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“Aatenee hetha ilsuhn,” my mother said, nodding toward the plate beside me, as she prepared the Sunday meal. I shook my head. “If you want the plate, speak to me in English.” I was headstrong even at ten. Both my parents had emigrated from Lebanon to Australia as small children, so they seldom spoke their native tongue at home. Attempts to do so were invariably met with defiance from two children eager to assimilate in a world that celebrated homogeneity and denigrated “wogs,” the offensive slang used to describe those of ethnic origin.
I am not sure exactly how this rigid young girl evolved into an outward-looking, inquisitive woman, but by the time I was in my late teens, I had discarded the naïve insularity of my childhood. By the age of nineteen, after my eye-opening trip to India, travel had permeated my mind. In the moment that I caught a world of pain reflected in a leper’s eye, while meandering through Connaught Place, I felt an intensity of emotion that still drives me to explore lives and places outside the boundaries of my existence.
Not satisfied to connect with the world through travel alone
though, I decided to satisfy my craving for new worlds through the study of English literature. Nearly three years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave my home in Australia and travel to New York in order to actualize this dream. Doing so signified a great adventure, but it also meant leaving behind the close-knit life I had enjoyed with my family and friends, and accepting the financial burdens and insecurities involved in such a momentous step. But I was determined to satisfy my hunger for enlightenment and create something extraordinary out of my life.
My university experience at City College has so far been stimulating on many levels. I would never have imagined that the same little girl who had become so distanced from her ethnicity would one day be studying Arabic at university. My decision to move so far away from family has sparked a renewed passion for the language of my heritage. Today, if my mother were to ask me to pass the plate, I would proudly reply, “Be kul surur”—with pleasure. I have developed a heightened appreciation for the value of all language and culture, and I am equally excited about the possibility of studying Hebrew as part of the Jewish Studies
program at City College. And after learning both these closely related languages, the natural progression will be to finally fulfill my aspiration to journey to the neighboring countries of Israel and Lebanon—Lebanon, of course, because it is the place of my roots, and Israel, due to the deep indefinable attraction I have for both this ancient land and the Jewish culture.
Since as far back as I can remember, I have had a preoccupation with all things Jewish, on a level that, up until recently, I never had for my own Arabic traditions—traditions that I had been unappreciatively immersed in. This longstanding affinity for the Jewish culture, and fascination with Judaism, endures. Perhaps it
arises out of an awareness of the often overlooked, yet intimate, bond between the Arab and Jewish peoples, and perhaps not. In any case, by majoring in Jewish studies, I hope to transform this visceral allure into a more perceptible knowledge of Jewish history, culture and literature. And, by enrolling in the Jewish Studies program, as with English literature, my motivation is the same: to immerse myself in unfamiliar dimensions, to seek new visions, new ways of inhabiting the world. At the same time, I anticipate that by being exposed to a rich spectrum of Jewish experience, I will attain a greater understanding of the problems that characterize the universal human experience.
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