Heard in the Chaos and BeautyBlog / Produced by The High Calling
“What do I say to them, these gifted and gracious people who find themselves bound by a historical and political reality that denies them so much?” In this article from our series Called to the Firing Line, Sarah Aziza invites us into the chaos and beauty of teaching in the Middle East.
“Are you sure you’re safe?”
I’ve grown accustomed to this question, to the anxious inquiries about my security that bookend each conversation with family and friends. Unsatisfied with my reassurances, they often continue by reciting a recent headline in shrill tones. “What if fighting breaks out where you are?” I hear the love that underlies their fear, and I understand—I moved to Amman, Jordan in 2014, just months after graduating college and at a time when violence and uncertainty seems set to ravage every corner of the Middle East.
I remind my loved ones that military clashes are, so far, a tolerable distance from my home, but I normally remain silent about the larger effects of the upheaval. Truth be told, there is more to the picture than bullets and bombs.
At Work in a Troubled Land
My workplace itself is a jarring mix of youthful ambitions and difficult realities. I teach at a college run by the United Nations Relief Works Agency where I offer twelve lectures a week on English, human development, and creative writing. My students are Palestinian refugees, young minds of brightness and beauty saddled with a legacy of dispossession. Born in Jordan to parents who were exiled from their homes during the various wars that established the state of Israel, these young people exist in a political limbo—stateless and often marginalized by poverty or prejudice.
In class, I strive to create a space of acceptance, empowerment, and imagination. In these months as a teacher, I’ve found deep joy in watching many students overcome their fears through bold and creative engagement in and out of the classroom. As I’ve befriended these young men and women, I’ve been dazzled by the diversity of their talents and ambitions. Still, even as I urge them to pursue their passions, I recognize the towering institutional obstacles that stand against people of their background. Being Palestinian and lower-income, my students have dreams for the future that are often whittled down to a list of people they hope to help feed. What do I say to them, these gifted and gracious people who find themselves bound by a historical and political reality that denies them so much?
I’ve grown close to students and colleagues, and in visits to their homes I am met unfailingly with the warmth and generosity that defines Arab households and defies difficult surroundings. Over countless cups of tea, we’ve built trust and shared both laughter and pain, often speaking of our horror brought on by regional events.
“It’s like hell on earth,” Mohammad, a Syrian refugee, told me, his eyes dull, glutted with too much seen. An Iraqi man who fled ISIL on foot told me how parents were forced to leave the bodies of their infants unburied. “There wasn’t even enough time to make graves.”
Where is God? We who call ourselves believers want to know.
Trouble at Work in Me
For many years, I’ve prayed to a God of grace, a God almighty and full of mercy. Yet in these months of living in such close proximity to suffering, I’ve found myself echoing the lament of David:
Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place …
They were like those who swing axes in a forest of trees …
They said to themselves, “We will utterly utterly subdue them.”
… How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
… Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? (Ps. 74:4-5, 8, 10-11, ESV)
Many evenings I’d return to my apartment and retreat to my room with a knot of unshed tears in my chest, the brave but weary faces of friends and students fresh in my mind’s eye. I’d try to pray but find my lips hopelessly still.
David, too, when he considered the violent oppression of his time, despaired:
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task … (Ps. 73:16, ESV)
I recently asked my friend Naseem, “What will bring peace?” Naseem is a young Palestinian man born and raised in a refugee camp outside Amman. We had spent nearly an hour discussing the seemingly endless tangle of corruption, fear, and destruction in the region—and I was exasperated. He paused. I braced for a vindictive tirade from this young man, who has grown up surrounded by poverty and violence. “We need to keep praying.” He said it simply. His eyes were level and clear; his dark face was solemn as he added, “There will never be peace until hearts turn back to God.”
His words struck me like a cold, clear wind.
Turning, a Kind of Faith
Perhaps that is what disaster does to us. In our reeling, we find ourselves turning towards something true. I see now I’ve been doing that, slowly, in fits and starts. In my aching, my searching, my inner raging, I have been turning, practicing a faith that is quiet and uncertain but certainly real. In moments of grief or confusion that escaped the reaches of language, I chose to turn toward the Presence, if only in my silence. Like David, I showed up, if only to express desperation.
I’m beginning to think there is value in this: in standing at the edge of despair and glimpsing our universal need for grace. Emptied of strength and understanding, my hollowness became a vessel for a deeper measure of God.
David, too, found his peace when he came to this place.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God. (Ps. 73:16-17, ESV)
David did not get all the answers. Neither will I. But in the sanctuary of prayer, built from the debris of my human understanding, I have found the powerful truth of God’s presence, near and active.
Heard in the Chaos and Beauty
It is said that the Arab people are descendants of Ismail (Ishmael), the son of Abraham. I am reminded that “Ismail” means “God Hears,” and how Hagar, a helpless exile, found the mercy of God in her wilderness and desperation.
As I carry on in this chaotic and beautiful work here in Jordan, it isn’t understanding that will lead me but my daily turning and dependence on the One Who Hears—and has always heard—the voices that call upon him from the desert.