Heart speaks to heart across a cultural divide

She taught me about friendship, even though a friendship between us seemed unlikely. But then, a friendship between an Arab and a Jew always is. Our cultures are longstanding enemies, the Montagues and the Capulets of the Middle East, distant cousins separated by a centuries-old rift.

We were working together as teachers, and it was our first year at that school. We happened to be neighbors, too. Our rooms were right across from one another, separated by only a strip of tar and some stones and debris that had missed old, dented garbage cans.

At first we were cordial with each other, the way co-workers are supposed to be. We often made small talk about our aides, a memo sent, our kids. It was pleasant, but I felt there was a barrier and that the wall of political and ideological differences would separate us forever.

I could be polite, though, even if she just didn't seem to get it. We only had to work together. It didn't mean that we had to be friends; we just had to peacefully coexist. "Hello, how are you?" and "I'm fine" was about as far as it was going to go. That was fine with me.

THEN one day, I fell out of favor with the school administration. It began as something very small, an argument with a co-worker, and it grew into something very big. I was called into a meeting and told that perhaps I would be happier working somewhere else. The woman with whom I'd had the conflict wasn't leaving, they said, so I had to. They said many ugly and untrue things. My feelings were hurt. I stopped smiling at people. I withdrew and stopped socializing. I felt like a pariah, someone that people were whispering about.

My neighbor, separated by a strip of tar and a centuries-old rift, my people's bitter and sworn enemy, caught my eye one day in the cafeteria, and I knew that she knew.

"It's as though someone took the life out of you," she said. "You are like a different person, and it hurts my heart to see you like that."

From then on, we began taking long walks together during our conference periods, which happened to coincide. We would talk about what had happened. She gently upbraided me for my actions, at first. "You needed allies," she said. "Then this wouldn't have happened."

"It could have happened to anyone," I countered, "even you." She agreed, and she continued to take my side.

Sometimes she would confide to me about the wrongs and slights she had also suffered at work. Sometimes she would bring a dish that she had made at home, and we would sit down and eat together and talk about our philosophies on life, our religions, our families.

Not that we didn't have our differences. We did. At times she made comments that I thought were boastful.

"Do I dare say something to her about it?" I thought, "and risk alienating the one person who has been my friend and really cares?" In the end, I did say something, and my friend listened patiently. As it turned out, some of our differences were cultural, and her explanations brought us even closer together - my bitter and sworn enemy.

She stuck by me and stayed to help pick up the pieces when no one else did; others were too busy, or didn't care.

And in the end, my friend and I began to see over the top of the wall of our political and cultural differences. We exchanged phone numbers. And on my goodbye card, she simply wrote, "To my best friend: I wish you the best."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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