Monthly Archives: June 2012

June 11, 2012: Tel Aviv, Israel, Herzliya, Israel, and Jerusalem, Israel

Laila Tov from Jerusalem, Israel! We covered a lot of ground today and met with some really fascinating people from a former Chief of Staff of the IDF to a former Mossad officer and current blog editor with some other great stuff in between. The two main topics of all of our conversations today seem to be Iran and Israel (with some Arab Spring implications and explanations thrown in, too), and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict. Since the discussions we had were so dense and full of information and opinions, I’m just going to jump right in and explain what we talked about. I’ll also share my own opinions along the way with some commentary per usual.

In our hotel in Tel Aviv, we got two rooms for the three boys, so Jake and Dillon made me take the single because I was the only one who shared the bed all three nights in Dubai. I woke up at around 8:30 (although I slept rather restlessly because I stupidly turned the AC off before bed because I was cold; I kept waking up covered in sweat), got ready for the day and met the girls upstairs for breakfast at around 9:15 AM. We ate breakfast fairly quickly (I had toast with Israeli chocolate sauce – my absolute favorite! I could probably down an entire jar by myself) and went back to our rooms to pack up and meet in the lobby for a 10:30 AM departure.

We had an 11:00 meeting scheduled with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, at his office. Mark thought that Amnon’s office was in the building where the two had most recently met only a few months ago, but it turns out that he had moved offices fairly recently and there was some sort of miscommunication that led to us having to drive half an hour around Tel Aviv to the new office to get to our meeting. Despite the fact that we were already half an hour late, Amnon was excited to be with us and share his thoughts, and even stayed an extra half hour with us to make up for the lost time.

Amnon got right down to business and started his discussion off with Iran, which has been the first priority of Israeli media (aside from domestic politics) for the last two to three years. According to Amnon, Israelis are convinced that the Iranians are deep in an effort to reach nuclear weapons (not just attain nuclear capabilities). This is because although the Iranian economy is down, huge amounts of money have been invested in attaining nuclear capabilities in Iran, which could signal a desire to harness these capabilities for weaponry. If this nuclear capability were to be used for nuclear power, this would be an entirely different story (and an understandable and acceptable one at that!). However, nuclear power does not require 20% enrichment, which the Iranians have recently reached. Instead, that number is a signal that Iran has more in mind then just nuclear energy power plants.

Iranians know how to make nuclear weapons. And they are harnessing the required nuclear enrichment to do so. So the question now becomes: Is Iran actually willing and serious to go through with a nuclear weapons program? Israeli intelligence says yes. The rise of nuclear capabilities, coupled with Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments that Israel has no right to exist, has left Israelis worried about Iran and Ahmadinejad’s declarations. With most of Israeli power and economy concentrated in a small 50-60 kilometer area, Israel “cannot afford his [Ahmadinejad’s] threat.” Not to mention that Iran supports the existing Syrian regime and sent weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have created problems in Israel.

Which brings us to a new series of question. At the top of the list: should Israel do something? Amnon argues that the real threat of Iran is not to Israel but to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which are just as frightened by nuclear development in Iran as the Israelis, if not more. The difference is, though, that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are not as ready as Israel to defend itself. So is trying to eliminate Iranian nuclear power worthwhile for Israel? What if it only defers the entire problem and doesn’t end it? Should the first priority be to avoid war? Nobody wants a war, but what’s at stake here? These are the important questions that are shaping the policy of Israel toward Iran, and right now their answers are rather unclear. But one thing is certain for Amnon (and I must say his argument is very appealing), who said that, “I hope there is no need for an Israeli attack or an international attack.” Whatever happens, Israel should not be the only country involved and bearing weight in this situation. The entire international community must pay attention to this issue, and if any sort of impact is to be made in Iran, then international sanctions must continue.

Once Amnon finished speaking about Iran, he started discussing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (which I will from this point forward refer to as the IPC in an effort to save some typing time). Compared to 1995-1996 and 2000, we seem very far away from reaching any sort of concrete agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Every day, the political gap between the two groups is widening, as mistrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians grows as well. Without trust, nothing will ever happen.

With the gap widening and the need to reach an agreement growing each day, why is attention leaving the IPC? Why are we farther away today than we were only twelve years? Amnon points to three main reasons for the (hopefully temporary) abandonment of the IPC. First, Iran has become more of a priority in Israeli affairs than the IPC for the reasons I discussed above. Second, with the rise of the Arab Spring, attention is elsewhere within the region and no longer on the IPC. People are paying closer attention to places like Libya, Egypt, and Syria where revolutions are occurring and progress is occurring each day. On top of this, while there is Arab momentum throughout the region, there is no momentum in support of Palestine for the moment. People’s attention is simply concentrated on their own countries’ issues rather than those of the IPC. Finally, things in the area (Israel and Palestine) have been relatively quiet lately. And by that I mean there haven’t been any killings recently.

In addition to the abandonment of attention to the IPC, Amnon points to the divide between Hamas (which controls Gaza) and Fatah (which controls the PA in the West Bank) as bringing hope for a resolution to the IPC to a further standstill. Hamas is a terrorist organization in Gaza (see: bombings in Sder0t, etc.) with relatively low conventional capabilities. Life in Gaza (and Israel, too) is not normal. In the West Bank, there isn’t “normal” life either with severe limitations on movement throughout the area. However, the difference lies in the fact that people like PA President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the PA, realize that they cannot gain anything by terror. So there’s clearly a discrepancy between Hamas’ approach and Fatah’s approach to reaching an agreement.

Amnon is not optimistic about any of the current prospects, but he feels that it is in pure Israeli interest to reach an agreement. While some think that a “one-state solution” might work (in which either Israel or Palestine becomes the sole nation on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea), Amnon does not think this is feasible. The Palestinians will never give up their will to have a state. Neither will the Israelis. But one thing is for sure: the situation as it currently stands cannot last much longer without something happening. It’s clear that terror and counterterror cannot solve the problem, but the issue now is that the leadership on both sides is not strong enough to reach a lasting and meaningful agreement.

Which brings us to an entirely new issue: leadership and the Israeli political system and politics. I could write and discuss this for hours (and perhaps I will at some point in another post), but in order to understand the implications of the Israeli political system for the IPC, first you need to understand a few things about the system itself. The Israeli political system is very different from that in the United States. The Knesset, which is the parliamentary body of Israeli government, is composed of 120 members that represent about twelve to thirteen different parties. The existence of a multiparty system in Israel means that in order for anyone to receive a 61-vote majority in the Knesset, the parties need to form coalitions. In this “coalition government,” the highest vote-getting party is offered to form a coalition to reach the 61-vote threshold. If they are unable to do so, then the offer is extended to the next highest vote-getting party, and so on. This was actually the case in the most recent election in Israel where the Kadima party received 28 seats, beating out Likud, the right-moderate party, by only one seat. However, Kadima was unable to form a coalition, so Likud heads up the current coalition government and, until recently, Kadima (the largest party in the Knesset) was out of the coalition (more in that in a little bit).

As Amnon said, “Any coalition has to compromise.” But the problem is that the coalitions are not very stable. At any given moment, someone can leave the coalition, lowering the coalition to below the 61-vote threshold and creating a need for new elections and a turnover of the entire government. Today, however, the coalition is now at 94/120, which is incredibly large, because Kadima recently joined for a variety of political reasons that I’m not going to get into right now. This new expanded coalition allows for significantly more opportunities for dialogue with the Palestinians and eventually reaching an agreement. (A stronger coalition theoretically means more universal support for a plan that would be put in place by the existing government).

Despite the new, expanded coalition, though, the basic problems within the Israeli political system are still not solved, according to Amnon’s point of view. Amnon believes that the minimum required percentage of the vote a party must receive to be eligible to participate in government should be raised from the current 2% to 5%. The two party system cannot work in Israeli society simple because there are two many interests and groups represented within the current political framework (4 religious Jewish parties, 3 Arab parties, a Russian party, etc.), but a smaller number of parties in the government overall would theoretically allow for more stability and cohesiveness. The issue is that the largest parties (like Likud, Kadima, and Labor) are afraid to do anything because if a plan to change the requirement threshold like I discussed above is brought to the table and it fails, then they lose the support of all the small parties who feel that legislation like this hurts them and undermines democracy. The good news is that a new government committee was just created to bring new idea to change the government in the hopes that changes will bring about more stability in the Israel political system. Interestingly enough, Amnon feels that the public is either not full aware or indifferent to the changes in government as long as their daily life is undisturbed. For now, we’ll just have to see how the matter of Israeli domestic politics continues to play out in the IPC and, if the government does alter the existing political system, how it will affect negotiations in the region.

The final issue we discussed with Amnon was the issue of unilateral action in the IPC. Amnon firmly believes that unilateral action (as in the Israelis or the Palestinians seeking to make decisions regarding the IPC without a partner or the consent/approval of the other) in this conflict will not solve anything. As evidence, Amnon presented the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, saying that while it was good that Israel got out of Gaza, it solved absolutely nothing except give Hamas control over the area. Amnon believes that unilateral action is unnecessary, as he also thinks that Israel can reach an agreement with Abu Mazen. However, an agreement with Hamas is another story. Going quickly back to the Hamas and Fatah divide, is it possible that two Palestinian states could emerge (essentially creating a 3-state solution)? One under Fatah in the West Bank and one under Hamas in Gaza? Amnon says no. If Israel were to reach an agreement with Fatah in the West Bank, then Gaza will want to receive the benefits of statehood as well and will join with Fatah in a two-state solution. Amnon believes that if free elections occurs in Gaza, the population will vote for whoever they feel can offer them a better future, and this point, that’s Fatah. One thing is for certain in this mess, though. A solution can only be reached through dialogue. And, hey, isn’t that why the six of us are here in the first place? Only through dialogue can we reach a lasting peace.

I’m now going to fast forward a few hours so I can provide you with a second narrative on both Iran and the IPC that we received only a few hours after our meeting with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. When we finished with Amnon in Tel Aviv, we headed up to IDC Herzliya, a small private university just north of Tel Aviv, where we were schedule to meet with a couple of people. The final person we met with at IDC was Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad officer and current producer and editor of the bitterlemons.net, a series of online publications that reflect a joint Palestinian-Israeli effort to promote a civilized exchange of views about the Israeli-Arab conflict and other prevalent issues in the Middle East. Interestingly enough, Alpher opened his discussion with us by explaining that there would be no new posts on bitterlemons because they lost funding from governments and philanthropic organizations that previously supported the project, and it is also increasingly difficult to get people from the Arab world to write given the current political climate. The fact that bitterlemons has lost its funding is indicative of the fact that donors funding dialogue, especially for the IPC, are becoming frustrated because it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what they have accomplished. In any case, check out bitterlemons. It’s a really great collection of writing and is a nice way to learn about important issues in the Middle East in a short and interesting way.

Anyway, Alpher jumped right into a discussion on Iran to begin the afternoon. Alpher believes that Iran is actively seeking to expand its influence wherever there are Shiites of proto-Shiites in the Middle East (or Sunnis willing to jump ship and support the Iranians). Iran is on Israel’s borders in Lebanon (by the transitive property: Iran supports Hezbollah, Hezbollah is in Lebanon, and Lebanon is on Israel’s borders), and so Iran is a growing concern to Israel. Most Israelis in security don’t feel that Iran will bomb Israel directly, but the larger issue at hand is the clout and influence that a nuclear Iran will play throughout the Middle East in countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Iraq (interestingly enough, the same countries that Alpher pointed to as being more at risk than Israel if Iran were to have nuclear weapons).

