Monday, August 29, 2011

Where has the time gone?

Here goes a little recap. LIFE Program ended mid July and I decided my work in Israel was not done. While at the time the decision to stay long term seemed too daunting, I compromised with one extra month. Four weeks later and I’m left wondering where the time has gone. What exactly did I do for one month in Tel Aviv with no job and no real commitments?

Yehudah ha Levi street-- you can almost see my apartment from here.

1. African Refugee Development Center: Along with continuing my work with Tov Lada’at, I picked up some office hours at one of the largest organizations working with refugees in Tel Aviv, doing just about the same Higher Education work. Among other roles, I met daily with asylum seekers who were interested in pursuing higher education, and then tried to connect them with the right school or program. While I loved meeting new people, it became frustrating work when I realized there were so few options for the refugee community. Language restrictions paired with an inability to get student visas, refugees and asylum seekers are barred from most Israeli Universities. This became particularly upsetting when day after day I met with motivated, qualified candidates (some of whom already had bachelor’s degrees) who were scrubbing toilets or street cleaning for a living because it’s the only place they could be hired. Not only is the Israeli government denying the universal right of education, I think it is also missing out on a huge opportunity. This community turns to violence and drugs because they are bored, they don’t have any goals to work towards; Israeli policies don’t afford them a right to a future. I think that creating a cadre of university-educated people will not only reduce rates of violence in South Tel Aviv but also decrease the community’s dependence on outside organizations. It is like an investment—this elite group will go on to build self-sustaining organizations for its own community; I already see this happening with Tov Lada’at fellows who have started their own youth programs, art clubs, and English courses. And not to mention, these people will eventually return to their home countries (they all want to) as pro-Israel advocates in areas of the world where that is rare, like South Sudan.           

Despite the frustrations with the job itself, I worked with a group of fun, interesting people from all over the world including Eritrea, Italy, England, and France. Almost like a mini-UN. While it was only a mere few weeks we had together, I guess something about having similar world views and dealing with the same daily frustrations, positioned us to be instant friends. My last night in Tel Aviv just so happened to fall of Tisha B’av, a Jewish holiday that requires all businesses, restaurants, and bars to close. I think we found the only place open in all of Tel Aviv—an Eritrean restaurant built into someone’s home. It was the perfectly appropriate send-off party—drinking Eritrean beers while listening to traditional music and eating injera with my hands, all in the presence of great company.

2. Two trips up to the Misgav. Over the course of my five months in Israel I became close with a few people from an area in Northern Israel called Misgav. It is considered a peripheral area made up of small villages, and just so happens to be (at least in my opinion) the most beautiful place in all of Israel. It is mountainous and green and raises people to be the outdoorsy, laid-back type. My friends and I joked that something must be in the air because everyone we met from Misgav is incredibly kind, welcoming, and self-sufficient, while still valuing their family and home. On two separate trips to this area I got to eat authentic warm hummus in an Arab village, take care of baby olive trees in Nurit’s family’s orchard, have dinner overlooking what seemed like all of Israel, see the fabulous rock star Yeuhdit Ravitz perform for all of Misgav, and participate in a Shira V’nabira. Literally meaning: singing and beers. This is a common party in Israel based on a kibbutz tradition where youth get together to drink beers and sing Israeli songs. Except the Misgav version of this party was pimped out. A group of friends arranged it to be a huge spectacle equipped with a stage and live band, hundreds of beers, boiled corn, watermelon and salty cheese (I highly suggest this combo—deelish!), couches, tables, and a huge projection screen with the lyrics. Think giant group karaoke. It was a blast until I realized that Hebrew songs get a little old when you don’t know how to sing them. One of the most entertaining parts of the night though was watching the guys—all retired soldiers from elite units in the Israeli army—break down and put away the whole set-up as if it were an army drill on efficiency. I could not imagine my American friends putting the effort into, nonetheless even knowing how, to throw a party like this.

Shira V'nabira held in Yuvalim, Misgav.

Nurit, her father Arik Raz, who founded the Misgav, and I on their olive orchard.

Look closely: I made friends with a grasshopper.

3. Making new friends. I’ve enjoyed my last month in Tel Aviv particularly because I have been able to spend time with new friends. One of the guys I worked with from Darfur happened to work on my daily walking path from my house to work. One of my new routines became to stop in at his coffee shop a couple evenings a week to say hi. The only problem is that in many African cultures, it is customary to feed the guest. So I couldn’t visit without Guy (the Darfuri) practically shoving iced coffees and homemade meals down my throat. No matter how small the gesture, it was comforting to know I would run into someone I knew everyday on the street. It felt grounding somehow. As if the amount of people you know (and could thus potentially run into) is an indicator of your adjustment to a new place.

