After reading the article “Why You Should Travel Young” by Jeff Goins, I was amazed by his claim that, “as we were conversing about life on the road — the challenges of long days, being cooped up in a van, and always being on the move — some well-intentioned adult would say, “It’s great that you’re doing this … while you’re still young.”…Ouch. Those last words — while you’re still young — stung like a squirt of lemon juice in the eye (a sensation with which I am well acquainted). They reeked of vicarious longing and mid-life regret. I hated hearing that phrase.” -And this is a feeling that I wish to avoid completely, which is why I am taking an opportunity to travel now.
I do not want to go on with my life without fulfilling my dreams, so that in the future I blame my children and/or my husband for the things that I did not do. As an avid believer in existential philosophy, I truly support the idea that even if an individual is not free in body, he or she is free in mind and spirit, and at the end of the day, the power of free will prevails over any obstacle.
This is why I have decided to study abroad through the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program; from the end of August until December, I will be living, studying, and traveling aboard the MV Explorer, a cruise ship donated in 1963 for the purpose of creating a ‘floating university’.
Even if it means that I have to couch-surf (yes, I have made a profile) or that I have to eat food that I am accustomed to, for the sake of having a chance to leave my comfort zone and experiencing even a bit of the world around me, a bit of my world, a bit of your world, I would do that and more.
As I read from a friend’s Facebook status once, “there 7 billion people in the world to meet, 196 countries to visit, 6,800 languages to hear, 7 massive seas to swin in and so much more to explore.. what the hell am I doing in North Bergen, NJ?”
I also avidly believe in what I read from Henry Rollins, “I beg young people to travel. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown. Eat interesting food. Dig some interesting people. Have an adventure. Be careful. Come back and you’re going to see your country differently, you’re going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water. Your showers will become shorter. You’re going to get a sense of what globalization looks like. It’s not what Tom Friedman writes about; I’m sorry. You’re going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. A lot of people—Americans and Europeans—come back and go, ohhhhh. And the light bulb goes on.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, and it could not have validated my decision any more, which is why I have renewed my passport, purchased a backpack, and have taken a semester off to ‘have my mind blown, eat interesting food (even though I am an extremely picky eater), dig some interesting people and have an adventure.’
I hope to ‘be careful’ and to not only ‘come back and see my country differently, but to see my president differently, no matter who it is. I hope to see music, culture, food and water differently’.
Before even leaving, I vow for my showers to become shorter. I hope to return with a sense of what globalization looks like.
Most importantly, I hope to truly experience that there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight, or in my case, that port.
And this, this is my prayer.
Reflection: By Shipmate, Megan Atkinson
When asked to speak at one of our Post-port events, my fellow shipmate, Megan Atkinson amazed us with her story. I can definitely relate to what she experienced, which is why I am posting it almost as an expression of my own feelings. I will definitely try to learn from her and her wonderful experience in Belgium:
“I was given two guidelines to follow for my little blurb tonight.
One: Don’t talk about alcohol.
Two: Talk about how time in Belgium relates to cross cultural psychology.
I am reasonably confident in my ability to follow 50% of these.
7 nights ago during pre-port Lisa spoke to us from a place of non judgement. At first I thought of her message only in the immediate context she had presented it in- but during my six days in Belgium it evolved into so much more. In the end – no judgment is what made my Belgian experience.
So here goes my story: No judgement:
I struggle quite a bit with depression and anxiety. It is only in the last few years that I have been able to find a balance. Towards the end of my time in Belgium I found myself in a terrible “slump”. I was feeling really bummed out. No one ever says “you can still be sad when you are abroad” No one talks about how frustrating group travel or group thought can be. My time in Belgium had not gone the way I thought it would. I found myself in this awful place feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious and isolated. That night – let’s be honest – I drank more than I had planned on. Turns out that only made it worse.
The next morning all I could do was judge. I was judging myself for drinking, judging others for plans falling through, judging America for making drinking a taboo, judging SAS for contradicting themes. I was all about the judging.