Alpher then expanded the conversation to include not just Iran but the greater Arab world. He discussed the implications of the Arab Spring in the region and Israel’s responses to this revolutionary period. Essentially, Alpher narrowed down Israel’s responses to the Arab Spring into two categories. The first type of response is Netanyahu’s “keep your powder dry” method, in which Israel is cautious and avoids new initiatives during this time, choosing to wait out the Arab Spring before it continues forward with its own policy agenda. This method has been in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia with mixed results. In Turkey, which held a “zero problems strategy” at its borders, there are now problems on all of its borders. Turkey has said that they are an example of how Islam and democracy can coexist, which has boosted Turkey’s reputation and made them popular among the revolutions, but still, Turkey was unable to keep the Spring out. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, a “zero revolution strategy” at its borders, in which the Saudis refuse to let any of the revolutions of the time affect their internal structure, has allowed the country to inject money and armies into Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries to ensure their own welfare. The second type of response, promulgated by Peres and Barak, says that Israel must continue talking about the peace process so that it can start to form strong relations with the new leadership in these countries. This, however, is the minority opinion between the two views.

Nevertheless, Israel has cautiously chosen to side with the Syrian revolutionaries amidst the ongoing struggle in Syria (see: current massacres and devastation throughout Syria in any credible news publication). And here’s where this all ties back into Iran for Alpher. Assad is a symbol of Iran in the region, and pushing him (and the Alewites) out of Syria will lead to a weakening of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, if Assad is removed from power, who replaces him? Presumably, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, but they won’t necessarily be friends of Israel either. The Brotherhood refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and nobody in the Brotherhood is prepared to meet with Israel in an official capacity.  If the Brotherhood also comes to power in Egypt, then there is the risk of a downgrade in the Egypt-Israel peace as well.  The peace with Egypt has allowed Israel to reduce its defense budget and boost Israel’s economy. If the Brotherhood comes to power, Israel’s economic prosperity could all go down the drain. So what would happen if the Brotherhood in Syria? The answer is: we don’t know yet. At least that’s my answer. Only time will tell here. But the bottom line, from Alpher’s view, is that Israel had been sitting on the fence for a while, but that’s starting to change now. It’s taking action and making decisions regarding whom to support in the tumultuous political struggles throughout the region.

Once we finished discussing Iran, we moved onto the IPC. In contrast with Amnon’s dovish and hopeful views on the conflict, Alpher is incredible pessimistic. Alpher believes that nothing will happen between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, and part of this is because nobody in the United States is rushing to help solve the IPC any more as the Middle East agenda is focusing on Iran and the Arab Spring instead. With the change of agenda, no institutional or educational sources are prepping a new administration in Washington for the IPC, and the political risk of getting involved in the conflict during an election year is too large.

Alpher firmly believes that “without serious American intervention, seriously nothing can happen.” Netanyahu’s party and coalition won’t give up the West Bank, and Netanyahu has learned how to manipulate the American and Israeli political scene. But his solutions are short-term and he continues to allow settlements in the West Bank (which is definitely not helping if Israel is to reach an agreement with the Palestinians any time soon). At this point, Abu Mazen understands that he will never receive as comprehensive an offer as Olmert’s 2008 plan from Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader in the near future. So where does that leave us?

Alpher thinks that we need a new peace paradigm (along the lines of Oslo) that does not try to agree on every single issue on the table at once. Essentially, Alpher believes there are two sets of issues on the table that are difficult to reconcile. The first set, the post-1967 issues such as borders, settlers, and security agreements, is possible to reach an agreement upon and is relatively easy when compared to the second set. The pre-1967 issues, on the other hand, which include larger ideological issues such as right of return, refugees, and whom the land truly belongs to, are downright impossible to reach an agreement on. “Just getting to the table,” as United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta advocated, will not work in Alpher’s opinion. Neither will Blair’s idea that the outline of the solution is understood already and that both parties simply need to confirm it. On top of this, Washington has failed to acknowledge that there could be a Palestinian state already if only the post-1967 issues are taken into account. So essentially, Alpher believes that a decisive agreement can be reached if the post-1967 issues alone, and not everything all at once, are the issues put on the negotiating table. Once both sides are recognized, then we can start to talk about the pre-1967 issues like the Temple Mount and the right of return. But having a conversation about a two-state solution only talking about the post-1967 issues and leaving the pre-1967 issues on the table, despite it being Alpher’s best hope for a peace plan, seems difficult at best and in his opinion will take a whole other generation to sort out. (I guess that means us!)

Perhaps the most important part of Alpher’s argument is that Israel and Palestine cannot reach an agreement alone (see: Alpher’s op-ed in the New York Times on the IPC). A majority of people in Israel and Palestine would support a two-state solution and are starting to soften up on the issue. Alpher also agrees with Amnon that unilateral decision-making here won’t work. For Alpher, though, this is because there’s simply not enough political will on both sides to reach any unilateral decision.

In terms of the Fatah (PA) and Hamas divide and how a possible Israel/Fatah reconciliation might affect Hamas, Alpher forwarded two different views. The first view is that Hamas today is where the PLO was fifty years ago, and if reconciliation were to happen now between Israel and Fatah, then Hamas would jump in and want to receive the benefits of a two-state solution as well. The second view (which Alpher leans towards) is that Hamas comes from the Muslim Brotherhood and thus will never recognize Israel in any capacity. As a result, Hamas will either be left out entire or a three-state situation would emerge (as I already discussed and which Amnon said would never happen, in his opinion). Gaza is clearly a key piece in these negotiations, but Israel refuses to talk to Hamas and vise versa. Not to mention that if Israel did talk to Hamas, then it would be undermining Abu Mazen’s authority and power, which could also be a backwards move. So again, we have a big mess.

Unlike Amnon, Alpher does not the Israeli domestic political system and politics shifting at all. He believes that there is no revolutionary change that could make a huge difference in the process at this point and that there is no strong Israeli leader on the horizon. At this point, only a third party leader from an external government (like the United States) could help settle this issue. There is no doubt that the IPC needs to be solved sooner rather than later. Indeed, as Alpher suggested, if Israel does not solve this issue soon then it is liable to pay two heavy prices: it’s status as a Jewish and democratic state, and making the Palestinian issue a renewed rallying point for the Islamist movement.

I think it’s really important that we understand that there is not just one narrative on each side of this conflict. There are many different opinions on all sides of the conflict, and I have tried to provide you with two of these narratives as I have understood them. Personally, I lean more towards Amnon Lipkin-Shahak’s dovish, optimistic narrative than Alpher’s more pessimistic view of the situation which, in my opinion, places too much blame and importance on the rise of “political Islam” and the Brotherhood, as well as the desperate need for a third party. I do think that a third party is needed to broker a final agreement, but I’m a little more optimistic than Alpher seemed to be about the entire conflict. But that’s just my opinion, another narrative among the many. Take from it what you will and draw up your own conclusions and narratives. After all, dialogue and debate are, as I see it, the only way we can move forward.

But I don’t want to leave you thinking that the Middle East is all one big mess! I also think that it’s critical that aside from all the conflict and struggle occurring here, there is also great innovation, development, and growth. Sometimes, with the prevalence of war and struggle in traditional media, we forget that the Middle East is also a place where some incredible things happen. Which is why I am so glad that our first speaker at IDC Herzliya, immediately prior to Yossi Alpher, was Michal Divon, the Public Relations Chair for a really awesome website called NoCamels.com that I highly recommend you check out.  NoCamels is a website that covers Israeli innovations in technology, health, environment, and social awareness (essentially everything that traditional media doesn’t). NoCamels “highlights local solutions to global problems,” and is written by twenty top students at IDC who travel all around Israel to find cutting-edge innovations and write about them. They have partnership with major publications in Israel such as the Jerusalem Post, but their main audience is foreign journalists and they try to make sure that the majority of their readers come from outside of Israel. If you have a second, please go take a look! It’s a great site with a great mission and I truly feel that it highlights some shining moments in the Middle East in a time of conflict and revolution throughout the area.

After our meeting with Yossi Alpher, we got on the bus in Herzliya and headed straight for Jerusalem. I was so exhausted from our conversations that day that I fell asleep almost immediately on the bus and woke up just as we were approaching Abu Ghosh, a small Arab Israeli town right outside of Jerusalem that has some delicious, authentic restaurants. Every time I’ve been to Israel, I have visited Abu Ghosh for a meal. Mark suggested that we have dinner at a well-known Lebanese restaurant in the town, and so we stopped for a fun meal of hummus, pita, falafel, kebabs, and about a thousand other dishes until we were completely full. We finished our drive to our little hotel in Jerusalem (which is literally called the “Little House”) and all checked into our final rooms on the trip. It seems so weird that we’ve reached the last destination on our journey. Of course, we still have a lot to look forward to in Israel and in Ramallah when we go visit on Friday, but there’s definitely a sense of the end drawing near. But I won’t get all nostalgic on you just yet. Anyway, our hotel is in a great neighborhood only a short walking distance from some of the important spots in Jerusalem including the Old City, Ben Yehuda Street, and the Knesset. We weren’t quite ready to turn in on our first night in Jerusalem (and it was still on the early side at around 9:30 PM), so the six of us decided to take a walk over to the Knesset and check it out. Of course, at that time of night it was closed, but the building was lit up beautifully with blueish-purple lights and the walk was really nice – only about 20 minutes there and a little shorter on the way back (which is downhill). I’m glad we went out for a little adventure, though!

So that’s June 11, 2012 for you! Three cities, two narratives, and one whole lot of information to process. Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I’ll get to talk about my experience driving around in the West Bank through checkpoints and to the Jewish settlements there for the first time, followed by my third visit to Yad Vashem. But for now, it’s time to get some sleep. It’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.

Safe Travels! – Jake

P.S. This post was completed and posted on June 13, 2012 but concerns events that took place on June 11, 2012. This is the post that was partially erased last night (June 12, 2012), but thanks to the wonderful detective work of Shereen, I was able to find a draft copy saved on the WordPress server and start over from there. I’ll be playing catch-up with blog posts for the next few days, but I promise that as soon as I have a post finished, I’ll have it up it for you all to see! Thanks for your love and support throughout this entire project. I’m loving every second of it.

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June 11-12, 2012: A Work in Progress, and New Pictures are Live!

Okay, so it’s 1:00 AM now in Jerusalem and I am absolutely exhausted. I’m about to head to bed, but I need to explain to you where my blog posts from the past 2 days are before I leave you hanging for a third day. About two minutes ago, I was putting the finishing touches on a rather lengthy post about our day on June 11 with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Yossi Alpher discussing Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict when the entire post erased itself from the website and this was the one post that I didn’t copy and save into and Word document and I can’t get it back anywhere. (I wish I was kidding, but instead I am sitting in my bed in Jerusalem basically hyperventilating that my hours of work are now for naught).

Luckily, it won’t be too difficult to recreate everything that I wrote because I have really in-depth notes on the issue, but it’ll take a little bit of time for me to rewrite everything and get it up on the blog. So bear with me for a little bit – it’s  a work in progress but I promise that by tomorrow night you’ll have something substantive to read again. Trust me: I’m more frustrated right now than you can imagine.

In the meantime, I loaded some new pictures up (so click away on the sidebar for some great snapshots of the trip)! I’m having a great time and I can’t wait to fill you all in on the incredible stuff we’ve been doing. Thank you for being so patient and understanding; I love you all.

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 9-10, 2012: Dubai, UAE, Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel

Erev tov m’Tel Aviv! Good evening from Tel Aviv! I’ve been here in Israel for about five hours (but actually for closer to seven and half hours – more on that in a little bit). It’s just about midnight and I’m finally getting a chance to settle down after a long day of travel from Dubai to Tel Aviv. Since today was entirely a travel day, I don’t have a ton to report on, but I still owe you a report on my day yesterday, June 9, 2012, in Dubai!

It was an early morning for us on June 9, 2012 because we had a 9:30 AM meeting at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Old Dubai. Jake and I dragged ourselves out of bed at around 7:50 AM to make it downstairs for breakfast (Dillon chose to sleep in a bit – he definitely had the right idea), and after shoveling breakfast down our throats with Shareen, we still had about 15 minutes to spare before meeting up with everyone in the lobby at 8:50 AM. We left at around 9:00 AM for the Cultural Center and arrived about twenty minutes later to a small house in a cute little traditional neighborhood that looked pretty out of place next to the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline behind it. But still, it was pretty cool to see a small pocket of traditional Emirati culture in the midst of developing Dubai.

