Beyond Our Differences by Rahma Henchiri, Tunisia

Before I started working at Skaramagas refugee camp in Athens, I did not know what to expect from the children. Ever since I can remember, I have been hearing about the Yazidi-Arab tension; and thus, being an Arab myself, I was worried that my hopes of becoming the girls’ older sister would eventually turn to ashes.

When I started on the field I told myself that, whatever happens, I am still going to work hard to provide the best for these children. No sooner did I start familiarizing myself with the camp structure, which at first looked like an inescapable maze of caravans, than I noticed how further apart the Yazidi caravans were from those of the Syrian Arabs. They called them “ethnic neighborhoods”. Whoever built the structure did well by placing the Afghan neighborhood in the middle. It kept things quieter when needed.

Most of the children who enrolled for our program were Yazidis. I could tell by how they looked, even before I ask where they are from. I loved how they have a very distinctive look. The boys look very stylish with their side bangs, often dyed in a darkish shade of blond, and their piercings, the ones they were given at birth by a relative or the community leader by simply knotting a thread inside the ear piercing. Very few girls had a teeny tiny greenish tattoo on their chin, very unlikely to be seen but I liked to secretly check these distinguished marks they had. And they all wore red and white thin wristbands or chokers. That was a symbol of their ethno-religious group. As unexpected as it may sound, knowing that we are very different, these features reminded me of where I come from, or actually where my ancestors do, or their great ancestors. Anyways, bottom line is, I am North-African; I have a Berber (Amazigh) heritage. Women in Ancient Numidia used to tattoo their faces, and men in some Berber villages in today’s Algeria still inherit the habit of baby boy piercing.

But I think this feeling of similarity was anything but mutual. Some of the older boys mainly were quite defensive when I tried to approach them in class or explain something. They would say they don’t understand Arabic, and then look away. I learned later on that all of them understand Arabic, but refuse to speak it. I couldn’t think of something more frustrating; and for me, whose multilingualism has always raised eyebrows, I couldn’t feel more incapable for not speaking Kurdish.

Fortunately though, I got closer to some others very quickly. On the warmer mornings of January, when the sun was warm enough to dry the damp wooden benches at the courtyard, they would spend their breaks outside, often chit-chatting, other times exchanging their new music discoveries. I would join them on breaks and purposefully start a conversation about Iraqi musical heritage. It only takes a conversation about Kadhim Al-Sahir to win those kids over, take it from me. Once I sang one of my all-time favorite Iraqi songs “Sghayroun” by Bashar Al-Qaisi, they kept asking me to sing in their dialect. The younger girls would laugh in surprise at my semi-successful attempt at sounding Iraqi. I could still see some of them very reluctant to join our “choir” though; but that was okay.

And then something happened, one sunny day in mid-February. Mariam, a 13-year-old Yazidi girl who has always reminded me of my sister back home with her long soft hair and her innocent facial expressions when speaking, came looking for me in the staff room. She randomly started hugging me and then greeted me with kisses on my cheeks. She reached to her pocket and handed me different kinds of candy with a wide grin on her face. Having an obsession with everything lemon-flavored, I already started picking up the lemon candies out of her hand when she joyfully explained: “Miss, today is our Yazidi ‘Eid’. We go around greeting our loved ones and giving candy and sweets.” I don’t think I still cared much about collecting lemon-flavored candies anymore. It felt like a turning point at that moment, because through culture, language and music, I was finally appreciated by Yazidis, even if only one person bothered to express that. I asked Mariam to teach me how to say happy holiday in Kurdish; and went around school reciting “tgalag aida bibini” to all Yazidi students, one by one. I taught it to some Arabic and Dari speakers too, and told them it’s nice to say it to their Yazidi classmates. The reactions were priceless. I can still remember Nashwan’s eyes widening in surprise when I said it. The previously reluctant students were speechless, but this time not because they want to, but because they were surprised.

Now, they still crack the “I don’t speak Arabic” joke from time to time, but this time because they want me to reply with the very modest Kurdish words I have learned from them. It makes them (and me) laugh. I’d like to think the ice between us was eventually broken. I finally got the chance to have them in my music club, where their love for Kadhim Al-Sahir grew even fonder, and where the “girls choir” made me cry more than once when they sang about Kurdistan. I finally showed them faces of original people of Ancient North-African tribes with their chin tattoos and physical features close to Yazidis. As a cultural mediator, I like to think that I’m building bridges between different cultures where ice has to be broken.

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