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2009

Julie Gutowski

University of Pennsylvania

The opportunity to travel to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Israel as a participant on the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project taught me more about the Middle East and the relationship between followers of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in those countries than perhaps any U.S.-based University course could have. By being in those countries, especially Israel, and seeing first-hand the way in which a person’s religion likely determined the way in which he or she interacted with a person of another faith, I began to see the role that religion could play in resolving long-standing conflict. It wasn’t until our meeting with Search for Common Ground’s Sharon Rosen, Keren Hendin, and Fadi Rabieh that I really began to understand how interfaith dialogue could be used to promote understanding and mutual respect among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, especially those connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In discussing the mission of Search for Common Ground, Sharon Rosen explained interfaith dialogue in a way that really resonated with me. She said that her organization does not try to get one side to agree with the other’s point of view and vice versa. Instead Search for Common Ground aims to get each side to create a space for the other point of view to exist in peace with an opposing viewpoint. This approach to interfaith dialogue really appealed to my pragmatic sensibilities and made me take interfaith dialogue more seriously as an approach to conflict resolution in the Middle East.

The other meeting that was most important to my learning experience in the Middle East was having the opportunity to get to know the Face to Face/ Faith to Faith students. Not only was it amazing to see the level of maturity that is brought about by growing up in a conflict zone, but this was the only time we were able to see Israeli Jews and Palestinians discussing the conflict (while Fadi Rabieh was a Palestinian and Keren Hendin was an Israeli Jew, they did not directly discuss their views on the conflict). These students gave me an idea of what it’s actually like to live as a Palestinian or Israeli Jew in Israel. The organic, unstructured discussion that took place between the Ibrahim and Face to Face/ Faith to Faith students was so important to my experience in the Middle East because it allowed me to better empathize with both the Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints.

Indeed, what I took away from this program was not an expertise in the cultures or religions of the countries we visited. To do that would have taken more than twelve days. What I did take away was an ability to empathize with Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the Middle East and at home who are all fighting hurtful misconceptions and suspicions. I also found that after meeting with both Palestinians and Israeli Jews it is difficult not to empathize with people on both sides of the conflict. And after seeing the efforts to promote interfaith dialogue in pursuit of peace, it is difficult to be content sitting on the sidelines.

Ibrahim Kareem

Florida State University

The Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project was an amazing experience to me. Prior to this trip, I have never gone on any sort of international scholarship trip or been involved with international education exchange programs. I am still taking in all the experiences I had on this trip and the things I have learned in Washington D.C, the UAE, Jordan, and Israel.

Even though it was not part of our international trip, I found Washington D.C. and the orientation itself to be a great learning experience. This was my first time in our national’s capital and something about the city felt very special to me. I enjoyed the introductions by the Ibrahim family, the Institute of International Education staff, and the students going on the trip. The goals of both the Ibrahim family and the IIE were very admirable to me, and seeing the diversity of the students on the trip was excellent. My favorite part of the orientation and the most educational to me was Mr. Akram Elias. Mr. Elias offered great basic knowledge of the region to everyone, but even as someone who majors in Middle Eastern Studies and is very interested in the region, I learned some things that I would have never learned in a formal classroom setting. Particularly enjoyable and informative would be Mr. Elias explanation of certain things, such as explaining why showing the bottom of your shoes to someone is offensive in the culture, and not just saying “don’t do this.” Another great part of the orientation was meeting Dr. David and hearing his lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After taking whole classes on this conflict, I knew it would be very difficult to explain to a group of people in a short amount of time. But Dr. David’s lecture was amazing, giving a brief history of the conflict from the start to the present in a way that was easily understandable and if it was new to you, would make to want to look into it more. Even at the end of the day at our informal dinner, we all had some great conversations about what we learned that day. I knew after the first day I was with a special group of people.

