Reflections from the “other side”

Always before this, when I have come to this region of the world, I have come to Israel. I have landed at Ben-Gurion Airport and – aside from my first visit in 1969 in a group of American Jewish high school students – I have walked out the door and gotten into a sherut (shared taxi) to Jerusalem. I’ve known where to go and how to get there, and if I didn’t know, I knew how to ask, because I speak Hebrew. It always felt familiar and comfortable, always a homecoming. As a Jew I have always been sure of a welcome in Israel.

I landed in Amman as a total stranger, not knowing the language or the culture, and forewarned that if I revealed my identity as a Jew, I would most likely be greeted with suspicion, hostility, and anger. There is hardly any indication in Jordan that the country has a neighbor to its west with whom it is at peace. There are no Israeli goods for sale in the shops, there are no Israelis on the streets here, there is little or no mention of Israel or Jews in contexts where one would most logically find it. (The in-flight magazine of Royal Jordanian Airlines, for example, had an article on what to see and do in Warsaw, without a single reference to the Warsaw ghetto.). I found Jordan fascinating, and would love to come back someday, but I also found myself wondering, in every interaction, what the other person’s reaction would be if I revealed my identity.

I was looking forward to entering Israel by land rather than by air. The Allenby Bridge crossing is surreal, as Jordan, Israel, and the PA all cooperate in a charade of legal and diplomatic technicalities to allow people to cross from one state to another without defining which state they are crossing in or out of when they enter or leave the west bank of the Jordan River. I was curious to see what sort of reaction I would get from the Israeli officials, since my passport has the Israeli visa from March and I speak Hebrew, but I got no particular reaction. They were all clearly focused on screening the overwhelmingly Palestinian crowd, and any non-Arab with a US passport was just someone to pass along quickly (unless their footwear set off the metal detectors!). It was a colder reception than I have ever gotten, and I could see that the entire process was very intimidating and tension-filled for Palestinians.

Since tourists may come to Bethlehem and Jerusalem from either Israel or Jordan, one’s choice of travel usually reflects one’s political sentiments. Those who come from Jordan are presumed to be pro-Palestinian. (In our case this was especially true since the CIEE program director had arranged for our time in Palestine and Israel to be handled by a tour group run by an Israeli Jewish anti-Zionist activist. Our guide was also an Israeli Jewish anti-Zionist. He clearly thought at first that he was preaching to the choir, so on our first day we got more of a political harangue than a tour. Two of the group spoke to him about this and he did change his style to be more of the trained tour guide, and offered more critical reflection. He also graciously altered the schedule as much as possible to accommodate our requests.) Given the identity of our tour company, the people we interacted with felt free to say things like, “Better you should spend your money here, and don’t spend any of it in Israel.” The casual everyday negative references to Israel in both Jordan and Palestine sounded exactly like the casual everyday negative references to Arabs that I hear so often among American Jews. Both are very disturbing and reflect the distance between the two populations.

Staying in an East Jerusalem hotel continued my “through the looking glass” experience. Had I not made a point of taking the group to dinner in my favorite restaurant in West Jerusalem (and going on foot through its downtown), our tour would have arranged for us to spend all our time in the Palestinian half of the city, aside from our visit to Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust museum and memorial). But it underscored the fact that on all my previous visits, my excursions into East Jerusalem had been few and far between. That one can visit the city and easily spend time only on one side or the other is a measure of the extent to which a “unified Jerusalem” is a fiction. The unity is political, stemming from Israel’s unrecognized annexation of the city in 1967; it is certainly not a unity of populations.

This experience left me wishing that there was a way to make all tourists see Israel and Palestine from both sides, rather than only coming to see the sights that reinforce their own views.

