Ibrahim Project, June 1: Orientation in D.C.

This is part of a series of posts on my participation in the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project during June 2012.

Introduction

On June 1, 2012, five other students and I walked into the Institute of International Education knowing few details about how we would spend our two weeks on another continent. The trip had been in its last stages of planning, partly due to the fact that cultural attitudes about time in that part of the world are not nearly as rigid as in the United States. Only two days earlier did we find out that we would not be able to visit Saudi Arabia and thus were traveling to Oman instead (the program coordinators, due to some unforeseen circumstances, could not get us visas into the Kingdom—last year’s group of students were the first to make that trip, and whatever connections it took to make it happen were less successful this time around). So we arrived at the IIE office, eagerly anticipating the revelation of the final itinerary for our travel between the Sultanate of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and the State of Israel.

Aaron Mitich, the program coordinator from IIE who accompanied us on this trip, brought us inside and gave us a few minutes to flip through the program books before starting orientation. The other students scanned the itinerary, pointing out the plans that especially stuck out at them, but I was so overwhelmed by what was in front of me that I could hardly process the details on the page. I haven’t left the North American continent since 1999, when my family last visited Pakistan—so my “international travel” experience consists of summers visiting relatives in Canada. The idea that I would finally get to see more of the world was too big to process, let alone the specific details, which made it even more real.

The excitement level in the room peaked once we reached the pages pertaining to our time in the Holy Land. Everyone was most excited to go to Israel—our two Jewish students, one of whom is closely involved with J Street U; the Arabic-speaking girl for whom the Ramallah itinerary evoked aural memories of Al-Jazeera’s reports from “Ramallah, Philistine”; two Christian students of political science; and myself, who has watched this conflict closely for years, struggling to find the facts, understand the different narratives, and form my own opinions. The idea of actually being in this place that you have read about, heard about, written about, and spoken about, for so long… It’s hard to describe the feelings it inspires.

Orientation

Back to reality. We were greeted by Nancy Overholt, Executive Director at IIE, who briefed us on the significance of our travels. She asked us all to ponder the most surprising or impactful thing we thought we would see or learn. I myself didn’t really believe anything would surprise me, because I was, of course, expecting something different from the usual—and if you expect it, it’s not going to be surprising. In retrospect, the most “surprising” thing I heard actually came later that same day in D.C., and I still can’t pinpoint which part of the trip was most impactful.

Another student in my group, Jake Meiner, had some different feelings when the question was posed, which prompted Nancy to make an important point. From Jake’s blog:

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 [at] 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?

Nancy also told us that we would be losing our identities as we left the country. At first, I didn’t understand what she meant, assuming that she was just saying we’d be so changed that we wouldn’t be quite the same people as before. But as she explained, I saw an aspect of our travel that I hadn’t considered before—in this new country, we would be less of “individuals,” and instead be “Americans,” representing our country of origin. We were effectively diplomats, and we were going to take part in dialogue that doesn’t usually happen. As the people we’d meet would be our windows into their culture, we were now windows into America. I can say now, after getting to know my fellow students, that they were truly some of the most unique, passionate people I’ve met—and all of us together make up an especially diverse group, which doesn’t quite represent all of the United States, but does represent some of my favorite things about the country. I am happy that this group is the one to take on such a role, and I hope that we left impressions on the Omani, Emirati, Israeli, and Palestinian people that are as positive as the impressions they left on us.

Next, Professor Mark Rosenblum, our group’s Faculty Advisor, spoke to us. Mark is the Director of the Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding at Queens College in the City University of New York. I’m not saying this out of laziness—but just Google him if you want to know more, because there is too much to tell. He founded Americans for Peace Now. He’s worked extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and met with pretty much all of the major figures involved, a fact of which we were always reminded when he’d offer anecdotes about former PLO Chairman and PNA President Yasser Arafat. He’s as wise and insightful as he is goofy and comical; his presence made the trip especially enjoyable, and I’m so thankful that he was the program’s Faculty Advisor this year.

Mark and Aaron, our trip chaperones, grew to love each other (like an old married couple, bickering and all).

We quickly learned that Mark is good at turning wise concepts into catchy phrases. He talked about how people are becoming increasingly discouraged by the lack of traction on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so “old paradigms”—or, in other words, “old paradises”—are in trouble. However, as Mark knows first-hand, once you get involved, it’s hard to “escape” the issue, “unless you want to become an ‘ex.'” Also, addressing the common feeling that, the more you know, the harder it is to take action with certainty, Mark said, “Deeper political analysis does not lead to political paralysis.” In Mark’s view, a better understanding of an issue makes you more inspired to act—and after this trip, I can definitely testify to that.