Then started our international travels, I took something different out of each of the counties we visited. I was fortunate enough to have visited the United Arab Emirates before, but this time I went to Abu Dhabi I had a completely different look at it. It was almost like visiting a different city. Our first meeting with Lara Setrakian was very interesting, especially with the post election tensions that were happening in Iran at the time. Hearing about her job and how she is part of a growing trend of international reporting and having people actually in the field was a great introduction to what we would learn about on our trip. Ms. Setrakian talked about recent events she was reporting, such the Iranian election story, the Lebanese election, and some sensitive issues and difficulties she faced as being a reporter in the region were things I have never had the chance to speak about with someone in her position.

On our tour of Abu Dhabi that day, I found the visit to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque to be the most standout to me personally. It is by far the largest and at least my opinion the most beautiful mosque I have seen in my life. I remember when I was in Abu Dhabi in 2006; this mosque was still in the final phases of construction. I have been a huge fan of Islamic art and architecture since I took a class on the subject, and it was amazing to see so many things I learned about in a classroom by reading a book in person, right in front of me. It is amazing that the Mosque is so new yet looks like it could be right out of the 10th century. On a more personal note, as a Muslim this type of mosque is what comes to my mind when I think of a mosque. In Islam there is no set way a mosque should look (so long as it has some important features that actually make it a “mosque”) and a Muslim can pray anywhere, but to me praying in this mosque was a great experience to me.

After hearing from Ms. Setrakian I found our meeting at The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi to be very interesting. It was a much different talk. It was a great experience to get a look into a newspaper that is funded by the state and is basically made up completely of expiates to the country. I felt it was a great reflection on the country itself. But even with all of these great meetings and places we went to, I felt like the more informal dialogue we had as a group about the UAE was the most intellectually stimulating. Conversations with other students on how they felt about the Emirates, conversations with our tour guide Mr. Muhammad Ali, and informal conversations with Dr. David had me thinking about the whole situation of the country now.

After our time in Abu Dhabi, I was very excited to visit Jordan. Jordan would be the first Arab country that I have been to outside of the gulf, and to me, it was everything I thought of when I thought of the Middle East. A mix of new and old, history and heritage everywhere, small streets, Arabic actually being spoken (as opposed to the UAE, where even though it is the official language, everyone speaks English). Before this I had only seen the Middle East of the Gulf, one rich with oil money and with brand new buildings, streets, etc. The dinner with the Fulbright students was a great meeting for our first night. It was great for me, to meet so many driven people around my age that were so interested in everything I was. This dinner was definitely one of my favorite times on the trip. I learned so much about the actual Fulbright program, something I actually knew little about and found out that it is something that I am now very interested in. I planned on living in the Middle East for a year or so to try to learn some more Arabic, yet had no idea that with the Fulbright I would get intensive classes while at the same time doing research in something I am passionate about. This dinner also helped me personally realize that learning Arabic is not impossible. Hearing the Fulbright students speak in Arabic to the waiters and talk about their experiences using Arabic daily were both inspirational and reassuring to me.

Our trip to Petra was unbelievable. Not only was it very informative to learn about the ancient history of Petra but it was truly awe inspiring to see these monuments in person instead of in a picture on Wikipedia. I felt like it was a great trip to see the rich history of the Middle East and how so many civilizations and cultures have, and still live in the region. I also felt the trip the Mount Nebo, the Jordan River and the Jesus Christ baptism site were great in showing the history of the area and also very significant when to religion. It was really something standing in the area that Jesus Christ is said to have been baptized, and to see the view Moses had of the Promised Land. It definitely had the feeling of a place that was very important to a lot of people in the world. While we were by the baptism site, we saw people performing a baptism right there. It was also interesting to be at a border between Israel and Jordan, two countries separated by such a small river with armed soldiers on both sides. It said a lot about the Arab- Israeli conflict and the political situation to me.