We headed into the house to meet our tour guide for the first part of the morning around Old Dubai, which is also called the Bastikia. While there are a little over 52 houses in Old Dubai remaining, only one of the original families from the area remains. Today, the government in Dubai protects the original homes and restored them after people left. The homes are now being used as museums, restaurants, hotels, and galleries in an effort to enliven the area and preserve it. The entire neighborhood is made of two types of homes: one kind made entirely of stone, and the other (called “Barasti houses”) are made entirely of palm fronds. The neighborhood presents an interesting contrast to the heavy modernization of nearby downtown Dubai and provides a look into simpler life in the area where alleyways served as wind tunnels to create cool air and shade, windows were small and high to let in wind and maintain privacy, and courtyards were build inside house to allow natural light to enter. It’s a really great experience and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re ever in Dubai. It’s nice to see another side of the city.

After our tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Mosque at the Centre for a discussion with Nasif Kayed, the General Manager of the program. I guess I should back up a little first and explain what the Centre does. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is an organization that “strive[s] to bring different cultures closer together promoting mutual understanding and acceptance.” Their motto is “Open doors. Open minds.” The Centre provides presentations on Islam and helps to facilitate cultural discovery and tolerance in Dubai. They also provide services to new foreign nationals in the country, such as Arabic classes and other assimilation seminars. Check them out online at www.cultures.ae.

Anyway, we had a really interesting discussion with Nasif at the Mosque, who stressed the importance of piety and maintaining a commitment to religion in Islam. A lot of what he told us about Islam and its central messages, practices, and traditions we had already heard at the many other mosques we have visited, but our talk with Nasif was about to come markedly different. Somehow, we ended up on the issue of LGBT rights and Islam’s view on the LGBT community. Let me begin this by saying that the views reflected by Nasif in no way shape or form reflect the views of the entire global Muslim community, and to imply that they do would be wrong and immoral. However, the conversation that all of us had on this subject was definitely interesting.

I read a book entitled Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker for Professor Sharkey’s class first semester. The book provides an analysis of the treatment of and views on the LGBT community throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In the process of reading the book, I got so angry at several points that I ended up chucking the book across the room and venting about my anger during our next class period. As a bit of a loud-mouthed liberal (who still can maintain social boundaries and respect others’ views), I was excited when this conversation came up in the mosque, as it was totally unexpected. However, I found myself getting progressively frustrated more than anything else throughout the talk. I kind of felt like in talking about the LGBT community, we were kind of avoiding the entire topic at hand. Let me explain.

In Islam, public display of affection of any kind is not allowed, be it between a man and a woman, two men, or two men. Personal preference, desire, and affection are personal, meaning they concern only you and your partner and thus should be kept private. Alright, I understand that. Normally my response would be: okay, so it’s not that the LGBT community is being put down while other heterosexual couples can flaunt their relationships in front of everyone else – this is, rather, an issue of privacy and all partners, regardless of their sexual orientation, keeping their thoughts and affections private. However, the entire conversation ended up turning on itself with small comments thrown in there that suggested that in some Muslim communities, the LGBT community, regardless of the fact that nobody can publicly display affection, is not necessarily supported even if they are keeping relations private. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was discussed as if it were a “choice” that a person could make, and I almost got the impression that some in the Muslim world think that maybe an LGBT person could just choose to not be gay, as if it were only phase or a small moment in time, but that eventually they would find their way back to heterosexuality. Now, none of this was explicitly said in that manner. Rather, comments like “If someone chooses to be gay…” and “Nobody will bother you about your choice…” somehow crept into conversation. The talk ended with Nasif saying something along the lines of: “If God has a problem with the LGBT community, then why has nothing been done to them yet? Why has God not struck them with lightening if God has the power to take and give life?” I understood the sentiment (which kind of reminded me of the concept of b’tzelem elohim in Judaism, which says that everybody is made in God’s image, often used, including by me, as a Jewish textual support for the LGBT community), but still the whole conversation left me with this weird feeling.

Of course, this is an issue that does not only effect Islam. It’s in every religion, including Judaism and Christianity. It’s certainly a prevalent topic right now in the United States, with states fighting about LGBT rights and same-sex marriage constantly, and throughout the world. I just found it interesting that here I am, a Jewish guy from New York in the middle of Dubai, UAE, having a discussion with a man who runs a Centre for Cultural Understanding in a Mosque. Just take a moment to take that all in it. It’s kind of a powerful thought. But I couldn’t have been more glad that Nasif and all of us were able to have this discussion. Although I felt the issue was circumvented rather than address completely, it was still addressed, which is always a step in the right direction. We should be having discussion and not be afraid to speak up for what we believe in. For me, it ended up being speaking up for LGBT rights in a mosque in Dubai. But hey, how many people can say that something like that happened to them too? All good life experiences.

After the Mosque, we went back to the Cultural Centre’s main house for a lovely homemade Arabic lunch with lots of chicken, lamb, rice, chickpeas, and, of course, coffee and dates. Everything was delicious, and we got to continue our talk with Nasif for a little longer over lunch. This time we changed gears from Islam to the United Arab Emirates and got to ask some of our questions about the relationship between Islam and the developing UAE and the role that the Emirati vs. foreign national population dynamic plays in the country.

According to Nasif, everything in the UAE is currently changing with the expansion of wealth, trade, and industry. Everything happened so quickly (keep in mind, the country was founded only in 1971, and before that Dubai and Abu Dhabi were nothing like they are today – image desert and small villages where great modern cities now stand) and now people are trying to reconcile their lives with the new, modern country they live in. When I asked how the material wealth in the UAE has affected people’s practice of Islam in the country, Nasif shared that he felt that it is a struggle to reconcile the two, but that the youth are definitely starting to create a new culture that merges both, which I found to be rather refreshing. Nasif also spoke about “Emiratization,” a term that Gian used as well to talk about giving advantage to Emiratis in society and helping them to get more jobs (and more important and prevalent ones at that) and become a larger part of the community. Nasif felt that it was an obligation within the country to push Emirati employment so that Emiratis could grow with their country rather than shrink in size as a minority while the country continues to expand. I definitely understand the Emirati need to keep up with their developing country; after all, if they want to keep the city and the country distinctly Emirati, then they need to be an important part of its economics and development. It was just interesting to hear Nasif, an Emirati, talk about this so openly because one could draw parallels between Emiratization and “affirmative action” in the United States, which is pretty highly contested and controversial. But this almost seemed like a no-brainer to Nasif, and I get why. He’s a proud Emirati, and like Gian said, Emiratis are some of the proudest people around when it comes to their heritage and background.

After our lunch, we left the Centre and headed out for Dubai Souk. Again, being in the Souk was a completely different experience from being out in the city center of Dubai because rather than being surrounded by the huge skyscrapers and commerce that you see downtown, in the Souks, you see small shops trying to sell you every little trinket imaginable. It wasn’t, however, like the Muttrah Souk in Muscat, Oman that we visited, with small alleyways with little booths selling the wares. Rather, it felt more like busy main streets crowded with small storefronts that were run not by local Emiratis but rather by local foreign nationals. At one point, Shereen even commented, “Wow, I feel more like I’m in India right now than Dubai.” She was right; it was a little strange to see a Souk, which you normally connect with local craftsman and merchants, run and managed by people who were not local. The boys and girls split from each other so that the girls could go handbag shopping or something like that, and Jake, Dillon, and I went around looking for small souvenirs and “keffiyeh and egal” sets (the red and white patterned headscarves with the black rings around the head that many Arab men wear). Our shopping efforts, however, were unsuccessful, in part because we didn’t see anything we liked, and in part because we were so overwhelmed by the number of times men kept coming up to us on the street saying, “Do you want copy watches? I have Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer…” We heard that sentence so many times, at one point I almost turned to a guy who asked me “Do you want copy watches?” and responded “Do you have Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer like everyone else?!” But I refrained and just kept enjoying being in the Souk. We went back to the bus at around 2:30 PM to drive over to the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa for the rest of the afternoon, and by the time I got back to my bus, I literally had soaked through the button-down I was wearing with sweat from my backpack and the crazy heat. Luckily I had a huge bottle of water and I dried off quickly in the AC.

We drove over to the Dubai Mall and got caught in a little bit of the Dubai city center traffic on the way there. We had a 4:00 PM reservation to go to the “At the Top” Burj Khalifa observation deck, so by the time we had actually figured out where to park at the mall, we only had about 40 minutes to actually get into the mall and look around before heading to the Burj. It took us nearly the whole time to figure out how to get into the mall (which is colossal), and once we were inside, we were so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stores and different directions you could go and things you could buy that we decided to head straight for the entrance to the “At the Top” Burj Khalifa experience. We walked around the waiting area for a little, which featured a bunch of interactive screens with all the fun facts and information about the building, as well as a huge Lego recreation of it (so cool!). Then, at 4:00 PM, we started heading up to the observation deck.

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world as well as the tallest structure and the tallest free-standing structure. For more information on the Burj, check out www.burjkhalifa.ae. We jumped into the elevator and zoomed up the 124 floors to the observation deck (which was not even close to the top of the entire building) much closer than I imagined, and suddenly the doors opened up on huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking all of Dubai and revolving doors out to the exterior observation deck. It was much cooler way up in the clouds than it was on the ground once we were out on the deck, and it was a gorgeous day! Although it was a bit hazy, which made it difficulty to see things really far into the distance, we were able to see Dubai in all its glory as well as the desert stretching out in every direction from the building and the Dubai waterfront. It was absolutely stunning. And of course, I got some great pictures up there! There was even the famed Gold ATM at the top of the building, which was pretty cool, too. The Burj was really fantastic and I’m glad I got the chance to experience it (considering the fact that, despite that I am a born and bred New Yorker, I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building). I think its a wonderful symbol of the transformation of Dubai into a city of great wealth and commerce from nothing in the desert, and you can literally see the progression of desert to bustling city all from the top of the building.

After the Burj, we had about an hour and half two wander around the mall, and so again we broke into two groups – the girls and the guys. Jake, Dillon, and I barely had enough time to cover about half of the ground in the mall, and that’s without going into very many stores at all. We started in the Arabian Court first, because we still wanted to get the “keffiyeh and egal” sets that I talked about earlier, and luckily we found a nice souvenir shop that sold the Emirati version for pretty cheap (only about 54 dirhams, which is a little more than $10). Dillon got a really nice one, though, from a store next door that was the Arabic equivalent to Men’s Warehouse. It was actually pretty cool. After we did some souvenir and gift shopping, we tried to see as much of the mall as we could. We wandered around for the next hour or so, taking in all the high-end shops (seriously, every brand name and label you could ever image in your wildest dreams is in the Dubai Mall), drooling at the Sega Arcade, food courts, and gelato stands throughout, and seeing the many landmarks within the mall, including the world-record winning fish tank at the Dubai Aquarium, the Grand and Star Atriums, the Waterfall, and the famed Dubai Fountain. Everything was amazing. The sheer amount of wealth that went into this project can’t even be described fully – you just need to see it for yourself (so I captured it in a bunch of pictures). It’s truly unreal. In order to really shop the mall, you need at least a full 10-hour day, possibly a golf cart, and an unlimited supply of cash. You could go crazy in that mall. Their ad campaign is literally “Dubai Mall: Everything you could ever desire.” And it’s true! The Dubai Mall has everything. It could be one of the Wonders of the World. It’s that impressive. And also another great symbol of the influence of foreign nationals and wealth in Dubai; almost all of the stores represented were foreign brands, and the wealth is evident in every hallway and crevice of that mall.

After I grabbed some original tart and black currant frozen yogurt with strawberries, raspberries, and chocolate crunches (not a surprise at all) for 30 dirhams (okay, maybe I overpaid a little, but it was quite possible the best frozen yogurt I’ve ever had), we met up with the rest of the group and started heading back out to the bus (which took 15 more minutes) and then back to the hotel. Once we got there, we were all exhausted from a long day of walking around Old Dubai, the Souks, the Burj, and the Mall. We had the night on our own anyway because Aaron and Mark had to catch up on some work, so Jake, Dillon, and I decided to stay in and order some delicious room service and just relax and do nothing for our last night in Dubai. It was the best decision ever. We sat and watched CSI and Criminal Minds while pigging out on two pasta dishes that Jake and I shared that were delicious (Penne Arrabbiata and Farfalle with Grilled Vegetables and Pesto), a bunch of appetizers, and some chocolate cake and tiramisu. A perfectly indulgent end to our visit to the Emirates. It was so nice to have nothing to do but just sit around and lounge a little, just talking about our lives and laughing and watching ridiculous crime-scene television dramas. We had a really fun evening just doing nothing, and we even got to bed a little earlier than we usually do!