I was able to connect with some distant relatives—sharing some lovely Friday night dinners in an actual home and spending quality time with cousins my age.  Not to mention, learn how to cook the shakshuka, the Israeli staple made of tomatoes and eggs.

Mmmm... shakshuka!
And finally, because I was in Tel Aviv, I could more easily meet up with Tov Lada’at  fellows. One of the students, Dighe, took me to a friend’s wedding where I experienced Eritrean marriage customs first hand. The couple rented a giant room in South Tel Aviv. And while it wasn’t a looker from the outside, let me tell you, those Eritreans know how to party. I got there before the bride and groom came, which is typical. We ate traditional Eritrean food and drank beers until the happy couple made their grand entrance to Eritrean party music, sparklers, and confetti.  Everyone was on the dance floor clapping and dancing around the couple. People throw money at the newlyweds and do this dance where you lift your shoulder up and down at another person and then roll onto each other’s backs. She wore a white princess gown and he wore a suit, just like any wedding we’ve seen before. They even had bridesmaids and groomsmen in correlating outfits. After a few beers (I was retiring early compared to everyone else), some more dancing, and saturated with cultural observation, I left Dighe to party the night away with his friends.

The Tov Lada'at Family at our closing ceremony for the year.

4. Ramallah. That’s right, Ramallah.  I crossed over to the forbidden side! I hope you just read that with sarcasm because when I spent the day there, riding buses and touring the streets, there was not one moment I felt unsafe or threatened. It made me reflect on how the West Bank has been framed for me by certain medias and in certain Jewish contexts. It is made out to be something scary, forbidden, “the place we don’t speak of” (granted, Israelis are not allowed in). But in all reality, the West Bank, and Ramallah specifically, is a bustling city filled with restaurants, coffee shops, universities, and everyday people.

The center of the city.
Michelle, Daniel, and Phil by some typical hookah smokers.

Michelle, her brother, Phil, and I left from Damascus gate in the old city and took one of the green buses operated by the Palestinian authority to Ramallah.  We crossed the border, past the concrete wall and border patrol, got off in the middle of the city, and immediately went to find authentic Arab hummus and shwarma. After wandering around the busy streets with giant food babies we happened upon a “Stars and Bucks” for delicious coffee beverages and then walked to pay our respects to Yasser Arafat’s grave. There wasn’t a whole lot to see in Ramallah in terms of tourism, but it was interesting how a place only an hour away from West Jerusalem could feel like a world away. It reminded me a lot of Amman, Jordan with the heavy traffic, sidewalks jammed with pedestrians, and streets lined with coffee shops, bakeries, and markets.  On the way back home we reached the fortress of a checkpoint, and just like everyone else on the bus, were forced to get out, wait in line, show our identification to an IDF soldier, and reload the bus. It was then I understood the inconvenience and frustration Palestinians might feel about these security measures. On the way there Michelle and I started speaking with the Palestinian woman sitting next to us about issues like these. We chatted for a while and finally asked about relations with Israel. Michelle said something along the lines of, “And things with Israel are ok?” The woman pointed to the concrete wall shooting high above our bus and laughed, “You call this ok?”

Yasser Arafat's grave.

The checkpoint coming back in Israel from the West Bank.

5. Taking Tel Aviv by storm. Tel Aviv is a party city. With the beach bum attitude, girls in small clothes, and ample amount of bars and restaurants, I like to think it’s similar to Miami in vibe and attitude. This of course means that it is almost impossible to avoid temptation, especially if you have a strong case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It just doesn’t feel right to come home before midnight when you can constantly see and hear people exploring the city’s nightlife.  It’s been a blast to see what Tel Aviv has to offer but I think it’s probably good for my health and liver, that I came home when I did.

On another Tel Avivi note, Rotschild street is on fire. Not literally, just figuratively-- with hundreds of people and their tents. Thousands of people all over Israel have been rallying together to protest high costs of living and limited state benefits by pitching tents in the central public space of their city. I was fortunate enough to live right next to Israel’s largest protest on Rothschild Street, the busiest avenue in Tel Aviv. It is a sight to see. For at least ten long blocks, hundreds of tents line the pedestrian walkway.  There are signs and posters everywhere, tents are painted with messages, and community organizers host nightly discussions where groups of people sit in a circle and discuss an aspect of the protests. The street is absolutely alive with the spirit of protest; it is like nothing I’ve seen before. And because this is the Israeli form of protest, just plain tents and posters don’t do. There are dance parties, live music performances every few blocks, tee-pees,  movie screenings, street theater,  food, and people everywhere either sitting on couches or beds in the middle of the walkway with their friends.
Rothschild avenue, although this picture was taken during a lull in the day.
In the evening this place is teeming with people.

A double decker!

