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06/30/2012

Looking Forward

Now that I've had some time to reflect on my time in Jordan, I'd like to try to put my hope for the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace into words.  

I have gained wonderful insights from the impressive speakers which we had such as Jordanian diplomats who actually led the team of negotiators to the first Israeli-Jordanian peace talks and the Swedish Ambassador who works on EU operations in the Middle East.  I have also heard accounts of Palestinians who were thrown out of Israel during the first intifada and rabbis who are working towards fostering interfaith relations.   Every personal interaction that I have had, both formal and informal, has shaped my understanding of the conflict in some way.  I would be arrogant to pretend that I am an expert after my 12 days in the Middle East, but I do believe that I have a clear perspective on the conflict and can articulate my informed opinion about it.

First, I believe that the way in which we view the conflict is not healthy.  It is a topic that is very rarely spoken of in the US even though the US plays a major role in it. For many, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is either unknown or highly misunderstood.  I believe that the controversial nature of the topic keeps it from becoming something that people discuss openly and seek to understand more fully.  Even when posting pictures and Facebook statuses or writing this blog I had to be very careful about which words I used to describe certain places because I could immediately start a conflict with just my choice of words.  It is my hope that this attitude changes and that healthy dialogues are able to be held more frequently.  

Second, I feel that governments alone are ill equipped to solve this issue.  Every government involved, the US, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the PLO, etc., are all trying to figure out a way that they can gain the most out of the situation.  This, inevitably, breeds inequality and leaves some in a better situation than others but doesn't allow for an ideal solution for anybody (prisoner's dilemma).  I believe that there needs to be more input from international, grassroots organizations and unbiased intergovernmental organizations which understand and want what is best for a long term solution.

Third, there is a serious disconnect between Israelis and Palestinians, two peoples whose lands, cultures, and resources overlap in many ways.  There is a dehumanization and separation on both sides that needs to end and genuine compassion and understanding needs to take its place.  

Well, that is a very brief overview of my thoughts about the issue.  Every person who I have ever talked with about this issue has a different answer when you ask them about the future of the conflict, so I tried to keep mine as simple as possible.  It seems that true peace is not something that will be achieved anytime soon and that the long term outcome of the situation is going to be undesirable for both sides unless something changes at the ground level.  I am optimistic that there is still a chance for long term peace and stability, but it will not be easy or quick and it won't come from unilateral or bilateral government actions.  

Looking Back

I have officially arrived in the US and now would like to just provide few photos that I believe best capture the essence of Jordan and Israel/Palestine:

This is a photo of the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash.  Jordan has some of the most well preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.  I like this photo because you can see the ancient history of what is now Jordan contrasted with the modern city of Jerash.  

This is a local family in a Jordanian village that invited us to their home for a nice, home-cooked feast.  Hospitality is something that I realized is valued very heavily in this part of the world.  

This is a beautiful view of Amman.  The flag is a symbol of national identity, something that is not yet as strong as the Jordanian government would like since it is such a relatively young country.

An image from the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Inside the elementary school of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

 

A view of Israel from the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Of couse: Petra.  They say that any trip to Jordan is incomplete without visiting the World Wonder of Petra.  (As seen in Indiana Jones)

06/27/2012

Religion in the Holy Land

Understanding what I do about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the journey to Jerusalem, a city which holds great significance for all three, has been very important to me for a long time.  I have learned much about the history and religious meaning of all the holy sites around Jerusalem, but I would like to focus on the deeper picture which you can really only see from walking through the streets and meeting the people of this wonderful city.  

Our tour guide Yahav told us of a very interesting poem as we were entering the city.  It is by Yehuda Amichai and it's called "Tourists".  An excerpt translated to English says:

"Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. 'You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.' 'But he’s moving, he’s moving!'
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'”

I couldn't stop thinking about this poem as we made our way through the Old City.  From al-Aqsa Mosque through the stations of the cross to the Western Wall and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I was constantly forcing myself to remember what the true soul of Jerusalem was in the midst of all these grand displays: the people.  

Walking through the streets of Jerusalem was an experience unlike any I have had before.  From all over the world, people make pilgrimages to pray at the holy places which are the roots of their faith.  It is truly beautiful to see so many people gathered in one place in the hopes of gaining a deeper connection to the force which governs their beliefs.  

It is easy to see why Jerusalem has been the focal point of conflict for so many years.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone has eight different branches of Orthodox and Catholics who are in a constant struggle for control of each and every staircase and window.  Having three separate religions tied to one space makes things that much more complicated.  However, when you visit the Temple Mount, arguably one of the most hotly contested areas in the world, there is a sense of complete calm.  If you didn't know about the conflict, you would have no idea that one existed at all.  Throughout the city, Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexist very peacefully despite the fact that many outsiders believe these peoples are constantly gripped by religious tensions.  

One of the few real conclusions that I have been able to reach through the complexity of this conflict is that it is not a religious battle.  People tend to reduce it to that because it's easy and it makes sense, but if you ask anyone on the ground, they will tell you that it is not the case.  Despite the fact that religious extremists on every side tend to make matters worse, they are not the focal point of the conflict.  Witnessing this reality first hand has been a very powerful experience for me.