The talks we had in Jordan were also very memorable, especially our talk with Dr. Mohammad Majali and the University of Jordan. This meeting was not really a talk on religion or Sharia studies, but became a political talk mostly about the war in Iraq and the issue of Palestine. It proved to be a very thought provoking discussion, showing me and everyone in the room a point of view that you never hear in the United States. The points of view of Dr. Majali and his colleagues brought great discussions in our group, and this proved to be one of the most interesting meetings for us, in my opinion. For our last meeting in Jordan it was very special to me to meet the Jordanian ambassador to the United States, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein. Our conversation about peace and his job were very inspirational. It was lucky of us that he knew Dr. David; otherwise we might have missed out on such a good learning experience.

Israel would prove to be in my opinion the most interesting place, and the visit that would affect me the most. Israel is a place I have studied a lot about at the university, and did not think I would have the pleasure to visit in the near future, at least. But to see it and be there was something else. As soon as we got to the checkpoint it was all an educational experience to me. It was a weird feeling to be treated differently than others in the group because of my name, yet for me it showed how to conflict in the area has affected the people in it. However once we got into Israel and to Jerusalem, I was very excited to visit the old city. To me Jerusalem was the most important place we went and the most educational. I think that with the goals of this scholarship all future groups should visit Jerusalem like we did. Walking to the Temple Mount or Harem al Shariff it was quite the site to see how the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the al Aqsa mosque are so close to each other was striking. Seeing the Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa mosque was an amazing experience in terms of architectural beauty, history, and holiness. Being at the al Aqsa most and praying was almost unreal, and experience which was even better then my experience in Abu Dhabi.

After that, making a visit to the Western Wall was an experience I won’t forget. It was amazing to see the holiness site for the Jewish people, and place which is at the center of so much political debate in our present day. Our last stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was an amazing compliment to the holy sites of Muslims and Jews. Seeing the place where it is said that Jesus was crucified and where his tomb is was an intense experience. The whole tour was one of the greatest parts of our trip and it was amazing to see the similarities between the three Abrahamic religions and how all of these religions come from the same place.

Meeting with Rabbi Ron Kronish was very educational. The short speech he gave on his organization and the peace process was informative, and when we talked to the face to face/faith to faith students I learned so much about how they feel. In this experience, like the Fulbright experience it was very easy to talk to people around the same age group. I learned a lot about the Israeli students and found their point of views refreshing, much different than some points of view I had heard before. It was also a great chance to hear about what it is like to grow up and actually live in the conflict, be affected by it firsthand.

The Goldberg Ceremony did not go as planned, and due to some complications the Palestinian winner could not make it to Jerusalem, so I thought it was very interesting to see the political situation even affect us on the trip while we were there. I was very excited for it to be moved to a “neutral zone in the West Bank” to get a chance to see things like the Separation wall in the West Bank. The ceremony itself affected me very much because it was so nice to see people on both sides trying so hard to reach out to each other.

Our final dinner with Professor Inbar in Jerusalem proved to be one of my favorite learning experiences in Israel. It was fantastic to speak with someone that has a viewpoint you do not get to see much, like the one we saw in Jordan at the University of Jordan.

This trip has taught me many things and will be one that I always remember. All three of the countries we visited affected me in different ways. I had thought about going to study in Jordan, and after visiting it I would like to study even more there now. Going to Israel and seeing Jerusalem is something I think everyone should do in their lives, and being able to see the country and meet some people that lived there has affected my view of the conflict very much. The group of students we had could not be better and our personal talks about things we were seeing or hearing together were just as educational to me as meeting with professors. Having Winston, Mike, and Dr. David along also helped enrich the trip. I would learn new things every chance I had to talk to Dr. David. What this trip has taught me the most however is that to understand a place you must actually go there, which is why I think I will continue looking at programs for international education throughout my life.

Belinda Velez

Florida State University

As we settled ourselves into our hotel room on the 17th floor of the Al Maha Arjaan Hotel, my roommate and I heard a voice that sounded like it was chanting and singing at the same time. Janice and I both walked to the window that presented a spectacular view of the city. It was the evening prayer and I wanted to see how this world reacted to such a calling. I looked down and saw some people sitting on the grass calmly but most of the city was an array of moving lights and conversation as traffic rolled on and pedestrians walked quickly to get to their next destination. This was part of the reason I was on the trip- to observe and understand the complexities of a country that saw the relationship between religion and state so differently from that of the United States. I could not help but picture the co-cathedral, St. Thomas More, on Florida State University’s campus, ringing out its church bells on the dot of every hour. The call to prayer was clearly a daily way of life but to me the sound was exotic, lovely, and peaceful. Abu Dhabi would be my first step into launching a stronger interest in the Middle East and its people.

