Cold, windy and biting is an accurate description of the weather on the day I visit the post office. To protect my ears and neck from the wily and brutal winds outside, I have bundled up in one of my extra-long headscarves. With bright red, wind-chapped cheeks and a frozen nose, I imagine I am quite a sight after a full, four-mile walk.
Moving from the expansive post-office foyer into the line for counter service, I attempt to warm my stiff, cold and almost immoveable hands as I try to remove my gloves. Having crossed the threshold into the warmer counter-for-service area, I observe a postal worker shift through a series of complex body postures as he sees me entering the line.
Initially, he is merely doing his job. Then, as he notices me entering the line, I observe his body stiffen, until he is standing ram-rod straight—rigid. All of his working movements become uncomfortably tense and robotic.
With my fingers slowly thawing, I search my mind for a possible reason why my appearance in line would cause this worker so much discomfort. Reaching up to unwind my headscarf, memories of living within an international, graduate-school housing community come flooding in.
It was while my husband was in graduate school and we were in university graduate apartments that, to my amazement and for the first (and only) time in my recollection, I qualified as something of a head-turner—but only among men of near-Middle-Eastern or Middle-Eastern origin. I consider the fact that, in terms of visual presentation, I am equally at home at a Greek dance party, a Sufi zhikr or a Jewish celebration.
Parallel to the unwinding of my headscarf, I observe the rigid tension melting out of this man’s body. With my long scarf now resting down the full length of my coat, I consider the fact that former military personnel are awarded extra points on the civil service examinations required of all postal workers, points which civilian test-takers must earn through extra high scores. Perhaps this man has seen active duty in the military.
What an odd encounter. We have not met. We have not spoken. And, yet, through whatever internalized, experiential markers this man carries within him, I was most certainly perceived as an uncomfortable form of “Other.” No matter what my mind postulates, my heart feels a deep sorrow for this man because my own experiences as a guest among Middle-Eastern peoples has given me a completely different set of positive, internalized social markers.
In travelling internationally, what I have learned is this. Among persons who are authentic seekers of a better life and who remain focused on the greater good, our greatest human concerns have to do with the love and respect we hold for one another in the context of family, as well as the desire for a better, safer world for our children. It is that simple.