By Fatima Elkabti
I didn’t have an airplane ticket, a suitcase, or permission from my father, yet I was due to be in Amman in less than thirty days.
Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), my father’s permission, the ticket, and a pair of old suitcases were all secured in time, but one thing continued to pester me. Was I going to show up in Amman with nothing to recommend me but my person? Jane Austen would frown upon that.
Besides, it is Arab tradition for guests to bring a gift on their first visit to someone’s house. And since I wasn’t visiting a house but rather a country, the gift had to be, well, something a little more than a box of chocolates.
I searched extensively, and ultimately found a cheap but valuable gift: books.
I’ve long been a believer in the environmental mantra of “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle,” but now I was convinced it could apply to more than paper, glass, and cans. Used books, I thought, could be sent to places where new ones were unaffordable or inaccessible. But how could I collect a cache of books in such a short time?
Enter the internet. I sent an email to a small cohort of Muslim American friends. I asked them for those dictionaries on their shelves that have fallen out of use, thanks to “dictionary.com” and the right-click thesaurus on Microsoft Word. What I effectively offered them in that email, however, was a concrete way to support their Palestinian refugee brothers and sisters. What they offered me, in turn, was humbling.
Within days, I had received word from tens of friends and, better yet, people I didn’t know, all opening up their hearts, personal libraries, and wallets to support this project.
About a week after that solicitous email, I had thirty-some dictionaries stacked in my living room, two boxes full of children’s books, and several checks in the mail.
And what’s more, the donors asked no questions. They saw no official website or paperwork. I am not a 401(k), and they certainly didn’t get a tax break. When I insisted that they give me mailing addresses so I could send some kind of receipt or thank-you note, many simply waved me away.
I hadn’t yet stepped foot in Amman, and I already felt that something integral had changed. My fellowship was no longer just my fellowship. My goal of empowering Palestinian refugees through language and literature was no longer just my goal. The magnanimity demonstrated at home was like an epigraph that set the tone for the rest of my work. The books that eventually made it into the hands of underprivileged schoolchildren – those weren’t just books with dog ears; they were an expression of one community’s solidarity with another. And, not unlike a suitcase, I simply carried that message of solidarity over.
This year, thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, I’m dividing my time between studying Arabic literature at the University of Jordan, teaching English and creative writing at an UNRWA school, and researching the impact of educational and career limitations on Gazan refugees.
But what I’m really doing here is recycling – recycling an old but ageless idea; that people can help each other to help themselves. I am just a child raised by a village who, bi’ithnillah (with Allah’s permission), can help another village to raise itself.
Fatima Elkabti is currently in Jordan on a Fulbright fellowship, where she is teaching English and creative writing to Palestinian refugees, studying Arabic, and conducting a research study on the Gazan refugee population. Follow Fatima’s adventures in Jordan at her personal blog Tamatim.