The most beautiful part of my Abu Dhabi experience was visiting the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan Mosque. Although I could not enter the women’s’ prayer room, the light cloth of the abaya and the hijaab let me feel more connected to the mosque. I stood upon an intricate and colorful carpet and looked at the beautifully and carefully decorated walls. Of course, I was no expert in Islam so I could not help but wonder how important this mosque was to Muslims. Alone it carried its air of grandeur in my eyes and yet I had no knowledge of Islamic prayers and stories. I left this majestic sight thinking it will probably remain one of the most captivating buildings I will ever see in my lifetime.

After we left the mosque I was not only exhausted because of the intense heat but I was exhausted from experiencing something so radically different. Our next stop was St. Joseph’s Cathedral but we decided to make a small presence at the private Catholic school next to the cathedral. The children seemed to be having their recess. Several of us walked toward the children and engaged them in conversation. This was when it first hit me how conscious the people living in Abu Dhabi were of their citizen status. The children were brilliant and they easily understood English so we asked them if they were from Abu Dhabi. They surprised me when they all said no. When asked where they were from most answered India. I’m assuming most of these children were actually born in Abu Dhabi so it astounded me that they considered themselves from somewhere else. Our tour guide had mentioned a divide in the population from those who were citizens and those who were not. As the daughter of immigrants, I saw this issue as something normal the occurred in most countries but it had never occurred to me that it was instilled in the mind of the people even as children. This left me searching for more answers concerning the issue and even as I sat next to an Emirati on the plane to Bahrain I conducted my own personal research on the matter.

Leaving Abu Dhabi was both exciting and unfortunate. It was unfortunate because I felt like even though we had taken an excellent opportunity of our resources to contact an incredible reporter, a most impressive research center, and the editor of an upcoming newspaper I had failed as a citizen diplomat to engage the locals in conversation. The locals were the essence of this grand city yet I had had no time to really soak in their personal lifestyle and opinions. This marvelous city had shocked me with its advanced technology and modernity. I was glad to leave with a more accurate perception. Nevertheless, I was ready to discover a different sort of Middle East- an older Middle East.

Jordan welcomed us with such an exciting landing that I knew immediately this was a completely different game. The first night’s walk on the town to the restaurant, Wild Jordan, was exhilarating. As I walked I breathed in the same air the locals breathed in and I looked through the alleyways in hopes of something different. Some of us stopped by an open door that had a stairway leading down an unknown pathway. Through the gap allowed by the door we could see the sun setting and illuminating the various resident buildings with the touch of its great orange like glow. It was a gorgeous sight. Arriving in Wild Jordan was a special moment for the group. We were able to meet other American students that were conducting their research in Jordan. It was a relief to meet other American students that viewed the country so positively and reinforced our passion for understanding the Middle East. These Fulbright students gave me a sense of the future. Could I be conducting research as a Fulbright student in a year? Could I be doing this in Jordan? What other country could I do research in? It was a little overwhelming at the moment so for a couple of seconds I stared off into scenery the restaurant so wonderfully provided. One of the largest flags in the world, the Jordan flag, waved calmly back and forth.

The next few days were equally as overwhelming but I think we all encouraged these days with open arms. We were able to visit one of the most amazing sites in the world, a site home to one of the seven new wonders of the world, Petra! I was in disbelief that we were actually there. I had never been to any “new wonders” of the world. Petra was the home of a rock-cut architecture (most notably the Treasury and the Monastery) made by the ancient Nabateans. Amazement alone can’t describe my feelings for this place but just like the evening call to prayer of Abu Dhabi, there was an exotic and calming sensation.