All in time to wake up for our rather uneventful (at least at first) day of travel this morning. I packed all of my bags last night so that in the morning we could wake up at around 9:00 AM, be down at breakfast by 9:30, and be ready to leave the hotel at 10:00 AM. After we ate and checked out (oh, by the way, did I mention how fantastic the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Dubai Creek is? They had everything I love from fresh eggs to toast and Nutella to turkey bacon and pancakes. Yum.), we jumped on our huge coach bus that we’d be traveling around for the past couple of days (for only the eight of us – how’s that for over-consumption) and headed for the Dubai International Airport. We flew threw check-in and security and even had some time to kill in the terminal before our gate opened for 1:00 PM flight from Dubai to Amman. Jake and I looked around some of the duty-free gift shops and the food court a little before going to board the plane at noon and make sure that Royal Jordanian had our frequent flyer information (don’t want to miss out on any miles! And RJ is a oneworld airline, so that means American Airlines miles!). The flight from Dubai to Amman was a little over three hours long and pretty uneventful. I listened to music, slept a little, and then ended up watching “The Vow” with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum because the woman in front of me was watching it and it was bugging me that I was basically watching the whole thing without any sound.

Anyway, we got to Amman, Jordan early, meaning we should have had more time than we originally expect for our 4:15 PM connecting flight to Tel Aviv (in case you’re keeping track of time, Amman is an hour behind Dubai). However, the RJ Transfers desk in the terminal was ridiculously inefficient, and we stood in line from around 3:00 PM until around 3:30 without moving anywhere basically when Mark heralded us to the front of the line. The entire RJ staff, it seemed, was now frantically trying to get us all ticketed in time and to the gate, because the flight was leaving in 45 minutes, meaning the gate would close in 30, and we still needed to get through security. We were pumping through everybody’s passports and tickets pretty quickly at this point until we realized that Jake was booked on a different flight much later that day from Amman into Tel Aviv. After a brief moment of panic (read: Jake was totally fine but Mark looked like he was about to punch someone in the face), they got Jake re-ticketed and quickly hustled over through security and down to our gate to get on the shuttle to our plane. We hopped on the shuttle with time to spare and hopped on the small airplane that would take us on the 25-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv.

I pretty much slept through the entire flight to Tel Aviv, because I fell asleep right as we were taking off and woke up about five minutes before our final descent. We waited on the runway at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for about five minutes because another plane was at our gate, and finally we disembarked and started heading toward passport control and baggage claim.

The second we landed in Israel, I was immediately happy to be there and see all the Hebrew around me and be back in a country to which I feel a very deep connection. As a Reform Jew from New York, I truly do feel that Israel is a second homeland of sorts for me. Albeit, a very contested and imperfect homeland with frustrating realities, but still, a homeland. My Hebrew kicked in immediately and I felt an immense need to read everything that I saw and say hello to every Israeli I encountered. As we started walking toward passport control, I started to get a little anxious about the group: two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and our two guides. What if some of us got separated and questioned? Will they let us all through without problem because we were a group? Mark asked me if I would get in line right before Sundus, who is an Egyptian Muslim (but an American citizen, too), and see if I could emphasize that we were all together. Mark got at the head of the line so that he could explain to the passport agent that we were all together on a study tour, hoping that the introduction and explanation might help alleviate any challenges that passport control in Israel might normally present.

Mark got through almost immediately. Jake was next up in line, and it was only a matter of seconds after he said “Shalom” to the woman behind the counter that he had is stamped passport in his hand ready to go. Then I went up, said a friendly “Shalom” to the passport agent as well, and within maybe ten seconds she had looked through my passport, found the page with the existing stamp from my NFTY in Israel trip, and stamped a new Ben Gurion International Airport entry visa in right next to it. So all three of the Jewish guys made it through in a total of about three minutes, I believed. That’s also about where it stopped being so easy, though. Sundus was next and got flagged for further passport control questioning despite Mark’s attempt to explain that she was a student and that it was unnecessary. Talene and Dillon, the two Christians, didn’t have much trouble at all and joined me and Jake as we waited for the rest of the group for baggage claim. Shereen, the other Muslim of Pakistani descent, was also flagged for further questioning, and next thing we knew, Mark was taking the two of them, with a passport and immigration officer, over to the mysterious questioning area while the other four of us and Aaron were charged with the task of finding and gathering everyone’s luggage and waiting for them to be cleared.

Well we waited. And waited. And waited. And I got hungry and bought myself some Bisli from the vending machine (I really do think that Bisli tastes better in Israel, although the machine was out of pizza flavor – my favorite!). And Talene bought some Bamba. And we just kept waiting. One hour. Two hours. We had landed at 4:45 PM and it was now around 7:15 PM. Where were they?!

Finally, Mark, Shereen, and Sundus cleared through immigration to baggage and joined us. Mark seemed annoyed and frustrated, and Shereen and Sundus just seemed tired. We gave them their luggage and asked what had happened, what kinds of things they were asked, etc. None of us really wanted to push it because at this point they were so tired and it’s pretty much a huge downer way to start a trip to Israel (nothing says “Welcome!” like interrogation at border control), but they told us that basically after waiting for a pretty long time, there were just asked a whole series of questions about their families and their lives and what they were doing in Israel. As appreciative as I am that Israeli security is so thorough and strict, this entire situation made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. As a Jew and supporter of Israel, to see two very harmless friends of mine so tired and subjected to profiling was disheartening and not my idea of showing them my homeland. They are students with a study tour with no reason to be flagged except their names, both of which are of Arabic descent. I understand Israeli security policy, I really do. And I get that this is for all of our safety and the safety of Israel and her people. But the two plus hours that Sundus and Shereen went through to prove that they were students with a study tour was completely unnecessary. Their cases deserved fifteen minutes at most, not two hours. It definitely presented a rough start to our time here.

We left the airport and drove to Tel Aviv to check into our hotel, Hotel Gilgal. It’s only a few blocks from the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, which you can see from right outside my window! We drove into Tel Aviv from a rather weird angle, I think, because we came through a pretty gross neighborhood before pulling into the beautiful waterfront neighborhood that we’re in now. But as we were driving, the sun was setting over Tel Aviv and it was absolutely beautiful. Everything from the past two hours seemed to kind of drift away in the Israel sunset (poetic, I know). It was beautiful.

Once we were all checked in at the hotel, we started walking over to the beach for dinner at one of the restaurants along the boardwalk of sorts on the beach. I suddenly realized that I knew where I was and recognized a restaurant that I had been to in 2007 with my cousins who live in Israel and my family, a cute place called Cafe Metzada with delicious food that’s right on the boardwalk. I mentioned to the group that I actually had been here before and it was delicious (from what I could remember of it, anyway), and after ruling out another restaurant that Mark had been to recently, we decided to stay at Metzada for dinner! We all shared some salads to start and I had an absolutely delicious shakshuka, a kind of castiron pan filled with cooked tomatoes, poached eggs, basil, and feta cheese. Look it up on line, it’s absolutely one of the most fantastic dishes ever.

Over dinner, we chatted a little bit about our itinerary over the next couple of days and who we’d be meeting with tomorrow in particular. We reviewed a little bit of our Israeli geopolitical history and talked about Israel, Palestine, Hamas, Fatah, the PLO, etc. and how they all interact. Mark shared some stories about his mother, who lives in Israel, and her experience with all of the many parties involved, and of course provided us with he wisdom and guidance on the entire issue (and that’s no joke – Mark is always available for us to give any information we ever could want). Mark also apologized to Sundus and Shereen profusely for what had happened at immigration and explained that while they were being questioned, he threw a bit of a fit with the agents, explaining that the girls were student-scholars with the program that he was leading and going through the entire itinerary with them. Eventually, Mark threw enough of a fit and was able to prove that the girls were not a danger to anybody at all, and so they let them out of two more rounds of questioning, which probably would have taken another two hours. Mark could not have been more apologetic and expressed the very sentiments that I was feeling this afternoon. But he also explained the need for security here and how important these checks have been for maintaining security and safety within the country, proving us with a little context to the whole situation. But still, Mark was horrified that this happened to two American students and expressed how upset he was with everything and how embarassed, angry, and frustrated the experience made him. I was, and in many ways still am, feeling very similar.

But the conversation at dinner was light-hearted, we were all laughing and smiling again per usual, and I even got to practice some Hebrew with the wait staff at the restaurant! We came back from the hotel and all went to our rooms to get ready for our first day of meetings tomorrow in Israel! We’re meeting with some really amazing people in Herzliya, a town just north of Tel Aviv, but exactly who you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out! I am so excited to be back in Israel, albeit just for a little white, but I can’t wait to speak Hebrew, eat great food, and show everyone a country that I really do love. But for now, it’s bed time. Laila tov!

Safe Travels! – Jake

P.S. And, of course, a very, very HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my best friend, Sam. I wish I could have been with you today to celebrate! Even halfway around the world, I’m thinking of you today! Love you to the Middle East and back again.

June 8, 2012: Abu Dhabi, UAE and Dubai, UAE

Hello again from Dubai, UAE! Although we started and finished the day here at our beautiful day, we didn’t spend very much time in Dubai at all today. Instead, we spent the day in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the country’s capital and second largest city, which is a little under two hours away from Dubai, the country’s largest city. But before we embarked on our day trip to the country’s capital, we spent a few hours in the hotel this morning having breakfast, debriefing a little about our time in Oman, and discussing a familiar topic more in depth that we’ll be focusing on for the next couple of days – the Arab Spring/Awakening.

At 10:00 AM, we all gathered in Mark’s room for our first major lecture from him since we left DC. Since we’re at about the midpoint in the experience, it was as good a time as any to change gears a little bit and get some more background about what we’d be talking about for the next few days. As I mentioned last night, we decided to make a concentrated effort to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for now in an effort to broaden our scope of discussion to the larger Arab world. Especially because these are our last few days in the “Arab world” rather than Israel, now seemed like a perfect time to start taking apart the sociopolitical challenges that comprise the Arab Spring, or (as it might be more appropriate to call) the Arab Awakening.

But before we delved into any of that, Mark opened his talk with some closing comments on Oman. After sharing with us today’s headlines from the Oman Observer, which concerned allegations of rumors against the Sultan (“His Majesty is the Pride of the Nation, Rumors Deplored”), he talked about his opinions of the media in Oman. This is already something I’ve mentioned a bit earlier in talking about our lunch with HE Sheikh Abdulla and Jihad, the woman who works in Omani news as an anchor and journalist, but essentially there is a feeling that Omani media is self-censored by its media outlets in order to respect the sacredness of the Sultan and the country. This leads to what some might argue is a non-independent media. This, in combination with the lack of a party system based on values and commonality in Oman, could be problematic.  Oman’s lack of a “completely free media” seems surprising when one notes that countries like Israel and Egypt have free press, but I also think that self-censorship in Omani media is very reflective of the anti-inflammatory culture and society in Oman, which I do appreciate greatly. As for the free media question, I’m unsure whether or not self-censorship to protect the Sultan can constitute completely as “restrictive press,” but I don’t really know enough about it to make a definite comment. I guess I’ll have to keep looking into it. Oman also has complete suffrage, where the UAE most certainly does not. And here’s where we started to shift gears away from Oman and toward the rest of the Arab world. In the UAE, the incredible amount of oil money has created this image of the country as being extremely modernized, but it too has its fair share of sociopolitical issues.

