Friday, March 23, 2012

Refugee Camp, to Istanbul, to Tunis

And the award for the world's worst blogger goes to ....... Me. Where has time gone? I suppose the same place it always does, usually in my pocket because I don't wear a watch. Anyway, a lot has happened here in the Middle East, I am currently sitting on the balcony of my hotel in Tunis, with the sun going down and the sounds of the city. However, I need to go back to a month ago when I was still in Jerusalem. Before leaving for our travel component, we completed two of our courses, Arabic and Islam. They both ended fairly well. My Arabic is terrible, but I am able to exchange simple pleasantries and other simple exchanges in Arabic. Our Islam class was very broad, however, I did end up with a better appreciation for the intellectual development behind Islam. We all had papers for the course on different subjects, I wrote on the Muslim concept of Hell as a theological and practical concept. It was interesting to both talk to Muslims and read some sources on what they believed and compare it to my own understanding of Hell. Much of the general understanding is that it is a place of torment, however, whether or not it lasts for eternity is up for debate amongst Muslim Scholars.
Following the completion of those two courses, we did home-stays in Bethlehem. We were split into groups of two and then we stayed with Palestinian families for a week. I stayed in a refugee camp called Ida Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The family was Muslim, but it seemed mostly cultural instead of being religious. They were a couple in their 50's with several children, all about my age or older. They were all second and third generation refugees. Their family had a large amount of land between Tel Aviv and Gaza. The families source of income is a DJ business, they have a nice sound system and lights for different celebrations. Over the weekend they were putting on a wedding, which is a several day ordeal in the Arab culture. One of the many celebrations was right outside where we were staying, so several of us guys went the the party and danced with a bunch of young Palestinian dudes for a while. When we first went into the dance crowd, I somehow ended up on some guys shoulders within a minute and was on top of the crowd of Palestinians having a grand old time. Our family was very hospitable, always offering us tea or coffee. The tea they served us is I think a simple Lipton tea with a decent amount of sugar and also fresh mint leaves. Communication with the family was difficult because the immediate family did not speak any English and on occasion a relative would come over who spoke broken English. However, we could get by with our little bit of Arabic.
During the day when we were with Palestinian families, we had several trips around Israel. We first went to Hebron, where Abraham's tomb is. It is a very contentious area, but it has been quiet for a while. There is five solider to every one Israeli settler in Hebron. We also went to Ramallah one day, which is the main city of the Palestinian Authority who has a measure of governance over the West Bank. The next place we visited was a Jewish Kibbutz. A Kibbutz is essentially a commune, many were established by Jews to come to the area and support each other. The one we visited was very modern, it had agriculture, but its main source of income was a very nice hotel. It is a totally different lifestyle that has been a good case study for different societal structures. Currently, the Kibbutz movement is going towards privatization, where there are people who can have not only a job outside the Kibbutz, but also keep their own salary instead of putting it in a giant bank account.
After home-stay week we were of to Istanbul (not Constantinople), Turkey. Though Turkey is still a Muslim country, it was very different from Jerusalem. It was much more modern and secular, and it was very lively. We stayed on the European side of Istanbul only a thirty minute walk from the Hagia Sophia. Our first day was really cold, which is the day we took a boat tour, however, in spite of the weather, it was a very nice tour of part of the Bosphorus Strait. We then toured the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia is incredible from the outside, but it is absolutely breathtaking from the inside. I think it was the size that got me, it was huge. Also, that it was built in the 6th century. It was also neat to see the different mosaics, there was a lot of Christian mosaics still there. When it was a mosque, there was not much lasting evidence in terms of covering up mosaics. It is not all just touring when we are traveling, most days we have one or two speakers that we listen to. My favorite speaker was the representative from the AK party, which currently holds fifty percent of the vote in Parliament. They are for religious freedom mostly, but their popularity is more due to the fact that Turkey has progressed economically since their founding about then years ago, and they are projected to continue to do well. Also, I enjoyed listening to speakers on Kurdish issue and the Armenian issue within Turkey and how it has been dealt with. Other activities in Turkey included going to an Island called Prince's Island which was an hour ferry ride away. On the Island we rented bikes and rode around. We also hiked to a hilltop where there was a monastery with a beautiful view. It was a gorgeous day, and gorgeous views, I also had walnut and hazelnut ice cream to top the day off. Speaking of ice cream, Istanbul has a plethora of pastry shops, which I loved. That may have been one of my favorite parts of Istanbul. Another attraction that my mother and sister would love is the grand Bazaar. It is a massive indoor maze of shops, employing over 30,000 people. It was huge, and a little over whelming. However, it can be kind of fun to dicker with shop owners for a good price. Our final event in Turkey was going to Turkish baths...which was incredible. First you go into a Sauna, which we mus have been in for ten or fifteen minutes. Then you kind of rinse off in a general bath area with marble an faucets and places to sit. Then, you get scrubbed down by a Turkman with a fairly course cloth, and you watch as all of your dead skin peels away. After this, another guy scrubs you a little, but mostly he pops your back and gives you a little massage. Some of the massage and popping hurt, but afterwards I felt amazing. I was definitely the cleanest I had been in a while. The bath was yesterday, and as I said above I am in Tunis right now gearing up to hear about the beginning of the Arab revolutions. Now its time for a pastry of some kind, or perhaps some ice cream.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sorry for the delay....