The other experience I cherish greatly is the visit to Bethany and the Jordan River. As a Christian, this place was sacred to me. To stand so close to the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus was so illuminating. I wish I could have called my mother at that very moment to tell her where I was standing. My mother, a much more religious person than me would have been thrilled. I was a little saddened to find the river so small. I had expected something so much bigger but when I thought about it, Jesus was a man of humility who welcomed the poor. It made sense that Jesus had been baptized in such an unexpecting place. I reached down to touch the water of the river. We stood by the spot claimed to have held Jesus’ baptism. It was barely a pond anymore, it was more like a ditch, because the Jordan River moves its path every year and it had moved away from this spot long ago. The site around it was being restored. As I saw the workers fix the steps leading to the sacred spot I noticed one of the workers crouch down near the water. With one hand he held a dirty Coca-Cola 2 liter bottle with the top jaggedly cut off. With the other hand he held on to his cigarette. He scooped up the water and stared at our group. From a distance I was hoping the ashes of his cigarette were not landing in the remaining water. I’m not an extremely religious person but I do believe in Jesus and God so I can sincerely say that if I felt offended then I can’t imagine the thoughts of the Pope, his cardinals, or a Baptist minister if they had just witnessed what I had. Our tour guide, the most enjoyable tour guide of all three in my opinion, did not seem to be surprised by this behavior. In fact, I wonder if he ever noticed this? Earlier he had mentioned that most of the Jordan river was carefully managed in a simple way to preserve its natural beauty. I had agreed with this concept initially but after someone’s comments in Israel about the different management styles of Israel and Jordan when it came to the Jordan river I had to think twice about our tour guide’s explanation. To this day, I still struggle with the idea. Is Jordan’s minimal management/restoration of the Jordan river really due to sustaining its natural composition or is it due to the minimal importance to the majority of the Jordan Muslim population? Even so, I made sure to bring my mother a glass bottle of Holy Water from the Jordan River.

Another equally surprising encounter in Jordan was our visit to The University of Jordan. I can sincerely say that it was one of the most eye opening experiences I have ever had. The first question from our group was asked by Julie and even though I cannot remember the question I clearly remember it being responded to by an accusing question on their part toward her. This was how the meeting began and I immediately recognized the tension in the room. My heart pounded furiously as I heard Dr. Mohammad Majali and his supporting faculty professors. Akram Elias had warned us of this perception but I never realized that this also applied to true academics. The men we spoke to were unmistakably convinced that the American media was controlled by the Jews. Not one Jew had died in the World Trade Center on the day it was attacked, September 11, 2001. I sat there in pure disbelief which later ascended into anger. These men were furious against the Jews and anyone who supported them. At one point I wondered what would happen if I had lied and said I was Jewish? Most of my attention at the point was centered around our dear Dr. David who was lucidly enraged inside although I am not sure if our hosts perceived this or not. He tried to keep his calm which he was extremely good at but at some points I anticipated sparks of fire in form of words. Fortunately, this never occurred and everyone showed great respect when it came time to leave. My former feelings of anger from

Jordan had many fascinating things to offer but our journey would not be complete without time spent in Israel, the land of so much dispute, tension, and struggle over many years. Our infamous travel across the border was much better than expected. Yes we spent more time than was needed but after our two brave companions, Ibrahim and Winston, finally left the interrogation process and proceeded to join us on the other side of the airport barrier to pick up our luggage, most of the rest of the journey to Jerusalem went well. Our first important destination was the tour of the old city. We had many little adventures during this part of the schedule. Dr. David and our tour guide Sayyid began a historian smack down on who had the facts straight about the Temple Mount. I believe that our tour guide knowingly ignored some of the obvious Jewish importance that surrounded the Temple Mount. Winston got into a heated dispute with a strange man who claimed to be a guide around the Dome of the Rock and we all mazed through different little Palestinian neighborhoods as we followed Sayyid. All in all, I would not have had it any other way.

