Category Archives: Middle East 2010

Free time reports from the Middle East

For the week of free travel, four of us (Drew, Nathan, Lucas, and I) chose a low-cost, high-endurance option: borrowing a tent and sleeping bags from JUC, writing down the names and numbers of “trail angels,” buying some dried fruit, peanut butter, and cereal in Jerusalem’s Old City, and hiking a roughly 120 km portion of the Israel National Trail (INT) from the Mediterranean Sea to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Everything went mostly as planned despite our unhelpful touring map that contributed to losing the trail on multiple occasions and misjudging the distance we had travelled (and had yet to travel).

“Trail angels” are people along the INT who open their homes to hikers who call a day or two in advance. This proved to be one of the highlights of our experience: we stayed in our tent for four nights, and stayed in peoples’ houses for three. We met many interesting people –including at least two men who fought in the ’73 Yom Kippur War. One of these men’s parents met in a concentration camp after their previous spouses and children had been killed (“I owe my existence to Hitler,” Miki the veterinarian said). The other man, Noam, was a former IDF officer who served as a military attaché to a high-level NATO official in the Netherlands for seven years. I spent over an hour talking with Jehudit on our last night of free travel while she prepared dinner for us.

We learned about the distinctiveness of the Bedouin population within Israel and their reluctance to identify with the broader Arab minority when we departed from the trail for a day and instead walked through Shibli, a Bedouin town near Nazareth. Several men running a shop along the road stopped us to offer water, chairs, coffee, and eventually a ride partway to our destination. In another circumstance, an Arab-Israeli family in Kabbiya gave us four full bottles of cold water when we came to their town and offered us a place to stay at their home.

There were a few hitches in our hiking — not only the “lost” variety, but also the “ride in a car” variety. We found that hitchhiking was fairly easy despite our four large hiking packs. We were picked up by a wide range of people: Shalam, a young religious Jew who spoke almost no English; Akram, a Bedouin who also spoke almost no English; two Israeli soldiers fluent in English on a weekend trip to Tiberias, and Zaer, an elderly Israeli Jew who kindly took us to the top of Mt Tabor so we could see the church… and then merrily waved and drove away, leaving us farther back than we had been 24 hours before.

It was a good set of experiences, a good way to see and meet a variety of Israel’s geography and people, and of course, extremely physically strenuous and rewarding (our longest day of hiking was at least 30 kilometers). In all, it was an amazing cross section of Israeli society that we had yet to see in any of our group travel and learning.

Kaitlin Heatwole

Whenever you start out on a trip with a small budget, a friend, small backpack, and no guarantee that you will even reach your destination, you know that you are in for a great adventure. That is how my free travel week with Larisa started out. Our destinations were Beirut, Lebanon and eventually Damascus, Syria. No EMU student has ever gone to Syria for free travel before. Since Lebanon and Syria don’t allow people that have been to Israel to enter and Syria makes it difficult for United States citizens to enter, we had no guarantee that we would get in when we bought our plane tickets from Amman to Beirut. We had been careful to keep our passports clean and hide all traces of having been in Israel, but one wrong stamp at the Jordan river crossing and we would have to scratch our plans. Since so much was up in the air we made reservations for one night in Beirut and nothing else.

We left JUC around ten on Sunday morning with David and Rebekka, bound for the Sheik Hussein bridge. After spending a large portion of our budget on transportation, one exorbitant exit fee, and visas, we arrived in Beirut, Lebanon at our hotel around nine at night. The people at our hotel heard that we wanted to go to Syria and laughed as they said good luck. Early Monday morning we set out for the bus station, bought tickets, bought zaitar bread for breakfast, and boarded our bus to Syria. After about two hours, we arrived at the border and said goodbye to the bus as we prepared for a long wait with books at hand. Five and a half hours later we got the good news that we had permission to enter Syria! This was the beginning of an amazing three days in the Old City of Damascus.

