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If you have never been to the Middle East, here are two truths: The sun rises and spills over the earth like ruby red grapefruit. The first time you hear the adhan, the call to prayer, you will go mute and the hair on the back of your neck will stand up. You are hearing a song that prays. It is as if the notes themselves are bowing and kneeling.
If you have never been to Amman, a city wrinkled in the slopes of Jordan’s hills, go. You’ll find friends in queer bars where folks are quick to talk about art, God and politics.
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But stories like this aren’t supposed to exist: Southern Black American poet best friends with Jordanian ex-gymnast, filmmaker and entrepreneur? Me, an Evangelical Christian. She, a seeker who I met in college. Two lions born in the heat of August, six days apart. My name means “truth”, “unforgotten”. Her name means “she who lives.” Put them together, they mean “she who lives in the truth” or “the unforgotten girl who decided to live.” My friendship with Aysha exists across an ocean and a dead sea, over Skype and on YouTube, in dorm rooms and trash bins overflowing with canned tuna. It grew over poetry competitions, in freestyle attempts on crowded trains and, most recently—after seven years apart— on a narrow street in Jabal Amman, where the mustard-colored cats yowl their injustices under nonexistent street lamps. What I’m trying to say is, my Christianity makes space inside my heart for the way she prays.
My love for the region stretches beyond our friendship. It goes from El Hamadieh, the old sepulcher of John the Baptist, to Istanbul’s saffron and almonds and blood-colored silks, and lastly to Egypt, umm ad-dunya, Mother of the World. These places are not my home, but some of its people have loved me, and I have loved them in return.
My name means “truth”, “unforgotten”. Her name means “she who lives.” Put them together, they mean “she who lives in the truth” or “the unforgotten girl who decided to live.” My friendship with Aysha exists across an ocean and a dead sea
So when the U.S. embassy in Amman asked me to team up with Aysha to work with local poets for Black History Month, of course I said yes.
But boarding the plane to Jordan, I felt only a sickening fear. The threats and fearmongering of the Trump campaign, together with the two years of Islamophobia that stood between me and my last trip to the Middle East, had gotten to me. They had done their designed work of separating me from the folks I needed and wanted to commune with. Instead of excitement, I was filled with suspicion. Was it safe? Jordan shares a border with Syria—what about ISIS? Would I be targeted for being American? For working with the embassy? All these questions swirled in my mind alongside the anger that I felt for internalizing the narrative of terrorism and Islamic hatred for Western freedom. I had lived in Egypt for six months. I have traveled the Middle East extensively and have never been threatened. Only walked home by old men. Only offered mint tea. Only welcomed. How easily lies override the truth of our own experience. It took me the entire drive from Queen Alia Airport to my hotel to remind me that I know this landscape and something of its people. This knowledge has never conformed to news reports of violence and hatred.
Stories like this aren’t supposed to exist: Southern Black American poet best friends with Jordanian ex-gymnast, filmmaker and entrepreneur? Me, an Evangelical Christian. She, a seeker who I met in college. Two lions born in the heat of August, six days apart.
While in Jordan, I helped Iraqi and Syrian refugee children write poems about family, and watani—that is, homeland. I lectured about themes of joy in the African-American poetic tradition to a room full of Muslim Arab women, many of them exuberant about Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, asking me “Doesn’t America know that Black women ARE the revolution!” I saw my culture reflected back to me through someone else’s eyes—exchanged books with poets in languages we could neither read or write. For a brief moment, I recognized affinity across difference, something distinctly Southern and global: a desire to share. A cultural compulsion to welcome the stranger—even if she comes with American imperialism and a geo-tracker should the embassy lose her.
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Maybe what connects the American South with the Global South is the recognition that we are all deeply bound to our neighbors. This neighbor-sensitivity is what led Aysha and me, still strangers, to sit down in a hotel room and talk for four hours about our differing ideas of faith. It’s what allowed us to see commonalities and differences as new possibilities for encountering both divinity and humanity. Knowing somehow we belong to each other fosters these unlikely connections that enrich our understanding of ourselves and the world.
We must also resist the travel ban that has already taken root in our minds, the one we tacitly adopt, which makes us more isolated, more oppugnant, and ultimately less Southern. The American South and the Global South are united by our commitment to one another.
On June 29, an amended travel ban went into effect, restricting visitors and refugees from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Libya from entering the United States for 90 or 120 days. It is not enough to resist the legal travel ban. We must also resist the travel ban that has already taken root in our minds, the one we tacitly adopt, which makes us more isolated, more oppugnant, and ultimately less Southern. The American South and the Global South are united by our commitment to one another. For the next 120 days and always, let’s keep each other close.