Understanding Strangers

“That same choice our ancestors faced thousands of years ago faces us today as well, with undiminished intensity—a choice as fundamental and categorical as it was back then. How should we act toward Others?”

Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski explains that an “encounter with the Other, with other people, has always been a universal and funda­mental experience for our species.” The question he asks is, Do those encounters lead to violence or to cooperation, to bridge building or to the building of walls?

Archaeologists tell us that the very earliest human groups were small family-tribes numbering 30 to 50 individuals. Had such a community been larger, it would have had trouble moving around quickly and efficiently. Had it been smaller, it would have found it harder to defend itself effectively and to fight for survival.

So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nour­ishment when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in the history of the world, what a momentous discovery! The discovery that there are other people in the world! Until then, the members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, as they moved around in the company of 30 to 50 of their kinfolk, that they knew all the people in the world. Then it turned out that they didn’t—that other similar beings, other people, also inhabited the world! But how to behave in the face of such a revelation? What to do? What decisions to make?

Should they throw themselves in fury on those other people? Or walk past dismissively and keep going? Or rather try to get to know and understand them?

That same choice our ancestors faced thousands of years ago faces us today as well, with undiminished intensity—a choice as fundamental and categorical as it was back then. How should we act toward Others? What kind of attitude should we have toward them? It might end up in a duel, a conflict, or a war. Every archive contains evidence of such events, which are also marked by countless battlefields and ruins scattered around the world.

But it might also be the case that, instead of attacking and fighting, this family-tribe that we are watching decides to fence itself off from others, to isolate and separate itself. This attitude leads, over time, to objects like the Great Wall of China, the towers and gates of Babylon, the Roman limes and the stone­walls of the Inca.

Fortunately, there is evidence of a different human experi­ence scattered abundantly across our planet. These are the proofs of cooperation—the remains of marketplaces, of ports, of places where there were agoras and sanctuaries, of where the seats of old universities and academies are still visible, and  of where there remain vestiges of such trade routes as the Silk Road, the Amber Route and the Trans-Saharan caravan route.

All of these were places where people met to exchange thoughts, ideas and merchandise, and where they traded and did business, concluded covenants and alliances, and discov­ered shared goals and values. “The Other” stopped being a synonym of foreignness and hostility, danger and mortal evil. People discovered within themselves a fragment of the Other, and they believed in this and lived confidently. People thus had three choices when they encountered the Other: They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.1


Moroccan scholar Fatema Mernissi remembers the advice of her grandmother, Yasmina, who felt that each encounter with strangers was a chance to learn. An internationally known scholar, Mernissi now trav­els the world and tries to remember Yasmina’s lessons.

If by chance you were to meet me at the Casablanca airport or on a boat sailing from Tangiers, you would think me self-confi­dent, but I am not. Even now, at my age, I am frightened when crossing borders because I am afraid of failing to understand strangers. “To travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself,” said Yasmina, my grandmother, who was illiterate and lived in a . . . traditional household with locked gates that women were not supposed to open. “You must focus on the strangers you meet and try to understand them. The more you understand a stranger and the greater is your knowledge of yourself, the more power you will have . . .

[A]ccording to Yasmina’s philosophy, which I later discov­ered she had adopted from the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, I needed to transform my feelings of shock toward the Western journalists [I encountered] into openness to learn from them. At first, I had great difficulty doing so and started wondering if perhaps, due to my age, I was losing my capacity to adapt to new situations. I felt terrified of becoming stiff and unable to digest the unexpected. . . .


To learn from travel, one must train oneself to capture mes­sages. “You must cultivate isti’dad, the state of readiness,” Yasmina used to whisper conspiratorially in my ear, so as to exclude those whom she regarded as unworthy of the Sufi tra­dition. “The most baggage carried by strangers is their differ­ence. And if you focus on the divergent and the dissimilar, you get ‘flashes.’”2


  • 1 : Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Encountering the Other: The Challenge for the 21st Century,” New Perspectives Quarterly, vol. 22 #4 (Fall 2005), (accessed November 8, 2007).
  • Sufis : Those who practices Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition. Sufis believe that by letting go of all notions of identity and individuality, one can realize divine unity.
  • 2 : Fatema Mernissi, Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (New York: Washington Square Press, 2001), 1–4.

Connection Questions

  1. If we want to understand others better, is it more helpful to focus on similarities or differences? According to Kapuscinski, what are the three possible ways to respond to the Other?
  2. How have you responded to individuals or groups who are different from you? Why? What factors influence the choices people make about how to respond to difference?
  3. Kapuscinski writes about times when “ ‘[t]he Other’ stopped being a synonym of foreignness and hostility, danger and mortal evil” and people “discovered within themselves a fragment of the Other.” What does Kapuscinski mean when he writes about discovering fragments of “the Other” in ourselves?
  4. Fatema Mernissi’s grandmother believed that “the more you understand a stranger . . . the more power you will have.” What did she mean? Do you agree with her statement? What can you learn from people who have grown up with religions, cultures, and habits that are different from your own? What do you think are the “flashes” she referred to?

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