In 2009 my family and I left home and traveled, to study history directly. We lived in Paris and Istanbul; my sister and I were home schooled. At 13 years-old, facing this exclusion from friends was more terrifying than headless Marie Antoinette’s story. Disconnected from what I cared about and immersed in history, I became angry at the past: what did this have to do with my real life? And so I failed to connect to anything, until I let history become part of my imagination.
I’m standing in an underground cistern in Istanbul, flanked by candles. I peer into the water to adjust my makeup. Behind me, my family reads facts off a pamphlet. I hum as loudly as possible to avoid this history lesson. I feel so underground. With a pang, I miss skyscrapers.
Hiking deep in the High Atlas Mountains, I’m asthma-prone and cannot continue so I’m riding a donkey, side-saddle. A Moroccan boy holds the bridle. His grip on the donkey is an intimate link; my life is the thin strap in his hand. My family is far behind us. He begins to sing; the wordless tune evokes something inside me. Compared to the tenderness in his voice, my heart seems cavernously empty. Suddenly, I’m acutely aware of my distance from the world. Should I reach out to him? If I touched his rough hand I would be part of something. But then, his singing breaks – words form sharply. I turn, and, amazed, see he is talking on a cheap cellphone. He gets reception out here? I revert to disconnection, longing for a cellphone.
In Egypt, heatsick, my mother and I leave the tour and enter a cave. Pharos are buried here, brains removed through nostrils, leaving pure, white skulls. Earlier, I was bored by the cliche Great Pyramids. But here, I lie on the floor, perhaps atop a mummy. I hope he is a young boy, preserved in dark beauty, with sacred flesh kept young through centuries. My heartbeat is so alive on top of all this past. My fevered brain imagines my demise: how I’ll meet my mummy.
My father and I watch the sunrise from Masada, out of breath, resting from climbing. We look out over Israel: the so-called promised land, fought-over sand. On the top of this mountain, rather than be massacred, the Israelites took their lives: killing each other until one man was left to kill himself. Imagine that: stabbing your lover, slitting your mother’s throat. As my lungs constrict, the sun begins to shine, and I too feel the sanctity of life, the horror I’d feel at its loss.
But then we visit Palestine. On the walls are murals demanding peace: an elephant and mouse living harmoniously. These murals, those bombs in Gaza are the present and past – undeniably tied to the history of Masada. After eight months, we came home.
Now, four years later, I’ve visited the dreamers of Occupy Wall Street. The Arab Spring’s magic and failures took place where I stood in Tahir square. Back in school, I studied the evolving world and realized how entangled the past and present are. In retrospect, I see that instead of exploring this fascinating world, I’d pulled out a cellphone.
Now, I long for moments in which I felt unique connection and I write to bring them back. Ironically, all that time when I failed to connect taught me to try to stay connected: to be interested even when there is “nothing” interesting, to find what I can and treasure it, to sit by the water when I cry (and think how small my tears are), to never clench my fists, to climb a fence if I’m sick of solid ground, to hug my mother when she’s sad, to know I’m free, to keep a stone in my pocket to remind me of the history of my world.