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2 posts from February 2016


Fall 2015


Your New Resident Director Hits the Ground Running!

I cannot describe my excitement when I found out this summer that I was to start my new position as the Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Haifa.  When is my start date? "Immediately, you say?" But that was not really possible with a family reunion in Seattle underway for the next three weeks and quite a few house maintenance projects to be completed before my Seattle house can be back on the rental market.  My scheduled departure to Haifa was already set for September 29 and the earliest I could start my new position was October 1st. The plane took off from Seattle at 7:15 p.m. with one stop scheduled in London and an arrival time in Tel Aviv of 11:45 p.m. on September 30.  By the time I arrived at my home in Haifa and placed my head on the pillow it was 3:00 a.m. on October 1st.  After six hours of deep and restful sleep I woke up at 9:00 a.m. ready to start my first day at work. With the University closed for the Sukkot holidays there was no way I could get the key to the CIEE office on campus and this was the perfect excuse to stay in my pajamas and get to work immediately.  
Nothing more than a cup of coffee was needed to start reading the emails that had already piled up in my newly established CIEE email account. I had one week to plan a meaningful orientation for Fall incoming students and the next few days were a blurry flurry of phone calls and preparation activities. 

Our three day orientation started with a pick up at the airport and it was lucky that all the students arrived within 45 minutes of each other; we were ready to start our orientation by 1:00 p.m. that same day.  During the three days we explored four types of public transportation in Haifa: the Carmelit, the Metronit, Egged buses and Shirut (van service).  We ate falafel sandwiches at the local favorite Falafel HaNasi’ in the Carmel Center and we ate hummus at the legendary Abu Maroun down town. We took a day trip to Rosh Hanikra – Ras al Nakoura to experience how close Lebanon was and we continued to the Sea of Galilee to visit Capernum and Tabgha and then to Akko for a shawermah lunch. The three days also included an afternoon at the beach with dinner at the famous Camel Café and a night time walking tour of downtown Haifa. Most importantly, the orientation involved a formal session to discuss culture, expectations, policies and safety and security.  

On Sunday, after the University of Haifa International School’s (UHIS) campus tour we took a trip to the biggest and cheapest supermarket in the nearby Druze village of Issifya, a ten minute bus ride away where we stocked up on food and some necessary kitchen items. By Monday morning everyone was ready and eager to start the term and in the next sections I will share highlights from  our CIEE activities during this semester. It was a pleasure to spend time with and to get to know our Fall 2015 CIEE cohort and I LOVE my new job!

PictureMaha completed her Ph.D. at the University of Washington in the Interdisciplinary Near and Middle East program in 2008 and received a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Hebrew University’s political science department in 2009/2010.  She is an adjunct lecturer at Haifa University’s International School and a regular lecturer for the overseas programs at the Galilee Institute of International Management. She facilitated Compassionate Listening workshops for international students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies between 2004 and 2008 and continues to facilitate these workshops for various youth groups including the newly opened Eastern Mediterranean International School and the Creativity for Peace, Young Leaders program. She is a Program Leader with the Mastery Foundation where she facilitates leadership empowerment workshops for grassroots leaders from various non-profit organizations in Israel.

An Authentic Olive Harvest 

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October and November are the months for the olive harvest and it all depends on the when the rain comes.  The harvest usually starts after the first heavy rain when the olives are washed and plump. Our students had the opportunity to participate in a genuine olive harvest with the Daghash family, originally from the village of Dir Hannah and owning olive groves between the village of Dir Hannah and the village of Eilaboun where they now live.  The olive harvest for the Arab-Palestinian Israelis who own olive groves is truly a family affair.  Cousins who live in Akko and grandchildren who live in Haifa come to help and some bring their foreign friends to share in this experience.  OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (25)

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What is special about this experience is being out in nature in the beauty of the Galilean rolling hills and seeing miles of olive groves.  There is something very satisfying and a sense of accomplishment as you tie closed one full burlap sack and then another.  I particularly like harvesting by hand straight from the tree and although it is a very slow process it is rhythmic and calming.  Harvesting is physically very demanding and the best part comes when it is time for the lunch break.  A  sheet or blanket is spread under one of the trees and old and young gather to eat the traditional mjaddara lunch with yogurt and salad.  Mjaddara, made of lentils and coarse bulgar, is considered a laborer’s food because it fills you up and the protein gives you energy…..and back to work you go.