It is not a surprise to anyone that the UAE has an enormous foreign national population. In fact, only 15% of the population is actually Emirati. So what happens with the other 85% of the population that is not Emirati and composed of other foreign nationals? Here in UAE, this question of demography vs. geography is extremely important as different nationalities compete with each other to gain status within the social and economic framework of the developing country. So the question is, in this trade-off between demography and geography, how do the Emiratis feel about their place in society? How do the foreign nationals feel? I was able to get a bit of a better sense of the foreign national point of view today (more a little later on that), but with the small size of the Emirati population, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a firm grasp on their understanding of life in the UAE.

For a really great explanation and analysis of the developmental trajectory of the UAE (i.e. its history, politics, and government), please check out the United States Department of State Background Notes on the UAE at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5444.htm. Unfortunately, because we don’t have as much time here as we did in Oman, I’m not going to be able to completely analyze the political construct of the country for you like I did previously. But I’ll do my best to tell you what I do know!

After our brief introduction to the UAE, we shifted to a discussion about the Arab Spring/Awakening. I’m going to preface this with the following: I’m still trying to understand the many events, people, places, interactions, and conflicts that form what people are referring to as the “Arab Spring,” and might better be referred to as an Arab Awakening. I am not an expert on this in any way shape or form. In fact, I can say with confidence that I came into this very aware of the fact that I did not know as much as I want to about the Arab Spring, and so this will be a learning experience for all of us. I left today with a resolve to start reading and researching more about the many political episodes and interactions that characterize this period in Middle Eastern history, and I as soon as I can actually form an educated summary of everything that I understand to be happening, I will share it with you. But for now, I’ll share some of what we discussed today and what I’m still grappling with.

American interest is currently shifting from Israel/Palestine to the Gulf. As we start to examine the political happenings and interests in the Gulf and throughout the region (aside from Israel and Palestine) more closely, we must keep in mind a few critical ideas. First, the roles of God and religion, oil, water, and weapons of mass destructions must be part of the discourse about the Gulf and the Middle East in general. Second, there is an overarching theme of the “clash of civilizations,” be that between the West and Islam, Christianity and Islam, or Judaism and Islam, among others, of course.

What we are looking at could be the start of an Arab Muslim “cold war” of sorts in the Middle East that is directly linked to America. Some of the major authoritarian regimes that were brought down in the recent revolutions throughout the region, including Egypt, Tunisian, Yemen, and others, were tied to the United States by America’s interest in things such as oil. However, as these Sunni regimes fell and America began supporting the people of the countries rather than the overthrown regimes, other countries with authoritarian Sunni leadership in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain became wary of Washington as a reliable partner. Not to mention all of this is occurring while the United States is embroiled in a heated election cycle itself, which is perpetuating the idea that Washington is distracted and can’t be relied upon.

Saudis are now looking for possible ways that a new Sunni movement can exist independent of Washington in an effort to protect themselves. In theory, they are looking to loosen ties with American without being anti-American. As part of a new Sunni movement, Egypt, under the possible leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, could play an important part (although there has historically been tension between the Saudis and the Brotherhood as well). However, Egypt has its own issues with a run-off election coming up between candidates representing the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and the autocratic military power that characterized the Mubarak regime, but without Mubarak of course, on the other.

So where does that leave all of this? In extremely oversimplified terms, there’s a two-sided struggle emerging with the remaining autocratic Sunni leaders, Egypt under the Brotherhood (possibly), Hamas, Jordan, and the Gulf (all moving away from America toward other rising powers) on one side, against Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and Lebanon (sort of) on the other. Again, this is totally oversimplified and my very basic understanding of this issue from our lecture today that I’m still trying to piece together. But from what I understand, the next big battle to be played out is over Syria in trying to determine who will replace the minority Assad regime and where the country is headed. This is especially of interest in light of the current political climate in Syria and the massacres occurring there. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are forming a sort of Sunni coalition to keep Iran in check throughout all of this as well.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this entire thing is one big mess and that everybody is kind of unsure about how to explain the different relationships and conflicts, and how to track the trajectory of this revolutionary period. I can tell you that I am top of the list of people who are unsure about how to process and understand all of this information, and I expressed that to Mark who assured me that this was complicated and would take time. Jake has been amazing too in helping me to understand this (as Israel and Palestine are really where my strengths and knowledge lie). And so I will keep moving forward with my commitment to read and research more about the Arab Spring to become less ignorant and more informed. And as soon as I can understand it, I will provide you with a summary of these understandings in a more coherent manner.

Anyway, after our lecture, we hopped on the bus to Abu Dhabi at a little after 11:00 AM. At first, Mark, Jake, and I were still talking about the Arab Spring and the many complicated pieces within it, but after about 45 minutes my head felt like it was going to spin off its axis, and so I decided to let it rest for the day, come back to it a little later for reflection and discussion, and take a nap for the rest of the ride. When I woke up, we were just pulling into Masdar City in Abu Dhabi where we met with Gian Vergnetti, an independent researcher with the Fulbright Program who is studying the sustainable technology initiative at the Masdar Institute. Gian is a friend of Rahilla Zafar’s (remember Rahilla from Washington, DC?), and so we were all looking forward to meeting up with him for lunch at Sumo Sushi!

Immediately upon pulling into Masdar City, I knew that this was no ordinary city neighborhood. On the contrary, it looked like something out of Star Wars. Everything was futuristic and high tech with crazy but beautiful architecture, a giant wind tower/tunnel in the middle of the entire complex, and directional signs pointing to buildings like “Institute Laboratories” and “Knowledge Center.” It also sort of popped up out of nowhere – a high tech hub in the middle of the desert.

Gian couldn’t have been nicer and we had a fantastic afternoon with him. Specifically, Gian is looking into water management in the UAE and examining different desalinization methods in an effort to make the country more sustainable. He shared some information with us about Masdar (the parent company of all the many component pieces I’m about to introduce) and the Masdar Institute, which is a fascinating project. The Institute invites people from all over the world to work and research for the company while simultaneously earning their Masters or PhD on a full scholarship. The academics are run under the guidance and support of MIT. Essentially, according to Gian, Masdar had created a “nucleus for study in advanced energy science and sustainable technology.”

Aside from talking to us about Masdar and his research there, Gian answered some of our questions about the sociopolitical development of the UAE. We talked about the place that Emiratis hold in society and, despite their comparatively small number, they represent an extremely important and influential part of the population. They way I understand it, the statistics that place foreign nationals in such high numbers over the Emirati population are simply circumstances of the developing nature of the country as it continues to become a major player in global economics and business. As Gian shared with us, every Emirati he has met has shared the same basic appreciation for their background and where they came from as Emiratis. They are proud people with an air of kindness and tolerance about them that is reflected in the developmental miracle of their country and the amazing boom that it has experienced over the past few years. Again, this view is from somebody who is part of the foreign national population and not Emirati, so I don’t know exactly what an Emirati point of view on their place in society when compared with foreign nationals might be. But it’s certainly interesting to consider in a country with a demographic make-up as interesting as the UAE’s.

After lunch (Mark and I shared the Chef’s Special sushi combo – yum!), we headed into the Masdar complex to check out all of the incredible things that they were doing. And that’s really the only way I can describe it – incredible. It’s hard to believe that the entire Masdar project was only started in 2006. In six years, Masdar has created a new world in Masdar City surrounding sustainable living and energy research with academic, commercial, and residential interests. The idea behind the entire project was to make a destination that people want to experience and live in. And that’s exactly what Masdar has accomplished, in my opinion, because it is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Gian showed us all around the campus and we were all wowed by the brand new classrooms and laboratories (in which Mark felt the need to pull every single lever – I swear he almost activated the emergency shower on himself). We got a chance to see all of the amazing research projects they’re working on for sustainable energy in a variety of fields from mechanical engineering to economic and business development. They are clearly doing important, impactful research at Masdar, and it was absolutely fantastic to get to experience first hand the things that they were working on. Not to mention the physical sight of the whole campus. If the exterior architecture of all the buildings wasn’t interesting enough, the amazing, futuristic interior of the building was awesome. The Knowledge Center (a fancy way for saying the “library”) has a double helix shaped spiral staircase; it was like a science nerd’s dream come true!

But by far the coolest part of our visit to the Masdar was getting a chance to ride in their Personal Rapid Transit system. Imagine a small pod with nothing but four seats and a computer screen that at the touch of the button will drive you to the destination of your choice. The PRT system at Masdar City currently only runs between two spots: one of the main parking lots and the main building at the institute. These driverless cars follow magnetic paint in the ground and so do not need a driver to direct them. They just take you to your destination, giving you time to relax a long the way with some friends. The idea behind the PRT is that it eventually will be a sustainable (and frankly, more enjoyable) alternative to public transportation. The pods get recharged at their home stations and don’t require any gas. They were also just SO much fun to ride around in. I felt like I was in the middle of some futuristic society or Star Wars again, but this is just one example of the amazing things that make up life at Masdar. It was absolutely fantastic.

We said goodbye to Gian and Masdar after our ride to our bus in the PRT and headed off to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Named after the first President of the UAE (who served from the country’s founding in 1971 to his death in 2004) and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque is an impressive, colossal sight that is completely different from the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque that we visited in Oman. The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was significantly larger and more ornate than in Oman. There’s no denying that it was spectacular and breathtaking. From the Moroccan-style interior and Indian-style exterior architecture to the in-laid colored stones from around the world, stunning Greek marble, gold-capped columns in the shape of palm fronds, and the unbelievable German chandeliers, every single detail was clearly taken into account when building this Mosque to make it as grand, impressive, and beautiful as possible. And those are exactly the traits that I would use to describe it – grand, impressive, and beautiful.

There’s something kind of fitting about the fact that the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was built from pieces and inspiration that come from cultures and places other than the Emirates. After all, the country’s Emirati population only makes up a small minority of the country’s entire population. But at the same time, I almost felt that there were too many foreign pieces in the Mosque, and not enough Emirati influence on its own. Of course, the grounds were absolutely stunning. And I think that the Mosque is a very appropriate representation of the relationship between Islam and the UAE. (By that I mean that as the UAE develops more and becomes a wealthier nation, its relationship with Islam needs to adjust accordingly. The physical beauty of the Mosque, a key feature and symbol of Islam, and the many foreign components that comprise it reflect the growing wealth of the nation and a possible need to display that wealth.) However, to me at least, it did not feel as personal or as intimate as the Grand Mosque in Oman. Perhaps that’s because it was filled with tourists, unlike the one in Oman. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t have as in depth a conversation about Islam and the country with our tour guide in Abu Dhabi like we did in Oman. While it was absolutely beautiful, and I love that we got the chance to see such an amazing sight, I just felt that it was more of a tourist destination than a place of worship. Of course, both of those things are true: it is both a tourist’s destination and a place of worship. But it definitely was a different and interesting experience.

We left the Grand Mosque at around 5:45 PM to head back to Dubai. I was absolutely exhausted by the time we got to the bus, but some of the other people in the group were full of energy. That’s pretty typical for us: we all hit various high-points and low-points in our energy that don’t necessarily match up with each other, but that’s totally okay. I listened to some music on the way back before we stopped at a gas station along the road to pick up some water and change some money over to UAE Dirhams. We got a really great exchange rate again at 1 USD to 3.65 Dirhams, and I was even able to turn over a little extra money from Oman that I had (but of course, I kept an Omani Rial for myself!). This wasn’t an ordinary gas station – they had every fast food joint that you could imagine from Domino’s to Popeye’s. I didn’t even know they had Popeye’s in the UAE, but apparently they do! We stopped in the small store at the station to pick up a few things. I love visiting gas stations and their stores in other countries because I think it’s a really interesting window into foreign cultures and their purchasing habits. After the gas station, we got back on the bus and drove straight to Dubai, where we finally arrived back at the hotel at around 8:15 PM.

We had already decided by the time we got back that we were going to have dinner at the award-winning Indian restaurant in the hotel. I enjoy Indian food, but I don’t really know how to order and what to get as I don’t have it frequently. Luckily, Shareen made some recommendation and Aaron ordered appetizers, and it was a really fun evening. We were laughing the whole night with Mark cracking jokes and finally singing happy birthday to Dillon (who has earned the new name “Phil” from the group), whose birthday was the day before. Despite the fact that we were all exhausted, the food was yummy, the company was great, and it was a nice evening.