And then I remembered pre-port. I forced myself to grow into the right frame of mind. What would someone say to me that was coming from a place of no judgement? What advice would they give? What would it be like if I went back into the country without a single judgement. None. Not on myself, my shipmates, the homeless people on the street, the rushed city dwellers. Not the food, the weather, the day. Clean Slate. Lesson Learned. What if I walked around without any pre conceived judgement of how the day “should be” and just let it be.
So I did.
That morning I truly found Belgium. I found its rhythm, its breath, its soul. I watched Belgium come alive that morning, and I was reborn with it. It was close to 10 in the morning when I stumbled across the bustle of an open air market. All around me people were setting up for the day. I helped one guy unload hundreds of pounds of fresh produce. Between loads he gave me free strawberries and asked me about America. He asked me about Obama and if Times Square was as pretty as the pictures. I asked him about his childhood and he told me all about growing up in Ghent. A bit later a Turkish man asked me to watch his dog while he went back to his truck. We talked while he hung up his scarves. He told me that his dog was the love of his life and he had no desire to marry – despite his mothers wishes.
As I continued to walk — the market opened up around me and I opened up to the market. I fell into it’s vibe. I tasted everything: olives, chocolates, spices, dried and fresh fruits, kebabs, sodas – no matter what they looked like. I talked to everyone: a little girl with a stuffed puppy, a man with only one leg, a pregnant nineteen year old, a couple on their honeymoon – no matter what THEY looked like.. I met people from all over the world. Turkey, Morocco, South Africa, Jamaica, Spain, Australia, Florida. I laughed with strangers. I learned about Islam. I was taught a few German swear words and I learned (and promptly forgot) how to say I love you in Flemish.
Before that morning I had only seen – not truly experienced this wonderful Country. Sure, I had been to Bruges, Ghent, and walked miles and miles of Antwerp. I had dropped my mouth in awe of the cathedral at night and I had even enjoyed kriek with a few locals. But I had done all of it with some judgement or another.
When I brought nothing with me: no judgements at all: I found the truth of the city.
No judgement: It’s hard. It took conscious effort. It’s vulnerable. But it speaks clearly. It is the only language I have ever spoken that is cross culturally understood, received and embraced.
Here is a very powerful reflection by my shipmate Megan Atkinson:
I’ve come from a place of honesty and truth the two times I’ve spoken up here.
Tonight, I can only do the same. I can only come from a place of honesty, truth, and reflection.
So here goes more honesty, brutal honesty even.
Hi. I’m Meg.
I fight daily with some pretty deep depression and I over think pretty much everything.
On November 11th, my 23rd birthday, our first day in rio, I turned to alcohol to literally ease the pain and the thoughts, that had been building up for over a week. I underrate and then I over drank. I have heard that we are not supposed to use this term, but essentially – I was drunk tanked (ie: “under medical watch )” It was quite the experience. I take full responsibility for my choices that led me where I was that night. I was deeply disappointed in myself, and afraid that I let everybody down. In the end, though, I learned some important and incredibly valuable things. about myself, this experience, this community, genuine kindness, and what it means to be human; ie what it means to royally mess up sometimes.
So there’s that. That’s my confession. Honesty and truth. I messed up In a deeper way than I have ever on this voyage. (and ever intended to) – but I learned a lot, it made me think. So now – from the same place – I have some questions. I do not intend these questions to be accusatory or judgmental. I simply pose them from a place of deep honesty.
Why, after twelve ports, Is this only the FOURTH post port reflection.
Why is this environment of reflecting, processing, talking, sharing, venting, connecting, understanding not a priority?
Why have I been the only student out of hundreds – for the last THREE meetings – that has shown up to meaning making group.
Why are there constant movie nights – holed up with one safe group of people inside – when there is an OCEAN outside. When there are stars, waves, and infinite conversations waiting to be discovered.
Why do we chant SAS at the bars but avoid eye contact on the ship?
Why do we encourage each other to drink but not to think?