06/24/2012

Building Walls

Yesterday and today I have been in Bethlehem and in the surrounding area getting a ground-level perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Many hours of this seminar have been focused towards providing a comprehensive analysis of the conflict constructed for professors who already have some knowledge about it, so I won't bore you with the details of my academic journey and will rather try to give an account of some experiences that have been very interesting for me.  One of these experiences which has been especially profound is the Separation Wall (security fence, anti-terrorism fence, apartheid wall) which exists between Israel and the West Bank.

Construction on the wall began in 1994 with the official purpose of preventing suicide attacks from occuring.  I have heard a Jewish political activist, a right-wing settler, and a palestinian Christian all refute that purpose in just one day of conversations.  Regardless of the purpose of the wall, the main issue is that the wall traps 12% of West Bank land on the Israeli side and does not allow access to Palestinians.  

The interesting thing about this wall is its political ramifications.  Just seeing the wall is an extremely depressing sight.  Being somebody who wishes to see more cooperation and conversation between Israelis and Palestinians, it is hard to see such barriers in place.  In human relations, when we talk about putting up walls in a metaphorical sense, it usually means that we are cutting ourselves off from others.  This wall is a physical representation of that reality.  Whether for security purposes or others, true, lasting peace between peoples cannot grow out of this political climate. 

For Palestinians, the Separation Wall has become a blank canvass for political expression.  All along the wall you find passionate artwork displaying, in a very visual way, the anger and frustration of the Palestinian people.  Some Palestinians, such as a refugee camp Cultural and Theater Society center that we visited, view this expression as negative.  They believe that the wall should remain untouched to remind the Palestinian people of the harsh realities that they are facing, rather than turn it into beautiful artwork.  The center offers other means of expression, such as dance, theater, and dialogue, which it believes are more positive ways to alleviate frustrations.  

06/22/2012

The Importance of Water

Today we got to enjoy a nice relaxing afternoon at the Dead Sea Spa hotel where we were able to lather up in mineral rich mud and enjoy a very salty float in the Dead Sea.  Very salty is a bit of an understatement.  For anybody who has never been to the Dead Sea, it is difficult to truly understand just how salty it really is.  A good example is something that I learned today:  despite less than 10 Km separating the West Bank and Palestine or Israel, there is no border control that patrols the sea.  This is because it is so salty that they believe you would simply dehydrate before ever possibly making it all the way across.  Either way, it makes for a lovely sunset.

Now to more important issues.  Before our arrival at the hotel, we spent the day with the Friends of the Earth Middle East organization (http://www.foeme.org/www/?module=home).  This is a group of Environmentalists from Jordan, Israel, and Palestine who have come together to solve issues of environmental significance which cannot be solved unilaterally or even simply bilaterally.  As our guide, Abdel (Jordanian) said, "my family tells me I am not nationalistic because I help Israelis.  That's true, I am not nationalistic.  I help anybody who I can help no matter where they are from or what there name is."

The issue of water is significant in the Middle East.   In Jordan, the 4th water poorest country in the world, water demand is growing and the supply is shrinking.  Citizens only have access to water one day a week and must store it until the next week when their taps are reopened. As I saw today, the Jordan River, baptism place of Jesus by John the Baptist, has become mostly sewage water now because the supply of water has dropped so severely.  The Dead Sea has lost 26 meters since the 1960s and is now shrinking at a rate of 1 meter per year. The current situation is clearly unsustainable and new water sources must be found in order to ensure that Jordan can survive. It's ability to obtain water is tied to the actions of its neighbors.  High levels of cooperation are needed in order to make sure that everybody is able to manage their resources efficiently.

It turns out that one of our speakers for this seminar, Dr. Dureid Mahasneh, was one of the first to coordinate with the Israelis before the treaty of 1994 (he told a humorous story about his first secret meeting being about the issue of birds from Jordan defacating in Israel).  His account of the early stages of peace between these two countries was amazing because it showed two peoples, who are supposed to be enemies, coming together to solve a problem which is in the best interest of both countries.  

I do not consider myself an environmental activist, but I do recognize when an environmental issue needs to be solved.  The water crisis in the Middle East is one that affects the citizens of many countries and has a real, immediate impact on the daily lives of those living there.  I fear that the situation will get much worse before it gets better but I am hopeful that it will force these countries to cooperate openly and honestly with eachother.

06/20/2012

Hillsborough/Battle of the Boyne

On the drive to Dublin, we stopped in both Hillsborough and the site of the Battle of the Boyne (fought in 1690).

Photos from Hillsborough:

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And the one picture from the Battle of the Boyne site (the really comprehensive museum in which we spent most of our time - it was raining - didn't allow photography):

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06/19/2012

Parading Culture

In the United States, when you say parades, images of celebration or patriotism are immediately conveyed. Parades in Northern Ireland are sort of the same, but yet markedly different. Rarely, if ever, does it conjure up the idea of a contentious situation or even potential violence, as is the case in Northern Ireland where the declaration and demonstration of political or religious allegiance can have serious repercussions.

