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In an unfamiliar place, it’s usually better to listen than to speak. This summer, listening carefully to the students in my class, guest speakers, and locals is my best hope of maturing my understanding the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon.

But these attitude of listening disclaimers, like the one I just gave, have become cliche. If you don’t give one, it’s a red flag; if you do, great—you’ve shown yourself to be open-minded.

Oftentimes, I think the attitude of listening functions as safeguard against events that demand a moral reckoning. In other words, listening becomes self-congratulatory—a free pass to passivity. I cannot allow myself to listen in this way.

In reality, listening is not passive. I instinctually analyze, judge, and categorize most things that I hear. Undeniably, my judgements and categorizations are influenced by an endless set of memories, associations, and knowledge that conditions me to interpret what I hear in a certain way. My biases work at the speed of sound.

Over the long term, I do think that listening is critical to meaningful relationships and learning, but I must be aware that my presence as an English teacher of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon does not create the optimal conditions for listening, and this fault is on me.

My group met with Abdel Rahman Chamseddine, a PhD candidate raised in Saida, a city about 30 km south of Beirut. His thesis suggests that the core of Islam is not to be found in the prescribed literal text of the Qu’ran, but in the aural traditions and lived experiences of muslim communities. Without getting into the details of his argument and my follow-up questions, one of my takeaways was that he considers the Qu’ran inseparable from the Arabic language. Many religious semiotics are lost in translation.

I’m not here to study Islam but I’m in an Arabic-speaking country to help my students, Palestinians teenagers living in several different refugee camps across Lebanon, improve their English in order to succeed on the SAT. I’m also trying to get to know them and be a friend. As much as I want to listen—to truly listen and understand—these people, I have to wonder how much I preclude that by not even understanding their first language. My students have stories that—should they choose to share them with me—face the risk of misrepresentation and modification in their translation, all to accommodate my weak attempt at understanding.

In regard to listening, my inability to communicate in Arabic is the elephant in the room, but this elephant doesn’t mean I can’t listen to some degree; it doesn’t mean I can’t learn from and build relationships with my students; it doesn’t mean I can’t teach SAT English well; it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be here. Not at all.

However, it does mean that I can’t automatically consider listening innocent and it forces me to consider the many scenarios in which my presence distorts the environment that I would like to think I can perceive accurately.

Listening, in itself, does not build relationships. Relationships need dialogue. Let’s hope I’ve been listening carefully enough to make good conversation.

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