Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Flights, friends, and food

We've arrived! Alhamdulillah! ("Thanks to God!" in Arabic)

Our flights departed and arrived on time in both Atlanta and Tel Aviv. The flight to Israel was long -- twelve hours to be exact -- but it was tempered by in-flight movie options (Hotel for Dogs, Legally Blonde 8, etc.) and airplane food that would only have made a few astronauts envious. All kidding aside, it was a seemless trip from Madison to Tel Aviv.

Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, we met up with our bus driver, Ahmad, who greeted us with hearty smiles and heavy handshakes. His first words to us were humble apologies for not knowing English better, to which most of us (Cath, Remi and Kadie excluded) could only respond that we knew far less Arabic than he did English. (I counted the words I remembered from my first trip on my fingers and barely made it over to my right hand.) The 15 of us piled into our bus -- a quaint, pristine 20-seater -- and were off for the Mar Elias Educational Institute in Ibilin, a two hour trip.

Along the way we were slowly introduced to our new home for the next 11 days -- the Middle East -- as the sun was setting. The bus ride took us through the lush countryside of northern Israel, the bustling city of Tel Aviv, the medium-sized Jewish city of Natanya, and the smaller, sleepier Arabic town of Shef'aram, to name just a few. At last we wound through the nightime streets of Ibilin among fruit stands and stoic men huddled around nargilas, to the campus of MEEI.

Upon our arrival, Ammar and Asmahan -- our kind and warm-hearted hosts -- took us to our beautiful rooms at one of the new buildings at MEEI. Having not been here in three years, I have to stay, I was absolutely stunned and impressed by the facility. We are staying in pairs or rooms of three with private bathrooms and showers. After we had settled, we were greeted with a family style dinner complete with stuffed-grape leaves, tomato salad, chicken, potatoes, and pita. Dessert was fresh watermelon, cookies, and Arabic tea. After dinner, Ammar took some of the group members for an evening stroll around the campus that ended with a visit to the rooftop to peer out over the town.

A night like this -- filled with warm smiles and loving hosts -- reminds me of a beautifully paradoxical conclusion that I arrived at during my first trip to Israel/Palestine: No matter where you are in this strange land, what a wonderful thing it is to never encounter a single stranger.