It has been a while since I have posted, I suppose it has been pushed aside as the semester moves forward. It has almost been a month since my last post and there has been a lot going on. We have completed our course on the Israel Palestine conflict. We have had a whole range of speakers, including Palestinians, from Israeli's, we have listened to representatives from the Israeli foreign ministry as well as a representative from the United States embassy. If there is one overarching theme that I have learned from the course is that it is complicated.
Today, we had our midterm for Arabic, and it wasn't too bad. We have not moved much past the basics, but we have learned numbers, the time, days of the week, and we continue to learn new verbs. We are also almost completely through the alphabet. My handwriting may be better in Arabic than it is in English.
Yesterday we started the class on Islamic thought and practice, yesterday we only outlined what we will be speaking about throughout the course and today we discussed the beginnings. We also briefly discussed comparisons of Muhammad and Jesus. Our professor is a Palestinian Christian who grew up in Nazareth and studied at Cambridge University in England where he also became an ordained Anglican priest. We are very fortunate to have him as a professor.
I am still amazed at the different people I meet here. A few days ago I had dinner with a man from Ireland, he had Ph.D in theology. His dissertation was on studying small groups and their benefits for the catholic church. We discussed the need for those small groups for spiritual growth and accountability. He said this is something that has dwindled in the Catholic Church, and more people are just going to mass on Sunday without much interaction. I talked with him about my college experience and how I was trying to find a balance between community at college and also the actual community of Sioux Center. It seems to be very difficult to balance because Dordt is its own community. Interaction with the community of Sioux Center is therefore very limited.
At church two weeks ago I ran into a couple who had met and graduated from Dordt a while back. They were from Edmonton Alberta I think. She had actually grown up in Lynden and knew where Zillah was.
Another gentlemen and I are still going to a Soup Kitchen every Tuesday, and each time it seems as though there is something new that will surprise us. Two weeks ago we him and I went with one of the Jewish gentlemen there in the Soup Kitchen van, all we knew was we were going to a bank. The guy did not speak English, all he could say "do you speak Hebrew?" and "Bank." That was about the interaction. So Paul (the guy I work with) and I started to speculate what we were going to do at this bank, were we going to get a bunch of money and were were like body guards, or was the guy going to make us help him rob the bank, we had no idea. So we pull up to the back gate, and the gentlemen gets out and starts talking with the booth attendants. Then they start looking at us, it became very clear we were some sort of problem. They then came to the window and asked for an kind of ID. I didn't have anything because I had left it at the soup kitchen in my backpack, not thinking I would be going to the largest bank in Jerusalem. After probably 15 minutes, they had me get out and they wanded me. I had an apron on still, it was dirty and wet, so I looked ridiculous. Then they let us through the gate. We then get an old fridge and a cabinet out of the bank (I think they were renovating), loaded it in the van and left. As Paul and I say, never a dull moment at the soup kitchen.
The rest of the day also had its moments. The van we were in had a large bin of potatoes in it before. They had partially emptied it and then taken it out. When we got back, we had to take this large bin (it was like a plastic apple bin), and take it down the stairs. Everything for the soup kitchen has to be taken down stairs. So, six guys got on the bin, and we took it down the stairs. It was a tight fit. I almost crushed my toe, thankfully I did not.
This was not the last of having to move heavy items in less than safe ways. This week, Paul and I had to unload a palate of various dry and canned foods out of the van and onto another palate. Then with only a palate jack, we took it over to the front of the soup kitchen. This would have been easy if there was not a steep wet hill between where we unloaded it and the front door. So, six guys started to inch this thing down the hill, slipping practically the whole way. Everything made it, and then we had to hand carry it down into the kitchen. Thankfully we had a group of Australian Jews who had just graduated high school there to help us. I wonder what is going to happen next week?
I think I am starting to love this place more every day. I wouldn't want to live here, but I wouldn't mind visiting again. Today there was a downpour, with a little hail mixed in. I had to go walk in the rain, the puddles, and check out all of the water gushing every which way. While I was walking, there was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was a downpour where I was, then off in the distance, towards Herodion, there was blue sky. There was a tinge of green on the ground because there has been a lot of rain here recently. It was gorgeous, I didn't have my camera, but some things are just meant to enjoy for a while.
Last thing, I will not be traveling to Egypt in March now because of the protests that started again in Egypt. So, the plan is to spend more time in Jordan and also go to Tunisia.
If you made it to the end of this blog post, thanks for reading and I appreciate everybody's prayers and support.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Class Begins and Time Disappears

