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a metal teapot over a gas burner

“Our Wasted Days are Days We Never Laugh,” and Other Things I’ve Learned in Shithole Countries

Marilyn R. Gardner

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  • Jabeen Ghaznavi

    I am touched by the moving portrayal of your experiences of growing up in my hometown, Karachi. The simple sharing of just a cup of tea is still a way of life, and the joys of doing so are endless. This defines our cultural values and who we are as a people.

  • Robin Sheffield

    I read and enjoyed Ms Gardner's article on her experiences in Middle Eastern and other cultures. Stories and experiences like hers always interest me. I probably will never visit the places she has visited but am interested nevertheless---and I learn from what I read, whether good or bad. As for the nasty adjective that U.S. politicians of various sorts -- incl the current president -- have used to reference such places, what can I say? It is what it is. But I enjoyed her perspective on these societies nonetheless.

  • Nick Doversberger

    This has precisely been my experience in travels to places as diverse as Central America, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Each time such stories are shared it helps counteract bias, misperception and falsehood. When you look for and expect the best from people, you are often surprised to learn that even then you underestimated them. Thank you for this fine article and for the closing, important word about humility. That opens so many doors.

  • Nancy Robinson

    Thanks. I resonate with everything you’ve shared. Growing up and now working in Africa I have seen these lived out and have grown through these values. Blessing.

  • Marielle McFarland

    Thank you for writing your piece. It really spoke to me. I spent a semester abroad in 2009 during which I traveled to Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Israel and the West Bank. My time there was very much characterized by hospitality, quickly established friendships, generosity and humility. While reading your article it struck me that these are all character traits needed for establishing and maintaining community. I think being part of a community is a key ingredient to human happiness and is a very hard to find in America. There really is so much we can learn from the so called "shithole" countries. I also think that having a community probably increases an individual's resiliency. Thanks again for writing this piece. It got me thinking :)

Just before I turned twenty-one, I traveled to Haiti with a group of college students. The trip was a service project hosted by a local church in Cap-Haïtien, a beautiful spot on the north coast of the island.

I don’t remember much about the trip, other than thinking that I had fallen in love with one of the other team members. What I do remember is Haiti itself.  I remember a generous welcome and ready smiles; flexible timetables, warm friendship, and hospitality at the hands of strangers. I remember the relief I felt at being in a place where it seemed I was loved – not for what I did, but for who I was.

It’s been a long time since I thought about this trip, but I recently recalled my time there as Haiti graced the front page news when President Trump described it as a “shithole country.”

It turns out that I’ve spent a number of years of my life living or traveling in countries that now wear the label of “shithole countries.” I was raised in one, gave birth in two, and traveled to many more. I could write volumes on the lessons I have learned about life and people from these countries, but here are five that I lean into every day.

Hospitality

“If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart.”
Arab Proverb

Growing up in Pakistan spoiled me for the future awaiting me when I returned to the United States to attend college. I imagined a bevy of strangers becoming friends and wanting to know about my life in Pakistan. I pictured someone adopting me, a lonely college student. I thought that invitations to tea, meals, and gatherings, or at least Friday night pizza, would be forthcoming in the United States. I was wrong. Other than a group of other students who had grown up overseas and with whom I sought comfort, I struggled to connect in the place of my birth. I would later find out that an estimated 80 percent of international students are never invited to an American home.

Hospitality is part of the cultural DNA of many countries throughout Africa and the Middle East. A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited Lebanon to hear more about the needs of Syrian refugees. Within eight hours of arriving, we were at the home of Lebanese Christians where we spent all day eating, talking, and laughing. We had never met them before. The day ended as we watched the sun set over the mountains of North Lebanon.

The next day a Shiite family invited us into their home in Beirut. Again, they were complete strangers, but took us in to share a meal that rivaled Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. The family placed raw and cooked kibbe – freshly ground lamb with spices, savory rice dishes with pine nuts, Fattoush salad made with crunchy pita bread, a variety of vegetables, homemade pita bread, and condiments, including pungent black and green olives in front of us, each dish rivaling the other in taste. When our plates were emptied the second time, our hostess hovered over us like a bee over a flower, urging us to eat more and making sure we tasted everything on the table.  Along with food, we learned about the family who had taken us in.

Our time reflected what I experienced as a child in Pakistan, where I had a front seat at weddings, birthday parties, Eid celebrations, and family gatherings; a witness to life unfolding with lavish hospitality.