I took much interest in the opinions of our tour guide, Sayyid, who was a Palestinian. I noticed an obvious distance between Sayyid and our group. There was always something that prevented him from opening up too much. He told us that he had always wanted to be a tour guide and he finally became one ten years ago. When we asked why he had not become a tour guide sooner he stared at us for a couple of seconds and told us they didn’t let him. Who were they? They were the Israelis. The Palestinians are of course a minority in Israel and as a minority in my own country I could not help but sympathize with him. I cannot attribute this all to my background. I personally noticed the conditions of East and West Jerusalem and saw the inequality in both sizes and the quality of life. He bothered some of our group members by doing something none of the other tour guides had done, he sat in with us as a member of the group when we went to our meetings. Like many other Palestinians he probably had a limited amount of Jewish friends. Personally I welcomed his participation and a smile appeared on my face as he approached Sharon Rosen, a Jew, at the end of our meeting with Search for Common Ground to ask her for directions to some destination in the city. Days later he told us through the bus microphone that he appreciated our efforts in understanding the conflict in Israel. The bus rolled silently but to me this was a breakthrough. I saw hope in his face even though his expressions were often indifferent toward us for personal and understandable reasons. I don’t want to misinform my reader to think that after his comments our group was truly in peace with the man because this wasn’t true. Tensions constantly rose between Dr. David and Sayyid but there were many times I saw Sayyid trying to be friends with Dr. David. I cannot explain how much I learned from this man just by watching his actions and his facial expressions throughout our trip but what I can say is that he showed me an excellent example of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict He is a man I will never forget.

The rest of Israel was marvelous. I practiced my bargaining skills. I met an incredible group of Palestinian and Israeli students. We actually set foot in the West Bank! I can truly say that I was in the West Bank! We were there to witness the prestigious Victor J. Goldberg IIE Prize for Peace granted to an Israeli and a Palestinian. We met a frustratingly strong right wing Israeli who shocked our group with much of his comments about the Palestinians and the Arabs but by this time our group was used to great biases and we ultimately respected his view. At this point, I looked around my group and truly felt like I belonged to a citizen diplomat group. Tel Aviv’s atmosphere and beaches were beautiful and much needed. It was the perfect way to leave the Middle East even though I’m positive we had all wished we could have stayed longer.

Regrettably, I cannot summarize all of my thoughts throughout this trip and I only touched on a few memories. My memory of Prince Zeid Al-Hussein will never be forgotten either. If not the most he was one of the most respected and impressive men we met on our trip who had a way of charming and captivating everyone around him. We had expected a man in royal attire and instead we received a man in western clothes but with a personality to account for something beyond royal. My current status on Facebook is that I miss the Middle East. I hope to visit the Middle East again and add on to my list of countries in this region. My job as a citizen diplomat has not finished and I cannot ignore my responsibility as an academic striving to improve the lives of others. My eyes fell upon valuable resources and with determination I can access them again. With that said, I would like to thank the Institute of International Education and the Ibrahim Family Foundation that so wonderfully picked such brilliant students and faculty that surprisingly added a family value to the entire trip. My eyes opened at the call to prayer in Abu Dhabi but stayed open due to ten other individuals who would not shut their eyes either.

Jeremy Levenson

University of Pennsylvania

When Eric first emailed us the itinerary of our trip, I thought this extraordinary opportunity would come and go in the blink of an eye. Reflecting on the experience a week after our return, I was only partly right- the trip may have felt even faster. The twelve day journey was a whirlwind of jaw dropping sights and visits, enlightening and inspiring lectures, transformative discussions and strong personal connections. Experience has the effect of changing a person’s perspective, layering it with memories of past thoughts and feelings, and, after such myriad experiences, I feel myself returning as a nearly new person in many regards. Among my many jumbled thoughts, I will expand on those most central to my personal growth.