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At the end of the day, usually not too late as days are short this time of year, the sacks are counted with pride and then taken to the local olive press to be turned into olive oil.

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Our Three Day Excursion to Jordan

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This excursion gave us the opportunity to get a broader and deeper experience of the Middle East.  The difference in the culture, socio-economic conditions, geographic terrain and infrastructure are apparent as soon as you cross the Northern Sheikh Hussein Bridge.  We were in amazingly good and experienced hands with our guide Abu Yazan who has been working with CIEE in Jordan for well over a decade.

Our first stop was at the Sharhabeel Bin Hassneh Eco Park, ten minutes away from the border crossing.  We started with very informative talk about the benefits and challenges of creating and maintaining such a conservation area and then took a hike up through beautiful scenery to see the water reservoir.

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We could see a Bedouin encampment in the distance and were told about the efforts to enroll the Bedouins into cooperating with the goals of the ecological park and the mutually beneficial agreements that ensure the respect of the park’s boundaries. 

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After the hike and a tour of the cabins where groups come to spend  a night or more we were ready for a makloubeh lunch and a nap on the hour and a half trip into Amman.

That evening we had another gastronomical cultural experience at Beit Sitti in Jabal Al Weibdeh neighborhood of Amman. 

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We donned aprons and learned how to chop cucumber and garlic for the cucumber salad, how to cut the roasted eggplant into tiny pieces for the mutabbal (babaghanouj) and how to make and roll the dough for tiny pitas.  We chopped lots of onions for the traditional musakhan (onions cooked in oil and sumac and spread over flat bread then topped with roasted chicken) and the trick we learned for chopping without tears did not work for all of us.

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The end product was scrumptious including the white orange blossom "coffee" we were served after the meal.

The next morning we were off to meet 12 CIEE students from the Jordan program and to join them for a volunteer project at a Latin Patriarchate School in Amman.  The school yard’s walls were in need of brightening up and with several buckets of paint and rollers, with long arms like I had never seen before, we went to work.

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We were rewarded with a delicious mansaf!….a big mistake as all you want to do after eating mansaf is to take a nap.  We really enjoyed talking to the Jordan CIEE students and learning about their experience there but we had to go and explore Amman with Abu Yazan, and so we did.

He took us on a tour of the Roman Citadel (Al Kal’ah), the Roman Theater (Al Mudarraj) and the souk by foot.

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We made it to the Balad Theatre in time to attend a panel presentation (with earphones for simultaneous English translation) on the topic or the Syrian Refugees in Jordan.  We listened to Daud Kuttab, Director of AmmanNet website and Al-Balad Radio and to Mr. Yusuf  Mansur, Deputy Chief Commissioner of Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority.


The panel was to discuss the newly published Alternative Voices on The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan which challenged the mainstream thinking that the Syrian refugees were a burden on Jordan and contributed to a rising poverty, unemployment and traffic jams. The main thesis of the panel was that the Syrian refugees brought with them invaluable social and economic contributions as did their Iraqi predecessors. 

After the panel we went to dinner the landmark Amman Jafra restaurant and then took a walk down Rainbow Street with its popular cafés and hangouts.  We learned that watching soccer games in local cafés was a popular activity for men and women alike. That night Barcelona was playing Real Madrid and all the rainbow street cafes were filled with patrons.

The next morning we visited UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office in Bayadir Wadi al Seer.  Maha al Rantisi, Chief  of Field Relief and Social Services Program greeted us and gave us a presentation about the status of Palestinian Refugees in Jordan. Dr. Ishtawi Abu Zayed, the Chief of the Field Health Program followed with a thorough power point presentation about the services provided and the challenges and facing the organization and the refugees. This was followed by another presentation about the specific needs and challenges of UNRWA refugees coming from Syria.

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From there we travelled to Jarash, the ancient Greco-Roman city,  some 48 Kilometers north of Amman before heading back to the border crossing and to Haifa.

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Our Overnight Trip to Nazareth just before Christmas

We stayed at the Fauzi Azar Inn, took a guided tour of the Old City, visited the Church of the Annunciation at night and had dinner at Tishreen Restaurant. 