Why do we take so many pictures but have so few words?
Why is surface the majority and depth the minority.
Why is this room not full?
Why does the magic that we have in this room, right here, right now, not exist elsewhere.
Why don’t we see the bigger picture – that we’re all connected.
We are connected. We are human. We make mistakes. We get annoyed. We judge. We drink. We judge those that drink. We judge those that don’t drink. We fight over stupid things. We get headaches. We have different priorities. We are different people.
We are all one, though. We are all connected. For 23 more days, this is our life.
My questions may not have answers. Maybe not now, maybe not ever. But I have one more question. Can we – those of us in this room – and hopefully those of us who are not – take the magic that exists when we speak our truths, when we tell our stories – can we take it and let it grow, evolve, blossom – for the next three weeks and beyond?…. It’s not to late to feel the magic of oneness.
When you’re away from ‘it all’, meaning, your home, your family, and your friends back home, you find that although they cannot be literally replaced, these ‘abstract’ things in life are replaced.
While on Semester at Sea, I found a new home and met new friends who became my family. And just as you would expect your friends family would help you through any struggle, these wonderful people on board came to my rescue when this wonderful ATM machine ate and immediately destroyed my debit card in the Cadiz, Spain.
To my luck, this debit card was my last resort, as I had already lost a small wallet with my backup debit and credit cards. *After reordering both of my cards, none of them came in, so I gave up wasting my time in the different ports trying to order new ones to get to the ship.
With still two months left of the voyage, it certainly posed a very difficult challenge; however, I was able to survive, thanks to my host family in Ghana, which fed me, housed me, and even took me to many of the greatest sights in Ghana, and thanks to the kindness of some of my friends onboard who let me borrow money – my friend Gabe and his roommate Carlos in Argentina, the assistance of my mother and cousins back home, Western Union, and the last token of kindness I experienced while abroad, as an employee of a store in Dominica offered me $40, claiming that one day I would do the same for someone else. – Annette and I still talk regularly.
I truly hope I can continue to pay this universal love forward, even if on a small scale, showing the importance of interdependence and globalization, across currencies and magnitudes.
Special Thanks to My Shipmates for Keeping Me Alive: Alanna, Andrea, Dylan, Francesco, Joyce, Melissa, Natalie, and Stephanie
At the voyage’s closing ceremonies, one of my shipmates,, Jalil Bishop, had the opportunity to talk about his experience, which he so beautifully summed up in the discourse below:
“ Semester at Sea has allowed me to reflect on what is important in my own life. Being at Dartmouth, I spend a lot of time resume building and networking. Always looking for the next step to make myself competitive in the so-called real world outside my college campus. But this is the real world. And for the past 4 months my real world has allowed me to put more time into relationships than my resume and more time into cooperation with the people around me than competing. This voyage has taught me the struggle for a better life, is truly meaningless, unless it involves the ones around you. The ones you call friends, the ones you love, and the ones you smile at just to acknowledge their being. Semester at Sea has taught me that relationships are what matter, what you remember, what gives you an anchor. I was blown away by how people with such little material wealth around the world, were so rich in happiness. In America, I am taught that happiness comes with large salaries, big houses, and fast cars. But so many people I met throughout the countries found happiness in each other; they did not have to pay for it. They just had to be present and appreciate those who were present around them. So my goal is to be present, present in my own life and the lives that intertwine with mine.
In regards to my educational experience, Semester at Sea has allowed me to see that no one is the authority on knowledge and the hierarchical method where the professor just lectures the student may be wrong. Global studies allowed us to see students in the teacher role and that we are capable of our own knowledge. We were taught to fear the townships, favelas, and certain cities but when we experience those places we found hard working people who greeted us with grace rather than the drugs, guns, and violence that we were warned about. I understand my role as a student does not mean that I do not have expertise to share, and it does not mean my voice should come second to the professor. Being a student is not a stage in life but a constant commitment to learning from and listening to others. As a student I do not have to wait till I have degrees behind my name or years under my belt. The time is now to commit to creating my own knowledge, that comes from my own learning, through my own thinking.
