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Reflecting on "Others" in the Middle East
posted on July 26, 2013 in Diplomacy, Leadership, Politics and Society
This summer, YPFP collaborated with the Ibrahim Family Foundation to execute the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project in the Middle East. This remarkable program provides an opportunity for high-achieving U.S. undergraduate students of diverse backgrounds and faiths to develop their leadership skills and gain first-hand experience with cross-cultural, interfaith, and political dialogue efforts in the Middle East.
The seven students who were selected to participate – from a pool of more than a hundred applicants – are outstanding examples of young leaders. Their energy, passion, and commitment to not just learning about change but making change were palpable throughout the trip.
The trip is complete, but the work of the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project continues. Students are now preparing impact plans – strategies for how they will incorporate their experiences into local organizations and communities by engaging their peers in activities, projects, and events, which support the foundation of a more peaceful and prosperous shared future.
These are their stories.
June 9, 2013
“We are now in a small Jewish quarter of Jerusalem called Rahovya. I got a couple of stares, which isn’t new since I am the lone Muslim in many of the Jewish quarters we have been in. But something shocking happened when we were all eating dinner. Our Professor (who is guiding the trip) was debriefing us about Israel and Palestine and the future of two until an American guy, who was with his wife and his 10-year-old son, incredulously interrupted him. The man vehemently told the Professor to stop talking about Palestine. He wanted to enjoy his food in “peace.” He went on claiming that he was not a Jew or a Christian, but he was one of the settlers and had no desire to hear what negative information the Professor was sharing about the settlers. The Professor kindly asked if the gentleman – I use that word liberally – would like to join our discussion and engage. He simply refused and insisted that we all pipe down. Stunned, our group ate on in silence for about 30 seconds, then finished our conversation with another topic. It is interesting how this man decided that he needed to censor us in a public location, like that restaurant. It is even more concerning to know that there are people who are not even willing to engage or hear the other side of the story. It was an interesting first stay in Jerusalem, to say the least. It has such a different vibe than Tel Aviv, and I am way more comfortable here. Maybe it is for many reasons, like the fact that on average the people here more religious thus making me fit in more in terms of my dress: long skirts, long sleeves, and head wraps. But the best connection and comfort I have with the city stems from the fact that Rasulullah was here. He graced the city with his presence some 1,4000 years ago, and I am glad I could be in a city where he was present.”
June 11, 2013
“Today we met with an advocate from Peace Now, and he went over the situation with the settlers and how they fit into different classifications. Let it be known that these settlements are illegal under international law. However, there are many types of settlers. There are the nationalist settlers, the suburbanite settlers, the ultra-orthodox settlers, and the “price-tag” settlers, who are basically vigilantes. We also talked about the wall – the concrete wall that separates Palestinians from Palestinians, according to Daniel Seidman. I have seen this wall from an aerial view (from the shrine of Prophet Samuel in the West Bank), and I have seen where this wall encloses Palestinian villages completely – 360 degrees. I have seen and traveled on the “Israel – only” highways, like 443. I have been in a checkpoint. However, I can say that I have seen these things but the reality is that I do not “live” it. It’s a totally different experience when you know that you are going back to your hotel room at night.”
“We drove through a settlement today, and it was like a utopia. It was so peaceful, like we were in a bubble. We asked our guide from Peace Now if he was ever able to go to Ramallah and he said no because Israeli citizens are not able to enter into the occupied territories. The real question then arose - how are we supposed to find peace and an agreement if the two sides do not know one another? It is easy to vilify someone you don’t know. I sincerely hope that the people on both sides are able to participate in something remotely similar to the program I have been on for the past two weeks. I have learned a lot, and I hope that peace will be right around the corner.”
June 16, 2013
“Over the course of our visit in Saudi Arabia we met with NGO’s like النهضة and tech start ups like بلاد. We got a glimpse into the lives of the Saudi elite – the movers and shakers. We visited the Harvard of Riyadh and took a tour around the facilities. It definitely broke the stereotypes I had about the country – mainly because I didn’t really know what to expect. From what I saw of Riyadh, granted it was very limited, the country does have very developed parts, and the government is doing a lot to ensure that Saudis are getting the education they need – because its ALL FREE (same as Oman)! That’s a true investment in the population – free education.
Now I am sure a lot of people are wondering about the dress code. I can personally say that I did not see a single religious policeman. Though I wear the hijab on a regular basis, no one from the group did. To be honest, no one really wore the hijab and no one really cared. Granted we were in private establishments most of the time – the hijab would gradually slip off and no one would look twice. Our tour guide was a Christian who had been living in Saudi for 11 years, she did not wear the hijab once while she was showing us around.”
June 20, 2013
“The whole Shabbat experience was a learning process even outside the realms of the individual practices. No one else was acknowledging the significance of the day: that the sun was setting on Friday, marking the beginning of Shabbat, or that three stars had come out on Saturday night, signaling the end of Shabbat. I am so used to being in a community that marks this day of the week and is always conscious of these specific times. That was the real struggle in my Shabbat experience: being the one-person aware of the sanctity of this day, among others who didn’t care and didn’t need to be conscious of it. It was all up to me. I really felt like I was sanctifying an otherwise regular day- the true commandment and meaning of Shabbat. “
“This trip has taught me so much about the cultures of the Middle East because reading can never replace hands-on experiences. Like so, the trip has taught me so much about my own faith and practices because learning hypothetical cases can never replace living those circumstances. It was a real and enjoyable learning experience for myself and I hope the same serves true for my peers. It’s an unparalleled adventure to define yourself in the process of discovering the “other.”