There was then was a group phone call with one of the two founders of the program, S.A. Ibrahim. In his remarks, he expressed his faith in us and his strong belief that we would be part of a generation that brings peace and understanding. Talking to him framed for me how meaningful this trip would and should be, and I felt, among my gratefulness to S.A. for enabling us to make this journey, a sense of duty to utilize it and fulfill his hopes for a better future.

The President and CEO of IIE, Dr. Allan Goodman, spoke to us last, reaffirming the gravity of our opportunity. He told us, “You will not only see the world differently, but make it differently.” The words speak for themselves.

Finally, it was time for the session that contained what I referred to earlier as “the most surprising thing I heard” throughout the whole trip.

Cultural intelligence briefing

To educate us about the cultural norms of our travel destinations, orientation closed with a presentation by Akram Elias of Capital Communications Group. He not only told us what was or wasn’t acceptable, but he explained the roots of these norms so that we would fully understand them as well as the values they represent. Also, a large part of “cultural intelligence” involves knowledge-processing, and Akram was here to provide us valuable skills to “maximize the acquisition of knowledge” during our visit.

One commonly cited norm: in many Muslim countries it is disrespectful to sit in any way such that the bottom of your foot is facing the person. Akram explained that this is because, in Islam, we are made in the image of the creator, so showing the sole of your dirty shoe is like disrespecting God himself. He highlighted this as an example of the role of religion in these societies; for me, that is a reminder of how much you can learn about a place or its people if you look closely enough. I later saw for myself that, in a place like Dubai, focusing on this somewhat implicit transferral of information can be invaluable.

Now for a bit of comparative political economy. We were going to visit some traditional markets in each country, meaning we’d have to learn the art of bartering. You never barter in the U.S. because of the formal, price-driven market system, but it is extremely common elsewhere. Akram described business here as quite impersonal and focused on competition—whereas, in bartering, individuals look for a win-win situation. For these cultures, human relations and interactions are even more important than the product, and thus business can’t be impersonal.

Of course, we couldn’t have a cultural intelligence briefing for the Middle East without talking explicitly about the religion of Islam, especially the Sunni-Shi’a divide. One interesting thing Akram told us was that, in Sunni Islam, there is not interpretation of the Quran, but rather, explanation, which is called “ishtihad” (ijtihad). The difference would be that you argue, not over the meaning, but instead, over the reasoning behind the given declarations. He said that in the Shi’a tradition, there is both interpretation and ishtihad, which is why polygamy is illegal in the Shi’a Islam. Also, Sunni Islam is more democratic, as there is no hierarchy, no one person to whom you refer—the control is in the individual, which is why the actions of a small number of people cannot speak for the whole group. Akram gave the example of Wahhabism and Salafism in Arabia and Egypt, which is only the ishtihad of a tiny group, but one that has been able to spread its influence aggressively due to their access to oil, and, thus, money. Due to the non-centralized structure of the religion, this group has been able to rise and stand “higher.” Shi’a Islam, however, is hierarchical.

And the whole Sunni vs. Shi’a issue is very sensitive right now, Akram explained, because for the first time in centuries Shi’as have come to power in an Arab country—thanks to the American invasion of Iraq, which gave power to the Shi’a majority there. People in the U.A.E. and other countries often call Shi’as “Iranians,” and many Shi’as have been expelled recently. The conflict has grown, which to Akram is reminiscent of the seriousness of the Protestant-Catholic divide many centuries ago. I liked this reference—having recently taken a course on European history between the Renaissance and the French Revolution, I get frustrated hearing people attribute the problems in this region to the nature of Islam or Muslims, as if Christians did not fight one another relentlessly for centuries beforehand.

Another interesting point: ishtihad is the source of the word “jihad”—which we can clearly see has become a dirty word in the country against which it has been waged. But jihad means to Americans what the word “crusade” means to Muslims, showing that you cannot only “linguistically” identify a word, Akram told us; you need to go much deeper to understand its true meaning, especially in certain contexts.

Akram Elias (center). Photo from the IIE donor page.

After this general information, we started to talk more about the specific countries we’d be visiting. Oman, Akram said, has much shyer people, is one of the poorer countries, and has much less Sunni-Shi’a conflict. There is more peaceful coexistence there, and a peaceful, laid-back culture largely due to the benevolent Sultan. Even the Omani protests during the Arab Spring were more easily appeased, as the government listened to them and spent money to help them economically.

Speaking of the Arab Spring—Akram called this a “Western construct,” saying that Arabs don’t see a “Spring,” but rather, words like “revolution,” “awakening,” or even “renaissance.” He noted that perceptions like these are often more important than facts, because “they become the realities upon which people act.” He also believes that we are in the midst of a “knowledge revolution”; the existing world is in crisis and authority is being challenged because of the information others now have. As we ventured in to the changing Middle East, it would be important to keep these ideas in mind.