Reflecting on the voyage allowed me to see this as one of the greatest privileges bestowed upon my young life thus far. As we all know, we are amongst the few in the world who can say they sailed on a ship of luxury, around the ocean, visiting over a dozen countries, while learning, emailing, shopping, touring, partying, sleeping, eating, and changing.
I am the privileged; I accept that and do not apology for it. I do not feel guilty about it. Instead I feel responsible. I feel a responsibility to remember that this voyage is in fact real life and share with everyone that this can be their real life too. I feel responsible to go back home and talk to schools where the students may not even know anyone who has been aboard, let alone traveled around the ocean on a cruise ship. I feel responsible to remember the disparity between Europe and Africa, and South America and stop the miseducation that labels so many countries as underdeveloped when we seen for ourselves that a better label is “exploited countries.” I feel responsible to understand my privilege is not based solely on my hard work or intellect, but more upon the Shoulders on which I Stand. The people who supported, financed, and opened Semester at Sea to me. The freedom fighters of the past and present who understood that their freedom was my own. My greatest responsibility after this voyage is to commit my life to justice. That regardless of what job I hold or situation I am in, I am an ally to all people and to serving towards a better world.
I know that America has done wrong and on the other hand I know that Semester at Sea as an institution has missed key moments to challenge the status quo. But I know that I love them both and I am pro-America and pro-Semester at Sea. And in my love for them, I still feel a responsibility to fight to improve them and work with others to have them live up to their fullest potential. I do not have to wait until I am comfortable with money or a job to commit my life to justice because there is no real comfort in me having money while others are starving, there is no real comfort in making a fair wage while some of my food, clothes, and electronics are made by workers with inhumane wages. However, I do not have to run from the privileges I will likely gain as an American, who is a future college graduate, of able mind, and able body but I should use them to empower others. I should and hope to condemn my own indifference and embody the quote from the holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
My privileges must be used to create a better world not just for the oppressed or marginalized but also for myself and for my future children.
In closing, I am proud of my Semester at Sea experience and humbled by the people who showed me so much love on this ship. I am grateful for the friendships, hard conversations, and the five dance moves I developed and used on every dance floor. My responsibility and commitment to bettering this world is the only way I can reflect on Semester at Sea and embrace the experience. It is the only way I keep from apologizing or feeling guilty about this privilege, it is the only way I continue to live with a connection to my fellow person and a connection to the power of myself.
Thank you to Semester at Sea, thank you to my shipmates, to the crew I am profoundly thankful and to my family I am forever grateful. And thank you all for your time.”
As usually happens in most of my classes, Semester at Sea puts what I learned in my communication class about language into perspective. Below is an essay I produced for class, continuously thinking about the following quote by Desmond Tutu, as I wrote it: “don’t raise your voice; improve your argument”
Growing up in Union City, NJ, where the population is 84.7% Hispanic, certainly encouraged me to be increasingly sensitive to the role that language plays in the development of an individual and that of the population as a whole. As is described in the essay “Verbal and Nonverbal Contact”, John Stewart and Carole Logan emphasize that, “as humans, we’re immersed in language, like a fish immersed in water” (Logan and Stewart 108). Encouraged to travel domestically and internationally from a very young age, the impact of language on “fish” living outside of my hometown was particularly evident to me growing up. Last August, I decided to pursue a Semester at Sea, which consisted of me living, traveling, and studying on a ship for four months; therefore, the idea of “language as an ocean” is deeply resonating, particularly reminiscent of an encounter that I had with a cab driver in South Africa.
Logan and Stewart’s notion of “language as an ocean” stems from the all-encompassing characteristic of language: it is the environment that we are born into, that we contribute to, and that outlives us. Unarguably, the environment in which an individual is born into certainly affects him/her; in the same way, language, the words and the sounds that surround an individual, certainly impact the way that he thinks and sees the world around him: “the point that language and perception are thoroughly interrelated means that everything we perceive, all the things that make up our world, is affected by the language in which we live” (Logan and Stewart 109). This quotation emphasizes the impact that language is absorbed, in the same way that a fish in an ocean absorbs water and all the chemicals in it, impacting its very existence and perception of its view in relation to the rest of the ocean.