The Israelis I’ve spoken to about the protest are ecstatic about the movement, they have never seen their own countrymen organize and rally around a domestic cause with such vigor and with such numbers. Many say that it is a cause almost everyone can agree on--unlike the country’s highly polarized political problems.  I saw this first hand during a city-wide rally when an estimated 300,000 people marched in the streets. Seas of people took over Tel Aviv’s busiest avenues. There were kids and families, college students, and the elderly chanting and playing music together. It felt like Tel Aviv was literally busting at the seams because people were everywhere—on their balconies, sitting on top of streetlights, and taking pictures atop tall recycling structures. The energy was palpable.

I had a profound moment one evening while watching the documentary made about Barak Obama’s 2008 election campaign called “By the People” amongst the Israeli protesters. The movie highlights how Obama inspired activism in a place where it has been dead for a while-- American youth. Walking back home from the movie, weaving in and out of people camped out for their cause, I began to feel envious. Where did that fervor and excitement go that we had on the dawn of his inauguration? I began to wish I had a cause I felt that passionate about. I wondered even if I could ever feel that passionate about a cause.

Now just to turn the tables for a minute, I couldn’t help but notice a small glitch in the system, a paradox, if you will. Actual homeless people were sleeping on uncomfortable public benches right next to the self-made “homeless” protesters.. The people who are taking to the streets in mass, fighting for access to fair prices, are the same people turning a blind eye to street cleaners from Eritrea who survived political repression only to come to Israel to be treated like sub-humans. There is something profoundly wrong with the image of young activists, happily building tents, playing music, and throwing dance parties next to a man without an actual home, sleeping on a bench or in a public park. While I whole-heartedly support the protests, I guess I just wish people could look around a little more and consider how everyone could benefit from major reforms, even the homeless.

Whew. That one was a doozie. One novella later, and I’ve told you (if you are still reading) the highlights of my last month in Israel. Not to mention the fundraising campaign I’ve been working on putting together for Tov Lada’at:

The Tov Lada'at Sponsor a Student Campaign- props to my cousin Shir for designing this add.

In short though, the month was an absolute whirlwind of laughs and struggles, working hard and playing hard.  I’ve been back several weeks now and am slowly adjusting my new Baltimore lifestyle. I can’t tell you how my time in Israel has changed me (because I don’t know myself), but as the plane pulled away and I couldn’t help but hold back the tears, I knew that something about that stubborn little place will always be with me.

Monday, July 18, 2011


They say when you go on these programs abroad you “find yourself.” You learn about your strengths and weaknesses, and become a stronger person because of it all. While I’m sure I’ll understand the impact the past nine months had on my personal growth eventually, right now I can’t say this is true for me.

Rather then leaving the LIFE Program having learned about myself, I will leave having learned about people. I have met a whole host of characters, some of whom have made me laugh, some of whom have challenged my character to the very core, and all of whom I hope to always remember. So here’s to the individuals who showed me a new way of seeing things, taught me, or just made plain made me smile:

To Ralphi, the always-smiling Mumbai Jew, who welcomed us with open arms to India with his contagious laugh.

To Lakshmi and Renuka, our curious and lovable underage workers, who despite waking me up most mornings to clean the room, were easily forgivable.

To Mr. Bakshi, our eccentric Siek landlord in Hyderabad, who never seemed to master the art of knocking.

To my Hyderabad friends—Kib, Gopes, Varun, Sashi, Rajesh, and the IDEX team, who took Hyderabad by storm with me. Thanks for teaching me Settlers of Cattan and showing me the ropes of the city that can feel quite daunting.

To Manish, my boss at SKS, who challenged my way of thinking and working every single day I worked with him.

To the staff at SKS, especially Neha, Sivani, and Sakshi, who acted as my lens into everyday Indian society, and who looked out for me as if I were family.

To Swapna, Rajeshwari, Sudaker, Annand, Rajkumar, and Prakash, the staff of Naraynkhed school, whose warmth and hospitality while I spent time at their school, will always make me think fondly of rural Andhra Pradesh—despite finding a snake in my room.

To Venkat, our soft spoken country director who welcomed us into his home, despite being questionable at his actual job.

To Mark Zober, the most compassionate and kooky person I have ever met, who, in one conversation alone helped me decide my future.

To the friends I met in Jordan-- Hassan, the Egyptian protester, Madian, the out-and-proud restaurant owner, and Mohanned, our tour guide; who by the very fact of our talking seemed to break down barriers.

To Nir, Guy, Eyal, and Tomer, founders of the Puzzle Project, whose country-boy attitude and laid-back style showed me a taste of real Israel.

To Michelle, my new Brazilian friend, who knows how to be adorable, impassioned, and an emerging social entrepreneur all in one.

To Matan, my hilarious, IDF-veteran, socialist friend, who isn’t afraid to be a little different.