Parades, like the interfaces, represent one of the ways that cultural divides remain visible on a nearly daily basis (at least during the “Marching Season” that is currently at its yearly height). Many parades, like the bands that dominate them, are affiliated with “lodges” or other political/religious groups and have their own “traditional” routes. These can oftentimes take them directly through areas controlled by those of opposing beliefs, greatly contributing to the potential to flare tempers, raise tensions, and even possibly incite violence.

The question I struggled with all week – from hearing Dr. Ray Casserly speak on the tradition of bands and their role in parades to visiting the Apprentice Boys of Derry, who are behind one of the biggest parades each year – was that of why bands continue to march through contested, or even heavily opposed, areas?

I realize now that I never actually asked the question, so I can only guess by piecing together bits and pieces of related discussions while I try to come to my own conclusion ---

The Apprentice Boys of Derry, for example, march to commemorate the siege of their city over 300 years ago – an event the route they march commemorates. Others have similar reasons for choosing their own routes. To change this plan because of the demands of the opposing community would not only sell this tradition short, but would represent a concession to the opposition. While this could mean significant progress for the peace process, it would undoubtedly be interpreted as one side having “won,” which could potentially incite more conflict. In this way, I suppose the current situation represents the most feasible method at present to avoid a return to all-out fighting. Instead, such clashes can be retained within the general context of these summer marches.

 

FOOD!

My first day of activities has pretty much ended and I am extremely excited about what I have been taking in so far and the journey that is still ahead of me.  It's been so wonderfully overwhelming that I'm practically shaking! (Although that may just be the Turkish coffee making its way through my veins).  Today we had a couple of lectures: one about history and one about water resources.  Since it is fairly early in the seminar and we have just begun to delve into the conflict, I would rather focus today's entry on something that is a bit less heavy but is essential to Jordanian culture: FOOD!

Today was a sensory overload in many ways, but between the ancient ruins and death defying traffic experiences lay meals which have helped define my early impressions of Jordan.  

Our first meal was lunch at a restaurant in the heart of downtown Amman.  The mint lemonade, served blended like a smoothie with fresh mint leaves, was recommended to the group and soon became our go to drink choice.  The lunch featured a wide array of flavorful vegetarian appetizers and salads.  There was so much that just getting a taste of each felt like a full meal.  But that was just the beginning.  Next came the grilled lamb and chicken served with hummus and flatbread. I haven't eaten much lamb at home but I have never been a very big fan of it...until now.  For dessert was some sort of an creamy cheesy sweet treat that had the consistency of jello and tasted like ice cream.  It may sound somewhat strange but taste is what matters and it certainly satisfied.  The wonderful food mixed with the sounds of Arabic music and the smell of hookah smoke was enough to make you fall head over heels for Jordan in an instant.

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Our next meal was just as wonderful, if not more so.  It was at a famous Lebanese restaurant right up the street from the hotel.  The dinner was structured similarly to the lunch; appetizers followed by lamb and chicken and dessert, but the sheer volume of food was enough to make you very certain when you turn down that second helping of falafel. 

06/18/2012

Marhaba from Amman!

It is 2pm on my first day in Amman, Jordan.  I figured this is as good a time as any to start my blog! 

I have yet to really get to experience the city yet, but from what I have seen it is wonderfully vibrant and has a very unique culture that I look forward to getting to know it well over the next few days.  I have had a couple of brief history and politics introductions which have helped me understand much more about just what makes this city so unique.  From what I understand, the Kingdom of Jordan was carved out by the British Mandate which meant that the people of the land had no common identity until they became "Jordanian".  The city of Amman was therefore created as the multicultural capital of this multicultural kingdom.  Africans who were brought in to fight for the Romans, Russian immigrants, and everybody in between all share a common Jordanian identity. This led to a wide range of cultural practices and racial demographics throughout the kingdom.  

Some mixture of jet lag, heat exposure, and information overload is clouding my mind, so I'm gonna rest in the AC for a little bit and then hit the streets to see what this city has to offer!

06/16/2012

Historical Misrepresentation

Yesterday morning, we went to the Ulster Museum at Queen’s University, Belfast, to see the exhibition on The Troubles. The exhibit itself was displayed in a fairly striking way – many of the main events of the time were highlighted with pictures and descriptions on the side of gray house-like structures (which I was told were designed to parallel the cultural of murals painted on the side of houses in Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole). What seemed noteworthy, however, was not how these events were presented physically, but the language with which each was described. At the museum more than anywhere else we visited, it seemed as though history was lost for the sake of providing a neutral telling of events that are still very much contested (which, I was told, was the goal of the installation).

 Such an idea of a contested history leading to an almost watered-down look at the situation got me thinking: how is this done in other, subtler, ways throughout historical representation? Where have I missed it in my previous studies? Obviously we’ve been talking a lot about The Troubles and the varying viewpoints of its events, so I was more receptive to the idea that it was presented with a slanted view when Ray brought it up. This week, however, has made it clear that different representations of the same events can more or less change history. It really adds a new dimension to my understanding of the larger study of history - extending well past what I've learned since we began just a 6 days ago.