June 1, 2012: Orientation in DC

What a day! It’s just after 9:00 PM here and I’m finally back in my hotel room after a very long and tiring but incredibly interesting day in DC. I can hardly wrap my head around the unbelievable conversations that the six fellows have had since orientation began at around 1:30 PM – and it’s only the first day and we’re still in the States!

Upon arriving at the IIE Headquarters, all of the fellows got a chance to meet one another for a few minutes before we started our first official conversation with Nancy Overholt, an Executive Director at the IIE, who challenged each of us to consider what part of this experience we thought would surprise or impact us most. We all had a few minutes to mull it over before sharing our thoughts aloud.

For me, I think what I am going to be most surprised at and most impacted by is learning about the other sides of the story in the Middle East that I was not taught growing up as a Reform Jew in metropolitan New York. Until I started my education Penn, I had only ever appreciated and understood one side of the Middle East story. By story, I mean anything directly related to the region including the Israel-Palestinian conflict, defense, foreign affairs, etc. I am only just beginning to understand the many intricacies and differing opinions and viewpoints that comprise the entire picture of the modern Middle East. For this reason, I am extremely excited (and maybe even a little anxious) to visit the West Bank in a couple of weeks. Having visited Israel twice, I feel comfortable with my knowledge of the Israeli and Jewish side of the story, but have never really been exposed to Palestinian opinions or politics. As I shared the answer out loud, however, Nancy Overholt pointed out a flaw in my response. I had unintentionally said that I had “learned one side of the story, but not the other.” Immediately, I understood what she was saying. There are not two sides to this story. There are many. Even within the Israeli “side” of the so-called “Arab-Israeli Conflict” or “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (more on that distinction later), there is not agreement. There is an entire spectrum of opinions and beliefs, all of which intertwine and interact to form just one small piece of the modern Middle East story. The same is true of the Palestinian “side.” I’m glad that she brought it up; it really makes you think about just how big the “Middle East question” is. Where do we even begin? If I find the answer to that one out, I’ll let you know.

Afterward, we had a phone call with our sponsor S.A. Ibrahim who wished us safe journeys and expressed his hope for our generation and leaders like the six of us who would help to restore prospects for peace and answer some of the difficult questions like the one that I just posed above. Hearing him speak about his trust in and belief in us really put this entire program in perspective for me. People like the six of us really can make a difference and bring about change. It’s experiences like this that will provide us with the proper tools to do it.

Next up was the always fun Insurance Briefing (glad we’re covered for basically anything medical or security related that could ever occur – thanks, IIE!), and afterwards we received a visit from Dr. Allan Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education. He had some amazing information for us about his upcoming trip to Iraq, his past work in the Middle East, and, what interested me most, his work in identifying and honoring cooperative action between Palestinians and Israelis. The IIE grants an award each year for an Israeli and a Palestinian who working together on achieving peace in the region. He told us the story of an Israeli military general and a Palestinian liberation fighter who created a textbook together that told both the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the history of Israel from 1947-present and allowed students to write their own understanding of the events as they read about each side. Truly amazing work.

Dr. Allan Goodman spoke with Mark Rosenblum, our faculty member, at length with us, and after leaving, Professor Rosenblum continued to talk with us about his own views on the region, albeit briefly as tomorrow we will be having an hourlong lecture from him to start off our journey. One of my favorite quotes from the day came from him at this point in the day: “Deeper political analysis does not lead to deeper political paralysis.” Great food for thought. By analyzing, studying, and learning experientially, we are not heading toward political gridlock. Rather, we are pushing toward the future and change.

