Student makes friend, crosses cultural lines

Mercedes Trent

When Louisville junior Michael Marcell patrolled Iraq as a Marine in 2006, he had no idea a future classmate and friend was there too, experiencing the other side of occupation.

Marcell is studying abroad at American University in Dubai, where he met 20-year-old Haneen Assaf, a Palestinian refugee from Jenin, a city in the West Bank.

Assaf lived in Baghdad with her family at the same time Marcell was there with the military. Her father was a Palestinian ambassador.

In addition to being displaced from her home in the West Bank, Assaf experienced other trauma, Marcell said in a Skype interview. Friends of hers were killed by American soldiers.

Assaf said in an email interview that she wasn’t afraid of Marcell when he first spoke to her in their Middle Eastern Religions class at American University in Dubai, where both are currently studying.

Instead, Assaf was surprised when Marcell greeted her with, “Salam alaikum,” a common Arabic greeting.

She discovered that he was interested in improving his Arabic and then decided to give him daily 50-minute classes to teach him Arabic. Then, she said, they became real friends.

Marcell is grateful for Assaf’s grace toward foreigners.

“Despite all her trauma, she doesn’t hold any grudges against me,” Marcell said. “I think that’s really decent of her.”

For Assaf, it’s just the way she is.

“For me, I have no problem having a friendship with a foreign person,” Assaf said. “I am an open minded person when it comes to meeting and getting to know others.”

Marcell admires Assaf’s character.

“She uses her faith as a source of strength,” Marcell said. “She always remains positive and is always saying ‘Alhamdulillah,’ ‘thanks be to God.’ She never complains. She has every right to complain, but she never does. “

Coming from different backgrounds can add a different dimension to the situation, said Soleiman Kiasatpour, an associate professor who teaches Middle Eastern Studies.

“There are other stories, international relations and context, they both find themselves in,” he said. “Different cultures with conflicts may make it more difficult to have a friendship.”

Marcell knows first-hand the conflicts that can endanger a culturally crossed friendship from his experience in the Marines.

“I got to see a lot through the perspective of someone in the military,” Marcell said. “In Iraq, things were pretty simple – you had a mission to do, and you did it. It never really struck me that I could find someone on the other side of it.”

Assaf also said her conceptions about other cultures have been challenged by her friendship with Marcell.

“I learned not to judge people before meeting them,” Assaf said. “Before I met Michael, I used to have, like any person, a stereotypical idea about Americans and their lifestyle. But after many talks I found out that these stereotypical ideas were wrong, so from that time I learned not to make any perceptions about any people before talking and meeting real examples.”

Assaf said that there are differences between them, but she doesn’t believe it negatively affects their friendship.

“It was easy for me and him to be friends because we both are educated and social, and we know what we want,” Assaf said. “And that’s important, because sometimes we had some conflict in opinions and points of view, but these conflicts never affected our friendship. We respect strongly each other’s religion and cultural differences.”

Still, the two friends do have their personal differences.

“We argue sometimes, about the way things are,” Marcell said. “She’s a lot more optimistic than I am.”

Assaf continues to teach Marcell about Arabic and life.

Assaf, who writes poetry about her life experiences, is also an aspiring journalist who Marcell believes has more stories to tell.

“I’d love for her to be able to come to WKU and read her poetry,” he said. “You don’t have so many people who can come and relate what really happened to them.”