The title pretty much gets the gist of it. Classes have begun, but it is not like the usual beginning to classes. We have already had Arabic, and our in class time has been a little bit like some of the Orientation. In addition to this, we are generally taking one class at a time (except Arabic). We are getting down to the mud and the mire right away with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Currently we are going through the sides of the story, today we heard the Palestinian Narrative and tomorrow we will hear the Israeli. This conflict, I am learning, is very complex, but what in life does not have complexities? However, I look forward to being able to understand the many different perspectives of the issue.
Arabic is going slowly, thankfully there is a young gentleman here who is working and going to college at the same time who I can try to speak to Arabic with. We will see how tomorrows class goes, it always seems to go quite fast.
The fellas have started to cook dinner, it has gone fairly well. There has been a little difficult of preparing enough food. It is a matter of being able to have food on hand. Also, there is not entirely the same type of groceries in their stores, so that makes it interesting. It is nice though to have meals all together, a lot different than last semester.
Today, I went to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, fairly close to the Old City. It was a nice church, but there was only about 20 people there. It was a great service, this is Christian Unity week in Jerusalem, and a lot of the litany was based off of that. The sermon was on Mark 1, it was a fairly simple sermon, yet powerful at the same time. A few things that stuck out included his explanation of repentance as a turning back to God,  and also explaining what belief entailed. The reverend must have been Scottish himself because he had a fairly thick accent.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Arrival and Orientation