The Old City of Damascus is without a doubt my favorite place in the Middle east. Tourism is not as common so the culture has not been adversely impacted like many cities in Egypt. Food and lodging were ridiculously cheap, a massive market that put any North American store to shame, and friendly people provided for a unique experiance. Words are worthless in describing the souq (market). Just try to imagine a clean, old market with hundreds of large sacks full of every spice imaginable, coffee, dates, dried fruit, coconut, and tea. Shops overflowed with textiles from every corner of the world, clothing, kitchen products, antiques, metal ware, and anything else that you could ever want or need. No need to buy here, the sensory overload was enough to let one standing in a state of shock unable to take it all in. To make it better, for the first time on the trip we could walk down a street without being hassled by a shop keeper. Some of the things that you could find included damask tablecloths from Damascus of course, handmade wool rugs from Iran, paintings from Iraq, saffron from Vietnam, coffee from Brazil, and antiques from the Ottoman era. It brought the spice and silk trade of the history books to life.

If the sights of the market were not enough to fill our time, there was the Omayyad mosque to visit. It is the third or fourth most important mosque in Islam and the most important one that westerners can visit. The mosque houses a shrine to John the Baptist and the supposed location of Jesus’s return, according to Muslims there. Larisa and I spent most of a morning here and found it interesting to see pilgrims from all over the Middle East including Iran. During the call to prayer, we got a free laugh as the singer stopped to cough! It provided an insight into the diversity of Muslims. Our brief time in Damascus also provided opportunities for great conversations with locals, meeting with Mennonite connections, and walking down straight street (think Saul or Paul). As the time came for us to return to Beirut on Wednesday afternoon, Larisa and I found it to be a bit bittersweet as we found ourselves longing to return.

Back in Lebanon, we spent a day enjoying the corniche and pigeon rock along the Mediterranean coast of Beirut and another day enjoying the coast of Tyre in the South. Lebanon has not known much peace over the last two decades. This was especially evident in the south as we saw Hezbollah posters, bombed out buildings and dozens of UN peacekeeping troops. Both Syria and Lebanon are home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and Iraqi refugees. This has destabilized both countries and added numerous challenges. Syria alone has had 20% inflation each year for the past two years. Now, why would they be upset with the United States foreign policy? While, I don’t endorse either government, the experiences I had in both countries reinforced the need to solve the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in addition to ending the war in Iraq. This was a wonderful learning experience and I find myself a bit envious of any future EMU student that gets to study in Syria.

-Chrissy Krieder

“Been there, done that”

Middle East 5Before I left on the trip I decided to make a map on Google to show where all we are going.  I’ve gradually updated bits and pieces while here, but as of the last two weeks, it will take me many hours to make any progress. We’ve been studying at Jerusalem University College.  We’re told that we are doing a semester’s worth of work in a two week period.  Feels like it.

We have traveled all over Israel; from the Negev up to the Syrian Border, stopping to look at the geography of the area and place it in Biblical contexts.  As some have put it, we “stand on one hill to look at another”. We spent the last four days in the Galilee area, staying at a sea-side resort.  After the long days of studying and climbing, nothing was better than wetting our feet and sitting on the beach.

I wish I could list all the places we’ve been, but I’ll just say if it has any significance, we’ve probably been there.  If it’s named in the Bible,  we’ve probably talked about it.  And if it has at least 2 tour groups a day, we’ve definitely done it.

Some highlights from these past two weeks include; swimming in the Sea of Galilee, bobbing in the Dead Sea, hacky-sacking EVERYWHERE, yelling “Eagle!” from heights, frolicking in meadows…what day doesn’t come with some good times?

Boat ride at the Sea of Galilee: Michael Swartzendruber We are about half way done with the semester as we head into free travel (which is not free in a monetary sense by any means).  I think we would all agree that the semester is speeding up and before we know it we’ll be leaving Rome for the US.  How do you take it all with you?

-Michael Swartzendruber

Scripture comes alive in Israel

Middle East 4We are at the end of our time here at JUC (Jerusalem University College). Over the past two weeks we have found ourselves in a different sort of adventure each day, whether looking out at the battlefield of David and Goliath, sitting on the side of Mount Carmel, or floating in the Dead Sea.

Scripture has truly come alive to me as we have not only been studying but also experiencing this land.  The stories that we have read and discussed in specific locations take on a new meaning.  For example, as a group we have constantly been revisiting the ideas of shepherding, farming, and fishing.  The imagery so often used throughout the Bible of these three things makes so much sense as you are looking out into the dry and arid Judean Wilderness, hiking down into the lush Sorak Valley, or out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee.