Our last speaker of the day was Akram Elias, President of Capital Communications Group, Inc., who provided us with our Cultural Intelligence briefing (for Akram Elias’ full bio, visit http://www.capcomgroup.com/akram-r-elias/). Cultural intelligence is a deeply fascinating topic. As explained by Akram, it is the ability to process cultural information and develop the intelligence to know how to respond, analyze, and behave appropriately. It’s not enough to simply know about another culture; instead, you must gain the proper cultural intelligence to appreciate that culture and lifestyle completely. In only one hour, Akram was able to provide us with a basic understanding of the religious background to our visits in Oman and the UAE, including an analysis of the differences between the two major branches of Islam and how these differences affect the region politically, economically, ideologically, and religiously. He even discussed the Fatamids with us – a flashback to my Intro the Middle East class this past semester with Professor Paul M. Cobb! Jake (the other Penn student) and I were so thrilled when Akram mentioned the Fatimids that Akram noticed and asked why were so visibly excited. Jake took the same class that I did a year before me and so we both appreciated the flashback to that class (which both of us loved). In addition, he gave us some fun travel pointers to keep in mind (i.e. Israelis are loud and animated, don’t show the soles of your shoes in Oman or the UAE, etc.)!

Probably my favorite part of the briefing with Akram was his explanation of the Israeli-Palestine problem. His interpretation was extremely unique and I have never heard anything quite like it. According to Akram, the concept of Palestinian Nationalism is incredibly new, only coming to the forefront in 1987 with the rise of the Intifada. While some might argue that the birth of the PLO in 1964 was the first sign of Palestinian nationalism, Akram thinks otherwise (and I must say that I think his argument is pretty interesting). The PLO was an umbrella organization that was backed by other Arab government, and so the nationalism that was promulgated by it was not Palestinian but rather Arab Nationalism. Arab Nationalism, in turn, first began in the nineteenth century by not Muslim Arabs but rather Christian Arabs during the time of the Ottoman Empire in an effort to resist “Turkification” (or the creation of a distinct Turkish identity throughout the Ottoman Empire). Arab Nationalism, thus, was not specific to any one religion (interesting, right?). Anyway, by this logic, from 1947-1967, the conflict in Israel was not an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but rather an Arab-Israeli Conflict. Not until 1987 and the Intifada did it become a true Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

After Akram left, Mark was quick to point out just how unique Akram’s interpretation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was. Akram’s interpretation, Mark argued, ignored the power and importance of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy vs. secularism throughout the growth and development of Zionism in Israel. Most explanations of the conflict look to this as a key piece in the development of the conflict. After all, the State of Israel might not have ever actually become a realization unless David Ben-Gurion (you all knew I would manage to fit him in here at some point) struck a deal with the ultra-Orthodox regarding their right to oversee life cycle events, etc. This is just one small example of the many differing opinions and views that we are going to encounter on this trip.

After our briefing with Akram and some quick commentary from Mark, the seven of us (Mark included!) headed back to the hotel to get some down time before dinner (all of 45 minutes of downtime). We met at 6:45 in the hotel lobby to walk around the block (in the rain – I can’t wait to be in the sun of the Middle East!) to Bobby Van’s for a delicious final dinner in the States. We were joined by Rahilla Zafar, a board member at the Ibrahim Family Foundation and writer/blogger/student at Penn/world traveler (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rahilla-zafar/), and her sister Aqila, who works here in DC lobbying and is a graduate student at Hopkins. Dinner was a lot of fun! The six of us got some great bonding time with each other and with Mark and Aaron Mitich, a staffer at the IIE who will also be joining us on our trip. Lauren Cozzens, who also works for the IIE helped to arrange all the detail of our journey, also joined us for dinner (not to mention that she spent the entire day in orientation with us and the past two days dealing with me and my travel plans on the phone). We ate a lot (yummy gazpacho, amazing filet mignon, creamed spinach, mushrooms in truffle oil – the foodie in me was going absolutely nuts), laughed a lot, and I really enjoyed getting to know everyone a little more. I really loved spending time with Rahilla and Aqila, too. Rahilla told us all about her travels and writing, Aqila shared her experiences working in DC and studying at Hopkins, and we all laughed about ridiculous travel stories and encounters with immigration and customs officers. I’m looking forward to meeting again with Rahilla in the Fall once we’re back in Philly!

And that’s about it for Day 1. I’m absolutely exhausted, my head is still reeling, I’m completely full from dinner, and I couldn’t be more excited about what’s to come. Tomorrow’s a travel and prep day, but I’ll be sure to check in before I leave from DC for Oman! But for now, I’m heading to bed to get some much needed rest.

Safe Travels! – Jake

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