Dear friends, hello from the dusty Israeli desert! I’m spending the semester on a kibbutz (socialist-style village) close to the border with Jordan in Israel’s Arava Valley, probably the hottest and driest place I’ve ever lived. I’m studying at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which brings together Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, American, and other international students and interns to examine the ways in which regional environmental issues affect and are connected to and impacted by regional political issues, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m not sure how to contain this whole experience in a few paragraphs so here are some highlights/things that have stood out to me:
Living with people from vastly different backgrounds. The variety of traditions that we all bring to this community has made for a wonderfully eclectic student culture. It can sometimes be difficult to navigate, but it’s ultimately really enriching. Some of the most interesting moments I’ve had so far have been talking with an Israeli student about identity construction in Israel as compared to the States. Also, I liked connecting with one of my housemates, a Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, about the importance of being able to remember and hold pain in our cultural pasts while not letting it stop us from moving forward and seeking to build the best future for ourselves, our children, and our neighbor’s children.
Being immersed in something, while studying about it. Understanding regional water issues takes on a new dimension when our showerheads and sink faucets frequently clog due to salt buildup; the waste management problems in the West Bank became immediately clear when we watched a giant plume of greasy black smoke rise from trash being burned on the roof of an apartment building in Ramallah. It’s inspiring to experience some of the solutions to these problems; for example, our dorms are connected to an experimental greywater treatment system, which collects the water from our sinks and showers and runs it through a natural bacteria-powered filtering system and produces water clean enough to use for irrigation. At the same time, it’s horrifying to know that some of my close friends, who live in Jordan, might not have easy access to drinking water in the next 10 years because Jordan’s water strategy has planned for 30% of their water to be provided by a desalination project that is probably never going to happen.
Learning new cities by walking them. I have a full schedule of classes during the week, but I’ve spent several weekends traveling. It turns out my favorite way to experience a new place is not to make a schedule of places and sights to visit and see, but rather to find the center of the city and walk around aimlessly. Doing this led me to discover a gorgeous old residential neighborhood in Jerusalem, to find a juice vendor selling honeydew-pineapple fruit shakes in Yaffo (an Arab city on the beach) and to notice some really incredible graffiti/street art. Unfortunately it also got me stuck outside in the middle of an intense wind and dust-storm, and then it started raining, but at least I got a good story out of that!
Beetle and hedgehog appreciation. The climate in this part of Israel is hyper-arid, meaning that it typically receives less than 100mm of rain each year. As a result, there aren’t that many animals that can survive in this harsh desert. Aside from the multitudes of stray cats, the majority of the creatures here are beetles of varying sizes, shapes, and colors. They’re actually kind of sweet in a weird way, and the way they move through grass is really hilarious (it looks like a strange version of breaststroke). I’ve also seen a few hedgehogs at night, which are unbelievably cute and also really hilarious when they run.
The last thing to mention is the study abroad time warp: I’ve been here for a little over two months and I have a little less than two months left, but it feels like I’ve been here forever and will never leave. It’s easy to forget how impermanent this community is, and also kind of hard to imagine what it will be like to walk to class without a view of the Jordanian mountains. It sounds amazingly cliché, but it’s completely true of my experience.
Sending love and warm thoughts from the Middle East! See you so soon! -Adina