When I was younger, I was captivated by The World's Strongest Man competitions--participants coming from all around the globe to compete in events such as the Plane Pull, Fridge Carry, and Giant Log Lift (though my favorites were always the more ambiguously titled events like the Pillars of Hercules, Atlas Stones, or Giant Farmers Walk). While Miss America always screams with joy when she receives her crown, these men screamed throughout the competition as they pushed their bodies to the limits, straining and snapping joints and ligaments in their quest to prove their outrageous strength (...come on, a Plane Pull!?) all for the title of World's Strongest Man (at least until the next year...). I don't think anyone would argue that these men are not strong--but what of strength?
Despite the many World's Strongest Man competitions I've watched over the years, no muscle man's battle with a heavy object compares to the feat of strength I witnessed at school today.
This afternoon the Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Sahour hosted the annual Arabic competition, held between the four Palestinian Lutheran Schools. Students from the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades compete against each other in two areas; a dramatic poetry recitation and an individual presentation. For the first half of the competition, the students were given a poem to memorize in advance and recite before the audience and judges. As the recitation portion began, I was amazed by the students expressiveness, using gestures and intonation to emphasize the beauty and meanings of the first poem, recited by the 5th grade. The only phrase I could completely understand was, "أنا فلسطيني," ('ana falistyeenee'--I am Palestinian) but I was completely entranced as each syllable dropped so powerfully out of the mouths of these 11 year olds. As soon as one student was finished I couldn't wait to hear the next.
When the fourth student to recite came to the stage, she introduced herself and began her passionate recitation, but after two lines or so something happened. Whether it was sudden stage fright or a crippling brain lapse, she promptly broke down on stage and was gently whisked into the arms of her teachers and supporters in the audience. The competition continued as she took her seat. Yet, as the master of ceremonies began introducing the poem to be recited by the 6th grade after all the 5th graders had finished, the teachers and parents surrounding her interrupted him so that she could take the stage once more.
With a look of fearful pain on her face, she peered out into the audience, introduced herself, and began to recite. She again tumbled through the first verse and doubled over in embarrassment and despair. My heart dropped in my chest: I could feel her fear and her disappointment. Her supporters, seeing her suffer and wishing it to end, soothingly called to her, telling her it was okay; she could stop; she should come down from the stage. Yet, she did not move from her place.
Standing up straight once more, voice cracking and eyes barely holding back tears, she continued to recite. With each line she spoke her voice became bolder--"I am Palestinian." With each rising syllable her emphatic gestures became even more passionate--"I am Palestinian." With each statement of her very identity, her fearful glaze disappeared and was replaced by a persevering gaze that itself declared, "I am Palestinian."
As I sat in the back of the room, watching this transformation take place, I could not help but feel that my heart was not just lifting back up from the bottom of my stomach, but growing in admiration for her genuine strength. While the other students had stood up and presented their work in order to win, she was now reciting her heart out in order to overcome her fear and prove her equal abilities despite her now disadvantaged position. Tears welled in my eyes as I listened to the inspiring defiance in her voice, watching her not only not give-in and give-up, but truly nail the end of her recitation. When finished, she gracefully walked off the stage to the applause of the crowd with her head held high.
In this little girl I saw not only the statement, "I am Palestinian", but also, "I am Palestine." Like this young student did in her Arabic competition, my friends wake up each day and face their struggles with great strength--at times pushing through tears--in the hopes that one day there will be peace in this land. Forget The World's Strongest Man competitions.... When it comes to strength, this 5th grade girl is one of the strongest persons I know.
"Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength." -Arnold Schwarzenegger