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Welcome Home

“Welcome home,” said the porter as he brought our stored luggage into the hotel room in Amman upon our return. This simple greeting seemed to hold particular weight given the great questions of what is ‘home’ that arose on this trip. This term carries different meanings for the range of the individuals we met on our travels, many of whom have dealt with shifting home locations. This includes the American trip coordinator who had established a home in Jordan but now prepares to move to Egypt, the Palestinian driver expelled to a refugee camp in Jordan as a teenager, an Israeli guide born and raised in Jerusalem taking us to visits with Canadians and Americans who moved intentionally to settle in Israel and the West Bank area, Palestinians living in a refugee camp who still commemorate the village from where their family arrived, a shop owner in Bethlehem wearing a Brazil t-shirt while discussing family travels to and from Texas, and an incoming first year student we met with in Amman who next year will make Wooster his home.

Across the trip we also encountered a number of locations which are interpreted in different ways. This was particularly true in Jerusalem, which represents a competing physical as well as religious home for Christians, Jews, and Muslims – as well as hosting the Holocaust Museum which traces the loss of life and homes of millions of Jews in Europe.

As I write this on the plane returning to my own home in Wooster (and post a day later after an unplanned night in Chicago when a weather delay caused us to miss our connection to Cleveland!), I know that I will continue to think through various notions of home connected to the different places and individual perspectives that I experienced.

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Warm Welcome

When we arrived in the West Bank on Sunday, our guide – the utterly inimitable Yahav – greeted us in this way:

Welcome to…I don’t know how to finish that sentence. You may have noticed that there is no welcome sign here… Israel, Palestine, the Palestinian territories…whatever it is, you are here, and you are welcome to it!

I’ll admit that, in my case, the people we met and the experiences we have had have done nothing to clear up the confusion. In the last few days we have met with a shocking range of fascinating people. The manager of the Friends of the Earth Center showed us both the depths of the water crisis affecting the Palestinian village of Auja, and his organization’s grass roots efforts to ameliorate the situation for the residents. The director of the Beautiful Resistance program shared his group’s commitment to empower the youth of the Aida refugee camp through training in theater, dance, the visual arts and environmental awareness. Two former adversaries – one a participant in the Intifada, and one a former member of the Israeli armed forces – told their stories, and shared the vision they hoped to promote through the organization to which they are now both committed, Combatants for Peace. An Israeli settler gave us a tour of his community, the Vice Dean of the Bethlehem Bible College gave an amazingly frank presentation on his hopes for Palestinian Christians, and a leader of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel shared his views on the conflict, and his direct methods to bring people together. Most searing of all, of course, was this morning’s visit to Yad v’Shem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum.

A wise teacher mentioned the other day that one of the goals of her teaching on the conflict is to help students to see that there are a number of coherent understandings of the crisis, and to make them uncomfortable about which one they should adopt. The good news is that I have reached that goal! I now understand Yahav’s confusion, and will need a great deal of time to think through my experiences here.

At the same time, our time here draws my attention to the last bit of Yahav’s unique greeting: whatever the political status of this land, we have surely been warmly welcomed by the people we have met here. I am afraid that, in discussing the political situation, it may be all too easy to think of the issues “merely” in terms of lines on a map. After our time with Rami and Hashem, our intrepid Jordanian guides, or George, the very best jeweler in Bethlehem, I am glad to say that this will be very hard to do!

Amber Garcia and her new friend George in Bethlehem

John Rudisill and Assam in Bethlehem.

Rami and Hashem

caption=”Yahav”]

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Passionfruit

I’m sitting here in the lobby of the Golden Walls hotel in Jerusalem, beside windows that look out at the walls of the Old City, and perhaps it sounds strange but I feel like I’ve roamed a place I’ve read about all my life, a place that is just like they say it is.

