An AIESEC Touchdown in Texas

“Why do they call it football?” I asked. It had been a nagging question ever since I had been little, but never induced enough curiosity for me to ask someone or to look it up. It had only bothered me once before. The New York Giants were on the Penn Station platform several years ago surrounded by NFL fans, and I had tasted some of the excitement. Savored it. But the lights and pace of New York City had soon driven the question away from my mind. The attention span of a tourist.

“It’s called football because the ball is one foot long,” said Nirav, over the buzz of voices. It was a crowded Saturday evening at Torchy’s Tacos and the Houston Texans were playing on TV. The NFL season had kicked off and fans around me were glued. Cheering on their home team. To me, football had always been the universal game, the beautiful game, where all you needed was the round ball that you could kick around. Of course, America called it soccer. “It’s the shape of the ball that gives the name,” he added. Football here was another interesting phenomenon.

“Ohhh,” I said, finally connecting the dots behind the name, unable to hide my surprise. “And I always used to think, why call it football? The ball was not round. The players don’t even kick it about.”  We laughed together, the five of us, eating away our tacos. I was fresh off the boat, exactly two years ago. After I landed in Houston, a really hospitable family hosted me for a few days until I could find myself an apartment. On my second night in the city, the local AIESEC chapter came all out to welcome me. I was surprised.

They drove half way across the city to welcome me, picked me up from where I was staying and then took me out for dinner. Torchy’s apparently had the best tacos in town. Everything felt like summer that night, an American summer. Festive, bright, celebratory. The cheery voices over drinks and food, all above the din of football. It was the first glimpse I had of the city. I was a stranger in a new place, but was embraced and welcomed like kin.

There will always be some constants in life. Some things that always stick with you no matter what. Some can shine and fade away for a while, like moon behind clouds on a dark night, but they always come back. AIESEC – a global, student-run powerhouse promoting diversity and cultural experiences across borders, has been one of those constants in my life. I had the chance to be a part of AIESEC when I was in college in Pakistan. Although I could never get a chance to go on exchange abroad, I managed to reach out to AIESEC Houston for help before permanently moving back to the United States.

I came in with a crazy plan. Living in, I eventually learned, was a lot different than being a tourist. And resettling in a new city where you don’t have any family, job or college constructs to help you find your footing, AIESEC turned out to be a blessing. It was an uncertain time for me when I landed, I had little sense of my surroundings. And that night, it felt good to know I was surrounded by fellow AIESECers.  You don’t need introductions when you are in AIESEC, it happens to be one big family.

They were enthusiastic to show me around. It was delightful, it was beyond my expectations. We spoke about the differences between football and soccer, and discussed the soccer World Cup in Brazil that past summer. About Houston. Texas. Food. On what was next. About the things they loved to do and what I loved to do. About AIESEC. There was just so much to talk about.

For me, it was the cultural exchange program that never happened while I was in college. A huge help to make sure I started off on the right foot. It felt like I was already meeting people I knew from before. Just getting to know them better across cultures and borders.

AIESEC has been a constant. Disappearing, fading, then coming back strong with a big bear hug. This organization is truly global. They made me feel at home, a stranger who was alone in a strange city, in a far-away country.  They made me feel belonged when I needed it most. This photo is two years old today. It’s one of those things that life made me push aside as I had to row on. But it’s always been one of those memories that I will cherish. That bright touchdown in America.

An AISEC Touchdown in Texas (2)

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Lessons from the Sahara Sands

“By 1932, Bagnold was finished and Madox and the rest of us were everywhere. Looking for the lost army of Cambyses. Looking for Zerzura. 1932 and 1933 and 1934. Not seeing each other for months. Just the Bedouin and us, crisscrossing the Forty Days Road. There were rivers of desert tribes, the most beautiful humans I’ve met in my life. We were German, English, Hungarian, African—all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. Madox died because of nations.
 
The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand. We left the harbours of oasis. The places water came to and touched… Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.” – The English Patient, Ondaatje.

Ever felt like losing yourself in a place? I got that sensation when reading this passage from The English Patient. I have never been to the Sahara Desert, but Ondaatje makes the experience sound so fulfilling. To just lose yourself to the wonder of it over time. The story probes the mystery of a man burnt during a plane crash during World War 2. Now bed-ridden in a makeshift hospital in the Italian countryside during the closing months of the War, he narrates his past to his nurse.

The Patient is recounting his time in the Sahara Desert as part of Britain’s Geographical Survey team. From those distant years before World War 2. He speaks in the context of his insignificance in the face of the infinite desert. In a world ravaged after the War, the English Patient values his time spent in the desert accompanied by the Bedouin tribes. People who knew their place in the desert, in their world. Nomadic and forever weaving their way across the dunes, the desert always shifting. Not belonging to any nations. To any castes or creeds. One humanity.

The Patient saw their practical approach to life as a model. The Bedouin realized the harshness of the environment they lived in. A desert so vast and changing, it rose up around them greater than their collective lives. They realized their cosmic value in the face of the Sahara. Just another grain in the sand. Conflict between themselves was pointless, mastery over the environment essential to survival. Hence the need to stick with each other. To keep on moving. Together.

A common, bonded humanity. It’s something I would like to live by. It’s a message many of us claim to believe in, yet foolishly act against all the time. I just feel it is a theme that is increasingly more relevant today, in a world already torn by conflict – of race, religion, sexual orientation. The list is endless. Our news is filled with incidents of conflict, and opinions about each conflict. Ironically, the world lost a hero who believed in common humanity just last month. Abdul Sattar Edhi. Globally, his humanitarian work did not get the attention it deserved, but he made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Particularly intriguing in this story was how The English Patient, a handicapped and dying fictional man, seemed to be at peace. He voiced his regrets and stance on life, exploring his past and all that he had been through. He had become a firm believer in a life without attachment to nations. Of living unburdened without the weight of their conflicts. A stance further affirmed after the War.

Granted, war is a damaging condition. It can give you that perspective after you go through something like that. It destroys the human soul on so many levels, no matter your side. Whether you’re the conqueror or the conquered, a nurse or a handicapped spy, you feel the shock waves of the conflict around you. I can never compare every day experiences to war, but I feel that life inflicts some degree of damage on all our souls over time. It is a constant pursuit to keep fighting back, to find love and meaning.

So in the search for common empathetic ground, I ask myself, can we relate to the English Patient? And more importantly so, can we relate to him now than before it is too late? To try and stand in his shoes for a moment before life actually forces us in them? In these troubled times, we need to believe in these bonds to navigate to a greater sense of peace. Of a sense of humanity above and beyond the weight of nations.