Robert Azzi: Tamer’s ‘Rihla’: Journey of enlightenment and love

  • Tamer (second from left) poses with his mother, sister and father after receiving his doctorate from Dartmouth College. Courtesy of Robert Azzi

For the Monitor
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

‘How was your flight?”

“Great. I flew from Amman to Newark where I went through customs, then caught the connection to Boston.”

It was early Tuesday – around 8 a.m. – within minutes, perhaps, of the departure of American Airlines Flight 11 for Los Angeles; it was probably within minutes of the departure of United Airlines Flight 175, also bound for Los Angeles.

The sky was bright and clear; we were soon en route to Exeter for the start of school.

“The pilot banked the plane so we could see the World Trade Center. It was really beautiful with morning sun on it.”

It was Sept. 11, 2001.

Tamer arrived in Boston from his home in Hebron, Palestine, via Newark N.J., on what was perhaps one of the last flights to take off in America before we witnessed al-Qaida’s attacks on America.

We chatted all the way to Exeter, chatted about family, classes, politics, and Seeds of Peace – a peace-building and leadership organization that brings young people and educators from areas of conflict to camp in Maine.

We never turned on the radio – it wasn’t until we got to Exeter and began moving Tamer into his dorm that we learned of the attacks. It wasn’t until I got home to be with my daughter that I witnessed the towers fall.

I’d met Tamer at Seeds and encouraged him to apply to Phillips Exeter – and I’d encouraged the academy to consider accepting students, like Tamer, from areas of conflict.

It was a good match. Tamer attended PEA summer school to prove his worth, returned to Hebron to see his family and collect his student visa, and returned to Exeter – on 9/11 – the first day of school.

Days after he arrived for his upper (junior) year, when the academy held an interfaith 9/11 vigil, the school minister asked Tamer to offer a Muslim prayer.

He recited Fatihah, the opening prayer in the Quran, while another student recited it in English.

“In the name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace: All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds, the Most Gracious . . .”

As they were praying, another student complained, sotto voce, “First they attack our buildings, now we have to listen to them pray.”

Tamer wasn’t deterred. “Amen.”

He was an exemplary community member, active in the classroom, in the dorm, in interfaith and social justice issues – especially when related to the Middle East.

When the academy rededicated – after renovations – Phillips Church, Tamer prayed again, offering the Christian Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic.

Abba, Father / Yithqadash sh’mak / May thy name be holy / Tethe malkuthak, May thy kingdom come / Teh’wey ra’uthak, May thy will be done.

During a Thanksgiving service, he offered: “I’m thankful that my family . . . is still unharmed, thankful for their warmth and resilience. Thankful that my house is still standing amidst (Hebron’s) ruins. . . . Thankful my little sister can still go to school in the days when military curfews are lifted.

“I’m grateful that I’m here, and for being able to get out of that war-torn country to finish my senior year when others do not have this opportunity. I’m also thankful for the hope, and thankful that scores of Israelis with whom I shared the experience of Seeds of Peace Program now see me as a human . . .

“However, it’s when my former classmates won’t have to spend hours on foot to reach their high school, when they stop undergoing fear and being beaten and humiliated at countless checkpoints, it’s then I’ll have a life I can be truly thankful for.”

And before Exeter graduation, during a meditation he said: “All family conversations disguised numerous threads that I wasn’t able to connect. Such conversations left the impression of something always wrong, something we, as a Palestinian family, were too weak to consciously confront and positively affect . . .

“As a result of a never-ending exposure to military occupation and an already-existent feeling that the occupation was supposedly ‘normal,’ the entire world in my confined and confused 5-year-old universe revolved around the belief that all humanity lived under the same circumstances. It was the deceitful certainty that our pathetic life conditions, our nonexistent civil liberties, and the military measures that particularly made our lives unbearable were all to me what the outside world ought to be like; the entire world should either be an absolutely deaf elder or just pretty much like us.”

Today, Tamer has found, through his Rihla – journey – beyond his childhood Hebron world, beyond Seeds of Peace and Phillips Exeter, another world.

A world of enlightenment and love.

Last weekend Tamer was graduated from Dartmouth College, with a doctorate in microbiology and immunology, after successfully submitting and defending his thesis entitled “The Role of Regulatory T Cells in BRAFV600E – Driven Melanoma Outgrowth”

His mother and father – both doctors – journeyed from Hebron to join him.

His sister, who journeyed from Dubai, was there.

His “American Dad,” as Tamer refers to me, was there.

And Kelli, to whom he’s married, whom he met while both were Dartmouth undergrads – who has her doctorate in biochemistry – was there, alongside him.

A creative and loving couple that today lives in two worlds – and honors them both.

“Wherever the art of medicine is loved,” Hippocrates said, “there is also a love of humanity.”

Happy Graduation, Tamer.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com. On Sunday, June 24, at 2 p.m., Azzi will be at MainStreet BookEnds in Warner to engage in conversation about Islam and hold an “Ask a Muslim Anything” program. Everyone is invited. https://tinyurl.com/y9tpyxd6.)