As we move from JUC, I hope to not only remember what I have experienced here, but to forever allow this land to be a part of me and transfer this information into the different contexts of my life, and ultimately that through it all I may come to know God more. (Jeremiah 9:23)

-Ellie Barnhart

Reports from Palestine

Marhaba, everyone! Hello from Beit Sahour, Palestine, where the group will be staying for the next two and a half weeks.  Our time in Beit Sahour will be spent touring Palestine, studying Arabic, listening to lectures from professors at Bethlehem University College, and interacting with our host families.  Lucas and I are staying with Adeeb, our host-father, host-mother Hyfah, and brothers Elias and Hosam.  The hospitality that we have experienced in just the past few days has been incredible.  Everyday after classes we are excitedly greeted by Adeeb who asks us all about our day as we enjoy a feast prepared by Hyfah, usually consisting of pita, rice, tea, homemade lemonade, and some sort of chicken dish.  Needless to say, we are by no means going to bed hungry at night!

Today we spent most of the day at Bethlehem University College where we listened to a lecture about Palestinian literature, got a tour of the University campus, and had the chance to interact with students.  The students spoke to us about the difficulties they sometimes have just getting to school, mainly due to the Israeli checkpoints.  What should be fifteen to twenty minutes drive sometimes takes hours longer and students are often late to class or miss class completely because of these delays.  Many students choose to live in Bethlehem away from their families instead of commuting to avoid the hassle of the checkpoints.  I have been hearing other stories of how peoples’ everyday lives are affected by the way and the checkpoints, but the students’ stories hit even closer to home.  These students have to daily live with the reality of the wall and the Israeli occupation, and to see how the lives of people my own age are impacted made the situation all the more real to me.

Though much of the conversation with these students left me feeling confused and frustrated about their realities, one encouraging sign that I saw was in the relationships between the Christian and Muslim students.  I was always under the impression that relations between Christians and Muslims were tense, but what I saw at Bethlehem University proved that impression wrong.  The students not only coexist with one another but they accept and form friendships across religious lines.  Though this my not be the case everywhere, I saw it as a sign of hope for the peaceful existence between all peoples regardless of race or, as in this case, religion.

– Aaron Clemmer

One theme that seems to be floating on the surface of my mind, here in Palestine is ‘taking thing for granted’. By this, I do not mean the stereotypical cross-cultural inconveniences that one expects from this sort of trip (i.e. unpredictable showers, lack of toilet paper, and perpetually sandy socks).  What I’m talking about is simpler than that; at home, I take for granted a level of security that many people simple can’t achieve.

I take for granted that my college campus won’t be set upon by tanks during class.  I take for granted that no one will bulldoze my home and steal my family’s land.  I take for granted that military officials won’t make me late for school on a weekly basis.  Most importantly, I take for granted that, should any of these things occur, there will be dire consequences for the perpetrators.  I take for granted that my voice will be heard.  In Palestine, however, none of these things can be taken for granted.

My host family has a gorgeous house, two laptop computers, two cars, and three flat-screen televisions.  They are clearly well-off and well-educated.  Despite all these advantages, they are still under the thumb of the Israeli government.  Even though they have worked hard to succeed and establish some sense of permanence, their security is anything but assured.

At any moment, their home and land might be seized by Israeli soldiers.  They are not free to leave the country or even their hometown to visit relatives without obtaining a special permit from the Israeli government.  They could be attached by Zionist settlers, and no one would raise a hand to save them.

No matter how hard they work, they will never achieve security through their success.  Because they are Palestinian, they are second class citizens facing constant uncertainty and vulnerability.  Because of their ethnic background, their voices are not heard.

-Brooke Snyder

Silent anticipation built as we left Jordan and entered Israel.  We curved and climbed and went through a tunnel and then there it was, the old city of Jerusalem.  We stopped near the Mt. of Olives and overlooked the land.  Olive trees, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, palm trees, sheep, the garden of Gethsemane, and in the distance beyond Bethlehem was Beit Sahour.  This would be our home for the next few weeks.  We loaded the bus again to travel the 4 miles from Jerusalem into Palestine.  As we crested a hill our eyes met the wall, a 26 ft high, grey, concrete wall separating states, religions, and cultures.  We had a rather effortless entry due to a push for international tourism.  But we watched on as the adjacent checkpoint was lined with Palestinians attempting to enter back to their homes by foot.

