A reunion, new friends, and an appreciation for Arab culture and people

Day 2 – Ein Mahel, Nazareth Iliit, and Nazareth

Today was my first full day in Israel, and it was a whirlwind. It started with a three hour visit to Raed’s school, El Albra, which is the Ein Mahel village elementary school.   We met with Raed and talked about the Living the Language program, which he developed to bring American college students to the school for a three week immersive program, teaching English to the kids, while living with families in the village. The concept has a lot of potential.   Raed and some of his staff provided us with an incredible breakfast, consisting of plates of hummus, bright yellow and red vegetables, breads, pita, falafels, salsas (not called that, but that is what it was). Pretty incredible. We toured the school, and visited three classrooms, and interacted with many of the kids in the hallway. Roger remarked how happy and enthusiastic these kids seemed to be. Their smiles were quite infectious that is for sure. We took questions from the kids about our lives in America, were asked what our favorite sports teams were (given the choices of Real Madrid and Barcelona), among other things. They were all very well spoken and proud of their village and school. “Welcome to our village and to our school. Thank you for visiting us.”

Part of the morning also was spent in a discussion about politics with Raed’s cousin, who is a lawyer, and works with Palestinians in Hebron in the West Bank. I learned he is a member of the Israeli Communist party, and we engaged in discussions about how to bring about peace in Israel and Palestine. I walked away from the conversation enriched, by his passion, and his desire for a peaceful solution.   I also walked away quite aware of the second citizen status Israeli Arabs endure on a daily basis (which is nothing compared to how those on the West Bank live). That part was not new to me, but it put words to ideas in a way that was compelling.

Then, we drove to Nazareth with one of the teachers in Raed’s school, Haya Nicola, who works occasionally as a guide at Nazareth Village, the recreation of first century Nazareth. This is similar to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. The park was created 15 years ago, on an excavated piece of land in Nazareth. The clearing of the land uncovered evidence that it was a terraced farmland dating back perhaps to the first century. The tour was educational, and interesting, it provided a contrast to the Nazareth of the time of Jesus that is hard to imagine given the bustle of the modern city of 75,000 Arabs that represents Nazareth today.

After this Rida Salameh picked us up.Rida is one of the teachers at El Galil High School, and accompanied the first delegation of Friends Forever teens to Bloomington-Normal in 2013.   She drove us to Nazareth Illit, and we had a reunion with four of the five Arab students from 2014, and 3 from 2013. We enjoyed conversation over coffee, and just had a great time for about 90 minutes. It was so very special to spend time with these special kids.   The day would have been incomplete had we not done that.   On Monday we will visit with the Jewish kids in Yagur.

At this point, Rida took us to her mother-in-laws home, where we ate dinner. In Arab families it is traditional for the whole family to gather on Saturdays, and at her home in Nazareth, there must have been 8 to 10 people present, including her in-laws, (her father in law did not speak any English, but asked if we needed a place to stay for the night). The hospitality was really special. And it was probably the highlight of my day, which already was pretty amazing. The sense of extended family is very strong, yet in such an intimate setting, they opened their house to two strangers like we were one of them.

I was also amazed by the hills of Nazareth and small winding streets. This makes San Francisco look like child’s play. And I would say that Rida is probably one of the most proficient drivers I have ever seen!   The hill we went up was incredibly steep, and then we went down it. These roads are barely one lane across. I shot some video, but I don’t know if it catches the full flavor. Think a major roller coaster!!

After dinner, tea, Arab coffee, and a small dessert, we then drove to the Old Market in Nazareth to go out for ANOTHER dessert. This restaurant was the only one still open in the Old Market, and it was occupied by a family friend of Rida’s husband, who told us stories, and made us “Katayef” a small folded pastry with either goat cheese or nuts, which is traditionally served after breaking the fast at Ramadan.   The environment is best captured in photos, but it was really a great time with Rida and her two oldest children.     Then we walked the streets of the Old Market and went to one of her friend’s home, which had a huge 20-foot high ceiling with beautiful artwork dating back to 1889.   While we were there the call for prayer began at the White Mosque, and we listened to it outside on the balcony.   When it ended, the city was entirely silent for a couple of minutes.

I am not sure what more you could put into a day, but today was special. I was struck by how rich the Palestinian Arab culture is, and by their incredible generosity. These cities and villages have histories going back hundreds of year, and a culture that is nothing at all like the caricature of Arabs and Islam that is sadly portrayed by radical fundamentalists. It is an incredibly unfair portrayal of a people. I don’t think this blog entry really captures the impact of today. It was one I will not soon forget, and was so impressive given the often-overwhelming sense of jet lag I was still feeling. Yet, the opportunity to interact with real families and to see the daily lives of a people is not something most tourists get to see. I am unsure how our students could experience that in the same way, although knowing these great people, I am sure they would find a way. The Living the Language would be a really unique study-abroad opportunity for an extended trip, spread out over 4 or 5 weeks.

Tomorrow morning we head off with Raed for a tour of Galilee and the Golan Heights.   That should be quite impressive on its own.   But today was one for the books.

I have included some photos here, but the smugmug photo gallery does the day much more justice!

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