After dinner was said and done, I came back to the room and, per usual, started writing and relaxing with the guys. I’ll be uploading pictures from the Mosque soon, too! Well, that’s all for now. We have a busy day of shopping in Dubai ahead of us and you know I’m always down for a trip to one of the largest malls in the world. It’s sure to be a sight unlike any other we’ve seen in the Middle East so far, and I promise to keep you posted!

Safe Travels! – Jake

NOTE: This entry was posted on the evening of June 9, 2012 but recounts the events of June 8, 2012. The delayed posting is due to me needing to add in a few more portions of the entry and review it before I posted it, and I was just way too tired last night to finish it. I hope you enjoyed it anyway!

Photos are Live!

Fantastic news! Photos are now live on Meiner in the Middle! Click on any picture under “2012 Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project” on the left to view my Flickr with all the pictures from my travels so far! Over the next view days, I’ll be adding captions to all the pictures with their matching location. And of course, I’ll update the gallery as often as I can!

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 6, 2012: Nizwa, Oman, Muscat, Oman, and Dubai, UAE

Hello from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a city incredibly different from the country and cities we just left in Oman (but more on that later)! These past two days have been rather quiet for us, mostly in preparation for a busy several days ahead of us in the UAE and Israel. It’s around 10:00 PM here in Dubai and we only arrived at about 4:00 PM, so we’re still getting adjusted to the change in scenery. Tomorrow we have a busy day ahead of us with a day trip to Abu Dhabi, but for now we’re just relaxing in the hotel. But anyway, let’s rewind a little bit to the morning of June 6, 2012…

We woke up at 8:30 AM (per usual at this point), but I didn’t get too much sleep because I was up so late blogging and then thinking about the blog and writing after I finished. I probably got a little under five hours of sleep, but like I said earlier, the lack of sleep doesn’t really bother me and I keep pushing through our busy days no matter what because of how much I love and enjoy what we’re doing. We met the rest of the group, including Amanda and Brian of course, in the hotel lobby for a nice breakfast at 9:00 AM with our backpacks in tow for the trip back down the mountain to Muscat via Nizwa. I had my standard mix omelette for breakfast (pretty much everyday they’ve offered us the same choice of eggs and the mix omelette is always the best with tomatoes, peppers, and onions) with a cup of coffee from the french press and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. I’ve got to say – I really have loved having so much fresh food and that all the juices here are fresh squeezed. Yum. Breakfast was filled per usual with laughter, Mark and Aaron’s typical kidding around with each other and making all of us laugh until we nearly cry, and side conversations with Mark about Israel and Palestine and with Brian about Afghanistan (where he used to do some work with the Marines) and, of course, Oman.

Once we had finished breakfast, Amanda prepped us all for our tour around the small, beautiful villages of Jabal Akhdar. We left our backpacks in the car taking nothing but our sunglasses and cameras (and unfortunately leaving behind out water bottles), and we were off! We spent the next two (or slightly more) hours taking in the beautiful scenery of the Oman mountainside which was absolutely spectacular. I talked about our drive up to Nizwa and the mountains already as taking my breath away with its sheer natural beauty, but looking down into what is referred to as the “Omani Grand Canyon” was an entirely new level of beautiful.

Not to mention how fantastic it was to walk around and even into some of the small villages perched high in the mountains, such as Al Aqr and Al Ayn. The villages weren’t big or impressive; in fact, they were quite the opposite. But there was immense beauty in their simplicity. It was hard to believe that in a country as oppressively hot as Oman (where we experienced daily high temperatures of near 42˚C), such amazing greenery and flora could be present. Granted, the mountains are almost always over ten degrees cooler than Muscat this time of year, but still there were beautiful grape vines, walnut trees, corn stalks, and grass. You would hardly believe that you were in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. But there we were, surrounded by the sound of goats and laughing with each other over the ridiculousness of the entire situation: here we were, hiking in dress shoes (seriously though, I was wearing khakis and loafers) in the middle of Oman. It doesn’t get more random or more fantastic than that.

Several times throughout our walk we encountered some of the people who live in these small villages. While our meetings were brief, they always involved a quick smile between everyone, rapid-fire exchanges of “Salaam Alaykum,” and an overwhelming feeling that no matter where we went, we’d be safe. We even had to cross through one man’s gate to get through a village, and he let us right through without hesitation or concern. I’m not sure if this would happen in anywhere but a place like Oman, but I can say that it was really refreshing to see how trusting everyone seemed to be. For much of our hike, we walked along an old “falaj” or an irrigation system built right into the side of the mountain to bring water to the small villages. At one point, we followed it all the way to a beautiful hidden pond with brilliant blue water. Only a few moments later, we encountered a girl washing some clothing in a portion of the falaj designated for this activity. It was quite amazing to see how they lived up here, so far away, it seemed, from the city life of Oman.

After about two hours, we were out of the small amount of water we had and simply exhausted from the long hike. Luckily, we were only about a 15-minute walk away from our hotel, so we just continued trekking on until we got back to the Sahab Hotel in Jabal Akhdar at around 1:00 PM. We quickly shoveled some lunch down our throats (more lemon-mint frosted juice for me with the “Mickey’s Munchies” lunch special – chicken nuggets and fries; I know it’s uncharacteristic but I was craving them!) before our 1:30 ride back down the mountain. We divvied back up into our two cars but switched around a bit; this time, I rode down with Mark, Talene, and Sundus with Amanda driving.

Right as we started getting into the car, Talene, Sundus, and I started talking about Judaism and my background as a Reform Jew. I shared with them the story of my Jewish journey and why Reform Judaism was so important to me. I explained my belief in “Choice Through Knowledge,” as promulgated by the Reform movement – that it is my responsibility as a Reform Jew to learn as much as I can about my religion and only then can I make informed choices about how I will live my individual life Jewishly. I explained that this concept is the basis for why I choose not to keep kosher but why I also feel such a strong connection to Jewish education and youth engagement. Talene, an Armenian Orthodox Christian, was curious about messianic Jews as well and how they fit into the equation of it all. It was at that point that Mark suggested that I discuss conversion, who counts as Jew, and my thoughts on Israel as a Reform Jew as a context for discussing some of Talene’s questions. I explained as much as I could about who counts as a Jew in my eyes and how that differs for the state of Israel, what that means for use of the Right of Return in Israel, and how my Reform Judaism has shaped my views on Israel.

I believe that a conversion to Judaism, performed by a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist clergy member should count as full and acceptable conversion regardless of the denomination of Judaism of which the convert chooses to be a part. A person’s Judaism is just that: their OWN personal Judaism. If they are making the commitment to the religion to convert, then nobody should tell them that they are not Jewish. But this is what’s happening to some extent in Israel, where Orthodox conversions are the only ones viewed as valid and acceptable for a convert to Judaism to be considered Jewish. Thus, only someone who is converted by Orthodox clergy can take advantage of the Right of Return, or the right to claim citizenship in Israel. This simply runs counter to my beliefs as a Reform Jew. And this doesn’t even begin to address the question of matrilineal and patrilineal descent of Judaism (in case you were wondering or couldn’t figure it out from the views I just expressed, I believe that both should count as valid ways of “receiving” your Judaism).

In terms of Israel, I grew up learning and developing a love for and appreciation of the modern State of Israel. My support of Israel is core to my identity as a Reform Jew. I never was told that I should not support a Palestinian state in Israel. I was never told that it didn’t have a right to exist. It just wasn’t really addressed. The Palestinians were, of course, acknowledged as a people who play in important role in the developmental trajectory and politics of Israel, but never was I told what to believe about them. In my Reform Jewish education, I learned about Judaism and the State of Israel as they pertained to my life at the time. But I also learned that as a Reform Jew, it is my responsibility to learn as much as I can and only then make an educated decision about my views and beliefs. And so when I started studying the Middle East, I did so with an open mind, hoping to learn the parts of the story that I didn’t know before (not because these parts of the story were shielded from me, but rather because they simply weren’t really in the curriculum). I’m still forming my beliefs today, because I can’t definitively say that I know everything I can to reach a decision on my views. I know that I believe that the Palestinians are a people who have a claim to the land just as the Israelis do. I think that a two-state solution can work. I have to believe that to have hope for the future of the State of Israel which I have grown to love and appreciate since I was a small kid. I believe that we can find peace some day. At least I hope that we can. And I still don’t have the answers. And I don’t know when I will. But I’m on the road to figuring it out. I know that along the way, I’ll be able to pick up the right knowledge to come to the right decision on my views. But for now I’m happy learning as much as I can and mending and shifting my views regularly.

I didn’t really know enough about messianic Jews to be able to answer Talene’s questions, but Mark was able to help me out a little there. I told Talene that I wanted to talk to her about Armenian Orthodox Christianity at some point over the next few days too because I don’t really know anything about it all. But I’m glad we had the conversation. It’s a starting point. And Talene (and Sundus!) couldn’t have been more accepting and open-minded about my views and opinions. I’m excited to hear theirs over the next few days too.

We finally got back to Nizwa, said our goodbyes to Amanda and Brian, and hopped back in our Baisa Bus for the ride back down to Muscat. This bus ride was much more lighthearted than my previous one (although both definitely were fantastic and I’m glad that they happened), sharing popcorn, telling our life stories, and just laughing together, per usual. Great bonding time. Once we got back to Al-Qurum Resort and checked back into our hotel rooms at around 5:30 PM, we had about an hour and a half of free time before our dinner plans. All six of us had been dying to spend some time on the beach behind our hotel, and so we quickly threw on bathing suits (first time outside in clothing that wasn’t khakis and a button-down!), grabbed hats, towels, and cameras, and ran outside in the blazing sun and heat to the beach. We could not get into the beautiful water fast enough – and it was fantastic! Perfectly warm, gentle waves, and a lot of fun splashing around and swimming out to sea.

Talene and I couldn’t get over how crazy the whole thing was. Here was a group of six college students who had hardly met each other only five days earlier, and now we were swimming together and laughing like six people who had known each other for years in the middle of the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea. I repeat: we were swimming in the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea! When’s the next time I’m going to get to say that one? It was just a fantastic experience.

Our time in the ocean, albeit fantastically fun, was short-lived because we needed to go back upstairs and change in time for our dinner plans. None of us really knew what we were doing for dinner except that Maggie had arranged for her friends Professor and Mrs. Nick Woodhouse to take us out to their beach club for the evening and to dress “smart casual.” We got dressed, headed down to the lobby to meet up with Maggie and her husband Bill, and were confronted with a small issue: our Baisa Bus driver was caught in horrible traffic and wouldn’t be able to get us in time to get to the club. Maggie had her car, but only half of us could fit there. None of it seemed to faze Maggie, though, who (as if it were no big deal at all) flagged down two Omani men who were driving around in an SUV and asked if they wouldn’t mind taking a few people in the group over to the club. That’s Oman for you; you can pretty much just trust to random Omani men in a white SUV with your life. The group split up (I went with Maggie and Bill), and we all converged at the club right on the beach. The club turned out to be a sort of invitation-only government club, so it was quite beautiful. They had a fantastic spread of salads and kebabs that we could get barbecued fresh. After a fantastic place of assorted Middle Eastern salads, I had unbelievable kofta, a kind of minced lamb kebab, and some prawns and saffron chicken. Yum! We owe Professor Nick Woodhouse and his wife Cheryl a debt of gratitude for their kindness and hospitality toward all of us. It truly was an interesting and fun evening.

Professor Nick Woodhouse is a professor of endocrinology and medicine at the Sultan Qaboos University who has been in the country with his wife, Cheryl, for almost as long as Maggie and Bill. We chatted a bit about American politics (our views on universal healthcare, including both the Obama and Clinton plans – I knew that reading Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton would come in handy some day!), talked about endocrinology (he was fascinated to hear that I was so familiar with the specialty; I guess it’s hard not to be when you’ve seen an endocrinologist regularly since you were eight years old), and talked about our time in Oman, our love of the country, and the role of British involvement there.

