It all started from there

Just three days of class left and look what I randomly found on my laptop- my application essay for Qasid, written in April, when after turning things over in my mind for what seemed like ages I finally decided that yes, I was going to live in Jordan for a bit.

Sorry for the lack of modesty, but I still love what I wrote and stand by it completely ❤ Thankfully it worked!!!

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

A few days ago, during my usual visit to the local jail, I started telling my favourite inmates about my coming move to Jordan. “I don’t like it”, sentenced Ben, a Nigerian I’ve been meeting weekly for about a year. “You’re going to end up getting married to an Arab or being kidnapped or something; I say it’s better if you stay here”. Worry painted all over his face and gestures, he concluded: “Isn’t it dangerous?”.

Ironically enough, the following day Giacomo, a 14-year-old student of mine, used Ben’s exact same words – “Isn’t it dangerous?”- when asking me about my volunteer work in prison. “Do you know what they all did? Aren’t you scared they will do something to you?”.

As a matter of fact, no: I’m not scared. Nor was I scared when I first started volunteering one-to-one with “criminals”, or -obviously- when I first decided I wanted to move to the Middle East for some time. I’m positive there’s nothing to be scared about. But their question in common got me thinking: where does other people’s exaggerated sense of fear come from – and where, when, and why have I left mine behind?

Apart from the objective reasons that constitute real, physical, demonstrated danger in certain areas of the world, and shouldn’t of course be ignored, it is my firm belief that the biggest source of fear is ignorance. Numerous studies could undoubtedly explain it better than me, but the key point is that, when we don’t know something or someone, our survival instinct triggers a sentiment of fear to keep us away from that unidentified presence; preserve our integrity; and, ultimately, stay alive.

I agree with that and understand it: it certainly makes sense, in some contexts. But I am also convinced that ignorance alone is not all there is. Linking back to inmates, for instance, when I chose to volunteer in prison I was thoroughly ignorant on the subject, apart from attending a short presentation by two other people who had already been doing it for a while. I had absolutely no idea as to what the people in there would actually be like, how they would behave with me, and what kinds of feelings that would provoke in me. I just gave it for granted that it would be nothing negative. And so it was.

In the past seven years or so, that same assumption – the certainty that I’d be okay because, in the end, “people are people”, and I like people! – has brought me to experience a few fairly uncommon situations: from hosting a variety of complete strangers in my family home to being a guest for two weeks in a centre for the rehabilitation of drug addicts in Poland; chatting with transgender prostitutes in the outskirts of Milan at 1am; and so on. Again, the question pops up: why am I okay with this and aren’t others? Where does my certainty originate from?

Maybe I’m wrong, naive, or I’ve just been incredibly lucky so far- but I feel that perhaps, if Ben, Giacomo, and others like them had approached all the languages I have, they wouldn’t be so scared of the unknown. The way I see it, it’s pure mathematics and a pinch of communication skills: the more languages you know, the more sincerely you’ll be able to connect to people in all corners of the planet, and the more support you will get from them in times of difficulty – hence, having no need to worry about anything, anytime, pretty much anywhere. Doesn’t it sound magic and wonderful?

Sure, Ben and Giacomo both speak English, which is universally recognised as “the international language”, the key to all doors, the solution to all linguistic problems. Yet, saying that English is the only language you need to know is like asserting you can get anywhere by car: it can seem true… but it isn’t.

While to this date English is definitely the means of communication I have employed the most with non-Italians, that’s also because I have spent the majority of my adult years in English-speaking countries and, just like a car isn’t the quickest means of transportation at rush hour, that doesn’t necessarily translate into English having been the most helpful language for me when caught in uneasy circumstances.

I’ll support this idea with examples to explain why, in my opinion, knowing a diversity of languages generally equates to not living with an in-built a priori fear, whatever the situation; and, on the contrary, helps solve all problems.

(1) ITALIAN. There was an occasion when I found myself unexpectedly unable to take my flight from Toronto to Washington DC because a particularly uncooperative U.S. Border officer insisted the only way to be admitted was paying for an electronic visa by credit (not debit!) card, and I simply did not own one. I was on my own: my relatives and closest friends were all thousands of miles away, and nobody I was very close to owned a credit card anyway. They just aren’t that common in Europe. On the verge of tears, I remembered my Torontonian colleague’s Italian origins and how friendly his family had been when finding out I was a real Italian national and speaker from actual Italy. I called him; his father (one of Canada’s most prominent neurosurgeons) answered the phone. And the miracle happened: he gave me his credit card details over the phone. Thanks to my mother-tongue.

(2) FRENCH. Once I was in Brussels (yes, on my own again) waiting for my train at the station, and an elderly man started mumbling something incomprehensible in my direction. Out of respect for his age, I got closer to him to try and make out what he was attempting to say, thinking he might be feeling unwell. It turned out he actually wanted to sexually abuse me, which of course was quite a shock! Yet, I didn’t classify that juncture as “dangerous” even for a millisecond – because I knew, deep down, with absolute certainty, that if I needed to scream for help I could easily do it, in French. People would automatically listen. And I’d be okay and able to explain myself to anybody, be they multilingual or not. Yay for French learnt at school!

(3) SPANISH. Would you believe a not-so-wealthy Guatemalan family I barely knew agreed to host me for two months in exchange for absolutely nothing in a time of need? We used to go to the same church, and they heard about my difficulties from a common friend. As lovely and truly generous as they were and are, I am convinced they wouldn’t have been up for it if I didn’t speak Spanish, and I really wouldn’t have known what to do if they didn’t agree to host me. How did I learn Spanish? By working with Latin American asylum seekers – just what that Guatemalan family had been until not so long before.

Now, these are just three small drops in an ocean of anecdotes I could tell to support my theory. I have also found Italian to be useful when couchsurfing in Poland, and it made me famous at an Indian wedding in Kerala; I used my French to interpret for my group of volunteers when I went to Burkina Faso, and to communicate with the Djiboutian refugee kids who lived a floor below me in Canada; Spanish is the mother-tongue of many of the street prostitutes and of some of the inmates I volunteer with at the moment; English was extremely helpful once when hitch-hiking with an Iranian truck-driver; and though my Turkish and German are absolutely elementary, they have also been of help in a variety of circumstances.

To conclude: “isn’t it dangerous?”. I believe that meeting and communicating with other people, if done attentively, tactfully, respectfully, never is. Each new language you add to your repertoire is a bridge you can cross safely in all directions to discover new cultures, and connect to beautiful souls who will teach you a lot and protect you from all evil, be it in big or tiny ways. Each new language, I am convinced, is a new means of transportation that can carry you to previously unimagined coordinates.

Can I please learn to drive my Arabic with you?

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