Isam Herzallah

By Alex Park

Isam Herzallah has a talent, he says, and it is to acquire new languages, new cultures, and new personalities.Having lived in four countries, he says that he feels at home in all of them. Nearing the end of his time at Macalester, he says he has grown used to a community where people are concerned about more than their daily lives. An econ major and Hispanic studies minor, we talked about his ability to adapt, his life in the Arab world, his time in Spain, and what scares him about graduation day. You speak four languages, if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, I grew up in Morocco, so I grew up learning Arabic and French. I didn’t want my career to end up in a Francophone country so in eighth grade, I started learning English from scratch. At that time I was in a British school. So I acquired English, went back to Jordan, finished my A-levels and started working on my activities and extra-curriculars and I got into Macalester. Then when I came to Mac, I studied Spanish for two years, went abroad, and now I’m a minor in Hispanic studies. I love to learn new languages. Ive got four right now, maybe I’ll learn more in the future, but who knows.
Do you consider yourself Moroccan? This is a very good question. Everybody asks me where I come from or what I identify as. I usually tell people I’m Jordanian, just because I come from Jordan, but identify with pretty much every place I’ve lived. I grew up in Morocco. I lived there for eleven years. I lived in Jordan for six years. I traveled a lot when I was in both countries and I’ve seen a great deal of the world. I’ve lived in Spain for about half a year and I lived here for four years. So it’s really hard to say. I really consider myself more of a citizen of the world. But if you ask where I’m from I’ll just say Jordan because I have to give you an answer, I guess.

How did you end up in Morocco from Jordan? My parents have been all over. My mom lived in Syria, my dad lived in Jordan and they lived in Iraq during the First Gulf War when he was working there for an international organization. After the invasion of Kuwait we had to leave because his work was relocated to Morocco. But we have a great deal of internationalism in my family. My dad studied in the Czech Republic; my mom studied in Romania, and right now my family lives all over the place. My brother lives in Canada and my sister lives in Saudi Arabia.
What was your father doing in Iraq? He worked for a non-governmental organization that was part of the League of Arab States. It was located in Iraq but in 1991 we were relocated, because during the Gulf War the League of Arab States condemned the invasion, so we were relocated in Morocco. I was living in Jordan at that time and not Iraq because it was very close [to Iraq], but when my dad moved all the way to Morocco, we had to leave because it was much further away.

Stupid question, but after Jordan, what was Morocco like? Morocco was different. Jordan and Morocco are both liberal countries but Morocco, just because of its location, close to Europe, is a lot more open-minded, a lot more progressive. It’s a beautiful country. It suffers from a lot of corruption, but it’s a very decentralized country. As opposed to Jordan where everything is centered in the capital, there’s a lot more prosperity throughout the country. Each city has its own aspect— Rabat is more political, Casablanca is more the modern business center, then you have Fez which is the more historical capital, more of a religious center. You have Marrakesh which the more exotic tourism spot, Agadir, the beach city. So Morocco is definitely a point of encounter between the West and the East. A lot of foreigners live there, too. It’s very different than any other place I’ve lived in.
It was definitely interesting growing up in Morocco because even though it’s a Muslim and Arab country, it’s still quite different, culturally, then the other Arab countries. But the way I appreciated that throughout my life was that having to grow up in two distinct Arab countries made me look at the Arab world in a different way and through a different lens. So the way I view the Arab world is less biased and not nationalist.

Your whole family, it seems, has lived around an outside the Arab world. Do they share the same perspective that you do? Yes and no. My parents have grown up in either there native countries or countries that are very similar in the Middle East. But I grew up in a quite distinct Arab country, and what distinguishes me from them is my view of the Arab world. They definitely have an open minded view of the world, but I would describe my view as more neutral on my own identity or my own region than theirs.

I imagine the perspective you have is very different from that of the average Moroccan or Jordanian as well. Right or wrong, there’s a perception that the people of the Arab world, by and large, hate Americans. How do you relate to that sentiment? You have to understand there’s a big chunk of the population of the Arab world that doesn’t know how to read or write and they basically believe in whatever they’re told on TV, in propaganda and in newspapers which are in very many cases controlled by the government. Although, you’ll notice, many of the Arab countries’ governments have stood by American foreign policy, due again to their own interests. But the question is if they sacrifice what the populations of their countries really need and want.

Going back to your question about why the Arab world hates the United States, there is a big portion of the American population that is conservative that think the same way. And the huge chunk of people that think that way in the Arab world are deceived through the media, or they are people who don’t have the knowledge or the analytical ability to look at the bigger picture. But definitely the involvement of the U.S. in the Middle East is felt. Even if the newspapers and media lies, a lot of people talk about what’s happening behind the scenes, what they see with their own eyes.
Do you see yourself going back to the Arab world? One day, definitely. Maybe not directly, but eventually that’s where I want to return. I believe each person has a responsibility to their own community. You’re at Mac for four years; you have a responsibility to this place. Growing up somewhere, knowing those people, you also have a responsibility to that community where you come from. Many times it’s not the best thing to do that right away— you have to equip yourself with the right tools that your community is going to benefit from.

What are those tools? Is it an econ degree with a minor in Hispanic studies? Why not? Just a few days ago, if you were watching the news, there was an Arab and Latin American summit. It was about two regions of the world which share the same economic situation and have a lot of cultural similarities. These are two regions of the world endowed with a lot of natural resources and adequate human resources as well, and yet there’s still a lot of corruption and poverty and income inequality, but collaboration and learning from each others experiences definitely could help them. That could be a way that I could offer help.

Having lived in two different Arab states and now having been in the U.S. and Spain for much of your life, do you still feel at home when you go to Morocco or Jordan? I do. It’s a bit hard at first. I feel like I’m a different person. I definitely feel welcomed when I’m there— I have family in both places, I have friends in both places, I know both cultures, I speak both dialects, I’ve lived in both countries, I like a lot of the customs of both. But I definitely would say that I feel like I’m a different person when I go back. Wherever I go, even when I go to Spain, I feel like I’m at home sometimes, because I speak the language, and I know the culture, and I have a lot of friends there. When you travel, you need to have this really open-minded viewpoint. You can’t expect there to be the same things as home. But you can’t expect that you’ll rid yourse
lf of your own principles. You always have your own principles. Going abroad will only add to who you are.

In my interview with her a few weeks ago, Bronwen Dietrich said that she when she came to Mac for the first time she felt out of place, having spent so much of her life outside of the United States. There was this expectation that, “I’m an American, this is America, it should be as simple as that,” and yet it wasn’t. See, this is exactly what I was telling you about when I have differences with my parents. Just the way you view the world— especially after you’re at Macalester for four years. I live in a house with an Indian, a German and two Americans, my friends are from Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Spain, France, the U.K., Colombia, Ecuador, and there’s just nothing that is a barrier between us. We see the world in a totally different way, and you appreciate the way you see the world because you look at things from a different perspective, you look at things not like you’re in confrontation with anyone. And going back, people are more concerned with their daily lives. People are not concerned with what’s going on in other parts of the world all the time. And just having to go back and to get used to that is a very hard step. I don’t think it’s a matter of leaving the U.S. and going back to Jordan, it’s a matter of leaving Macalester, leaving this great diversity, and going back. It was the same thing in Barcelona. I just loved the fact that I knew people from all parts of the world, and it was great.
It scares me to have to leave, because I don’t know how the situation is going to be in case I go back immediately. When I came back from Barcelona I had a really bad time readjusting. But that’s normal. You get used to being among all these people and leaving is hard. It’s a new identity. That’s how I’d explain it. It’s like immigrating all over again.