Which brings me to a rather interesting issue: the role of ex-pats in Omani society. There is quite a sizable population of ex-pats in Oman, many of whom are British. The country is definitely influenced by British thinking and its past involvement with the UK (see: Omani history), so it’s amazing to see what an active role in the community the ex-pats still have. In some ways, you might say that British involvement within the country is still strong, but from an extremely different angle. The ex-pats are proud to live in Oman and are clearly very active in the politics and elite social scene of Oman. Of those I had the pleasure of meeting, they are some of the most well-connected people I’ve ever encountered, especially Maggie, who joked (but were half-serious) knew everybody in the entire Sultanate of Oman! And one thing’s for sure: our trip to Oman would have been completely different, if not non-existent, without the help and support of the ex-pats there. It is because of this that I think it is important to note (partially from an academic perspective) that many of our opinions of Oman and how we viewed the country were shaped by the many ex-pats we met. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, just something to note: in many ways we were experiencing Oman through the lens of the ex-pat community. Of course, when we were in Nizwa, we had the chance to speak with true Omanis who had grown up in the country and were, for the most part, representative of the country’s population at large. We met with amazing government officials and speakers who were Omani to the core and could also, in their own way, represent the country. And of course, I think that the ex-pats are an extremely valuable part of Omani society and I am eternally grateful to them for showing us such hospitality, especially to Maggie for helping to make this experience so meaningful and memorable. It’s just something to keep in mind as you read all of this.

Maggie and I chatted a bit about Omani history as well and both agree that it’s trajectory is definitely a unique one. At some point, perhaps I’ll post a book review I wrote for my Middle East Through Many Lenses class on Mandana Limbert’s In the Time of Oil to give you a better sense of Omani history as seen from a very specific angle. We also talked about the Omani succession crisis that I’ve already mentioned and how we thought it might pan out over the next several years. I’m really unsure of what Oman’s future will look like exactly (as I think many people are), but Maggie and I both agreed that Sultan was ahead of his people in terms of the developmental trajectory of the nation. I’ve already discussed how the Sultan is helping to shift the country’s political culture more and more every day, perhaps even toward an eventual Constitutional Monarchy. I think that Sultan might be more ready than his people are to see that happen. Like I said, I really don’t know how it will pan out, but it’s certainly fascinating to think about.

At the end of dinner, we still didn’t have a way back to the hotel, so Maggie managed to talk three Jordanian men at the club to talk half of us back, and this time Mark, Jake, and I all volunteered to take the guest ride. In fact, Maggie thought it would be a good idea for the three of us to be able to spend a little time with them – and I definitely agree! We had a lovely ride back to the Al-Qurum Resort with the men who talked to us about their jobs at an airline, their lives in Oman and Jordan, and asked us about our time and where we were from as well. It was definitely quite an experience, one that I probably never would have in the States!

When we got back to the hotel, Jake, Dillon, and I just relaxed a bit in the room and packed up our bags to get ready to depart from Oman. Shereen (on of the three girls from Hopkins) came over for a bit to talk about our dinner and the ex-pats in Oman. Because we were all so tired from the long day of hiking and talking, we went to bed right away after finishing our packing.

We had to be up early this morning (June 7, 2012) for a breakfast meeting at 9:00 AM that had been rescheduled from the day before. We met over coffee, croissants, and eggs with Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Salmi. Dr. Al-Salmi works for the Ministry of Affairs in Oman and is a leading expert on Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East. In many ways, meeting with Dr. Al-Salmi at the end of our stay in Oman was a perfect bookend for our time in the country; our first visit in the country was to the Grand Mosque where we also talked about Islam and tolerance of others faiths.

Dr. Al-Salmi had some very interesting things to say about diversity of religion and interfaith dialogue and discussion in Oman. He told us that even within the small country of Oman, there is diversity within Islam with Ibadis, Sunnis, and Shias all represented in the population. Interestingly enough, during the medieval period, when Oman’s Port Souhar served as an important “Gate to the Oriental,” there were even Jews in the country (although there aren’t really any in the country any longer).

In my opinion, there is an overwhelming sensitivity to religious tolerance and openness here in Oman. In 1997, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs was renamed the Ministry of Religious Affairs to illustrate this tolerance and understanding and be more understanding. Currently, Dr. Al-Salmi’s big project is a quarterly journal sponsored by the government to discuss interfaith issues and promote interfaith dialogue. Dr. Al-Salmi and the journal seek to present a variety of diverse views and opinions in the many studies and articles in the journal as a means of promoting awareness of other religions. According to him, the mission of the journal is to talk about the relationship between citizenship, diversity, tolerance, tribes, and many other issues in Omani society. I think that journal is a fantastic symbol of Oman’s commitment to tolerance and openness, and I know that I am looking forward to reading it when the next issue is released.

In terms of Islam and Christianity, Dr. Al-Salmi pointed out two major similarities. Both provide their followers with a universal message in their life, and both require a reconciliation between the state and the religion. According to Dr. Al-Salmi, in Middle East countries in particular, many governments and states were afraid of religion in the beginning and so they placed it within government as a way of getting people to support the government rather than speak against it for abandoning religion. Despite this, he said that in his opinion the state is the most important institution (more than religion) because it protects civil rights and the ability to practice religion. In his words, “Justice allows equality and human dignity.” Dr. Al-Salmi was a really kind, fascinating man, and he definitely appealed to my interest in and passion for religion. I’m glad we were able to spend time with him this morning.

After our meeting with Dr. Al-Salmi ended at around 10:30 AM, we headed over to the shopping mall right next door to our hotel to check out their small crafts stores for some Omani trinkets and gifts. I picked up a few cool items (but I won’t reveal what gifts I got and for who!), including a handmade traditional Omani cap that almost all of the Omani men wear! I also made sure to look out for postcards of Oman and ended up buying two – one of the Grand Mosque during the day and one of the Grand Mosque at night. Postcards, as I learned in Professor Sharkey’s class, can be an important illustrations of national symbols and messages, and so I found it very fitting that the two cards I was most drawn to feature Sultan Qaboos’ Grand Mosque, a symbol of both the national religion and the Sultan’s power and wealth. While at the mall, we actually ran into Jane, HE Sheikh Abdulla’s English teacher who we had the incredible lunch with on our first day in Oman! We have been told over and over again throughout our visit that Oman was a very small country, but this accidental run-in proved just how small it really is!

After we were done with shopping, we headed to the Muscat International Airport and said goodbye to Maggie. Again, all the thanks in the world to you, Maggie, for helping to arrange this incredible tour and showing us what a beautiful country Oman is. We checked in for our forty minute flight on Oman Air from Muscat to Dubai and had a bit of time to spare before boarding. Dillon, Shereen and I grabbed a quick lunch at a Dairy Queen/Grill and Chill in the airport (because, come on, how many times can you say you’ve had DQ in Oman?!), where Dillon and Shereen taught me how to read Arabic because I had been desperately trying to figure it out all week. Needless to say, I am now obsessed with going around to every sign in Arabic (which is most signs) and trying to decipher what they say. Of course, I have no idea what it means, but I guess when I start Arabic in the Fall I’ll figure it all out. This is fun in the meantime though!

The flight from Oman to Dubai was even shorter than I expected it to be, so by the time we took off and I started listening to my iPod, we had already practically begun our descent into the Dubai area. The flight wasn’t long, but the American passport control line was painfully slow. They have all different lines in the passport control area: one for GCC Nationals (people who live within the Gulf Cooperation Council territories), one for Americans, one for Diplomats, one for people with “Fast Track” access, and one for other nationalities. The line next to us was filled with people who looked like the easily could’ve been Saudi royalty. I was immediately struck by the wealth that I was seeing around me. A woman completely covered in a black Abaya was carrying a Valentino purse (Talene actually pointed that out to me, in case you were wondering). The thobes that the Arab men were wearing came complete with gorgeous cufflinks. I could tell from the get-go that Dubai was going to be very different from the low-key Oman that we had just experienced.

Once we got through passport control and got everything stamped, we grabbed our luggage and met our bus driver outside who took us to our new home for the next three days – the Sheraton Creek Dubai. Pulling out of the airport, it was amazing how different Dubai looked from Muscat. In Oman, there is a limit to how high the buildings can be (it’s about eight floors, I believe). Here, the limit is the literally the sky. The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, dominates the skyline (although when we first started driving to the hotel, it wasn’t exactly visible over the other building – but that was just our vantage point) which is packed with other glamorous skyscrapers and advertisements. It’s hard to believe that all of this was built up within the last fifty years, but you can’t help but be in awe at how unbelievable the city is. We checked into our hotel, which is completely with three different restaurant (including an award-winning Indian restaurant) and a fountain that pours into a pool that sits right next to the Dubai Creek where yachts and other boats float through and park along the water. Dillon, Jake, and I went up to the room to relax a little before dinner and were in awe at the incredible view of the water and the skyline from our room. You can see the Burj Khalifa, the entire skyline across the creek, and the magnificent boats perfectly right outside our window.

We met up at 6:30 PM to make dinner plans and celebrate Dillon’s birthday with a chocolate cake (I forgot to mention this earlier, but it’s Dillon’s 20th today! Happy birthday, Dillon!). It took us forever to decide where we wanted to go (I guess that’s what happens when you put six high-achieving students who have strong opinions together and tell them to reach a consensus), but finally we decided on a restaurant called “boulvard” that was a short walk a way in the Radisson Hotel down the street. We ate a delicious meal from the international buffet that they were featuring tonight, including sushi, fresh made naan, roast veal tenderloin, salads, potatoes, chicken, you name it. They also had an incredible desert selection, not to mention the huge chocolate cake that they brought out for Dillon’s birthday! I was stuffed by the end of dinner.

Afterward, we just came back to the hotel to wind down and catch up on our writing. Sundus, Dillion, and Talene went around the neighborhood exploring for a little, but I wanted to get back to blog and get in some down time. We’re all still pretty tired from our busy couple of days in Oman, so we didn’t have anything major planned for this evening. The eight of us did all meet up at around 11:00 though to talk about our plan for tomorrow and just about our experiences going forward. Tomorrow we’ll be reviewing our time in Oman and Mark will be giving us a lecture on the Arab Spring, which I’m really excited for. We all decided that for at least the time being we would all make an effort to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and focus on other issues in the Arab world, as we have talked so much about it already over the past few days. We’ll come back to it when we get a little closer to our trip to Israel thats forthcoming, but for now we have a lot of important other things to discuss.

Tomorrow we’re headed to Abu Dhabi for the day and I’m looking forward to having a chance to see somewhere in the UAE that’s not Dubai. I’m not entirely sure what we’re doing yet as our itinerary here is pretty flexible, but you can bet that I’ll check back in again tomorrow and tell you how it all is. But for now, it’s 2:30 AM and I am going to bed. It’s been a long day of journeying.

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 5, 2012: Nizwa, Oman

Good evening from Jabal Akhdar, Oman, a beautiful mountaintop village about two hours or so away from Muscat! I finished blogging last night super late at around 2:30, so by the time I was ready to go to bed I fell asleep immediately (not to mention I was completely exhausted from our day of dialogue and traveling around). Jake, Dillon, and I woke up at 8:30 AM and had half an hour to pack up all of our stuff to checkout of our first hotel and meet in the restaurant downstairs for breakfast. Although we’re returning to our hotel tomorrow night, we needed to pack up all of our stuff because we traveled to the mountains today and are actually staying at a different resort up here (more on that in a little while).

At around 10:00 AM (a little bit behind schedule partly due to our baisa bus driver who was nowhere to be found), we departed for the University of Nizwa, a private not-for-profit university about an hour and a half away from Muscat. The ride up to Nizwa was actually really beautiful; as we headed away from the city and deeper into the country, we were all struck by the incredible landscape that surrounded us. Beautiful mountains surrounded us on every side as we made the trek to the University, and we spent the entire ride laughing per usual. Jake was still exhausted from the night before (more on our absurd schedule later) that he kept falling in and out of half-sleep on my knee (cue the cameras for adorable yet slightly absurd pictures of the scene).

