Voluntary Diplomacy

By John Chappell

Americans abroad have long pondered the line that divides travelers from tourists. Paul Bowles wrote that “the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months” while “the traveler belongs no more to one place than to the next.” Raed al-Tabini, my professor in Jordan, often reminded me “We are travelers, not tourists” because we went from one place to the next with the goal of learning.

However, I have come to a slightly different conclusion. Travelers, in my opinion, are voluntary diplomats, recognizing the weight of their actions and words for how others see their home country and its people.

The first test for voluntary diplomats often comes in a taxi. Whether the driver speaks Moroccan, Egyptian, Tunisian or Jordanian dialect, I find that some conversations repeat themselves. Stepping across the line from touristdom to travelerhood means opting for an honest answer to a hard question.

“Why did you elect Donald Trump?” I’ve actively worked to counteract Donald Trump’s agenda. I’ve campaigned for Democrats, registered voters, and protested his policies. But I love this question. I take a deep breath. Whether I’m speaking in the dialect of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt or Jordan, I always mention a few things: 1) Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Inevitably, I then get to explain the Electoral College. 2) American politics is built on the constant struggle between the branches of government. Trump may be president, but Congress and the Supreme Court limit his power. 3) Donald Trump won’t last forever. The beauty of American democracy is that no president, not even Donald Trump, is permanent. I love this question because it stretches my vocabulary, allows me to teach about my country, and lets me distinguish between American people and American policy.

“Why do you study Arabic?” I hear mistrust in their voices. Is this American going to go home and teach people how to invade Arab countries? How to prop up dictatorships? How to oppress Palestinians? The legacy of American interventions in the Arab world looms over this question. “I started learning Arabic in 2010, and before long, the Arab Spring broke out. My teacher’s nephew died in the early days of the Syrian civil war, and she mourned for months. But she believed that we had to know about the politics and conflicts of the Arab world so that one day, we could make things better. And that’s why I study Arabic— yes, it’s beautiful, and Nizar Qabbani is my favorite poet of all time, and I love traveling— but I’m learning Arabic because my country has failed in Iraq and Libya and Palestine and elsewhere. In learning Arabic, I want to learn the human impact of our foreign policy so that I can work to make it better.”

By the end of the ride, I get a satisfied nod. A “nice to meet you.” A handshake. A smile. They all represent a meaningful connection compressed into ten minutes and a tiny step towards mutual understanding between the people of the Arab world and the United States.

Of course, voluntary diplomacy has to go beyond the seat of a taxicab. Voluntary diplomacy means accepting an invitation to Friday couscous instead of making an excuse. Voluntary diplomacy means sitting down for half an hour to sip on mint tea instead of sitting silently in a coffee shop to finish homework. Voluntary diplomacy means opening up to new people and experiences, even when it isn’t easy.

John Chappell is a senior at the University of Mississippi where he is pursuing a double major in International Studies and Arabic.

Image Source: Author, captured in Meknes, Morocco.