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The next day we had a lecture by Dr. Mahmoud Yazbak, a resident of Nazareth and the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern History in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Haifa.  Professor Yazbak talked about the various historical narratives accompanying the creation of the state of Israel and addressed questions about why Nazareth survived as a big Arab city when many other Palestinian cities did not.

On this cold but beautiful sunny day we meandered through the Christmas market and enjoyed many artisan booths during the market’s last weekend.  We visited the Greek Orthodox Church and returned to the Church of Annunciation to see it again during daylight. 

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Before returning to Haifa we took a short trip to Mount Precipice, the cliff where it is believed that an angry mob tried to throw Jesus off after his proclamation in a Nazareth Synagogue.  What captures you is the 360 degree view of the area overlooking the Jezreel Valley and all the way to  Mount Tabor in the distance.

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And more,

We had an afternoon/evening trip to Tel Aviv where we received a very informative talk and discussion about Israel in the larger context of the Middle East and Global politics. The lecturer is my very favorite Professor Joel Migdal who is the Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies in the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. He is the author of many books and an expert on State and Society relations and Comparative Politics. We were lucky to meet with him as he is here on sabbatical. 

We visited the Halissa Community Center and Beit Magentsa Community Centers, both are branches of the Neve Yossef Community in Haifa. The Halissa Community Center serves the Arab population in Israel while Beit Magentsa services a majority of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. Both serve a low socio economic population in Haifa and we learned about each center’s specific challenges.  This trip helped us broaden our understanding of the mosaic that Israeli society is made of.


“Daddy, what’s Palestine?”

Phifer's picture

Those were her words that rang through the chilly air. Her father’s eyes and mine met, and a small, strained smile appeared on his face. “Well…that’s a bit complicated.” Her young voice pressed onward, “But daddy, are we in another country? Did we cross a border?” “Well, yes, yes we did. Did you not see that we traveled through a wall?”

On Christmas Eve, I had the opportunity to travel to the place where the Christian story began, that little town of Bethlehem so oft sung of. It is now a city, built up and bustling, but hollow. Buildings lie half-finished. Tensions flare up regularly near the Aida Refugee Camp. A weight presses down on all that live here, a similar weight that I see in each of my Palestinian friends.

This weight could be felt in the play called New Middle East I saw in October at a local theatre in Haifa. In the play, a masked man is in the process of burying a woman alive (with real dirt). The entire dialogue is centered on her plaintive cries to know exactly WHY she is being subjected to such a terrible fate. Satisfying answers are never uncovered, and a tragic story of love lost and suffocating pressure rules the day.

That same night, after getting some drinks and food, our motley crew made up of five loud Americans and one Palestinian made its way back to campus. There are security checks at each entrance to the dorms, and we opened the door and began to proceed through as usual. People are almost never stopped. I think in my entire three months at the university, I was told to show my ID two or three times, and only then when the guard was new. However, he told my Arab friend to stop and show her ID. Only her.

This weight can is seen in the scar that marks another close friend’s arm, a scar left by a sound grenade that detonated at her feet. She acquired it a couple years ago at a protest, which was pushing back against the Prawer Plan, a bill that (if passed) would allow for the depopulation and destruction of thirty-five Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert. Dubbed, “Anger Day,” this protest comprised thousands of people, from teens to Knesset members. Obviously, it ended in violence.

I was shocked by it when I saw a monument in a neighborhood not far from the university. On it were emblazoned the words, “Haifa Liberation 1948.” What is disturbing about this phrase is that what is cast as “liberation” to one group is another’s el-Nakba (catastrophe). This disparity in experience and historical lens is staggering.

And, perhaps most plainly, this weight can be tangibly tasted when confronted with The Wall. It is a short walk from where I am currently staying in Bethlehem, standing as stark reminder of the systemic separation that plagues this piece of dirt which I have begun to call “The Unholy Holy Land,” as a result of the, frankly, ungodly actions people perpetrate against each other in the name of God or any other myriad of religious or secular reasons. Graffiti marks The Wall’s surface, which artists from Banksy to unnamed locals have added to the collective voice calling for justice.