To Anna, my long-time childhood friend, who I was able to see in a whole new way, as a dedicated advocacy coordinator and ultimate Tel Aviv hostess.

To the gay Palestinians at the drag show, who challenged social norms by just being themselves.

To Kate and Florentine, the founders of Tov Lada’at, who showed me the meaning of true dedication, because having a full-time job and running a non-profit in your free time is certainly not easy.

To all of the asylum-seekers and refugees I had the pleasure of working with, whose resilience, strength, and intelligence is inspirational.

And to the people who count the most:

To Abby who showed me what it means to really listen and how to be supportive. Thank you for all of the good times and the laughs. You are a true friend.

 To Alex whose drive, focus, and dedication are characteristics I admire. You will change the world one day.

To Amy who showed me generosity and what it really means to have a passion for a cause.  You are a true activist.

To Gabe whose compassion and talent I wish I had more of. Thank you for teaching me that its ok to be sentimental sometimes.

To Phil who always knew how to make me laugh. Thank you for being your unique boxer-dog-loving Snoop-Dogg-rapping self.

To Nurit who lives life with confidence and grace. I know you will be a great success at anything you put your mind to.

To all of the aforementioned people, thank you. I said from the beginning that the next 9 months would be one wild ride, and that it was. Thank you guys for opening my eyes to new experiences and new perspectives. Thank you for making it all worthwhile.

And maybe I had it wrong in the beginning. I’ve met people from all sorts of places with all sorts of backgrounds. Maybe “finding myself” is just about finding my reflection in these people.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


I’ve been avoiding writing about “the conflict” because the topic is so highly politicized and heated, that conversations rarely end well. I also have this constant fear of never knowing enough to talk, argue, or write about it intelligently.  So then, I will do what writers do best, and write about what I know.

The most interesting and iconic Israeli institution that represents the conflict to me is the Israeli Defense Force: the IDF. By the nature of my friendships with young people post-army, and by just walking the street and looking around, I have learned a lot about the intricacies of the institution.

For those who need a recap: at age 18 all Israelis are enlisted into the army. Some people are exempt, like certain religious communities and those who get a low health rating, but mostly everyone goes. It is so deeply engrained in Israeli culture as a rite of passage that most people never consider not doing it. Girls serve two years and boys three, in all sorts of different units. There are the infantry soldiers that dress in the classic olive green, the highly esteemed air force pilots in cream, and the border control who wear my favorite color of the bunch, a dark gray. They fulfill a variety of jobs beyond what we typically think of as the role of a soldier. I’ve met people who served as teachers, accountants, administrative assistants, air traffic controllers, musicians, and social workers.

Upon observing tons of IDF soldiers in passing, I have developed an idea I like to call “Soldier Style.” I’ve noticed that lots of young Israelis like to take on the persona of being a soldier in various ways. Some girls manage to make the boxy uniforms look cute. They take their pants to get fitted and tuck them into their boots like skinny jeans. Sometimes it’s funny to see these small girls with cute hair and make-up in uniform, wielding a weapon. Other men seem to enjoy the “GI Joe” look, rocking the aviators and tough guy attitude with pride. Others wear their uniforms like any teenagers do—with their pants slung low, halfway down their butts.

A sight to get used to...
It is common to see groups of young soldiers in malls or bus stations chatting like teenagers all around the world do, except with big M-16’s strapped to their backs. It is a strange site to see for the first time, certainly a little jarring for tourists new to Israel. The strange part is when it becomes commonplace. Just the other day I was on a bus to Tel Aviv and a solider sat next to me. As he fell asleep the butt of his gun ended up inching onto my lap. He ended up sleeping in a hunched over position, spooning his gun like a baby. And then the other day I saw a little boy bump his head on a soldier’s gun. We were all standing in line to board a bus and the boy, who was holding his father’s hand, couldn’t have been older than three years old. He looked over to see what he had hit his head on and started playing with the barrel of the soldier’s M-16. Moments like these I just end up cocking my head and thinking how strange it all is. Yet the normalization of a sight like this is the most alarming part. Warfare should never be normalized. Guns should never be commonplace.