We arrived and were met with open arms into our host families.  I am living in Beit Sahour with a wonderful family that gives a whole new meaning to hospitality.   They have 5 girls and life goes on here as usual: homework, sports, laughter, whining, sibling rivalry, meals, bedtimes… I feel so privileged to get a glimpse into something Americans often hold so private.  These people would open their house to all of EMU if we could fit.

It’s been less than a week since we’ve arrived, and Beit Sahour has quickly become to me a place of paradox. This land is full of questions and answers, pain and joy, belief and struggle.

Among lectures and Arabic lessons we made a trip to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.  Speaking of paradox; the creator of the world came to us as a baby!  My view on the character of Christ continues to expand.  There is something special about this land and there are no easy answers to the conflict that saturates it.  The more we learn the more complicated it seems.  But I’m reminded of Isaiah 55:8   “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.  My trust is in the Lord and His ability to reconcile all things.

-Sarah Demaree

First reports from Egypt and Jordan

Middle East 1It’s not too often that in the span of 12 hours one is blessed with the opportunity to watch the sunrise and sunset on top of the roofs at Anafora Retreat Center in Egypt! Meals lit by candle light, learning sessions lead by a Bishop of the Coptic Church, evening prayer illuminated by candle light, and the voices of those from across the globe are all memories that will remind me of the peace that is Anafora.

Aside from the free time that was spent playing cards, dancing across the roofs of our bedroom, shopping, and of course, the many times eating fantastic food, the group was able to have three separate sessions with Bishop Thomas. One session focused on humbling oneself before the Lord, the next on shedding the mask(s) that incorrectly defines oneself, and thirdly, he talked about the foundational teachings of the three Abrahamic faiths and how they relate to the conflict over Jerusalem today. Although this conversation was informative, what remained most shocking was the way in which he defined Christianity. As Christians many of us excel to model Jesus. What is often forgotten within my own faith and those from other faiths is that above all physical possessions (land, money, food, water) is the sacredness of human beings.

With this said, many of us on the trip have already begun to question our role as Christians in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Should we take sides? How are we to help resolve this conflict? Is simply listening enough? What Bishop Thomas helped me realize is that if we share with others the value of the human soul that Christ teaches we can open the door for the Holy Spirit to take control. My prayer for this conflict is that those on the battlefield and those in the board room will recognize the humanity they are fighting against. Control over one of the Holiest (if not THE Holiest) piece of land is not worth destroying the sacredness of human lives.

I’m richer from Bishop Thomas’ wisdom and faith. As we go from this peaceful place may we be peacemakers to those we meet along this journey. May the whole world be reminded that many conflicts are being fought over the claim to land, yet Jesus taught us that love and peace have no borders! (Read 1 John 3: 11-24 or 23-24)

Well, today we head back to Cairo by train. On a lighter note, now seems like an appropriate time to discuss crossing the streets in Cairo. As David said at orientation ‘crossing the streets in Cairo is an adventure in itself and our first class assignment’. Although I passed, it did not come without fear of losing my life. There are no crosswalks or lighted signs informing you that it’s safe to cross. Rather, before one steps out they have to be determined and firm about reaching their destination safely! Making eye-contact and keeping an even keel pace is important, and when necessary RUN! In a matter of five to ten seconds one is safely walking on the other side of the street…and if you are anything like me you’re heading towards the nearest coffee shop!

Janelle Freed

I find Egypt like many other countries to be like the body of a…. of its parts that couldn’t function with only a small part. Egypt needs all its people, the rich and the poor, the Egyptians and the tourist. It needs the Nile and the Sahara, the cities and the countryside, Muslims and Coptics. All of these things make up a strong Egyptian culture unlike any place I have ever experienced.

As we traveled around the Egyptian cities of Cairo and Luxor, and the countryside of Anafora and the Sinai, we experienced the different area based on their religions. Cairo and Luxor are filled with the Muslim religion and culture; every morning, five times a day, we could hear the Call to Prayer wailing in the echoes across the city and in the streets. Women with their colorful hejab and men do not interact with each other. As a large group of white Americans we found ourselves under constant scrutiny no matter how much we tried to conceal ourselves. But as we came to the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) monasteries and communities of Anafora and the Sinai, we still stood out and yet were treated the same as any other visitor.