I had the unique privilege of spending the summer in the Galilee on an archaeological dig with Dr. Byron McCane of Wofford’s religion department. He is a man that I highly respect and admire, and I am unendingly thankful for his influence and wisdom concerning this land and the many problems that perniciously press on the people, both Jews and Palestinians, that live here. I will never forget his advice as we asked him about how to relate our experiences to people at home that possess stalwart opinions about Israel/Palestine. “Sometimes all I can say is, ‘I have been there, and it is not that simple.’”

It is not simple. The brokenness runs deep. So deep that it takes my breath away at times. People on both sides of the conflict have committed heinous acts of violence, from the burning of a Palestinian family (with their newborn son) alive last summer, to the random stabbings of Jewish civilians going about their daily lives that has characterized life here for the past few months. I could list example upon example of atrocities committed by both sides, all which point to a sobering reality: unless changes are made, the people here will continue to suffer.

However, Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), the story does not end here. I have seen with my own eyes the beauty that still lives in this divided land.

I have seen the lasting ripples that the faith of Kamil and Agnes Shehade, and their life’s work, House of Grace in Haifa, has left on the community at large. Their vision of working to selflessly serve ex-convicts (who are also recovering addicts) as an outpouring of their Christian faith’s mandate to serve the “least of these” has touched the lives of thousands, and given hope to the most hopeless individuals and families.

I see how the House of Grace plods on, faithfully working as the only halfway house for the Israeli Arab population (on request of the government), in the midst of Kamil’s death in 2000 from cancer, governmental threats to cut funding, and the ever-shaky political climate.

I see a Palestinian woman who grew up as a refugee as a result of the creation of the State of Israel who now refuses to pick sides, based on the belief that a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” stance necessarily excludes the other. Instead, she has chosen a path of “compassionate listening,” one that has helped her overcome deep-seated wounds and truly see the humanity behind each “side.”

It was tasted in our inaugural “Arab-American Thanksgiving,” in which the cuisines of the “East” and the “West” (phrases that I generally like to avoid, because they can insinuate a kind of irreconcilability, but for the sake of artistic flair, I will utilize here) met. Pita was defrosted and hummus olive oiled (yes, “olive oiled” is a verb now), pesto pasta with chicken was scarfed, and salata (Arab salad) added some balance to the carbs being consumed. Finally, it was topped off with what I have dubbed the “pecan loaf,” my failed attempt at baking a pie in a toaster oven that, surprisingly, turned out fairly well.

I have also seen this beauty, this hope, in one of my dearest friends here. She has sought out relationships with both internationals and Jews, seeking to share her story and heart with each of them. This quest has put her in places like local salsa dancing nights in Haifa, where she is (as far as I can tell) the only Palestinian present. It has led her to share personal and collective stories and histories about this region with people from every place and walk of life, being faithful to her cause and her people, yet open to listen and answer each difficult question with patience and conviction.

I believe that this kind of embodied engagement, undergirded by humility, is desperately needed in this place at this time. The barriers that exist here are insane: be it from language and cultural differences to the governmental mandatory military service from which Arabs (except Druze, which introduces many new nuances) are exempt. Furthermore, media creates fissures ideologically, and dangerous political discourses heap dry wood and gasoline onto already-blazing flames.

The people here, both Jews and Arabs, do carry a weight. I have experienced a bit of this reality first-hand. It is not pleasant, but it has changed me…for the better, I hope. The lives that have invited me in have taken a piece of my heart, and I have grown to truly love individuals and groups on both sides of this murky conflict.

Therefore, my answer to the questions, “What is Palestine?” or “What is Israel?” is this: people. People with hearts, hopes, dreams, fears, and yearnings for peace. People who enjoy good food, beautiful music, and the company of those they love as much as any of us. People who desire for a safe environment, a home, in which they do not have to worry about rocks or knives when they send their children to school.

I could go on and on. However, I will close with this. Which people do you and I need to strive to see as this: simply people? What kind of change could come if we could look in the eyes of the “other,” be they brown or blue, and see a mirror image of ourselves?

This world will not change in an instant. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be solved in a single moment. However, I posit that something beautiful could come to pass. Let us compose a song. Let us paint a picture. Let us write a story. Let us create beauty, and, hopefully, thereby walk into new measures of shalom, salaam, and peace together.

Phifer Nicholson, Presidential International Scholar at Wofford College, CIEE Haifa Fall 2015