May 28, 2013
“The two-week journey will take me through the Middle East through a larger-than-life program. A group of six remarkable students plus a distinguished professor will travel alongside me to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. The trip, officially titled “The Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project” is unlike anything else available to American students interested in earth’s most complex region. The itinerary they have planned seems worthy of – and accessible to – only a high profile diplomat. From settlers in the West Bank to the former Minister of Affairs for the Palestinian Authority, from Old City of Jerusalem to Oman's Grand Mosque, from the tech start-ups of Tel Aviv to those of Riyadh (part of our visit hosted by the Royal Al Saud Family), and from the Persian Gulf, to the Saudi Red Sea, to the Israeli Mediterranean.”
“Friday morning began with an Arabian breakfast and discussion with Ahmed Al Mukaini, one of those humbling people fighting to do right in a place where it can often seem fruitless. Formerly a member of Oman’s elected parliament, he has been working tirelessly to create a set of basic laws that protect individual freedoms. Compared to its neighbors, Oman is tolerant and progressive, however much remains to be done – for example, legalizing a right to assembly or banishing recent online censorship laws. Without overlooking a detail, Mr. Al Mukaini discussed the prominence of peaceful tribalism that dominates Oman’s social order, its mediocre education system (not for want of the spending) and religion’s role. The fact that we could have this discussion attests to the openness of Oman versus its neighbors (Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi), and there seems much to be hopeful about. For example, Oman’s large Ibadhi sect of Islam is heavily egalitarian, perhaps explaining the peaceful coexistences alongside the Shia and Sunni sects. Further, the Sultan is widely revered, and he seems obsessed with ameliorating all basic institutions.”
“Dinner was naturally chockfull of interesting guests. Among them was a team of academics creating an immensely competitive scholarship funded by Oman Oil. The program teaches its recipients learning and life skills before funding their higher education. Despite this, we were informed of just a few of Oman’s schooling issues. First of all, teaching is overwhelmingly understood to be a woman’s job, leaving teachers underperforming and schools understaffed. Second, to parents born before 1970, when the current Sultan took over, the concept of competitive education is completely foreign, meaning they offer no substantial support network. Finally, an emphasis on rote memorization plus an aversion to analytical thinking (in large part because the Sultan is terrified of a critical youth, comprising 60% of the population) stifles productivity. Though never officially reported, Mr. Al Mukaini had earlier admitted to a staggeringly high youth unemployment rate.”
June 6, 2013
“Like in Oman, our itinerary in Saudi Arabia has held a wide range of events; some are educational and informative while others have us guessing what country we’re in. The former are meant to expand our previous knowledge about Saudi Arabia and the latter are meant to challenge it.
Yesterday morning began with a rapid tour through an elite university, hospital and startup incubator. The ten-person group became adept at boarding and un-boarding our Greyhound-sized bus, stopping at each place for no more than an hour to take in the neat work. The first stop was Alfasial University, an immense modern structure encircling the late King Faisal’s old limestone palace. Though students (all are undergrad) were unfortunately on holiday yesterday, we were able to meet with three professors at one of the country’s few co-educational institutions. The group sat in a lecture hall and heard teaching testimonies from the Canadian and American professors. The majority of the time was spent, however, on trying to understand the partitioned classroom. Though admitted to be more aggressive and intelligent than their male counterparts, female students sit on a second level behind a screen.
June 12, 2013
“The dismantling of my sheltered perception of Jerusalem being first and foremost the Jewish capital began on Monday morning with a two-hour drive through East Jerusalem. Terrestrial Jerusalem founder Danny Seidemann met us in our West Jerusalem hotel and headed toward the Old City, passing the Green Line. We continued east and stopped briefly in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood where less than ten Jewish families have nuzzled in. Danny took us past the late Shepherd Hotel, then to Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives.”
“Not only is Jerusalem a devious maze of identical hilly streets and alleys, but also one of convoluted borders and boundaries.”
“The group stopped for strong coffees and hurried to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hear from an expert on Palestine and water usage. About the former he posed that peace would only be truly possible under a rightwing government, where the Israeli opposition would be defanged. On the latter he explained how Israel sells its desalinated water to its neighbors (mainly Jordan), and how this influences foreign relations.”
“A place I had so long understood as Jewish-held with access for Muslims and Christians now seemed owned by all religions and meanwhile none of them. The proposals to internationalize Jerusalem finally made sense.”
June 15, 2013
“The purpose of our daytrip to Ramallah was implicitly twofold: experience West Bank daily life firsthand, and hear the other side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But unfortunately in a city like Ramallah – the unanimously described wealth center of Palestine – these two purposes often seemed at odds with one another. The first seven of our visiting hours were spent hearing about the Palestinian cause and situation, the last three exploring it firsthand. We learned about daily difficulties caused by the conflict, but then tooled around sidewalks mixing Tel Aviv’s vibrancy with Amman’s white, boxy architecture. As we’d learned in Riyadh, humans are adept at carving out normalcy, regardless of situational constraints.”