When we arrived at the University, we were greeted by Amanda and Gus, two ex-pats from Philadelphia who both teach there and are friends of Maggie. Amanda teaches Spanish and English while her husband Gus teaches literature and communication studies. They brought us to the “Male Cafeteria” (a little off-putting to see two different cafeterias for men and women, but as we toured around the university more it became apparent that there women’s and men’s entrances to libraries and other building as well; only classrooms, interesting enough, held men and women students together) where we were to have lunch with a group of students from the University.

And what a fantastic lunch it was! The six of us decided not to sit next to each other at Maggie’s suggestion so that all of the students from Nizwa would have a chance to intersperse themselves throughout our group to ensure maximum discussion and interaction between the Americans and Omanis. The students who met us for lunch were some of the brightest, kindest, most open-minded people I’ve met (pretty fitting for students in a country as tolerant as Oman). All of them were studying some form of English, be it translation or English education, except one who studied physics. Over an impressive meal of multiple types of meats, chicken, and finish, hummus (yay!), rice, salad, and juices, we all talked about what were studying, our interests, where were from, and the differences and similarities between our universities. The students were extremely excited and glad to hear about how much we all loved Oman, and I was excited to share with them my thoughts on this fantastic country and how thrilled I was to see how welcoming and open everyone here has been. I had a particularly great conversation with a graduating student named Manal who studied English education and had been to the United States once before with Amanda. She wanted to know about how students in the United States pay for their education (she was thrilled to hear about financial aid, work study, and the availability of scholarships) and was even interested in whether or not I knew of any strong masters programs in linguistics in the States because she might want to earn her degree abroad!

Quite possibly my favorite part of lunch was when three of the girls asked me about our forthcoming travel to Israel. I had not fully introduced myself as a Jew, although I had been implying it throughout our conversation and the six of us were introduced as representing the three major Abrahamic faiths, so clearly two of us were Jewish (and it doesn’t take three guesses to figure out which two of us it is). However, I was really excited to discuss Israel with them and relate my time in Oman to our forthcoming visit in Israel. Although they approached the topic somewhat tentatively, they were thrilled to hear how excited I was to translate my experience with the immense tolerance and hospitality in Oman into a useful tool for dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and perhaps assessing ways that Israel, Palestine, and the many other interests in play in the area can adopt more tolerant and accepting dialogue into their negotiations. I explained that as a Jewish guy from New York, I was looking forward to experiencing not only the Israeli and Jewish sides of the discussion, but also learning about Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim views on the conflict and maintaining an open attitude and mind throughout these discussions. They all seemed really excited and happy that I shared these opinions and responses with them, and I’m really glad that we were able to have an open dialogue about Israel (although it was pretty one-sided with just me sharing my views).

After lunch was over, we got a quick tour around the University. First we visited the library, which, again, had separate entrances for men and women. They had a great collection of English books (including Shakespeare, my favorite!) and even the same Macroeconomics textbook that I used this past semester! Jake and I were both kind of surprised to see that in their periodicals section they didn’t have any current international publications like TIME, only those issues from 2011. The girls didn’t seem particularly fazed by it, though. After the library, we visited the science laboratories where we got to see an active chemistry lab studying the decomposition of frankincense, a kind of crystallized sap found on indigenous trees here in Oman, to isolate its component parts using chromatography. The chemistry nerd in me was really excited by this short stop, which kind of made me laugh considering I have sort of given up in chemistry in favor of Middle East Studies, but here we were in the heart of the Middle East in the chemistry lab. As Amy Gutmann might say, it’s all about integrating knowledge! We then visited the English Writing Center where many of the girls worked as tutors before heading to a round-table discussion with all of the students and some of the faculty and administration at Nizwa.

The round-table discussion was a little bit more formal than I would have liked, which I think kind of inhibited our ability to have a completely open and relaxed conversation like the ones we had at lunch. The meeting started with Dr. Talib, Assistant to the Chancellor of the University for External Affairs and Relations, welcoming us to the University of Nizwa and Mark and Aaron explaining who we were, how we were chosen, and why we were all here. We then individually introduced ourselves with our names, hometowns, fields of study and university attended, the part of our trip that most interested us thus far, and what we were most excited about in the coming weeks. After sharing my biographical information, I talked about, once again, how thrilled I was with the tolerance of Oman and how moved I was by its hospitality and welcoming nature, and then shared that I am most excited to return to the States and share more about Oman, a relatively unknown country, with my friends and peers. I strongly feel that Oman is underappreciated and not well known simply because it is not infamous for any reason and it is so peaceful. There is no pressing reason to share information about Oman in the newsreels in the States. I am excited, thus, to teach everyone I can about this beautiful country and share my experiences.

The students then introduced themselves and shared their thoughts on America and their experiences with the States. A common theme among almost all the students was that the media is completely shaping their view of America and in many cases the view that is created is a negative one. They all felt that only experience and time on the ground in the United States could actually provide substantive and correct information, although the thought of traveling abroad to the States is a scary one in some cases because of the negative light in which the States are portrayed in the media. It was really fascinating to hear the Middle Eastern student take on America as gained from the media because in many ways it echoes our thoughts as American students on the Middle East. We both feel that the media is shaping our views on each others’ homes, countries, and regions, and in many cases this view is fear-inspiring, and often wrongfully so. This whole experience with the Ibrahim Project is proof enough that it is experience that matters most.

Almost all of the students and faculty at Nizwa who had traveled to the United States (and there were actually several of them) also mentioned that, “America is not like it is in the movies.” It really struck me how influential Hollywood and film were on the views that these students have about America. It made me think about how I might view America if I only knew about it from the movies and television: the South is exactly like Tara in Gone with the Wind, New York City is just how its pictured in King Kong, Friends, or Maid in Manhattan (credits to Dillon for that one). It’s definitely not the most accurate source of information, and in many ways is a complete exaggeration of American culture, but it’s definitely something interesting to think about.

The University was a fascinating place with over forty-two nationalities represented and a clear pervasive feeling of tolerance throughout the school. Women have immense freedom at Nizwa and in Oman has a whole, as evidenced by the fact that women compose the majority of students at Nizwa and even more so by the fact that the Omani Ambassadors to both the US and the United Nations are women. Despite the reigning opinion on America that comes from the media, Houmid, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee who now teaches at Nizwa, said that was “an advocate of United States education” and that he believed that “Americans want to learn something new and ask questions.” Interestingly though, he also felt that Westerners don’t have relationships with each other the same way that Omanis do. Perhaps this is because of the immense emphasis on community here in Oman that one might not find in the States. Another student who had traveled to the United States shared that felt that her time there was “a beautiful experience.” I’ve got to say, just as the Omani students were anxious to hear about how we liked Oman and were so excited to hear that we did, it was nice to hear that the students at Nizwa appreciated the United States as well, so much so that study abroad to the States is incredibly prevalent in the student body.

Houmid also asked about how we would be translating these experiences to our friends, families, peers, and colleagues at home and what we would be doing with the knowledge that we’ll acquire on this program. Mark spoke a bit about the Impact Plans that all six of us submitted as part of our application and that we all made a commitment to the Ibrahim Family Foundation that we would share our time as ambassadors in the Middle East with everyone we possibly could back home to encourage positive dialogue and discussion about the region. Mark then asked me to talk a little about my blogging and how I felt it would be an important means of sharing my experience. Writing like this is a “first draft of history.” I get to write about history, politics, and culture as I experience it first hand. I hope that each of you reading this is enjoying it as much as I love writing and sharing with all of you. I hope more than anything that you are learning something, too, and that perhaps this blog will encourage you to start a conversation with your own friends and peers about the Middle East. This place is so much more than what you see in the media. It’s culture. It’s experiences. It’s real life. And I’m so glad that you’re coming along for the journey with me.

After our round table discussion, the boys headed off with Gus and the girls with Dr. Talib to sightsee a little bit around the town of Nizwa. We walked around the Nizwa Souk a bit, but unfortunately everything was closed because it was so hot out! Around 120˚F! Luckily, because we were no longer right on the water like in Muscat, the humidity wasn’t horrendous and it didn’t feel quite as bad, but it was still incredibly hot. We saw the outside of the Nizwa Fort, which to be honest I don’t know much about at all (when I get more information on that, I’ll be sure to relay it to you!), and walked some of the streets and alleyways of the town before heading back to the University. We met back up with girls, Amanda, and Brian, Dr. Talib’s son-in-law who also spent the day with us and is a faculty member at the University. Amanda and Brian divvied us up into two SUVs to make the trek up the incredible mountains of Oman to where we are tonight in Jabal Akhdar. As we drove higher and higher up the steep mountainside, the temperature steadily dropped from about 42˚C to 28˚C, which is absolutely the perfect temperature here in Oman.

Right before reaching our hotel, we stopped the car at a beautiful lookout called Diana’s Viewpoint. We parked the car and hiked out on rocks to the most stunning cliff overlooking the mountains, which are sometimes referred to as the “Grand Canyon of Oman.” It truly was a breathtaking sight, and I could not have been more in awe of the beauty, wonder, and natural diversity of this place. We have experienced two shockingly different environments, from the seashore to the mountains, with two very different temperature zones and different vegetation and surroundings. And every inch of it has been beautiful. Of course, this short stop turned into a fifteen-minute long picture-taking session (don’t worry – I promise that pictures will be up soon once I have a little more time!).

Once we finished with that, we drove around the corner to the Sahab Hotel where we are currently staying tonight. We arrived at 7:30 PM, took an hour to just relax and lay low for a little, and then all met up for dinner at the hotel at 8:30 PM. I ate quite possibly the most incredible lamb chops I’ve ever eaten and drank a delicious lemon-mint frosted juice that Brian recommended to me. It was really nice to have Brian with us at dinner who was able to share his experiences in Oman with us about his Omani wife, his time at the University, and his aspirations to join the American foreign service. I’m really rooting for him!  He was able to provide us with a lot of context about the University during our debriefing discussions tonight. Of course, dinner was filled with all the typical laughter that usually accompanies every meal. Jake, Dillon, and I were talking about how amazing it is that we’ve all only known each other for five days. It feels like years. I really love and appreciate everyone that I am traveling with and feel so blessed and lucky to call them friends.

Tonight’s debrief centered on one main topic: where do you draw the line between asking questions you are really interested in learning about and ensuring that you are not offending anyone with your question? Often, we all feel compelled to discuss a certain topic but don’t quite know how best to approach the conversation with out hosts without sounding offensive. For example, Jake and I were both curious about their views on Judaism and Israel. Luckily, the girls I was talking with took the initiative to ask me about our time in Israel. This, however, only came after I had brought up my appreciation for Islam and Oman. But how do you approach sensitive issues like this? In Oman, the topic of succession and the Sultanate is a touchy subject, but one that we all, and especially Mark, want to know more about. But, as Brian said, the Sultan is so loved and respected that nobody really wants to think about or discuss a time when he is not in power. So how do you broach the subject? The answer is still unclear to us, but we all decided that it was incredibly important that we do ask these crucial questions, albeit in the most diplomatic way possible. If we don’t ask these critical questions and solicit responses from real people whose lives these issues effect, then we are shirking our responsibilities as Ibrahim Fellows and ambassadors of understanding and dialogue. Going forward, this is a challenge I think we are willing to take on. After all, it is in the pursuit of important knowledge.

Well, it’s now 3:15 AM. Jake and I were just saying before how absolutely ridiculous our schedule is at any given point in time. We wake up at 8:30 in the morning to start our days, are in back to back meetings and tours all day, don’t end up having dinner until around 9:00 PM and then end up talking as a group until midnight. But even that isn’t the end of the day as Jake, Dillon, and I have ended every single night with at least a two hour writing session. For me tonight, it’s been over three hours just because I had so much to say. But the thing is, despite how crazy our schedule is we are all so deeply exhilarated and passionate about the work we are doing and the experiences that we are having that we are hardly fazed by our busy days. So what if we nod off a little on a car ride in between stops? I just love soaking up every second of this incredible opportunity. I hope you’re enjoying coming along for the ride.

Safe Travels! – Jake

(P.S. Happy birthday to my best friend Adam! I’m sorry I can’t be with you to celebrate, but I’m thinking of you today – June 6, 2012!)