As we walked on the plane en route to Abu Dhabi, the word I thought would be most critical to understanding the conflict in the Middle East was empathy. While preparing for the trip and during our orientation with Akram Elias, I knew that, as a young Jewish individual, I would need to practice great empathy as I confronted people and cultures that would be classified by some in my family and my culture as “the other” or even the enemy for their anti-Israel sentiments. Without trying to share the suffering and truly put myself in the shoes of radicals on both sides, I knew I would never be able to understand the cause of their passion or connect with them. Practicing patience and persistence while reserving my natural judgments, I succeeded in, as President Obama touched upon in his Cairo Address, defining our relationship not by our differences but by our commonalities. I was able to connect with a family of Muslim Somalians living in Pakistan on the plane from Bahrain to Amman, our guides in Jordan and Israel, our staunchly pro-Israel voice Efraim Inbar and the Palestinian students we met in Jerusalem among many others. However, in disciplining myself to practice empathy, the line between what I judged right and wrong was obscured. While I could distinguish many as morally reprehensible and many others as morally respectable, there were far too many who left me puzzled, calling into question my views about the entire conflict. In a region in which decades, and symbolically thousands of years of conflict have traumatized both sides, I realized solving the conflict is not a matter of which side is right or which side is wrong but instead of how can we build a more peaceful future for both sides.

Second, the experience brought into question my perspective on religion and my own Jewish identity. Having served on my high school’s diversity committee and lived in a city socially divided by a large economic gap, I had developed an understanding of the importance of developing relationships across socioeconomic and cultural barriers. However, on the topic of religion, I was more skeptical: religion seemed so divisive and problem causing. I was frightened by the religious fervor in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world that seemed to accompany ignorance. As a result, I believe that I unconsciously ignored my own background as a Jew. I preferred to be free of the social and religious obligations that came with being Jewish. But, going to the Middle East and being so personally impacted by anti-Israel remarks, I have realized that Judaism will always be with me. Hiding from it only prevents me from understanding what religion means to me. Furthermore, after visiting Sharon Rosen and the Search for Common Ground and Rabbi Ron Kronish and Face to Face, I now can see the promise of interfaith dialogue. In the future, religion perhaps can drive unity and not just division after all. Returning home, I plan to become more active in my Jewish community in trying to make that vision possible.

Finally, the program has helped me better understand what it means to be an international citizen and why dialogue and friendships between people of diverse backgrounds are so critical to society. During orientation, as Nancy Overholt sought our comments on the importance of international education, I used the words “interconnected” and “interdependent” to describe the world. I had read these words and had a vague understanding of what they meant after a trip two summers ago to Botswana. But, returning from the Middle East, these words have taken on a new meaning. On the trip, we learned of the drastic religious polarization that has occurred in the Middle East with Jews only occupying Israel, Muslims gathering in Arab countries and Christians leaving the region altogether. We also saw the impact of this polarization: without any Jews in Jordan, conspiracy theories prevailed among the professors and Efraim Inbar could not name one Palestinian friend. Lacking face-to-face interaction with people unlike themselves, neither side could understand each other. Education and citizenship are dependent on individuals having experiences with those unlike themselves, whether it is in terms of socioeconomic class, culture, race, ideology, gender, sexuality, religion or nationality. With atomic weapons, dramatic economic inequality, global warming and the many other threats that are facing our entire planet, peace and justice rely on simple chemistry: opposites connecting, listening to and understanding one another.

This trip was truly the whirlwind I mentioned earlier and I have touched upon only some of many revelations I have had. I am extremely thankful for being given this unbelievable opportunity. I am indebted to the Ibrahim Family Foundation, IIE, Dr. David and all of the other participants on this trip. I look forward to working at Penn with the other participants and making the Ibrahims and IIE proud of their program.

Timothy Pian

University of Pennsylvania

I’ve got to open with an admission: I’ve written this reflections article four times over.  I started with a paragraph describing how my science background shaped my time in the Middle East, how the scientific process bears uncanny similarity to the peace process.  Didn’t quite feel complete, so I tabled that, and wrote an opening about the personal interactions that I had during our trip: how faces and stories now define issues that were once impersonal and distant.  Not fully satisfied with that, I tried focusing my response on the context of my family—what perceptions of the Middle East exist in my first generation Chinese immigrant parents, what it took, and what it meant to have their son in a part of the world so very far from home.  Finally, I tried to come up with one word that would centrally describe my experience—an easy and flexible keyword that could help me focus my response whenever anyone asked me how the trip was.