 

I’ve been nervous about visiting the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif since the start of this trip. So we needed to go through Israeli security in order to enter the area. Tedious but easy enough. Also quite easy to wander up to the doors of Al-Aqsa mosque, take off my shoes, and step into the mosque. Except that the guard at the door, blue uniform, Muslim and Arab, has already flagged me as a non-Arab Muslim. In fact I think I was announced as such through the walkie-talkie. So inside the mosque doors, as I’m preparing to wander around with my head tilted up at a painful angle, taking in the space and the sounds and the stained glass, and finally settling on a nice corner in which to sit, I’m met by another uniformed individual, in black this time, who will now take me around the mosque, offer to take my photo in front of the minbar (pulpit) built and used by Salah ud-Din, obtain several donations (not accepting Israeli shekels), and finally asking me if I wanted to make a prayer and selecting a spot for me in which to do so. He was surprised that I didn’t want a photo of myself in front of the minbar but I let him take a photo of the interior of the mosque for me.

 

Unfortunately this situation repeats itself at the next shrine, the Dome of the Rock. I’m happily surprised that the door is open, people entering and leaving, hurriedly take off my shoes and slip inside, preparing to be wowed and overcome and instantly introspective, have a chance to sit down, when I’m met by my next guide (how did they know this time?), an older man from Hebron. I have a moment in which I try to convince myself that had the guide not located the foreign Muslim I would not have known about the bronze shrine erected above the place on the rock said to contain the footprints of the Prophet Muhammad (you’re instructed to stick your right hand in and feel the shape) before he ascended to heaven. Again the guide is disappointed that I don’t want a photo of myself in the entrance of the cave that takes you right under the rock itself, but he’s happy to snap random photos of the interior of it for me.  In the cave, I turn one ear towards my guide and run my hands along the walls and roof of the rock. The cave provides an additional little carpeted prayer space (a shelf of rock inside the cave actually contained a young girl, reading Qur’an). The place is quiet, like Al-Aqsa, men and women both pray without separation or clear allocation of space (in fact I feel several of those trying to pray and sit quietly looking at me and wondering why anyone needs a guide in such a place). Perhaps here I was flagged as well, since upon leaving the mosque the blue-uniformed guard asks me if I’m Turkish.

 

The rest of the afternoon I am sad to report that I am preoccupied with fantasies of having been allowed to enter both places of such historical and religious significance and left totally to myself.  But all I remember of the Dome of the Rock is the guide’s beard! Yet of course, I got a chance to see both of these places, while the rest of my group was barred for not appearing Muslim enough. Besides myself, I only saw one other woman wandering Al-Aqsa snapping pics. Everyone else was sitting, standing, praying, reading, snoozing, even one young men stretched full out on the floor of Al-Aqsa with a magazine on his face. These are mosques the way I’m used to them. The level of anxiety associated with arriving in the area, going through security, and being treated as a religious tourist seems to belong to a parallel world.

 

So the Muslim guides flag me as an Islamic tourist. A shop owner in Old Jerusalem perhaps flags me as an Arab as well as Muslim. I’m prevented from using the ATM in his shop, and directed to the ATM around the corner, the Arab ATM where I’m greeted in Arabic.

 

At the Wailing Wall I’m greeted in Hebrew and asked to make a donation to a charity.

 

The most gratifying part of the day was buying a glass of iced passion-fruit juice from a fruit stall from a young boy. I have no idea what religion or ethnicity he was nor what he assumed about me. The juice was excellent.

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Some Jordanian perspectives

As a newcomer to these issues, to me, there seemed to be underlying contradictions in the discourses of the various speakers in Amman, Jordan. On the one hand, speakers were saying that the road map for the two-state solution is worked out in some detail, including land-swap solutions for the settlement areas and ways of administering the holy sites in Jerusalem. There are even some principles on the thorny issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In its broad outline, the two-state solution is widely regarded as acceptable by people and parties on both sides of the conflict (though certainly not by all). It sounds relatively hopeful. On the other hand, speakers were reporting that the peace process is stalled and that it might be moribund. They said that, in the last few years, there has been a feeling of hopelessness, especially among Palestinians, regarding the possibility of a two-state solution. The current political climate is one of despair.