Soldiers gathering at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.
You can see the impact of the army in Israeli culture and society in ways I am only beginning to learn.  Young kids grow up knowing that if they leave their backpack somewhere public, it is very likely a bomb squad will blow it up later for fear of a suspicious package. People who grew up in the 90s tell stories of carrying their gas masks to school, and how they each decorated their gas mask box. Certain types of people are expected to get into certain units in the army, and there are stereotypes attached to each. Young Israelis post-army seem to be so much more adept at doing things like changing tires and traveling in remote places. Many don’t start studying until their mid-twenties and thus seem to get married later. The stereotype of the Israeli man is to be strong and emotion-less, like the good soldier they are supposed to be. Some say that Israel as a whole is a post-traumatic state. And these are just to name a few…

Security measures occur in everyday Israeli society without people thinking twice. For example, security guards and metal detectors are stationed at the entrance of any public place, whether it be a mall or bus station. Many private restaurants and cafes also have their own security. Before entering the public bus stands via bus, a security guard always hops on the bus to scan the inside. On a bus to Tel Aviv the other day the guard scanned the bus and stopped the only Arab man to ask for his ID. While I might be able to understand the security measures, Israel openly embraces their policy of racial profiling. The Arab man was with his family. To think of the daily harassment him and his family must undergo, and then to be singled out like that on the bus, I felt humiliated for him and ashamed of the institution. As for more security, checkpoints are scattered all throughout the country in any potentially volatile area and expansive walls sometimes surround settlements or border highways.

A small Israeli check point.
After visiting Israel three times, studying about the conflict in school, and now living in Jerusalem, all I know is that the situation is infinitely more complex and intricate than I will ever be able to understand. It includes issues of property, religious rites, ethnicity, and identity. There is always more information to be learned, always another expert to speak with, and always another bereaved family on either side to tell you their story. My friend Matan spent six months in Hebron (a mixed city in the West Bank) at a check-point. He is one of the most liberal people I have ever met and I think his story illustrates the complexity of it all. He said he went into his duty disliking Israeli settlers and thinking highly, benevolently of all Arabs. He tried to approach Arabs as “the best of the worst of them,” that is, a friendly Israeli soldier. Though as time went on and he was constantly faced with insults and uncomfortable situations, the lines became blurred. He could no longer label anyone as anything.

The conflict has taught me to analyze, question everything, and never rest assured that any one given point-of-view is the correct one. Although, the one thing I feel confident saying is that the way certain Israeli policies marginalize Palestinians is not only an abuse of human rights but also a way to incite more hate and violence.

My problem now with “Israel-Apartheid Week” or the Israeli settlement movement (movements representing both the far left and right) is not necessarily the ideology itself, it is the close-mindedness of it all. Because I imagine if activists on either side could open their minds to discussion and new ideas, we could all be a little closer to a peaceful resolution. I know that is incredibly naïve and simplistic to say, but maybe it is the fresh, naive attitude that can see more clearly about the subject than the people who live deep inside of it.

The iconic image-- soldiers praying at the Western Wall.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

You know you have been in Israel a while when…

I'm coming up on the four month marker of my time here in Israel. While being immersed in this culture, I've noticed a few behavioral changes :

1. You’ve replaced the word “um” for “em.”

2. You eat a cucumber whole, like you would an apple.

3. The words “the conflict” will always refer to one conflict, and one conflict only.

4. You cut lines.

5. You drink two more cups of coffee a day then you did at home.

6. You’ve stopped using please and thank you.

7. More volume the better with your hair.

8. You’ve become a pedophile because all attractive people in uniform are probably 18.

9. You panic Friday morning when you realize the only food you have to last you through Shabbat is brown rice and an onion.

10. Breakfast is not complete without a fresh vegetable and a cheese of some kind.

11. You go through a carton of hummus every few days.

12. You no longer care when a gun is pointed towards you on the bus.

13.  You wear sandals on every occasion.

14. You press your fingers together and shake your hand in someone’s face to say “wait a minute.”

15.  You bought a nargila (hookah).

16. Falafel is a staple.

17. You put tehina (a yummy sauce made from sesame seeds) on your frozen yogurt.

18. You drink chocolate milk out of a bag.

19. Your skin has turned a darker shade of brown.

20.  You treat Thursdays like Fridays and Saturdays like Sundays (the work week here is from Sunday-Thursday).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ahalan from Jordan

The first time I felt like I was in the Middle East in the past three months was when I was in Jordan last week. The LIFE program took the group on a four-day study tour in North Jordan and Amman. We stayed in an eco-village, met with diverse people and organizations in Amman, and ate pounds and pounds of fresh hummus.  While I didn’t go in with many expectations of what Jordan would look like, it was a lot more beautiful and interesting than I had imagined.

Nurit and Alex at a nice over-look. You can kind of make out the Sea of Galilee.

Amman reminded me of a tamer, Islamic India.  We stayed in a pretty busy part of town, on a street lined with stores selling men’s suits. The city as a whole is a sprawling and unplanned, with clear divisions of wealth. While we stayed in a more moderate part of town filled with street food and barbers, book stands and junk markets, just a quick drive away lay the King’s palace, other such fancy houses, and even a Starbucks. The city was a lot more liberal than I had expected, with fun restaurants and bars.

A busy street scene.

A man selling goats from his truck. 