I’ve written this reflections article four times over, and each time I scrap it because it’s incredibly difficult for me to singly define it.  I can’t box my experience into a neat essay titled ‘Reflections,’ and move on with my life.  It’s meant so much that I can’t process it all, but here’s my best effort.  Four reflections articles later, I’ll give you the best description I could come up with for this trip.    More than anything, if I had to label this experience, this fleetingly rare opportunity, this pinch-me trip, I’d call it game changing.

I mentioned that this experience meant a lot to both my family and me.  When we were walking down the Siq—a roughly mile long canyon that leads to the carved city of Petra—enveloped by tourist groups from Russia to Brazil, shepherded by a seasoned Jordanian tour guide who once served as a missile technician for the Air Force, and jostled around by horse carts, I had a very sobering reflection.  When my grandparents were my age, attending university in a pre-Cultural Revolution China, they would never ever imagine that their grandson would find himself in Petra.  They never would’ve pictured that their accomplishments, their journey to the States via Taiwan, their long and laborious story as immigrants in America would end with a descendent halfway across the world in a place that is truly deserving of the description ‘a wonder.’

I describe this epiphany because it’s representative of the role of family in this trip.  In his opening welcome, S.A. Ibrahim described growing up Muslim in a multi-ethnic setting in India, and contrasting that with raising his own son in America.  One of S.A.’s driving motivations for this trip was to expose students to life in other parts of the world, to have us experience first-hand what a country with a state religion is like, to share what an interfaith setting can be.  I think that anywhere I looked, the role of family in this trip was clear.  It was one obvious constant among the places that we visited in the Middle East and our own experiences as Americans.  Take, for example, the discussion prompted in the families of the Palestinian & Israeli youths who chose to participate in the interfaith program Face-to-Face.  To me, it was funny to hear that whether you’re in Jerusalem or Boston, Bethlehem or San Jose, parents are parents—this means being overprotective.  It was also sobering to realize that in this case, there was absolute just cause to fear what participation in an interfaith program could lead to.

If nothing else, this experience has placed me into a different role in my family.  I’ve somehow acquired the responsibility of being the authority on ‘all things Middle East’ for the Pians.  My Dad’s begun forwarding me two to three articles daily regarding anything from Egypt to Iran.  My aunt’s asked me to create a website—the Middle East for Dummies—where she can learn about this hot button part of the world at her own pace.  It’s a responsibility that I’m quick to dismiss in front of them, but secretly love.  Just as in science, conducting an experiment often raises more questions.  You have to describe your results to your lab, your peers, and in the process of attempting to make some conclusions, in synthesizing some sort of cohesive presentation, you find the motivation to explore your own questions.  You build an urge to read the literature, to become that authority on the subject.  It’s exactly the same thing—this responsibility, this experience has given me a reason to explore something that no one else in my family has had the chance to explore.  I’m the first in many generations to find myself where I am now, and just like my grandparents before me, I can’t predict where we’ll be in the future.

I’d very much like to write here that I walked into the Ibrahim Leadership & Dialogue Project as one person, and left it as an entirely different one.  I really wish I could say that this trip motivated me to switch majors into international relations and seek a career in conflict resolution.  I really wish I could—because this is the kind of program that absolutely deserves that caliber of endorsement.  But, sadly, I can’t.  (I’m simply too high on biology at this point to quit it.)  All I can do, then, is give it the best praise I can give it.  Which is to say that this program is, again, game changing.  It hasn’t flipped my life goals in an entirely new direction, but it has renovated them—allowed me to both see the selling points of the life I’m building for myself, and reassess its foundations.  I walked into the Ibrahim Leadership & Dialogue Project as a scientist, and left it a broader, interdisciplinary investigator.   A scholar.

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