I have been here in Israel for a week now and I am not sure it has really sunk in yet. I arrived just fine, flying on Luftansa, most of the announcements were in German. It was really cool to fly in a 747 as well, I forgot how big those planes were. Upon arrival, there were no hick-ups at customs and we met the staff at the airport with a bus ready to take us from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I was very tired because sleep was hard to come by. On the way to Tantur, one interesting factoid our director said was that we noticed pine trees growing in groups in various areas. This is because the Israeli government is trying to recreate the landscape to the way it use to be at some point in time, but I cannot remember when that time was, but there were parts of the drive that reminded me of parts of eastern Washington.
The place we are staying, called Tantur, is a place of learning and relaxation at the same time. There is not an official school here, but at any one time there are several scholars, men of the church, or other people with connections living here. I have met a few people who are working on research, there was a large group of teens from Israel last weekend, and there is also a retired Bishop from England who will be here for three months working for Tantur to pay his living expenses. He is a quite delightful old chap. I have also heard that Shayne Claiborne will be staying here for several weeks in March for a conference he is doing at Bethlehem Bible College. As with all places in this region, Tantur is made of stone, and so it is fairly cold inside, but as long as you keep moving it is alright.
Over Orientation we have taken many tours of different areas, mostly in the Old City. Much of it is different than I expected, it is a very crowded place. The Old City, which is about four miles from here, is one square mile and has a population of over 28,000. A kind of comical happening in the Old City is when there is prayer time, which also happens to be when the several churches bells are ringing, so there is almost a competition at those times. When you look across the skyline you can various minarets of the mosques and the steeples of the churches. Among other places, we toured some of the seven stages of the cross. The last of those stages were not as I expected. The supposed place for Jesus death and burial are very close and within basically one building, but over the years there is been a conglomeration of buildings. (Many of the things I describe will have pictures posted, either on the blog or on my Facebook page or both).
In addition to the touring, we have had two Wen Eh 's which means "where what" in Arabic, essentially a scavenger hunt. Our first was in Bethlehem, which requires us to cross the wall into the West Bank. The second was in East Jerusalem, right outside the Old City. Both of these, we were taken there, but either bus or taxi, split into groups, and we were on our own for several hours. Both of those areas are predominately Palestinian. It was a lot of fun to navigate roads that did not run in a straight line, with hardly any Arabic to ask for directions. Both of these times we had to find our own lunch. The food here in terms of the ethnic type that I have tired has only been faloffal (not sure how to spell it), which is a round bread that is cut in half and then stuffed with various meats and vegetables. Last night I also went to a dessert place that made, among other things, a crepe with Nutella on it, it was very good.
The limited amount of Arabic I know has been thanks to our Arabic instructor who gave us two sessions of survival Arabic. This is Palestinian Arabic, which is a little different than Arabic in Egypt. It has been a fairly frustrating endeavor, but there are Palestinians here at Tantur, and many other places that are happy to help get a handle on the speaking. There are some in the group who have taken Arabic before, so it is nice to be able to get help from them at times.
In addition to Arabic, we have had a lot of other informative meetings on cultural things to watch out for, boundaries, rules, and other things related to living in Israel. One thing we do is use all Arab buses because they are safer than the Israeli buses. It is really neat to be ready to go places on my own. It is only a five shekel, and about 10 to 15 minute bus ride and I am right next to the Damascus gate into the Old City.
Today we started our service projects which is kind of how we are to learn Arabic. I am working at a soup Kitchen in the heart of Jerusalem. Since we cannot use the Israeli transportation, it is about a mile or two walk after riding the Arab bus. It is me and my roommate Paul who are there at the Soup Kitchen. Today we did have another group whose service project had not started yet, but for the rest of the time it will be me and another guy. I spent half the day chopping apples for a fruit salad, and the other half cleaning up the floor and the cooking space. I am pretty sure what they serve is super kosher, and so they serve literally anyone who walks in the door. It was difficult to understand what the kitchen staff wanted because they were a mix of Arabic speakers and Hebrew speakers. There was only one lady who sounded like she was from England who could help us out. I hope that I will be able to communicate more as time marches on.
That is pretty much everything that has happened up until now. I will try to keep up with this blog weekly or when there is something interesting comes up.

Monday, January 9, 2012


A little nervous, a little excited... perhaps normal feelings before leaving on a trip such as this. To be honest, the buildup to saying goodbye to my parents was a little difficult, I became more nervous and anxious the closer we got to the airport. However once I was through security I was just fine. For the first time I stepped into the full body scanner, not sure what the problem is. Regardless of the nerves and such, I am thankful for my wonderful parents, who have been encouraging, loving, and all around awesome. What an opportunity to study, see, and explore Israel and the surrounding countries. Hopefully I can get some sleep on the plane.