Before leaving for the trip, our program gave us as a strict safety protocol. The Israelis in our group were not allowed to say they were from Israel, we were not allowed to speak Hebrew in the streets, and we were assigned a security guard upon crossing the Israel-Jordan border. While I learned that Israeli-Jordanian relations are a lot more tense and fragile than the peace agreement implies, I felt much safer in the streets than I imagined. Yes, the women got stares (and maybe India has de-sensitized me to this), but I never felt unsafe. We walked home late one night and the streets felt quiet and calm. I found myself wishing that we did introduce ourselves as an Israeli group. Because while there is still a tremendous amount of hatred and tension, there is even more ignorance and mis-information. The two sides are never in a position to meet each other face-to-face, and see “the enemy” in a human form. One of the most poignant things I heard all week was from a Palestinian refugee who was raised in Kuwait and then Jordan. He said that he grew up thinking that Israelis were non-human, that if you cut them they wouldn’t bleed blood. He then met them, became friends with them, and later did business with them. He now runs a well-know bookstore and coffee shop, famous for their non-discriminating employment policies.

As for a few highlights:

1.We stayed in an eco-village in Northern Jordan run by Friends of the Earth Middle East.  We spent the night in adorable little log cabins and got a tour of the nature reserve by Abdel, one of the managers of the organization, whose passion for the land and knowledge of it was inspiring. As ignorant as it sounds, it was humbling and eye-opening to meet people who I always labeled as very different from myself, interested in the same things: ecology, green living, and the importance of preserved natural space. An Egyptian guy was interning with them during the same time as our short stay there, and after speaking with him, I think he is one of the most interesting people I have met all year. When asked about the recent events in his country, he spoke of it in the first person, “We should have stayed in Tahrir Square longer.” He was there on the ground, protesting with his comrades. Something he said to me also struck a chord. When asked about how Egyptians feel about Israelis he offered insight that I had never though about before. He said that for Arabs, it doesn’t make sense that there are non-Arabs in the area; they Israelis are seen as encroaching onto Arab territory. While some families have been here for generations, it made me think. Putting religious reasons aside, does it make sense that Westerners flock to this little piece of land surrounded by Arab countries? Would it be the equivalent of carving a small space in between Canada and the US for Africans?

A view from the Friends of the Middle East Eco-Park

2. We met with some other really interesting organizations like the Jordan Breast Cancer Foundation, JHAS (the Jordan Health Aid Society), and the United Religious Initiative, all of which offered a new insight into the Jordanian social sector and civil society. My favorite, JHAS, is an organization that provides medical services for Iraqi refugees. We got a tour or their clinic and were invited to a dinner at the director of JHAS’s home, Yaroup, who transformed his backyard into a going away party for a friend. We ate well and “schmoozed” with some of Jordan’s elite working with refugee issues (for which there are many in because Jordan is known for its liberal border policies). That night we got a ride home from a JHAS employee who was on a break from working in Libya. I tried to pick his brain without being too obnoxious.

3. As mentioned, we met with some exceptional individuals who despite the risk of speaking with a group coming from Israel, were warm and accommodating. I think Arabs are known for their hospitality, and we for sure were greeted with it. We were almost always offered coffee or tea everywhere we went and were received with friendly attitudes; people who went out of their way to be helpful. From the hostel receptionist who gave us tips to getting to Petra, to our tour guide (he is assigned to us by the Jordanian government), Mohanned, who took us to see fun parts of Amman even on his day off.

4. PETRA. A couple of us stayed on two more nights to see one of the seven wonders of the worlds. We spent the whole day hiking the old city, famous for being carved out of sandstone. The place is beautiful, and you are free to jump and climb around on the rocks and ancient caves as much as you want. My favorites were the Johnny-Depp-Look-a-Like Bedouins who try to get you to pay for rides on their donkeys or camels. They’ve developed jokes over time that they know will please the tourists. So when you ask what a donkey’s name is, it is usually always “Shakira” or “Jackass.”

Do we look like Indiana Jones?

One of our Bedouin friends and his steed.

Our hike's destination-- the monastery.

I left Jordan not only with an acquired taste for dark Arabic coffee, but also with a more developed understanding of the Middle East. I know the politics and conflicts at play are far more complex than the tip of the iceberg I learned about in my four days there, but I am for sure walking away with a fresh perspective. Including one valuable learned lesson: do not ask the border police who the picture on their wall is. Not only is King Abdullah widely liked by his people, but his picture is found everywhere, and criticizing the King can be considered treason. Also, after insulting their King, do not try to shake their hands, they may be good Muslim men and have just washed for prayer. I’m just glad I got out of their without being arrested…

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Trifecta

I was fortunate enough to be in Israel at a time when the country celebrates three national holidays nearly back to back: Yom Ha’Shoa, Yom Ha’Zikaron, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day.

