionable and stereotypically melodramatic. Yet I can not simply reject my impressions as the product of my lifestyle choices. To me, at least – lets ditch the generalizations – it was all the things I said earlier. My brain still hurts, and my heart! Oh my heart! I do not know if it is the oft suppressed hippie inside of me, but the Exchange sort of mocked the polarization that seems to govern our world, it highlighted the pettiness of all those superfluous biases. In the same token though, it also forced a realization of how entrenched some of these biases are. The fact that people are pushed to smother a central part of their identity that is organic and not acquired for fear of being marginalized or even persecuted simply because of that characteristic is truly horrifying. It serves to show us the amount of work that still needs to be done. Though the world only spins forward, it has not spun enough just yet.

I can not seem to point out one definitive logical conclusion. I am still processing the 10 days in their entirety, the preceding was just what comes to mind at this stage, I hope you are able to distinguish some of my thoughts despite them being scattered in messy incoherent sentences, for that I apologize.

All I can say is that there is so much to say, one day, I hope to say it all.

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