Finally, Akram talked about Israel. He talked about how Israelis cheer “to life,” showing that life is their most important value; the people are also loud and animated, which may make them seem argumentative, but does not mean they are fighting (I can testify that the same goes for Pakistanis, too). He reminded us that Jerusalem is much more conservative than the rest of Israel, just like orthodox Muslims who do not shake hands with the opposite gender—another norm that is religious, founded in the sanctity of touch.

Then, he told us to “avoid value judgment,” by always asking “why” people do what they do and trying to empathize with them, thinking how we would be or act if we were them. For me, this is common sense; my whole relationship with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is built around empathizing with the people involved.

This is when the conversation moved from enlightening to surprising. Akram described the Israeli perspective to us, with an emphasis on nationalism and history. He said that Palestinians had “no nationalism of their own,” but only “Arab nationalism,” which was started by Christian Arab thinkers in response to both the reduced tolerance towards Christians in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkishization of Arab culture. Nationalism, thus, was a way toward unity without religion as its basis. And Palestinian nationalism, according to Akram, did not exist until 1987. Thus, Jews see the conflict as one between Jews and Arabs—so when land was conquered and a nation established, Palestinians could just go to countries of other Arabs—which was reinforced by the support that other Arab countries provided to Palestinians, as well as the lack of discussion, between 1947 and 1967, about a Palestinian government. Of course, even after the acquisition of land in 1967, the view was that Gaza belonged to Egypt, and the West Bank to Jordan—neither were distinctly “Palestinian” locations. Akram said that only in 1987, with the first intifada, did Palestinians take the reigns themselves (marking the start of Palestinian nationalism in this conception of history). Thus, the two “sides” are out of sync; Jewish nationalism formed when Palestinians were only Arabs.

Akram finished off by reviewing some of the other issues in the Israeli-Palestinian ordeal: the status of Jerusalem, the collapse of peace talks, the religionization of the conflict, and the impact of the Arab Spring. Then, orientation was finished, and it was time for our last American dinner before embarking on our journey abroad.

Post-orientation dinner

Our resident professor and historian Mark was visibly shocked by the final part of Akram’s presentation. He expressed how this was such an unorthodox perspective of history, defying volumes of research and a general consensus that Palestinian nationalism had existed for a long time—and certainly before 1987. So, of course, Mark reminded us to take this with a grain of salt. The thing is, it is not clear to me that Akram was relaying these ideas to us as fact. He was trying to help us understand the Israeli perspective, and I’m afraid he may have inserted too few “Israelis think that”-type phrases, making it seem like his own perspective. I don’t know for certain, and I didn’t think about it until it was too late to ask. But the history he gave to us was surprising on its own—and also, if truly representative of the broader Israeli perspective, it elucidates some of the rhetoric and talking points I often hear from some Israelis and Jews.

At dinner, which included all six students, Mark, and Aaron, we were also accompanied by Lauren Cozzens, who works at IIE and also coordinated many parts of the trip, Rahilla Zafar, a board member at the Ibrahim Family Foundation, and Aqila Zafar, Rahilla’s younger sister. I really enjoyed meeting them and learning about their experiences in their respective fields.

Rahilla, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, has done a lot of cool things, including working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, writing for the Huffington Post and CNN, and, now, writing a book on female leaders in the Middle East. She talked to us a bit about how she’s turned to things like microfinance and entrepreneurship when it comes to helping people in developing countries, because, in her experience, the government just is not effective at solving these problems. I personally had not given much thought to the role of groups like that—groups other than the government or nonprofits—and talking to Rahilla definitely prompted me to think about that line of work, just in general and in the context of my own (future) career. Aqila’s path is almost the opposite—she does a lot of work with the government, including on Capitol Hill (she’s also a graduate student at the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which happens to be my dream school).

An interview from the Middle East International Conference, in which Rahilla talks about current issues and challenges facing women in the Middle East.

In my opinion, the goal might just be to make the government better at dealing with certain problems—there’s only so much you can do when you’re not the most overarching structure in a country. But when I think about countries like Pakistan—where the government is existent but largely impotent, the military is powerful, and little progress has been made—I definitely understand the hugely important role of economic empowerment, especially for women. Of course, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to issues such as development.

I’m glad the Zafar sisters made it to dinner, because I loved meeting them and they got me thinking about a lot of important issues before we’d even left the country. Our conversations with them, in conjunction with IIE’s orientation, definitely left me primed for the journey ahead.

Next: Ibrahim Project, June 2: Primer on Israel/Palestine in D.C. & beyond →

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