First came Yom Ha’Shoa, celebrated in true Israeli fashion. The night before (referred to as the “erev” and when most of the celebrations for the various holidays occur), my roommates and I went to a local high school to watch their ceremony. It is a rite of passage for teenagers in eleventh grade to focus on Holocaust studies; they take a trip to Poland and are responsible for putting together the Yom Ha’Shoa events. This group of kids reenacted Adolf Eichmann’s trial, focusing on the survivors’ courtroom testimonials. Of course I barely understood a word, but it was interesting to watch from the cultural perspective. First off, I was inside an Israeli high school for the first time, and surprise surprise, it looks the same except with Hebrew writing. I was impressed by the seriousness with which the kids undertook the evening. They sang songs and delivered speeches with a maturity and solemnity I could not envision in their American counterparts. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just me but all of the boys seem to have really deep voices.

On the day itself a national siren blares throughout the country at 10 am for thirty seconds. People are expected to stop their cars, get out, and stand. I found myself in quite the fortuitous situation—standing in Rabin Square (the iconic spot where Israel’s champion of the peace process, Yitzchak Rabin, was assassinated) watching a demonstration by Israeli soldiers and surrounded by four main streets. The moment was surreal; it felt like something out of The Matrix or something. The siren was more muted then I expected, but everybody—busses, motorcycles, and cars—stopped in the middle of the busy street to commemorate for a moment the Holocaust.

Less than a week later came Yom Ha’Zikaron, a morose day for all Israelis, where the country commemorates all fallen soldiers. The erev of the day all non-essential businesses are required by law to close. No restaurants, bars, busses, or anything that can be seen as providing entertainment. That night I went to a program put on by Masa-- the huge umbrella organization that funds programs for Jews from all over the world to come to Israel. It took place on a foggy evening on top of a historical hill. While Masa does many great things, I find their large public events to be downright insulting. They shamelessly plug their “make-aliyah” agenda and are a big fan of flashy shows. So while I enjoyed the part of the event where I learned the personal stories of seven fallen soldiers, I found the light effects, fancy media techniques, and script a little over the top. I wish I could have been at a low-key communal event to see how the everyday Israeli pays tribute to those who have died for the country. As I was leaving the event, Alex and I struck an interesting conversation. Everybody talks about the tragedy of a young soldier killed but nobody mentions the tragedy that puts these kids at risk in the first place. Throughout the event we saw tons of pictures of the seven highlighted soldiers posing in uniform with their guns. They are made to be heroes and heroines: “This noble soldier died for her country,” but nobody stopped to ask: “Why is this eighteen year carrying around a gun?” Nobody seemed to think it was a shame to celebrate a young teenager in uniform, holding a weapon half his size. Just as much as a lost life is tragic, same is the conflict that makes them all be soldiers in the first place. My Israeli roommate Nurit told me that when babies are born in her family it has become a tradition to say to them: “May there be no army when you turn 18.” I like this sentiment because it expresses a reserved optimism that I wish more Israelis had; a hint that the conflict doesn’t have to be forever and that an end could be sight.

On Yom Ha’Zikaron itself another siren blares throughout the country, but this time I was in a small café by my house. Everyone stopped mid-sentence to stand in silence. The transition from a day or mourning and remembrance into once of celebration is a strange juxtaposition of sadness and celebration. I think it is meant to symbolize the idea that from tragedy comes beauty and life. It also aptly describes the delicate balance of everyday Israel life. Israelis stubbornly try to live their lives through the trauma and despite it; life must go on, because to dwell on the conflict becomes too stifling. So, people prepare all week for Independence Day by adorning everything with Israel flags. And then, as if wound up like a spring on Yom Ha’Zikaron, go crazy on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We started off at a house party on the roof of a rabbi’s home and then went to the public market for a party organized by the University. Once we got there the cops were already starting to shut things down because I think every person under the age of 35 in Jerusalem, came to the shuk party. It was madness but I’m glad I got to be a part of it all.

Getting ready to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. We tried to wear blue and white...

Well, three holidays down and three more interesting cultural experiences to think about. I hope this blog was as enlightening as the days were for me. Cheers.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter with the Eritreans

I haven’t been feeling inspired to write lately, but just yesterday I had another one of those “Is This Real Life?” moments that sparked my creative juices and got my pen to paper again (or shall I say hands to keyboard). I will call it, “Easter with the Eritreans.”

As some of you may know, I am working with an organization based in Tel Aviv called Tov Lada’at (, or Good to Know. It is a small project that helps African refugees gain access to higher education. They work with a cohort of eight students, offering them scholarships to school, a monthly leadership seminar, and guidance towards creating their own community projects.

