Three days have felt like three weeks. Every step that I have taken in the past 72 hours has been a learning experience that no amount of time in a classroom could ever teach me. And before I continue, I feel the need to express that even in writing about what I have seen, I realize that I will make errors in terms of cultural sensitivity. Everything about being here and talking about what is happening in Jerusalem is complex. I have learned that everything that I thought I knew about the region was an overly simplified version of reality. In the days and months to come, I hope to gain a better understanding of what is truly happening in this beautiful land. However, I will do my best to begin sharing a little bit about what I have seen, in hopes of opening a window to an absolutely amazing country.
Even the trip to get here was an adventure. I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel on Saturday morning after about 15 hours of travel. Every step of the way there, from the airport in Newark, NJ, to finally boarding a Sherut (Shuttle) in Israel was a window into what was yet to come. The first thing that struck me was the security at the airport – and I don’t mean the airport in Israel. As I walked up to gate 138C at the airport in Newark, NJ, I had to pass through an additional security gate than passengers traveling to other cities. They had us sectioned off from the rest of the airport before boarding for security reasons, and I could feel the emotions of the people around me. There was a mixture of elation and nervousness in the air. As the flight attendants began calling for people to board, the crowd gathered around the on-ramp in anticipation like I’d never seen before. Airport security even had to yell at people to back up so that others could make their way onto the plane. The ensuing flight wasn’t as eventful as it was long. However, the welcoming committee greeting us upon arrival was yet another experience.
After landing, I found myself stopped and questioned at three different points at the airport. Being that my passport was brand new and thus lacking stamps from any other countries, and that I also made the mistake of telling airport security that I was heading to a relatively controversial neighborhood in East Jerusalem, I was an immediate target for further questioning. They wanted to know everything from where I was staying, to what I was doing in the region, to what my grandfather and great grandfather’s names were and what my nationality was. Fortunately, I made it through without any major difficulties. That experience was indicative of what was yet to come.
After about an hour drive in a shuttle to Jerusalem, I made my way to my friend Elaine’s house in Shuffat – who is the field coordinator of our research project. This may have been the softest landing in a new country that I could have ever asked for, and I am eternally grateful for it. I was met there by Elaine and her roommate Brian, two close friends of theirs, and a fantastic brunch. Their apartment overlooks the neighborhood of Shuffat, which is located just a bit north of the Old City. The rest of the day was kind of a blur, as I hadn’t slept in about 2 days at that point. We went out for drinks with some of the other members of the Grassroots Jerusalem team, and walked around the city for a while. Between the small shops, cobblestone walkways, parks, bustling night life, and vibrant culture, it quickly felt comfortable. Jet lag didn’t allow for much sleep that night, and the following day had us up and meeting with the team to begin learning about the work we would be engaging in this summer.
I will be spending most of my time here this summer in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. And, while I will do my best to share what I am seeing and learning from my time here, there is no simple way to begin explaining the complexities surrounding this city. It is home to many walks of life. The area I have been staying in could be considered a ‘traditional’ society. Cultural norms and standards of behavior are different from what I have experienced, to say the least. This effects every step you take as an outsider, forces you to stop and think about what makes you who you are at your core, and why you grew up living with the values and normative behaviors that you did. In a way, it has made me question everything that I believed to be right and wrong. Where does the idea of “right” and “wrong” begin and end, and how does it intersect with cultural relativity and the idea that being different is just the way things are? I have yet to find an answer to this. I kind of doubt that I ever will… With that said, there are a few things that I have encountered here that have just been a bit overwhelming. I will undoubtedly spend a lot of time thinking about these issues throughout summer, and will do my best to share them with you in the coming weeks and months.
At the end of my third day, I am just beginning to process everything that I have seen. I have uploaded some photos of a tour through East Jerusalem on my flickr page, including a number of photos of the wall dividing the East and the West. This is something that I will address in more depth once I’ve wrapped my mind around it a bit more. However, I also want to make sure that as I proceed with sharing some of these experiences, that I find balance in terms of how I’m characterizing this land. This is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been to on earth, and is full of some of the most incredible human beings that I have ever met. The life, culture, food, sites, and historical relevance of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas is indescribably beautiful. It is also a heavy place that has seen difficult times. As an outsider, it is important respect both. I will do my best to do so in the months to come as I work here, and as I share some of these experiences.
Thanks to the many friends who have sent me well wishes on my journey and short greetings from back home. Much love to you all.