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.