On the shoulders of a gentle giant


CAIRO -- Like many Western holidays in the Middle East, Father's Day probably will come and go with little pomp and circumstance. Most denizens in the Arab-Muslim world are probably unaware that June's third Sunday is designated to honor fatherhood in the United States.

Despite living in the Middle East during this celebration, I cannot help but think of my dad this Father's Day and the irreplaceable role he has played in my global education.

My father introduced this part of the world to me as a teenager. The summer following my sophomore year in college, he brought me with him to Israel and Egypt to tour biblical and historical sites that he's been studying for decades. Then, studying in Amman, Jordan, and Jerusalem while on sabbatical leave in the summer of 2001, he negotiated in his contract for me to complete a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls with him for a portion of his overseas stint at Jerusalem University College.

A Presbyterian minister, my father has made trips to Middle Eastern countries more times than I can count, demonstrating an unquenchable craving for global understanding and hands-on education.

While on these sojourns, he has built lasting friendships with followers of many religions and backgrounds, teaching me unparalleled lessons of acceptance and tolerance. When I visit Jerusalem's Old City, I come across many of my father's friends, from merchants to hotel managers, and whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, they eagerly ask how my father is doing and when they can expect his next visit to the Holy City.

The 20th-century German journalist Kurt Tucholsky once said that a country is not just what it does, but also what it tolerates. Perhaps this idea can be adapted to elucidate also the measure of a man. The assessment of a leader and of a man may not only be what he does, but also what he abides.

An Evangelical Christian for nearly 35 years, my father still diligently cultivates relationships with people from other faiths. After delivering a speech on the fundamental tenets of Islam to his Presbyterian congregation, my father was complimented for his parity by two local Muslims, after which he promptly asked them to join him for dinner to exchange ideas and experiences.

Witnessing this level of inclusion has emboldened me to do the same, to branch out beyond stateside spheres of comfort and delve into different cultures. Indeed, I am studying in the Middle East at this time largely because my dad instilled in me the kind of cross-cultural curiosity that has fueled the scholarly inquiry of his adult life.

At the time I applied for a Fulbright grant to study in Jordan, I also was completing a graduate degree at the University of Florida. Because of the ponderous stress of finishing a thesis, I nearly didn't complete the Fulbright application.

Telling my father one night how thinly stretched I felt, he kindly but firmly told me I must finish the forms.

"Pull a few all-nighters if you have to," he said. "Too much is at stake, and you must finish what you started. You will go to the Middle East and have experiences that the fortunate write about and the unfortunate envy. And as you prepare your application and proposals, let me know how I can help."

Little did he know, though, that his gentle insistence that I hold fast to the things I wanted to achieve had already helped me begin to ascend the steps to where I now stand.

Isaac Newton once wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." For my part, I know that I will see further in life because of a gentle giant who hoists me up to see more than I could on my own.

Justin Martin, a U.S. Education Department foreign language and area studies scholar in Cairo, is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His e-mail is martinjd@ufl.edu.

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