After my experience of never bargaining a day before to bargaining extensively in Ghana, once ported in South Africa, I felt prepared to exercise my newly acquired negotiation skills in another country where I learned that it was necessary to do so. Wishing to go outside of Cape Town and west to the Cape of Good Hope, my shipmates and I decided to take a cab, which we were told should cost no more than 150 rand, about $15. After explaining to the driver that we were students with little to no money to spare, David, our cab driver for the day, graciously agreed to bring the price down to about 100 rand.
After an amazing day filled with sightseeing, going to the southern-most tip of Africa, feeding penguins and baboons, David offered to take us to a market, free of charge. At the market, I decided to once again exercise my bargaining skills, taking advantage of the already discounted items to purchase souvenirs for my friends and family. After an afternoon of successful discounted shopping, my friends and I entered the cab, talking about our purchases and how great we had become at bargaining. I specifically stated that we “beasted”, a relatively recent colloquial American term for “thriving” or “succeeding”.
David did not take our bargaining lightly. In fact, his previously lighthearted and positive tone of voice changed drastically to one of disappointment as he stated, “yes, you’re right, what I saw at the market were not humans but beasts. Now I know that what you told me at the port about being ‘students on a budget’ is nothing but a lie.” At this point, my heart sunk, realizing that my word choice at the moment was not particularly the best, but I let him continue, as he said:
“You know, I’m a single parent, with a son that needs to be fed and clothed, and whom I haven’t seen for the past three days that the ship has been docked because I need to work as many hours as I can in order to feed him and to clothe him; I’ve been living out of my car.”
At this point, I interrupted him, making sure that he knew what I meant when I said the word, “beasted”, and why it seemed essential for us to bargain in a country like South Africa. I made him aware of how “light skinned” individuals on the ship were incredibly taken advantage of in Ghana because their skin tones were associated with immense wealth. I also let him know that my mother is also a single parent, whom I did not see sometimes for days, as she worked far from home. After my explanation, and perhaps, deviation from the argument, David seemed to be more understanding, accepting that he had misunderstood our intentions.
My interaction with David is certainly representative of two “fish” growing up in different oceans. His experience, never having traveled to the United States and only interacting with Americans through his work as a cab driver, led him not to understand what I meant when I used an idiomatic expression. His perception, paired with a misinterpretation of my words and actions led him to absorb what he envisioned to be the truth. Sticking with the “language as an ocean” simile, like a fish exposed to a harmless plant for the first time and being alarmed at its sight, David did not know how to react to his observations and decided to become defensive of his perception. This is precisely what Logan and Stewart emphasize happens when individuals learn new languages or a new word for that matter: although David and I spoke the ‘same language’, environmental factors, which changed and developed our usage of that language changed our perception of the world and our place in it.
Leaving my primarily Hispanic neighborhood and travelling to over thirty countries has certainly impacted my views on language and the importance of it on the life of an individual and his role in society, emphasized in John Stewart’s anthology, particularly in his essay, “Verbal and Nonverbal Contact” with Carole Logan. Unlike many other forms of communication, which frequently vary from place to place, language is a way to connect individuals from distinct generations, social classes, and geographic locations; the essay emphasized that language is not only a means to communicate, but also a means of developing and forming an identity, differing across the very countries a language unites. This reminded me of the experience I had with a cab driver who literally interpreted my words in the most negative sense, victimizing him. We later realized that this miscommunication had been a product of our different experiences ‘across’ the Atlantic Ocean. Language encompasses the ocean that we are born into, that we absorb, that we contribute to, and that we traverse as we move throughout our lives in and out of different places and experiences.
