An overlooked humanity

Richter ScholarsAn overlooked humanity

Kohleun Adamson spent five weeks
listening to – and then writing about –
Middle Eastern women torn by war

By Michael Richeson

Kohleun Adamson (left) and her friend, Karith Magnuson

Adamson (left) and her friend, Karith Magnuson, pose for a photo while eating frozen yogurt on Ben Yehuda Street in the new quarter of Jerusalem.

News of violence in the Middle East is an everyday occurrence, but while many are rushing for their swords, Kohleun Adamson (G09) is picking up her pen. In 2008, Adamson spent five and a half weeks in Jordan and Israel interviewing locals and studying the culture.

“I wanted to meet with women mostly and get to know them and what it’s like to be not just an Arab woman, but that Arab woman,” Adamson said. “I didn’t just want to study theoretically.”

Adamson’s project was to write poems and short stories about life in the Middle East and break down common fears and stereotypes.

“It was to tell the stories of people who seem very different from us so we can better understand them,” she said. “They become less frightening. It opens up the humanity of those people who are different.”

Adamson hopes to portray the details of everyday life for a woman in the Middle East — the landscape, gardens and emotions — without telling the reader what to believe about the situation.

A Middle Eastern feast

Adamson’s first night in Bethlehem included this Middle Eastern feast.

Her trip was possible because she earned a Richter scholarship, which helps undergraduate students do research in a wide spectrum of subjects. The first time she applied to study the Jordanian women’s movement, but that attempt didn’t go through. Her second proposal — after numerous drafts and a lot of hard work — proved successful. One of the most difficult obstacles to her grant was showing how her project would be beneficial without concrete, measurable outcomes.

She turned her interviews and experiences from Jordan and Israel into poems and short stories. Adamson presented her writings at the West Region Conference on Christianity and Literature in April, and she has submitted work for publication in magazines.

“The Middle East is at the forefront of the news,” Adamson said. “We need to know who we are talking about. We need to give attention correctly before we are talking about them next to the water cooler.”

Adamson isn’t sure what the long-term effects of her writing will be, but she hopes she can help a grassroots movement of creating dialogue between people.

“It’s daunting to think about solving peace,” she said. “I know that I can’t bring world peace. It’s less daunting since I’ve admitted that. I’ve become more content with saying, ‘I’m going to build peace where I am.’”

How do you live?

by Kohleun Adamson

How do you live when one-sixteenth of you is in another continent, a brother in Australia, two more — another one-eighth — in America? Four more — another quarter — no longer on this earth. Sisters still in Bagdad and one in London, and I am here. I feel my body ache at its sockets, where it’s missing an eye or arm — Khalid, Dema. How easy it should be to cross a border, board a plane.

There are no borders in my body, no barbed wire fences or checkpoints with soldiers. There should be no boundaries between sisters and brothers. No signs that say, “You can’t come here.” “Please have your passport ready.” “We do not accept people bearing the visas of our enemies.” My shoe does not initiate wars with my sleeve. If it did, I would go barefoot.

They say that one can live without certain parts, an appendix, gallbladder, expendable. You don’t really need two of everything. One kidney can manage, even one leg, some people have none and live full lives. But how do you live without any limbs at all? How do you live when the veins have been stripped from your body? When dark blood pools in an already weeping heart, and has nowhere else to go?

A fortified wall in Bethlehem

A fortified wall in Bethlehem near a guard tower is an imposing reminder of the region’s unrest.

For Those Who
Talk to Plants

Bethlehem, West Bank, 2008

Mahir does indeed talk to plants:
garlic, mint, thyme,
his favorite conversation partners.
They do not speak of limon ba nana,
za’taar, or baba ganoush
(all that blending and roasting
is better left unsaid).
In the mornings he bends
under arching vines with a watering
can, whispers, “I hope
we will all be here tomorrow,” and tips
the spout over irises listening
from a washed out petrol barrel.

Jasmine and coriander
grow out of sawed-off
plastic jugs and handleless buckets.
Before bed he reads to them,
stories, poems, prayers.
Tonight he says nothing,
simply leans against
a trellis of grapes,
closes his face like a blossom.
Another day within a wall
made of concrete, slowly
moving in with the dark.
Jasmine blinks and nods.

Tomorrow, if he is still here
and this garden is still here,
Mahir will wake early and scour
the kitchen, the barn, the shed
for some sort of container — perhaps
the square hollow of an olive
oil tin will do the trick — anything
that holds dirt and roots. He will
plant something here,
something sweet,
and say nothing of destruction
or the fear absorbing water
and growing heavy in his hands.

— Kohleun Adamson

Kohleun Adamson graduated in May 2009 with a degree in philosophy. She writes poetry and prose to build cultural bridges that promote peace. She intends to pursue graduate school overseas for gender studies and literature.

George Fox is one of 11 universities in the Richter Scholars Program, which funds independent research projects. The prestigious program, which counts Yale, Dartmouth and the University of Chicago among its members, sponsors 15 to 25 George Fox students per year.