I’ve only been in Haifa for five days, but it feels like so much longer. I think that’s because I have done so much since arriving here. By the end of my first day, I met my awesome roommates, unpacked my clothes and hung up my photos on the walls of my bedroom, and learned the essential bus routes (to buy groceries and go to the beach). I had my first Arabic class, and I now know exactly 14 words and/or phrases in Hebrew (but who’s counting?). On Sunday, we have orientation for our Master’s program, and classes start on Monday – I’m doing my best to relax and enjoy the last few days of quiet before the homework begins!
Kate and me, freshly arrived in Israel and on the train to Haifa!
Now that I’ve had frozen yogurt in the German Colony, forget that last entry. I’m here for the yogurt.
Look how happy we were to have finally found some toilet paper! Then, imagine how sad we were to get back to our apartment and realize we had all gotten paper towels instead.
Today my roommate Kate and I took a tour of the Baha’i gardens, Haifa’s most famous landmark. The gardens are built around the shrine in which the founding prophet of the Baha’i faith is buried, and they are beautifully maintained. I know very little about the Baha’i faith, other than that it was established in the 1800s, it is monotheistic, it accepts prophets from many other major faiths, and one of its core teachings is that all humans are equal. Yeah, I probably need to take the tour again.
I have been to many Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Middle East, and none have used outdoor landscaping to this extent.
I am surprised that so many of the people I have met here are afraid of travel in the West Bank. Today, for instance, a Minnesotan couple touring the gardens with us warned us that we should only go to Bethlehem for the afternoon on a guided tour with a bulletproof bus. (Those of you who know me can imagine how much I enjoyed innocently saying, “Oh, really? I should have thought of that when I lived in Bethlehem for six weeks!”). I left the garden tour – and the Minnesotan couple – feeling pretty depressed about the stereotypes of Palestinians that run rampant in Israel and the United States.
Fortunately, Kate and I happened to run into a demonstration seeking to change those stereotypes right outside the gardens! I recognized the demonstration, put on by the Women in Black, because I witnessed others just like it when I was here before – it’s an organization descended from the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. The Madres met daily to demand answers from the government about the disappearances of their children, and their offshoots work around the world to promote social justice. The Women in Black in Haifa meet every Friday at the same intersection to hold up signs demanding an end to the occupation of the West Bank and an end to the siege on Gaza. Naturally, we stood with the women for the hour and observed the reactions of Israeli passers-by (everything from spitting to shouts of “you rock!” in English). A few of the women who demonstrate regularly in Haifa are Holocaust survivors, and I was able to meet one of them today.
I think we made it into lots of tourists’ photos of the Baha’i gardens in the background.
While we were with the Women in Black, two Palestinians from Ramallah came over to us and introduced themselves. They work for a peacebuilding NGO in Ramallah, and were in Nazareth for a conference – these circumstances are unusual because Palestinians from the West Bank (including Ramallah) have an extremely hard time traveling to Jerusalem or other cities in Israel because they would need special permits from the occupying forces, which are very rarely given out. They said they were so happy to see Israelis “remembering Palestine,” and invited us to come see them in Ramallah. I look forward to visiting my new friends in Ramallah, and I’m sure I will feel completely safe when I go.
Kate and I headed back to campus today feeling pretty full of ourselves. We had successfully navigated our way through several neighborhoods in Haifa without getting lost – or even confused – once. Naturally, we missed the campus bus stop and ended up being dumped off in a small village about six kilometers out of the city, about 20 minutes before all the buses in Israel stopped running for Shabbat. So that was embarrassing. (We swallowed our pride and took a taxi back to campus – I’m not still in the village).