Invariably, man’s contact with nature sheds light on the fundamental cycle of life, one of interdependence and endless interaction with the external world. This picture represents the simultaneous risk and beauty that nature exposes to mankind. The woman literally hangs on the edge of the cliff in order to experience the beauty that awaits her- she peers over the edge, observing a waterfall that sprinkles between two landmasses. The essence of a country is comprised of its land and by the people that inhabit its territory, particularly marked by the interaction between the two. This interaction often requires a risk to be taken, a negligible price to pay for the beauty that often awaits her.
Below is a list of things I realized I would not have accomplished enough in such a short amount of time (3.5 months), if it weren’t for SAS:
- Partook in a Bollywood dance
- Met and lived with an astronaut/ 5+diplomats/ and the US Ambassador to Brazil
- Saw dozens of beautiful sunsets and sun rises
- Crossed the equator, the Prime Meridian, and 0, 0
- Lived on the same ship that Desmond Tutu and Fidel Castro once did
- Lived with professors/doctors/a clown/ humanitarians/ priests and rabbis
- Partook in a Jewish ceremony i.e. Rosh Hashanah (ate Hal’s bread and honey),
- Partook in a funeral ceremony on the ship
- Watched a comedy show
- Came up with a business plan and saw others develop theirs
- Sang in a choir
- Danced tango/salsa/rumba/and jive
- Did insanity in the middle of the ocean
- Celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving among other things in the middle of the ocean
- Survived a few months’ worth of no-Facebook usage –forcing me to socialize and to get closer to some of the most amazing people I have ever met
- Took part of ‘sea olympics’ and was on the winning team for tug of war!
Below is a list of things I realized I would not have accomplished enough in such a short amount of time (3.5 months), if it weren’t for SAS:
- Went to an Ice Bar – London, England
- Went to a Music Festival (Electric Picnic) in Dublin, Ireland
- Rode horses in Uruguay
- Watched a Soccer Game in Brazil
- Watched an Orchestra Perform at the Manaus Opera House- Brazil
- Snorkeled in Rosseau, Dominica
- Saw a Westend Play- London, England
- Had my feet ‘cured by fish’- Santorini, Greece
- Saw a Bull Fight – Sevilla, Spain
- Climbed Two Volcanoes- Greece and Canary Islands
- Went on a ‘canopy walk’ – South Africa
- Saw live jazz – Barcelona, Spain
- Helped build a home in South Africa through Habitat for Humanity
- Bathed in two hot springs – Greece and Dominica
- Pet a cheetah – South Africa. a Sloth and a Baby Crocodile- Brazil
- Met and stayed with Amazonian natives
- Completed a Jungle Survival Skills course – Amazon, Brazil
- Dove with Sharks – Gansbaai, South Africa
- Saw flamenco and tango dancers- Cadiz, Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina
- Went to a Middle Eastern/ Belly Dancing Restaurant – Cape Town, South Africa
- Learned how to read maps better
- Went to Numerous temples, including Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, and Krishna Consciousness places of worship
Another Reason Why I love SAS
When else do you develop such a relationship with a Dean?
Here is a little something I wrote for my World Religions class:
In the increasingly globalized society that we live in, no longer limited to economies and material interchange, whether it be religious or political views, humans are coming to depend on each other like never before. This unprecedented interdependency can certainly lead to conflict if understanding is not achieved by the multiple parties involved, which is why a global perspective or an understanding of 1. how our own thought processes are shaped by our environment, our education, and our all around-life experience, 2. how our ideas and identities differ from those around us, and 3. how important it is to be open to the different perspectives of those who we have come to depend on.
Simply being in the course and learning about the history and the evolution of different religions relative to other religions provides an astounding wealth of knowledge and understanding of the adaptive and interdependent nature of religions around the world; however, this knowledge was certainly epitomized most recently, as we ventured through less than a 100 mile radius and were able to encounter religious leaders of five varying faiths and denominations who were all willing to not only tolerate each other but to collaborate with each other in what truly represents a microcosm of the world. – If only everyone learned to have such an avid global perspective!
