Teaching Ground

A teacher is impelled by a student's troubles to confront the human suffering in the Middle East.

Vanessa R. Sasson

© Sue Ann HarkeyA few years ago, near my office at Marianopolis College in Montreal, a colleague called out and asked me to mediate in an argument he was having with a student about the Middle East. I was running late, so, with a burst of laughter, I spontaneously answered, "They are all crazy over there! That is all you need to know."

Those words have haunted me ever since, both because of their flippancy and because I meant them. I did not have time to enter a discussion then, and I was—to an extent—just kidding. But I did believe, although I never admitted it, that everyone in the Middle East was crazy, that it was that simple.

There is something deeply troubling about this view, and I've heard it voiced often. For many of us, the Middle East is a land of insanity. We watch the news and can barely wrap our minds around the images bombarding us. We hear of suicide bombers. We see sobbing Israelis searching the streets for the remains of those they have lost. We hear of the Palestinian water crisis while watching Israelis water their luscious mango trees. We see militant Palestinians chanting at the camera and Israeli soldiers, faces frozen, wielding their weapons. We see so many crying mothers, hardened fathers, children on the front lines. We see bombs falling in Lebanon. Again. It is no wonder most of us simplistically choose a side or cut ourselves off from it by concluding that they are all equally insane.

I've been thinking lately about a dear student of mine from a few years back. Ahmed (I've given him a pseudonym) was a Palestinian Muslim living in the Diaspora. He, too, was in pain, confused, enraged. He belonged to a community that was suffering, but he lived far from it. Guilt plagued him. He wanted to express his solidarity with his suffering brothers and sisters. He wanted to do so all the more because he was living here in comfort, far from the turmoil: his pain and anger were transparent. His wasn't the kind of anger that seethes beneath the surface, but an open anger, an open confusion, an open quest for identity.

For some reason Ahmed sought me out. He took my religion courses and frequently visited my office. He knew of my Arabic-Jewish heritage, and he knew of my Buddhist practice and faith. He didn't spare me his anger, however. During the wave of suicide bombings in 2002, for instance, he ran into to my office after an attack and asked in angry glee, "Did you see that? Wasn't that great?"

Ahmed was goading me, eager to draw me into a fight. But I wasn't taking the bait. After one particularly gruesome attack—more than a dozen killed and hundreds injured—I knew enough to expect him bright and early the next day. Sure enough, he appeared, exclaiming triumphantly, "That was a good one, wasn't it? We really got a lot of them this time!" I looked at him quietly and asked, "What exactly is it that you're looking for, Ahmed? What kind of a reaction do you want? Why do you keep doing this?" He didn't have an answer, but I could see that he was tormented. He made a point of coming to see me at these times. Had he been truly hateful, he would have spent his energies elsewhere. But I knew he was looking for something, so I waited.

Eventually, Ahmed took a Buddhism course with me. Halfway through the term, he appeared at my door and asked, "To practice compassion the way the Buddhists do, what would I have to do?"

We had been discussing the monastic precepts, the first of which is to avoid harming all living beings. I had given the students an assignment on the precepts, and Ahmed was genuinely trying to understand what they meant and how he might implement them. I suggested that, for starters, he not celebrate violence. If he wanted to go a step further, he might even consider apologizing to some of the students he had fought with—verbally and physically—about the Middle East. Ahmed said he couldn't possibly do it. His honor was at stake, along with his pride and his standing with his community. Besides, it wasn't his fault alone. He'd been provoked, taunted, pushed around by the Jewish kids. Why should he apologize?

A few days later I heard Ahmed was wandering the school looking for students he had fought with. Apparently, he was making amends. He even posted a letter on the "Jewish side" of the cafeteria—a public apology. He did not expect any apologies in return. A few days later, he showed up at my door. Neither of us said anything, but I certainly smiled.

I HAVEN'T SEEN Ahmed much since he graduated. I hear from him every once in a while, or I am given his regards through a friend. He is an engineer now, working hard, and successful. He remains involved in the Palestinian struggle for independence, and, so I am told, he refers to me as the teacher who made him apologize. That always makes me laugh.

Ahmed was written off by many students and teachers during his time at college. He was a troublemaker, bringing the chaos and pain of the Middle East into our backyard in a way that made many nervous. Concordia University, only a few blocks from our campus, had been experiencing quite a bit of turmoil centered on the Middle East, and nobody wanted that turmoil to spread.

The fear we had of students like Ahmed laid bare our collective aversion to anything too difficult, complicated, or painful. We wanted his raw suffering to go away. Would it not be so much nicer if all our students were happy? But life isn't that way. As the First Noble Truth so emphatically declares, life is suffering. People in Israel, in Palestine, and throughout the Middle East are openly suffering. It would be nice if they were all happy, but they are not. It would be nice if we could make sense of it all, but most of us cannot. It would be nice if we could at least take sides in good conscience, but most of us cannot do that either.

The Middle East is the perfect teaching ground. It points its fingers at us and asks, "Can you handle this? Can you look at me and see me as I am? Can you take in my suffering? How good is your bodhisattva vow when you see me?"

When we talk of the bodhisattva vow in Buddhism, we talk about extending our arms and our hearts outward, about reaching out to the whole world and embracing all, without exception. We talk about truly seeing the ones standing before us and loving them deeply, just as they are, with their many faults. The challenge the Middle East presents us with is the very same challenge presented by Shantideva some thirteen hundred years ago: Can you be a bodhisattva? Can you love everyone and not become suffocated by the pain? When I flippantly disregard the Middle East and all of its pain, I am only revealing my personal limitations. I am telling others, and myself, that it is too much for me, that my arms are not yet wide enough to provide for all.

A recent visit to Israel/Palestine opened my heart in ways I did not anticipate. I looked around and saw suffering much more than ever before. I cried daily, and I continue to cry every time I think about it seriously. But the tears don't scare me. They are freeing up space in me, so that I may be capable of taking in even more.

I heard a lovely Sufi story during my stay. God sent an angel down on earth and asked it to return with the most precious thing in the world. The angel descended and returned with jewels, silks, books, art—in short, everything that we naturally associate with man-made beauty—but none of these was right. So the angel descended again, and this time returned with one solitary and delicate human tear. God looked at it and smiled. It was what He was looking for.

Vanessa R. Sasson is a professor of Comparative Religion in the Liberal Arts Department of Marianopolis College. She recently asked for ordination in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Image: Beautiful Southern Lebanon, Sue Ann Harkey, 2006

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