What the Jordanian speakers said also seemed to contain another contradiction, underlying the first. On the one hand, they indicated that the region needs a two-state solution. For both the Palestinians and for Israel, long-term security and prosperity requires two states. For Israel, the demographics indicate that, in the long-term, there will be an increasing percentage of Arabs within Israel and increasing absolute numbers of people living in the Palestine. Demographics indicate that it is Israel’s interests to have an independent Palestine: this is a requirement to keep Israel Jewish. On the other hand, some of the speakers also said that it was in the interests of Israel to maintain the status-quo: to keep building settlements and keep the Palestinians separate and in limbo. These two views cannot both be correct. If is in Israel’s interests to maintain the status-quo then it cannot also be in the interests to agree a two-state solution.

I wanted to understand how these contradictory Jordanian perceptions of the situation are possible. There emerged several interesting points representing Jordanian perspectives. First, several speakers commented on the lack of leadership towards a two-state solution. They criticized recent American leaders from Clinton to Bush to Obama for not having the strength of will or persistence in negotiations. This lack of leadership represents dashed hopes. They also suggested that the Arab world has been more fragmented in recent years and in disarray since the Arab spring. There is no unity to support the Palestinians. The Arab world is now more concerned about Iran and the possible Israeli reaction to Iran. They also said that Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has lead Israel towards increasingly right wing views and unyielding negotiating positions. This is in part because of an increasing inflow of Russian immigrants who are not committed to a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. There is also a general drift towards more right wing views. The leadership in Israel, the speakers said, is against a two-state solution, which reflects a general mood in the country. These points might help resolve the first contradiction: even if a two-state solution is widely acceptable, it might not be politically possible at this time. However these points don’t really address the second contradiction, which is about Israeli interests. I will write about that next time. I am looking forward also to hearing other analyses.

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Coastal Dead Sea Views from the Israeli Side

Since I’m an in abstentia member of this intrepid Hales Group travel team, I’m contributing a brief post in response to their visit to the Jordanian coast of the Dead Sea. This spring an Independent Study student (Melissa Torma) and I had the privilege of exploring the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea with an expert Israeli geologist (Yoav Avni). At the time I gazed across the water at the beautiful Jordanian side, dreaming of visiting it (alas). In the image above you see us at lunch looking at the mountains of Jordan. The Hales Team was over there, somewhere, this week.

We saw the mirror image of the environmental and infrastructure damage the rapid decline of the Dead Sea is producing along the shore. The sinkholes are enormous and now number in the thousands, destroying roads, pipelines, and agricultural sites. The drop in sea level has also endangered the vast extractive chemical industries in both Israel and Jordan. The sea level is dropping about a meter a year, which is extraordinary. This reduction in base level also produces incredible erosional gullies as water from flashfloods cuts through the newly-exposed unconsolidated lake sediments with increasingly high energy.

One interesting effect for us as geologists is the extensive exposure of salt deposits from the evaporating Dead Sea waters. Thick sheets of sodium chloride (halite) cover the shore in some places, producing an eerie landscape and a decidedly crunchy surface.

Good luck to my colleagues as they continue their adventure!

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Crossing

If it is a 6am wake up call, then it must be our border crossing day! With the the first openings at 8am, we were up early and moving out to ensure that we got across from Jordan and into the West Bank as early as we could given the possible (which in our case turned into definite) delays.  We have been discussing what events or sights have been the most meaningful to people based on their different discinplines and interests. With my  International Relations background, where others may have found the process tedious or aggravating, objectively observing the whole event was a fascinating experience for me.

On the Jordanian side, we went through an interesting diplomatic dance which worked out in the end with an expedited trip via the VIP lounge.  After clearing multiple additional checkpoints, our arrival on the other side was not so expedited.  After a long while in line, most of us were asked simple or no questions at the first passport checkpoint and given a sticker on our passport with a number checked which indicated no issues with our case.  However, the two in our party with different backgrounds (Sarah, an American citizen whose family roots are in Pakistan, and one of our guides, a German citizen whose family came there from Iran)  were flagged for further questioning. After clearing the bag scan and metal detector cleanly (except for Kara in her metal detector aggravating boots), Sarah and the guide were questioned, then given back their passports which had been taken away at the time, before being passed on to the final passport clearance. The rest of the group cleared this with no problems, but had to wait on the other side while they filled out a form and waited to answer more possible questions.  Everyone made it through fine, and as by this point it was past 11:30am we were ready to get on with the rest of our day in the West Bank and initial overview of Jerusalem before settling in this evening in Bethlehem.