Of course among all of the benefits of global perspective and understanding, there are certainly ways in which the intermingling of various religions certainly stands in the way of the achievement of complete understanding, mostly because of the inherent truths that are fundamentally interpreted as the only truth. When religions, even Christianity, which in some ways claims to be the ‘only path’ to salvation or the only way to reach heaven (Calvinist’s views of predestination and numbered spots in heaven), conflict certainly arises, as it has and continues to do in this tumultuous world.
After the end of this course and post-Semester at Sea, I hope to return to my home community and continue to explore all of the religions that I was fortunate enough to learn about during my time here. I am encouraged to turn my ‘agnostic’ self into an individual of faith and belonging. I say this perhaps with a Freudian sense of need for community and comfort, but mostly because of my understanding of the power of religion(s) to make this world a better place- that is, if there ever is understanding in this world.
With over one billion people around the world who identify themselves as Muslim, who not only consider themselves as followers of the Islamic religion but as adopters of the religion as a way of life, the conflict of an ever-changing and evolving world certainly possesses several threats to this religion heavily based on oral and scriptural tradition.
Despite the fact that the written revelations of the Prophet Muhammad are static, the ways in which the religious beliefs are practiced are certainly adoptive, in some places more than others, to an increasingly secular world: this is a move towards political systems that exist independently from any religion, in essence, a separation of church and state, including Islam. Perhaps the most prominent reason why there is such a conflict between Islamic regions and the increasing push for secularization is that this western ideal is foreign to the Muslim principal whereby religious and political authorities are traditionally unanimous under the caliphate. This control is extended to science, technology, education and other areas of daily life, which various parts of the Islamic world throughout Europe, Africa and various parts of Asia have all responded accordingly and in varying degrees of stringency.
At the least conservative end of the spectrum is Turkey, which under the rule of Kemal Atatürk who decided to completely dissolve the caliphate in 1924, is now a completely secular state with a legal system emulating those of many European nations, independent of religious ties. Complementing this shift for a more secular state came the replacement of the Arabic alphabet for the Latin alphabet, the adaptation of a democratic government that allows women to vote, and cultural changes whereby women and men are not required to wear religious head pieces, the veil and the fez, respectively. Despite this rather compelling push towards secularization, there are many attempts by conservative leaders to return to an Islamic government. As theologian Michael Molloy states, “…Atatürk’s hope of transforming Turney into a European-style nation has not yet been fully realized” (Molloy 474). However, it has certainly made very progressive efforts towards a nation that is increasingly independent from religious involvement in public life.
At the opposite end of the scale when it comes to compromise stands Saudi Arabia, which certainly did not respond favorably to the push for a more secularized society; aside from maintaining the Qur’an as its legal constitution, religion also dominates many sectors of public life. In particular, the nation forbids the usage of alcohol, bans the viewing of movies, and is strictly segregationist when it comes to women’s rights: women are not allowed to go out without being covered by an abaya in public, must attend different educational institutions than men, and are not allowed to drive. All of these public displays of conformity are regulated by ‘religious’ police called Mutawa, which certainly limit any deviation from tradition in the nation, including the ‘accessorizing’ of clothing. Arguably the most vital reason why Saudi Arabia is capable of maintaining such a conservative society is due to its abundant wealth, largely stemming from the nation’s oil industry: this is what funds the promotion of the 18th century puritanical Wahhabi reform movement, not only in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the Muslim world. Aruguably, without this large wealth, the nation would not have been able to sustain its strict ‘puritanical’ efforts.
The most theocratic state among all of the Muslim nations in the world is Iran, partly because of its tumultuous history, shifting between secularization and theocracy, pre and post times of war and revolution, particularly after World War II, during which the country’s leaders were heavily influenced by European standards. This indecisive state ended after the revolution of 1979, when the abolition of the king (shah), sparked a reversal of modernization, resulting in the development of mosques as the centers of civil and religious life, the degradation of women’s rights (their need to wear a veil in public), the forbiddance of alcohol, and in essence, the creation of the most theocratic state in the Muslim world.
