A lesson in walking between the worlds

This morning I woke to the news that Fouad Ajami had passed away.  He was a brilliant commentator on the Arab world, featured often on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. I knew him many years ago when I was a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and he was my academic advisor.

Fouad came to the US as a teenager, and one of his strengths was his ability to walk between worlds; he was a product of two cultures, and was able to interpret the Arab world for a West that, at best, was puzzled by it, and at worst condemned that world without understanding it.

His genius lay in his ability to go beyond the obvious and immediate reasons events unfold as they do in the Middle East.  It wasn't merely that he drew from a deep understanding of history; rather, he could pinpoint and evoke the cultural myths and stories that motivate actors in the Arab world.  Because he spoke in words of myth and archetype, he could speak to everyone -- and this helped us understand a world that was culturally beyond our ken.  Fouad was a poet in his soul, and I was privileged to have been his student.

But why note this on a family history blog?  Fouad knew that stories motivate.  If you know a culture's stories and myths, you can understand them on a deeper level and begin to sense why things happen as they do. The same is true for individuals and families.  We need to understand our ancestor's world view, their beliefs about themselves and their place in the world.  The best way to do this is to read voraciously:  national and local histories, of course, but what about the physical world of our ancestors -- were there droughts, storms, or other natural disasters that may have impacted their lives? How did they get around -- what kind of roads were there, or did they rely on transportation by water?  What kind of things did our ancestors find entertaining -- who were the pop stars of their time?

Learning about the external circumstances of our ancestors' lives, combined with a broad understanding of historical trends, allows us to take baby steps in walking between the worlds... and bridging the gap between our own lives and the "foreign country" that is our ancestral past.