Overall, given my poor “sense of direction” that I posted about before, having such a level of expertise from our guides was very helpful and I am grateful not to have needed to tackle the “controlled chaos” (as some of us termed it) alone.

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The Other Mideast Crisis

The Jordan River is gone. According to Abdel Rahman Sultan of Friends of the Earth Middle East, what little remains consists of untreated or poorly treated sewage, as well as other waste water. Hardly the grand river of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian narratives.

In the Dead Sea area, Abdel showed us terrible evidence of the impact that water diversion, climate change, population growth, corruption, subsidies that encourage farming on the desert, and other contributing factors have had on water in Jordan and the people who depend on it. We saw the visible lines on the banks of the Dead Sea that demonstrate how it has dropped by 85 feet in just 15 years. As the level of the Dead Sea has lowered, it has caused the seepage of ground water which, in turn, has created thousands of sinkholes and seismic instability. We witnessed the remains of houses, fields, businesses, and roads–all destroyed as they sank into the earth.

Even those who escape this direct devastation feel the impact of the water crisis in their daily lives. Abdel explained, for example, that his family has access to water only 6 hours every week. On that day, the family bathes, washes clothing, cleans the house, and then fills their water tank; the water in that tank needs to last them the rest of the week. We saw the problem of plumbing without water ourselves when we washed up at our luncheon host’s home: her young daughter poured a bit of water out of a cup onto our hands so we could use the soap and then rinse it off, as the tap was completely dry.

Despite these obstacles, members of Friends of the Earth Middle East–the only non-governmental organization here with headquarters in Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank–courageously continue to set aside the usual sources of tensions that exist so they can work on the crisis that threatens them all: water.

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Little Water Anywhere, Let Alone a Drop to Drink

The remains of a house lost to sinkhole from declining Dead Sea levels.

Abdel Rahman Sultan of Friends of the Earth Middle East points to a road that is cracking and caving in due to the seepage of ground water into the Dead Sea.

The water crisis in Jordan devastates the infrastructure and the lives of the people who depend on it.In both urban Jordan and in rural areas, Jordanians rely on water tanks to hold their weekly water supply.

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Springs of Hope and Skepticism; And, What a Great City!

Hales Fund 2012 Travel Group at Queseir Amra in Jordan

What can I say? I love Amman and Jordan!

We have had a powerful first three days here, each featuring a mixture of (1) extremely engaging talks from well placed individuals that have all lead to tremendously thought provoking question and answer sessions, (2) opportunity to visit historically and culturally important sites, (3) outstanding food (lots, and lots, and lots of outstanding Arabic food) and (4) endless Jordanian hospitality and graciousness.

Amman is a remarkable (young) city that is momentously situated geographically, culturally, and politically. It is in a country that faces enormous challenges both internally and from outside. For example: it is the fourth most water poor nation per capita in the world, it has a complicated demographic situation with probably 50 – 70% of its population comprised of Palestinians from the West Bank and with a current steady influx of additional refugees from Syria, it faces protests in response to (among other things) high unemployment and concerns about corruption, and, in spite of being a country rich in places of great interest to visit and full of such remarkable and overflowing hospitality – one of its main industries (tourism) is suffering badly because of its being situated right in the heart of a very unstable Middle East.

Jordan is a country with a very high literacy rate, sophisticated citizenry, and visionary leadership.  And yet, for all the hope that is generated by meeting the sort of thoughtful, committed, peace-and-prosperity motivated individuals that we have been meeting these past three days, it is difficult to avoid the counter, disheartening, feeling of skepticism generated by a growing awareness of just how complex are the several complexities facing this nation, this region, and, consequently, the world.

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