The situation with African refugees and asylum-seekers is an interesting one, and one which I hadn't heard about until moving here. In short, many Africans (approximately 27,000) from countries like Eritrea, Sudan (80% of Israel’s asylum seekers come from these two countries), Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, flee from some form of political or religious persecution in their home countries, looking for a better way of life elsewhere. Since geographically speaking, Israel is one of the closest democracies; many end up coming from Egypt through the Sinai desert of foot.  Often times the refugees hire Bedouin smugglers to lead them through the desert but are still faced with abuse from the smugglers, threats of rape and violence, and attack from the Egyptian army. Once arriving in the “Promised Land,” the Israeli government rarely gives these people refugee status (in fact, they are arrested by the Israeli army and put in jail) and they are often here on temporary visas that do not allow them to work. They are then stuck in a strange legal limbo, with little access and support to basic needs, along with facing a lot of discrimination and racism on a daily basis. With all of that said, many have been here for several years and are quiet adept at Israeli life.  Despite the lack of human rights, they have families, and jobs, and go to university like everyone else.

One of my duties as an intern for TL is to work with half of the fellows as a sort of mentor, to support them in developing their own community projects. I’ve enjoyed the work immensely so far because I’ve been able to really get to know four refugees. I’ve met with them to discuss their past, how they came to Israel, and their future aspirations. Every single one of the fellows have personal stories of hardship. And above all, their warmth, intelligence, and resiliency constantly amaze me.

So back to Easter. It started off with the release party for one of my fellow’s magazine. He is one of the Eritrean men I “mentor.” The word mentor here feels funny to me because this man is the most remarkable person I have ever met and the idea of me imparting wisdom onto him just seems like a joke. He went from Eritrea, to Ethiopia, to Sudan, and then to Israel, constantly fighting to get a college education. While spending time in a refugee camp and then again in Israel he helped start art groups that meet once a week to write together or discuss community matters. The group in Tel Aviv pulled together their own resources and published a magazine for the Eritrean community called “Maedo.” They distributed it during a fun talent-show like even on Easter.  It was held in the back of a little run-down Eritrean store close to the Central Bus Station. The station itself is notorious for being a little-Africa of sorts; it is the hub for all refugee activities in Tel Aviv and always bustling with people from all over.
That little guy in red is Eritrea. It is often bulked together with Ethiopia although they have been in conflict for years.

I wanted to go to the event to support this man and thankfully my good friend Anna and co-worker Florentine joined me because it was nice to have some company sitting among a crowd of Eritreans speaking a language I don’t know. The event itself was really interesting though. Various people performed – reading poems, telling jokes or stories, playing some traditional Tigrinia songs, and my personal favorite, dancing to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” The multi-culturalism of it all just blew my mind. There I was, an American, sitting with a German and another American at an Eritrean event in Israel. We almost covered all of the world’s continents. Anyways, even though we didn’t understand a word of the festivities, it is remarkable how much you can gauge from tone and body language.

It was really interesting to see how Easter is celebrated in different cultures. There were no bunnies or Easter egg hunts to be found. Rather, it seemed like a big party. People are out on the streets and dressed in fancy suits and dresses. They served cola and water and traditional snacks like popcorn and a thick bread I’m not sure the name of. The program ended when Florentine and I were whisked from our seats and made to dance with everyone. I think Flo put it aptly afterwards when she said, “I guess I can check that one off of my list!”

Afterwards I went with another one of the fellows, Dighe, to his apartment for another Easter celebration. In a previous meeting I had told him how much I wanted to eat some good injeera (a sponge-like pancake served with different sauces; the “naan” of Ethiopian/Eritrean food), so he invited me to the party where there would be promised home-cooked Eritrean food. I’m not sure how I always seem to get myself into these situations but soon after I found myself in a small apartment surrounded by about 15 Eritrean men drinking Heinekens and dancing to Tigrinia songs on You Tube. Once I got over the initial stares and the fish-out-of-water feeling,; it was a blast. I ate some fantastic njera and after being practically force- fed a few “chasers” (the Israeli equivalent of a mini-shot) I danced to Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” a staple for any Africa-lovers. I learned how to say “How are you?” in Dighe’s mother-tounge (Workma?) and was even presented with a Hanukkah candle as an Easter gift. Something about candles is symbolic, seeing as the whole apartment was sprinkled with lit Hanukah candles. I liked the quirky juxtaposition of the two holidays.

An example of some injeera. You eat it with your hands and the sauces are mostly meat-based.

The whole day was nice reminder of how people can overcome hardship. These refugees undergo unspeakable difficulties in their daily life, but they don’t let it define themselves. They were just people, doing what people all around the world do best on Easter: celebrate. Whether that’s decorating Easter eggs and eating chocolate or eating injeera and drinking beers.