When it comes to finding the ‘right’ balance between secularism and theocracy, one could contend that Egypt has certainly succeeded. Arguably out of dire necessity, Egypt has historically been the source of compromise between its various religious and ethnic populations: its rich diversity of Coptic Christian, Jewish, and Greek individuals among its Muslim population, certainly represents a small microcosm of the world and the role that Islam plays among it: this, along with Egypt’s economic dependency on foreign tourism, requires the nation to mediate between Islamic ideals that are too conservative and those that are vital to the religion’s endurance . It is for this reason that alcohol continues to be legal and that women have more rights than in many conservative Muslim states; however, this is not true of the nation as a whole: amidst all of the religious freedom of the nation was founded an Islamic fundamentalist group, a term coined by the Western world, emphasizing the group’s desire to return to traditional religious authority, particularly the unification of religious and political authority under the caliphate. This group, more specifically founded in 1928 as the Muslim Brotherhood sought a return to the traditional beliefs of Islam. Perhaps the most conflicting product of this group is “because they believe that tourism brings influences that are considered corrupting, these groups tolerate or sponsor attacks of the sort that have sometimes been made on tourist groups” (Malloy 475). This is certainly an interpretative way of carrying out the concept of jihad, particularly against a western, modernized world.
Aside from Egypt, there are certainly other primarily Muslim nations, which fall between completely adhering to traditional Islamic ideals and adopting those ideals to an ever-changing modern world. Examples of those moderate countries include Pakistan, where the government aims to balance its tolerance of secular life and support for Qu’ranic schools and Indonesia, where a large influx of immigration and emigration has created an ‘imperfect’ Islamic society that is somewhat forced to be tolerant of other religions and lifestyles. Perhaps the most successful of all of the Muslim countries in incorporating the Muslim faith with an ever-changing secular world is Malaysia, which Malloy claims is “the most successful of all predominantly Musim countries in integrating Islam with the modern industrial world” (Malloy 477). This is primarily because as the 10th largest trading nation in world, it has an excellent educational system, controlled corruption, and a diverse leadership system that uses passages from the Qu’ran to emphasize the supporting of private property, promotion of women’s rights and religious tolerance, certainly representing the epitome of tolerance and integration.
In an evolving world that seems to be increasingly promoting the separation of church and state, this idea of secularism certainly poses a threat to various primarily Muslim nations that are forced to respond to this Western ideal, contrary to the Muslim ideal of a caliphate, which unites religious and political authority. There is certainly a range of responses, varying in degree from the most conservative (Saudi Arabia), to the least conservative (Turkey), and anywhere in between. As in any other relative conflict, there is no right or wrong, but certainly a need for compromise between new and old, tradition and modernity.
It’s been months since we stepped off that ship. Everyone’s very much settled back into their own lives. The partiers, the volunteers, the academics, the restless.
On that ship, we were the same. Lost. In love, with each other, with our surroundings. Curious. Adventurous. Open. Humble.
We’re different again. Strangers again. But not quite. Each of us knows that the others understand an aspect of our lives that no one else can. What it was like to come back to the ship. What it was like to hold on to something while taking a shower. What it was like to know that everyone else was sharing the same experience. Of wandering, of discovery, of life…
I think to myself, was that an anomaly? Is it right to stay in one place? Is it right to move around? I want to keep moving, to see more of this world and meet more of its inhabitants. But I want to stay put, to save up some money, to solve some problems in my little world of Iowa. To fly. I want to do both. I want a good job, but I want to travel. There is no way on God’s beautiful Earth that two weeks a year is “enough”. There is no way that waiting until I’m in my sixties and can’t walk is “acceptable”.
I want to see the world. I want to reach my economic potential. I want to have money in the bank. I want to keep in touch with all of these wonderful people I know. I want to have a family. I want to run for public office. I want to fly around the world. And I have no idea how all of that fits together…
And is it too much to ask to find a nice steakhouse where they have a great selection of wines rather than beers?