Friendship

“Between two friends, even water drunk together is sweet enough.”
African Proverb

I was recently asked by a friend how to connect with a Muslim colleague from Ethiopia. “You cannot out love your Muslim friends,” was the first thing I said. I have been shown extravagant love and continual loyalty, even when I have not deserved it. When I have broken promises, spoken sharply, and not treated friendships with the care they deserve I have still been received with open arms and forgiveness.

I remember an incident a number of years ago where I angrily reacted to a situation, blaming a friend who was innocently standing nearby. I disconnected my head from my tongue and didn’t come up for air until I had exhausted my Arabic vocabulary. Thankfully, my Arabic wasn’t that large. Instead of turning away, my friend embraced me and gave me mercy followed by tea. It was exactly the opposite of what I deserved. But for her, our friendship was more important than my carelessness and anger.

In October, after my father died, I learned once again of the sweetness of these friendships. My Middle Eastern friends entered into my grief without embarrassment. They didn’t worry about saying the wrong thing, they simply responded by being present. I am continually humbled as I think about the way my friends approach friendship in contrast to my conditional attitude and the strings I subconsciously attach to friendship and relationships.

a metal teapot over a gas burner

Resilience

“Our wasted days are the days we never laugh.”
Sudanese Proverb

One year ago, my husband and I met an Iranian refugee who had been resettled in a city north of Boston. He was living in an apartment with other men from Jordan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. We visited on a cold Sunday night in January. When we got to the apartment we found that they had not had electricity for seven days. The apartment was heated entirely by electricity and all their appliances were electric as well. They had no way to heat water, cook, or take showers. They invited us into their kitchen where we sat shivering, our coats zipped tight and scarves doubled around our necks. They lit candles and served us tea with water they had gotten from a nearby coffee shop and kept in a thermos. No one complained. We sat talking and laughing, telling stories until one of the candles burned out. As we left the apartment, I was deeply humbled. I was also freezing in the sub degree Massachusetts winter. Some of the men had faced political and religious persecution; others had walked long miles to find limited sanctuary in refugee camps. In their world, having no electricity was minor.  We were quiet on the drive home. As we entered into our warm Cambridge apartment, my husband looked at me and voiced what we both felt “We’re big babies!”  We shook our heads and vowed to make calls the next day to advocate for five men who clearly had no voice in getting something as fundamental as electricity.

Generosity

“May Allah bless the hands that give me this gift.”
Arab Prayer

As I write this, I am celebrating the completion of a two-year long project at my workplace. I have been working with several Muslim communities in Boston on a women’s health project. The tangible result of the project is a curriculum in Arabic for health educators to use in the community. When asked to describe how this project came about, I say this “We were received into these communities with tremendous generosity.”

From the beginning, I knew that this project would not be successful without community leaders getting involved and connected. In each community that we went to we were received with so much grace and even more generosity. From hosting us in mosques to hosting us in homes and community gathering spaces, a community that has experienced hurt and judgment invited us in to talk, listen, and learn. We were served tea, cake, and stories; some about funny cultural collisions, others about poignant loss, and still others about pain and injustice. These were stories of a deeply misunderstood community that wants to integrate and give back to the country that took them in. We heard from people who have lived in the United States for many years, and from people who arrived just months before. The common denominator in all these meetings and gatherings was generosity. People were generous with time, with space, with food, and with stories.

The final product of the project just arrived and I wish it could talk. I wish it could relay to others all the stories, all the time, all the personalities of the people that helped in the project. Because it’s more than just a public health project; it’s a picture of what can happen when we break down walls and communicate across boundaries. It’s a tapestry made of hospitality and friendship; resilience and generosity. Every person who worked on the project is changed as a result of spending time together.

Humility

“Asking the way doesn’t mean one is lost.”
Haitian proverb

It’s hard to imagine any country erring by offering too much generosity, too much friendship and hospitality. When I look around at the United States today, I long to see this country learn and grow in these areas, for all of us would benefit.

All of these lessons are based, of course, on humility – humility that leaves no room for cultural superiority and invites us to learn from others. Only in humility can we move forward in mutual respect and willingness to put aside differences in the interest of relationship.

And humility might just start with not calling other people, or the nations and cultures they come from, shitholes.

a metal teapot over a gas burner
Contributed By Marilyn Gardner Marilyn R. Gardner

The author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging, and a newly released memoir Passages Through Pakistan, Gardner also blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas.

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