Under the living room sofa in the home of my Egyptian in-laws, there is a cardboard shoebox that holds household odds and ends – thread and sewing needles, shoe polish, duct tape and a non-descript gold key on a short lanyard of string, big enough to loop around the wrist, like a bracelet.
This key unlocks a large padlock that secures a chain across the front door.
“To keep out the bad dogs,” my Egyptian mother-in-law explained to me very simply in Arabic the first time I watched her nighttime ritual with the chain and lock performed after everyone was home.
I’d heard about the wild dogs roaming the rural country paths and fields – barking wild packs, looking for food. I imagined them snapping, lunging out of ditches and fog at the side of the road. I’d never seen them, but they scared me.
“And to keep out the Bad People,” she added.
This wasn’t new to me either. Before traveling to Egypt together for the first time, my husband had made a point of telling me that there were no bad people in his city.
Instead of finding his statement strange, I nodded. I understood what he meant. It was quiet in his community. It was a safe place where not a lot happened, where people trusted one another. I was raised in a small, rural town myself, a place in northern Minnesota where you could leave the door open to run to the store. A place where no one bothered to lock their cars, and even left their keys in the ignition, vehicle running, while they ducked into the post office to grab the mail.
“There aren’t any bad people here,” I reminded my mother-in-law.
“Not bad people here,” she agreed. “Bad People from Other Places.”
From where, she didn’t know, and it probably didn’t matter, but that exchange has stayed with me for years. We’re all, at some level, susceptible to the unconscious need to divide the world into “us” and “them.” And we all carry the potential to be viewed as Bad People from Other Places – fear of what we don’t understand, fear of the other, fear of the unknown strengthened in countless ways through our daily existence as human beings, surrounded by the both subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of that which we don’t understand.
I thought of my well-intentioned American friends and family members who expressed concern for my travel to Egypt, the acquaintances who worried aloud about the risk of being immersed in a place so different, so potentially filled with … what?
They usually didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, and that was the problem. It still is.
While I understand it’s naïve and dangerous to think the world is small and safe, I’m far more fearful of plans to construct walls, to turn away refugees seeking safety. I’m fearful of what it means to suggest that an entire religion be collectively restricted in travel, to hear speeches laced with bigotry, said with complete ease to promote fear and hatred directed at those who are not exactly like us.
We all carry the potential to be viewed as Bad People from Other Places.
Our world holds the illusion of closeness. I wonder if it’s made smaller only by our mistaken belief that the distance between us has disappeared. Or that it no longer exists.
As individuals, maybe some of the distances and differences are actually greater than they’ve ever been. But together, I think – as intelligent, independent thinkers – we can do better than that.
Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.