The Egyptians greatly value their history as it relates to the development of the current culture and religion. Because Biblical studies are a large part of our time here we went through the earliest Egyptian archeology and historical events in relation to the early Biblical stories. We went to Coptic Cairo where Joseph would have come to Egypt and where the Holy Family stayed for three years after leaving Bethlehem. We then followed the Israelites’ travels with Moses in the Sinai and crossing the Red Sea. I was able to see the Israelites’ position differently after spending a great deal of time in the desert. Their complaining in the wilderness seems much more justified when you’re experiencing the dryness, heat, and emptiness first hand. As unpleasant as the desert is at times, I looked out at the sunset from the summit of Mt. Sinai and saw the awesomeness of God in the beautiful rugged mountains. I truly appreciate everything about the desert, even seeing it from the perspective of a traveler.

Ruth-Ellen Dandurand

Two of the highlights for me since leaving Egypt have been visiting Mount Sinai and Petra. We can’t say with certainty that it is the exact same Mount Sinai that Moses climbed for the Ten Commandments, but it is at least close. After a lunch of pita and cheese, we started out behind our 64 year old guide along a wide gently sloped dirt path. On almost every side large, rocky mountains loomed over us. The sun was starting to set and the climb was estimated to take about 1.5 to 2 hours. A group of about six to ten of us set the pace. It didn’t take long for the trail to narrow, become more rocky and steep. Once it started to have switchbacks, Bedouin huts became a more common occurrence. For the first half hour or so there were camels along the path with owners that were quick to offer rides up the mountain. Other than that, we had the trail mostly to ourselves. On the first part of the trail we would stop frequently for the group to rejoin, but after a while we were given the go ahead to charge up the mountain at our own pace. About two thirds of the way up, the dirt path disappeared and steep, uneven steps made of rocks wound around the mountain. As a person that processes best on my feet, it felt simply wonderful to be active in the barren yet beautiful landscape. The path was deceiving as it fooled me into thinking that the end was in sight or just around the corner. The urgency to reach the top only increased as the sun quickly dropped in the sky. Upon gazing out on the surrounding mountains of rock, everything touched by the dying sun appeared golden. My muscles burned from scrambling up the treacherous rocky stairs, but I held the promise of the experience at the top. A small church came into view and before long about seven of us shared congratulations with each other on the summit. Words fall short when attempting to express the beauty of the panoramic view of the mountains and wilderness under the brilliant colors that proceeded to develop from the setting sun.

Slowly the rest of the group appeared in groups of two or more, cheered on by everyone else. Cameras were everywhere as we tried to capture the awesomeness of the moment. A song arose from the expert singers in the group and all joined in to produce beautiful music that expressed the feelings better than words. Linford gathered everyone and shared a reflection on the Ten Commandments before everyone escaped from the group picture pose. Darkness crept in rapidly so it became important to hurry down. I choose to head down a little bit ahead of the group so that I could reflect and process all that has been on my mind. Even if it wasn’t the Mount Sinai of the Bible, the mountain top experience and the struggles that come between the valley and mountain gave new insights into the Bible and how God has interacted with me in my life.

Like its shadow, memories of Mount Sinai followed us as we left Egypt and traveled into Jordan. While I have seen many pictures of the famous treasury at Petra, the sheer grandeur of the ancient Nabatian city was unbelievable. Our tour guide never ceased to have some tidbit of information or a joke to share as we found our way through the most well known area. The rocks that surrounded us came in all colors including red, green, white, and black. Much of the stone displayed Nabatian or Roman influence in the form of carvings or design. After singing in a church from 447 AD that had been carved in the rock and seeing a few other sites, we were turned loose to explore on our own or in small groups. My favorite part came after a forty minute hike up another mountain to a monastery with other group members. After recovering from the shock of finding the grand building carved in rock we spotted a lookout up another peak and set out. It was a perfect place to rest and gain an appreciation for the vast wilderness that so many different people groups have traveled through and lived on. Once we realized the limited time that was left until we were supposed to be back on the bus, we eagerly returned to the monastery to explore. After about ten of us crawled over the five foot high stone entrance and recognized the incredible acoustics, Ben lead us in a few songs that caused the music to vibrate through my body. These times of group singing have quickly become one of my favorite parts of the experiences and often express what words and pictures alone can not accomplish. Even though much of the land is barren and rocky upon first appearance; beauty, identity and strength have a way of developing from these unexpected places. The mountain experiences of each location has been a good reminder of the superiority of God’s wisdom and power in challenging times and places throughout the course of history.

Chrissy Kreider